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The Gentlemen

Posted January 26, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Guy Ritchie has had a rough few years. Yes, he built an impressive reputation for himself as the man behind such gritty crime dramas as Revolver, Snatch, RocknRolla, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. He brought the kind of authentic grittiness that superficial corporate hacks have tried and failed to replicate for decades, so of course Hollywood came calling for him to bring some of that to their A-list franchises. Naturally, Ritchie took the chance at success on a bigger stage, and who can blame him?

Alas, this resulted in the self-defeating RDJ/Jude Law iteration of Sherlock Holmes, the humiliating misfire called The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and the cataclysmic abomination that was King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. After all that, the decidedly mediocre and soulless Aladdin (2019) was a step up. Plus, it made a billion dollars, so no better time to cash out and go back to what Ritchie does best. For extra measure, the film was distributed by STX and Miramax — neither of which are (currently) owned by any of the major media conglomerates — and shunted to a crappy January release date with virtually no promotion.

The Gentlemen is a black comedy/suspense crime thriller starring Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Pearson, an American expatriate living in London. He’s spent his entire adult life conquering the illegal marijuana trade in the UK, but now he’s approaching middle age and there are signs that the UK may legalize marijuana within the next few years. So now he wants to sell off his vast criminal enterprise and retire. Problem: There are swarms of competitors and upstarts from all over the world who want what Mickey’s got. And they’ll go to any lengths from sabotage to blackmail to murder to get it.

Got all that? Good, because the framing device makes this a fair bit more complicated.

Hugh Grant chews the scenery as Fletcher, a sleazy private eye who’s been hired by a prominent newspaper editor (Big Dave, played by Eddie Marsan) with a personal vendetta against Mickey. As a direct result, Fletcher has gained extensive knowledge — and documentation! — of all Mickey’s recent dealings. Thus Fletcher conveys what he knows to Raymond (Mickey’s consigliere, played by Charlie Hunnam), telling us the story in flashback while making the case for why Raymond should pay out a fortune to keep Fletcher’s mouth shut.

Even better, Fletcher is a flamboyant movie buff who conveys the whole story in heightened cinematic terms. And of course there’s always the possibility that his knowledge is mistaken or incomplete. Thus we’ve got a suspense thriller as told by an unreliable narrator. Fun!

Getting a read on the film’s moral compass was tricky. The film is most overt in its condemnation of stereotypical gangsta culture as glamorized by stupid YouTube-addled teenagers with too much attitude and a crippling need for attention.

Compare that to Mickey and his associates, who all seem averse to uber-macho flexing and posturing. They know they don’t have a thing to prove, they know some problems can’t be fixed with bullets, and they know that the mere implied threat of violence is often enough to get positive results. They speak softly, and their first resort is always to treat all parties as equal partners in business. Only after someone else turns everything sideways do they bring the guns out. Mickey has a moral code, and that’s what really separates the “good guys” from the “bad guys” in this picture.

Moreover, the film is explicitly clear in condemning heroin and those who deal it. We all have our vices, sure, but at least Mickey is making his fortune selling the relatively harmless marijuana. That puts him on the moral high ground above those who sell purely destructive drugs like heroin and meth. In fact, there’s one scene in which a character talks about the good old days when people would sit in a circle passing a joint, talking with each other and putting “positive vibes” into the world. When did all of that get buried under so much glorified masculine fantasy bullshit?

That said, there’s still the unavoidable fact that Mickey and Raymond are unmistakably the “heroes” of this film, and they’re just as unmistakably criminals. Most crime thrillers would balance this out in some way, giving their protagonists a tragic ending or a victory at some heavy cost, but (without getting too deep into spoilers) this movie does neither. Which brings us back to whether this movie has any kind of substantive or worthwhile theme.

On the other hand, this is a Matthew McConaughey picture. If nothing else, it’s inherently entertaining to watch him talk circles around everyone in the room, knowing perfectly well he’s going to get away with everything. Likewise, Charlie Hunnam is positively smoldering here, showing off more personality and charisma than in all of his other previous films put together. Hugh Grant is a spirited storyteller, Colin Farrell is a riot as a boxing coach grudgingly caught up in this nonsense, Jeremy Strong plays a weasel like only he can, and Henry Golding… holy shit, who is this guy? I don’t know what happened to the boring and lifeless male lead I don’t remember seeing in Crazy Rich Asians or A Simple Favor, but I want to see a lot less of that guy and a lot more of this one.

While this is definitely a male-heavy film, I’d be remiss if special attention wasn’t given to the female lead. Michelle Dockery is on hand as Mickey’s British Jewish wife, and god damn if she doesn’t leave a huge impression. Her performance here is utterly badass, and it speaks volumes that she can hold the screen opposite McConaughey at his most charming and magnetic. Brilliant work.

On a final miscellaneous note, there’s the matter of the plot. It’s a suspense thriller, so of course the film relies heavily on the strength of its reveals and twists. I’m sorry to say that there was at least one huge twist that I saw coming pretty much immediately, though at least the film was good enough to hit me with another unexpected curveball a couple minutes later. Similarly, for every comedic digression that gets an honest laugh, there’s another that drags on the runtime for several uncomfortable minutes.

Couple all of that with the shaky themes, and it’s clear that The Gentlemen has an uneven script. Still, the actors are all in peak form and Guy Ritchie’s presentation is impeccable. It also helps that the film has a timely attitude toward marijuana, and the restrained depiction of street-level crime is quite refreshing.

This isn’t the masterpiece to put Ritchie back on his throne, but if the objective was to show that he’s still got it after a decade of slumming in Hollywood, then mission accomplished. It’s worth a look, but there’s no harm in waiting for home video.

Color Out of Space

Posted January 25, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Exhibit A: H.P. Lovecraft, an author well-renowned for his distinctive brand of macabre, misanthropic, existential, heavily racist horror.

Exhibit B: Nicolas Cage, who more or less went bankrupt in 2009 and went around taking whatever paying gig he could get. This led to a remarkably bizarre collection of roles, all performed with few if any fucks to give, which in turn led to a massive cult appeal that Cage has fully embraced.

Exhibit C: Richard Stanley, the anthropologist/documentary filmmaker fired from The Island of Dr. Moreau, still one of the most legendary cinematic catastrophes in history. That was back in 1996, and he hasn’t made another feature film until now.

With all of this put together, of course I was expecting Color Out of Space to be a weird one. It didn’t disappoint.

Nicolas Cage plays Nathan Gardner, the patriarch of a New England family living out in the boondocks about twelve miles from the city of Arkham. (Remember, this is based on Lovecraft’s short story.) Having taken over the family farm, he’s recently made a significant investment in raising alpacas. His wife (Theresa, played by Joely Richardson) is a recent breast cancer survivor who’s gotten back to her telecommuting job as a financial advisor of some sort. They have three kids together.

Benny (Brendan Meyer) is a stoner with a penchant for astronomy. Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) is a moody teenager and a hardcore Wiccan. Jack (Julian Hilliard) will be our creepy little boy for the movie. And then of course we have the family dog, name of Sam.

Elsewhere, we’ve got Tommy Chong himself in the role of Ezra, an eccentric and harmless old hermit living off the grid in the nearby woods. Then there’s Q’orianka Kilcher in the role of the local mayor, who’s trying to build a huge freshwater reservoir in the region. Enter Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight), a local hydrologist sent to survey for construction.

Into all of this comes a meteorite hurtling out of the sky and crashing into the Gardners’ front yard. The next day, lightning strikes the meteorite — multiple times! — sinking it into the ground and into the local water supply. What results is… um… well, do you remember Annihilation, that Natalie Portman movie from a while back? Got a lot of great reviews at the time? Movie about people losing their minds because some cosmic event made genetics go haywire and the time/space continuum got all bent out of shape? Well, that’s pretty much the exact same scenario we’re looking at here.

The characters are thin, but that scarcely matters when the action gets going and everyone dissolves (sometimes literally) to a helpless blubbering mess. Everyone in the cast plays the screaming confused body horror well enough, but of course Cage is the centerpiece. If you want to show everyone losing their goddamn minds as the world around them goes to hell, accept no substitutes for Nicolas Fucking Cage and his patented brand of crazy.

Nathan’s nascent alcoholism provides a slight thematic undercurrent, ditto for his recurring daddy issues and the concept of family in general. There’s a bit of environmentalism at play as well, most especially with the politics and technology breakdowns involved. Alas, all of themes are superficial, nowhere near developed or prominent enough to sustain the film.

No, it all comes back — as it always does with Lovecraft — to humanity’s insignificance and impotence in this huge, nonsensical, uncaring universe. There’s nothing to motivate our antagonist and there’s no reason why any of this is going on except that shit happens and our characters just happened to be in the way. We don’t have the capacity to even understand this huge existential threat, much less to communicate with it or protect ourselves from it.

All of this makes for a general feeling of overpowering dread. That’s not the same as suspense. In fact, if we know for a certainty that the characters can’t possibly survive and there’s only one way this is going to end, that’s anathema to suspense. Plus, this is a problem that I keep coming back to with regards to H.P. Lovecraft, Cormac McCarthy, and their misanthropic, nihilistic ilk: What am I supposed to do with this message? It’s not entertaining, it’s not enlightening, it doesn’t say anything new or interesting, and it doesn’t inspire any kind of action to try and make the world a better place.

I find the philosophy useless and abhorrent. But it can still make for solidly-made cinema, and this is definitely a solid movie.

A lot of that comes back to the aforementioned cast and their die-hard commitment to all the insanity that unfolds. It also helps that the filmmakers wisely use their miniscule budget (a reported $6 million), leaning into fear of the unknown. So many of the threats remain invisible or just out of sight, and the brief glimpses we do get are sincerely terrifying.

I can’t possibly overstate how hard it is to get legitimate scares out of oppressive shadows and VFX creations, as both are hopelessly overworn crutches of horror cinema. And again, it certainly doesn’t help that we’re given no reason to emotionally invest in these characters or wonder how this will all end for them. Yet because the spectacle is so inventive, the moments are so well-crafted, and they’re working from the rock-solid foundation of Lovecraft’s prose, it works exceedingly well.

The visuals are also noteworthy in their use of color. From start to finish, the filmmakers utilize all sorts of purples, pinks, deep blues, and dark reds. This spectrum is used in a way that expertly conveys the alien threat, to elegant and psychedelic effect. All of this is bolstered by quirks in the sound design and the score. Masterfully done.

Color Out of Space is an assault on the senses, nothing more or less. The characters are thin, the themes are useless, and there’s not much of anything in terms of suspense. That doesn’t leave much else but spectacle, and this movie is overflowing with it. The creature effects, the colors, and the sound design are all staggering, and they’re all anchored by Nicolas Cage’s unique brand of crazy in full effect.

There’s no way this could have the same impact on home video, and January is a lean month anyway. As such, I’m giving this one a recommendation.

Underwater

Posted January 19, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Effective March 2019, Disney officially took purchase of 20th Century Fox lock, stock, and barrel. Mere days ago (as of this writing), Disney announced that 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight would be respectively renamed “20th Century Studios” and “Searchlight Pictures”. Clearly, big changes are happening and the assimilation of the Fox media conglomerate is well underway.

But first, of course, there’s the matter of the $71.3 billion that Disney spent to close the deal. Obviously, they need to make that money back, and a good first step would be making use of the sunken assets over at 20th Century Fox. And in so many ways, precious few of the fallen studio’s assets are more sunken than Underwater.

(Side note: Another prime example is The New Mutants, the trailer for which finally debuted with this movie. Talk about sunken assets at Fox — just wait until the time finally comes to get into that story!)

Here we have a movie shot in the spring of 2017 on a reported budget of $80 million. I can’t find any reason why the film sat on a shelf for two and a half years, so I have to assume that Fox simply had no idea what to do with it. Then Disney took over the company and (presumably) saw this weird little horror movie ready to go and dumped it in a January weekend. Even if it totally bombs, it’ll still make more than the nothing that Disney spent on it. Easy money!

And then Disney went and cut ties with longtime Fox co-financier Chernin Entertainment only a week after the film premiered. Yeah, they’re clearly trying to make the most of what dead weight they have before dumping it.

Underwater is set in the near future, when the bottom of the goddamn Mariana Trench has been colonized by some generic shadowy conglomerate. A series of giant drilling stations have been set up down there to dig for whatever might turn a profit, even though conditions down there are debatably even less hospitable than in freaking outer space. All of this is helpfully established in the opening credits sequence.

Not even two minutes after the film opens, the inevitable happens. While it’s not immediately clear how or why, one of the drilling stations begins to fall apart. A few people escape to the surface, a lot more people die, and soon only six people are left on the station. Out of 316 crew on board.

Even worse, the station’s power generators have taken damage, which means that a literal nuclear meltdown is imminent, all the more reason to get the hell out of there. The good news is, there’s another drilling station roughly a mile away. The bad news is, because all their transports and comms are offline, they have to walk that mile across the ocean floor with what insufficient oxygen and patched-up diving suits they can find.

They don’t have enough oxygen to make any kind of mistake, they can’t see two feet in front of their faces, and they’re walking with giant bulky exo-suits through pressure of 80 goddamn tons per square inch, all because they’re at seven miles under the motherfucking ocean. Oh, and there are the unknown sea monsters out to attack them, did I mention that part? Because Lovecraftian underwater monsters are attacking them the whole time.

Kristen Stewart leads the cast, capably anchoring the film as our Ripley wannabe. It helps that her character is a mechanical engineer, so she lives by the strength of her intellect — something far more valuable than physical strength or weaponry made useless by the setting. In fact, she’s easily the best at navigating through fallen debris and caved-in spaces precisely because she’s the smallest of the gang.

Vincent Cassel is the de facto leader of our crew, as the captain of the fallen rig. I’ve seen Cassel do better work elsewhere, but he brings the necessary gravitas. Elsewhere, TJ Miller plays our comic relief, reminding us with every line why we collectively agreed he shouldn’t have a career anymore. Jessica Henwick plays the biologist who’s pretty much always the first one to collapse into a screaming, blithering mess. Rounding out the crew are John Gallagher Jr. and Mamoudou Athie, who… um… well, they’re just kinda there.

I could try and make the film into some kind of allegory for Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, or any oil pipeline you’d care to name, and those subtle timely undertones are indeed a significant part of what keeps the film grounded. But ultimately, that would take more effort than the movie justifies. It’s a 90-minute survival horror thriller with a straightforward premise, nothing more and nothing less.

This is undeniably a paper-thin movie. Yet precisely because it’s thin, it is lean. This is a movie that starts and ends with the action, not a moment sooner or later. This isn’t a movie that wastes its time on flashbacks or exposition dumps, and there’s no effort spared in speculating on the nature or motivation of our underwater beasties. Even the moments of pathos and character development are kept to the bare minimum, just enough to define the emotional stakes and give the kills some heft. Everything else is all about the forward momentum.

What’s better, the film doesn’t even need exposition dumps because so much of the world-building is done in the production design. The filmmakers love to linger on cheery corporate bullshit on posters and PA announcements. It helps to establish the impersonal corporate overlords as a constant offscreen presence while also serving as a comically dark contrast against the unfolding shitshow onscreen. And of course that’s not getting started on the superbly detailed sets or the really cool diving suits.

And what of the action? Well, the filmmakers find all sorts of clever ways to get us in the characters’ headspaces, conveying the claustrophobia, isolation, and panicked confusion of walking across the ocean floor while being hunted by some unseen threat. Unfortunately, this also means a few dark and incomprehensible moments in which it’s hard to keep track of what characters are in which of the identical diving suits getting thrown around. Overall, however, the filmmakers do a decent job of keeping everything as exciting and coherent as possible. It certainly helps that we have so few characters to keep track of, and that number gets to dwindling mighty quick.

I get why the studio held onto Underwater for so long. It’s a survival horror film made in a time when most horror films are made for a tenth of its budget. It’s too polished for DTV, but too thin to stand on its own against other multiplex fare.

What makes the difference is that this one doesn’t even try to be the start of a franchise. It’s not out to reinvent the wheel or outperform anyone else, and it’s not trying to make any kind of grand statement. The filmmakers set out with the clear goal of crafting a straightforward sci-fi creature feature, and that’s nothing more or less than exactly what they did.

It’s a harmless and fun way to spend 90 minutes. Not worth a full price ticket, but prime material for a second-run screening or DVD. That’s about the best anyone could expect from a January release.

2019: The Wild Rides

Posted January 16, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

I draw a subtle yet crucial distinction between “greatest” films and “favorite” films. There are movies to be praised for their excellence in filmmaking craft and their contribution to the enlightenment of society at large, and then there are the movies to be praised because they’re so much damned fun. In that spirit, here are my picks for the Wild Rides of 2019.

Best Kids’ Adventure

Detective Pikachu was far and away better than it had any right to be. I don’t know if anyone was expecting such a goofball premise to be taken halfway seriously, much less for the filmmakers to craft such a vivid and intricately detailed world. Even so, I honestly prefer Dora and the Lost City of Gold, if only because Isabela Moner proved herself to be a far superior leading actor. Plus, I find the contrast of a wide-eyed and fantastic protagonist in a mundane world far more compelling than a stick-in-the-mud stumbling through a world of magical monsters.

And today, both of them are losing out to The Kid Who Would Be King, one of the most tragically underrated films of the year. Such a damn shame that this one got stuck with a godawful January release date right after its studio got bought out by Disney, because this is a defiantly optimistic, unapologetically goofy, timely and heartfelt work of all-ages fun. I can’t possibly stress enough how this movie deserved so much better than it got, and I strongly recommend checking it out if this one passed you by.

Best Action Movie

Do I even need to say it?

I mean, sure we got Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw. We got Zombieland: Double Tap. Hell, throw in Alita: Battle Angel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and even Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker if you like. They were all perfectly entertaining action films in their own way.

But not a one of them was John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum.

Really, what else do I have to say? The opening knife fight alone should be enough to make it the best action film of the year. Hell, that was probably the greatest knife fight ever committed to film! From there we got all those shootouts, the horseback chase scene, the attack dogs… it was John Wick. When you see that name, you know exactly what you’re getting, and that’s the best in modern action cinema.

Best Animated Film

There’s no way I’m narrowing this one down to five or fewer, because 2019 was an insanely good year for animation in cinema.

This was the year of Frozen II. Toy Story 4. The Addams Family (2019). Abominable. The Lego Movie 2. Missing Link. Spies in Disguise. I thought every single one of those was anywhere from okay to astounding, and all of them brought something new to the table. But even with such a wide variety of quality to choose from this year, picking out the best is an easy choice.

With How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the Dreamworks saga firmly established itself as one of the greatest trilogies in film history. Film students will be arguing for decades as to whether “Toy Story” or “How to Train Your Dragon” is the greatest animated trilogy of all time. This final entry brought in clever callbacks, tearjerking goodbyes, soaring action scenes, worldbuilding on a truly epic scale, and so much more. There was colossal pressure to craft a worthy capstone to one of Dreamworks’ flagship franchises, and it speaks volumes that the filmmakers knocked it clear out of the park.

Best Comedy

Sword of Trust earns a mention, but I’ve never been a fan of rambling semi-improv comedy in film. Yes, there was a fair bit of that in Booksmart as well, but that film was far more tightly edited and the chemistry between actors was way more solid. And then of course we have the genre-bending oddity of Happy Death Day 2U, a film so broad and off-the-wall that it’s easily more of a comedy than a horror.

Still, the clear winner here is Dolemite Is My Name. The sex scene alone is more than enough to make this the funniest film of the year. The cast is sterling from top to bottom, and almost every single one of them turns in the most hilarious performances of their respective careers. Moreover, this is a legitimately great movie that got completely shut out of the Oscars this year. DAMMIT.

Best Horror

Over the past ten years or so, the horror genre has been built on a “low risk/low reward” model. That reached its natural conclusion this year, with an overwhelming quantity of horror films and precious few above mediocre. I’m specifically referring to Crawl, though that one at least had a pair of solid lead performances. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was also pretty forgettable in comparison to most other horror films, though it doesn’t feel entirely fair comparing a legitimately solid PG-13 horror film to its tepid barely-R-rated genre peers.

That leaves the two Stephen King adaptations. It: Chapter Two was mostly salvaged by the cast — the bloated length dragged down the horror aspect, and the filmmakers couldn’t overcome the flaws and drawbacks inherent in the source text. Yet somehow, these didn’t seem to be problems for Doctor Sleep, a movie that packed its lengthy runtime with compelling drama and powerful atmosphere. Moreover, the film was loaded with fantastic scares and deeply satisfying callbacks to The Shining.

It feels almost reductive to call Doctor Sleep the “Best Horror” because it succeeds on so many levels, but it absolutely deserves a top honor for the year.

Best Satirical/Political Horror

Yes, I had to make a second horror category because of how many horror films we got this year. Especially considering how many horror films in 2019 were themed around some social/political theme.

The obvious example is Us, which was built from the ground up to talk about race in fantastically creepy ways. We’ve also got The Dead Don’t Die, a smart-assed zombie flick that took a misanthropic swipe at everything in reach. And of course we can’t forget Black Christmas (2019), a brilliant movie about sexual assault and toxic masculinity framed as a boilerplate slasher flick.

Compare that to Ready or Not, a film that delivered biting socioeconomic commentary without compromising the slasher movie thrills. If anything, the film’s pitch-black humor only made it smarter, scarier, and funnier. Additionally, looking over all the many wonderful leading ladies in horror we’ve seen this year, I’ve come around on Samara Weaving — she more than earns her place at the table with this one.

Best Superhero Movie

This was of course a banner year for superhero cinema — it seems like every year is, nowadays. It was an especially big year for Marvel, as Captain Marvel introduced the last few crucial pieces of the Infinity Saga, while Spider-Man: Far From Home dealt with the immediate aftermath. Both movies were certainly entertaining and delivered fine superhero thrills. But not like DC’s big effort this year.

Shazam! brought us a standard superhero origin story with many remarkable twists. It’s a movie that brings the childlike sense of fantasy and joy of the genre, without ever losing the pathos or stakes. It’s fun in a mischievous kind of way, it’s legitimately scary without overdoing it for the kids in the audience, and it successfully adapts a goofy-ass Golden Age origin story for a modern audience. This was an innovative and fearless breath of fresh air for a genre (and a company) that badly needed it.

Greatest Wild Ride

We got a lot of great CGI spectaculars this year. We got Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. We got Godzilla: King of the Monsters. We got all those superhero films I just mentioned.

But Avengers: Endgame is in a league of its own.

Endgame was such a titanic accomplishment of cinema, there’s really no point in comparing it to other movies. Over a decade’s worth of promises and two dozen movies’ worth of setups went into this one, and it delivered on pretty much every one. We got satisfying resolutions to character arcs that had been iconic for years. We got the most epic battle sequence in cinema history. We got comedy and action and pathos. We got callbacks and cameos and surprises around every corner.

The superfranchise is still an extremely new concept. Nobody’s ever done it as well as Marvel (though many have tried), and certainly nobody’s ever completed one so well as Marvel did. As a direct result, I don’t think we have any concept, any word, any suitable means of describing exactly what Marvel did with this crown jewel of a film.

Let’s hope for brighter surprises in the decade ahead.

2019: The Disappointments

Posted January 15, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

So we’re clear, this is not a “Worst Of 2019” list. I know better than to try and write such a list, because I never saw Escape Room, The Upside, Angel Has Fallen, Wonder Park, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged. Miss Bala, or Playing with Fire. With very few exceptions, I make it a point not to see a movie if I know there will be absolutely no chance it could possibly be good. So this isn’t just about the stinkers, it’s about the disappointments.

For those just tuning in, the list is broken down into three basic types of disappointment.

  1. The “Benign Disappointment”, which is really just a difference of opinion. This is a movie that I went to see because everybody else seems to love it for perfectly legitimate reasons, and yet somehow, I wasn’t impressed.
  2. The “Stupid Disappointment”, which simply fell apart for whatever reason. Everyone involved had the best of intentions and put in their best effort, but the end result somehow fell short.
  3. The “Malicious Disappointment”, a movie that failed on purpose. There can be no other explanation for how a movie had everything to work with, and yet made so many catastrophically bad choices that anyone with half a brain would’ve avoided.

With all of that out of the way, let’s get started.

Most Benign Disappointment

Dark Waters and Uncut Gems were both solid awards contenders, yet I found the former to be terribly dull while the latter is too loud and ugly for its own good. Still, I feel that the “Most Benign Disappointment” should be a movie that’s more… well, benign. More harmless.

Blinded by the Light, for example, is a fluff piece that everyone seemed to like in spite of the inconsistent plot and the shitty third act. Yet Yesterday was the feel-good surprise smash hit of the summer, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it was a totally brainless enterprise with a premise that made no sense, and nothing of any substance to say except “the Beatles were awesome.” This despite the fact that the Beatles were apparently so irrelevant that the world was otherwise pretty much the same without them, aside from a few other changes so completely unrelated they couldn’t have stemmed from the Beatles getting erased from history, but then those other changes didn’t seem to impact history either for unexplained reasons…

It’s a stupid movie. It’s a happy, harmless, stupid movie that falls apart with the most superficial examination.

Dumbest Comedy

Isn’t It Romantic is a one-joke film whose joke got old roughly a decade ago. Little is so uninspired and misguided that a teenager could have made it, perhaps because it was literally conceived and exec-produced by a 14-year-old girl. Yet both of these female-driven movies made some kind of sincere effort at empowering the target demographic, and I respect that.

And anyway, I feel like the title of “Dumbest Comedy” should go to a Seth Rogen movie. Long Shot is the obvious pick, but at least that one had Charlize Theron putting in way more effort than the project deserved. Plus, the film played nicely to what strengths Rogen has as a performer.

So instead, this one is going to the Rogen-produced Good Boys, a movie that lives and dies on its juvenile humor. The plot is broken, the performances are uneven at best, and there’s nothing in here that hasn’t been done better in the umpteen coming-of-age films we’ve already seen this decade.

Dumbest Anti-Hero Film

Joker ranks #7 on the list of 2019’s highest-grossing films, with a worldwide take of over $1.06 billion, and it came away with 11 goddamn Oscar nominations. This despite the fact that it’s a deliberately ugly movie that willfully misinterprets one of DC’s most feared and dangerous homicidal maniacs as the hero our modern age needs.

Yet even that film got nearer the mark than Brightburn, a deconstruction of the classic Superman origin story as an allegory for kids who turn out to be violent psychopaths. But without offering any kind of viable commentary on possible causes or solutions for the problem, or even anything new to say about superheroes, the film is effectively useless.

But the prize for this one is going to Glass, a crossover two decades in the making only to land with a wet thud. It’s a film with virtually nothing worthwhile to say about superheroes or superhero media. A crossover in which our most “super” characters spend most of the screen time locked up in a mental institution. And for all the years of buildup across three movies, the big climactic showdown was pathetically weak. Is there any fate more damning for a crossover than to be less than the sum of its parts?

…Well, maybe, but we’ll get to that.

Dumbest Horror

Child’s Play (2019) turned out better than it had any right to, but it still suffered from a broken plot and an uninspired “rogue AI” angle. Yet even that worked out better than Pet Sematary (2019), which didn’t even try doing anything new. Even so, at least those movies were visibly hamstrung by their respective source materials. Brightburn had no such excuse.

This is a horror movie in which the victim pool has literally zero chance at survival. It is a movie without any intelligence, nuance, subtlety, novelty, or hope, and any scares or surprises are therefore impossible. It’s a damn shame the film actually had kind of a novel premise, if only the filmmakers had thought it through for more than ten seconds.

Dumbest Disney Remake

In a decade thoroughly dominated by the “live-action Disney remake” trend, this was the year it finally hit peak saturation. The trend was obnoxious enough when we only got one or two per annum — this year alone brought us FOUR such remakes! (Five, counting Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which is technically a sequel to the remake.)

I won’t discuss Lady and the Tramp (2019), because that was a Disney+ exclusive and I didn’t review it. And anyway, the far more notable success stories were Aladdin (2019) and The Lion King (2019), each of which grossed over a billion worldwide and made the year’s top ten highest-grossing list. We could go around all day discussing which of those mediocre retreads were the best, but there can be no doubt as to which remake was the worst.

Dumbo (2019) is everything we always feared the live-action Disney remake trend would lead to. It’s an ugly, lazy, half-assed, stone-stupid retread that offers nothing new, made by people who clearly have no idea what to make except money. Of all the unwelcome live-action retreads that nobody asked for, this could very well be the only one that is demonstrably worse than the original film (crows and all), a capital sin for a remake.

The “Epic Fail”

This is my pet name for a film that proved to be a spectacular waste of ambition. The product of filmmakers who wanted to make something huge and only made a fiasco. Two great examples are MIB: International and Hellboy (2019), each of which promised to deliver breathtaking adventures on a global scale, only to collapse into a flailing disjointed mess.

I’m also including Cats in this category, as the filmmakers wasted $95 million on name actors and CGI in a failed effort at making one of history’s most successful musicals into a Best Picture contender. And now some exec at Universal is eating massive piles of shit, forced to withdraw the film’s Oscar campaign after it bombed at the box office to a historic degree. But I digress.

All of these failures pale in comparison to Dark Phoenix, the movie that promised to usher in a new era of X-Men films with a faithful adaptation of the iconic X-Men comic saga. What we got was an overlong bore of a movie, with a sadly underwhelming climax, all at a reported price tag of $200 million. Even for a story with an intergalactic scope, the X-Men film franchise has never felt smaller. If Disney hadn’t already canceled the series by purchasing 20th Century Fox, I might’ve called this a mercy killing.

Dumbest Biopic

This one’s no contest. Sure, Tolkien and Judy were both sadly underwhelming, but they were both ultimately harmless. That’s more than I can say for Harriet, which portrayed antebellum slavery in such a cartoonishly simplistic way that it may have actually done more harm than good with regard to discussing race in America.

But then we have the pretentious, self-defeating clusterfuck of Lucy in the Sky. A film with no appreciable stakes, no reason to root for the protagonist, and no idea of how to talk about its grand provocative themes in any kind of intelligent way. This is a movie so hopelessly tone-deaf, so oblivious to the state of its own protagonist, that its use of feminist talking points might’ve actually set feminism back about ten years. Pathetic.

Most Malicious Disappointment

Annabelle Comes Home gets an honorable mention here, as a crossover so void of talent or effort that it retroactively exposes the entire “Conjuring Universe” enterprise as a fraud. This limp and puny crossover — what should’ve been a huge universe-defining event — proves beyond doubt that the entire superfranchise is pointless and creatively bankrupt, and that’s no small feat. But in terms of failures produced by people who knew better, developed and released with clear malice aforethought toward the audience, there’s still a movie to beat it and claim the top dishonor.

Serenity had everything. A top-notch cast, a white-hot writer/director, and a prime release date. Then the test screenings came back and confirmed what anyone who read the screenplay should’ve immediately known: It should’ve been burned before a single frame was shot. Or at the very least, it should’ve been sent back to get rid of that godawful climactic twist and maybe put in some (like, literally any) comic relief. At this point, the studio could’ve sent it back for reshoots. They could’ve canceled it entirely. Hell, The Hunt was practically finished, and it famously got canceled at the last minute over less than this!

But no, the studio pulled all advertising for the movie and dumped it in January. There’s no doubt whatsoever studio knew perfectly well that this potential awards vehicle had turned radioactive. They KNEW that if this convoluted melodramatic absurdity had been released as is, it was guaranteed to be a critical and box office failure. But instead of trying to salvage it or destroy it, they unloaded it onto us. Fuck this movie and fuck everyone who made it.

Tomorrow brings the Wild Rides list, so stay tuned for that.

2019: The Masterpieces

Posted January 14, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Okay, folks. The time has come to start putting up my year-end lists. For those who are new here, each list will presented in a kind of “awards” format, with movies grouped into categories and a “winner” selected from each one. (It’ll be more clear in a minute.) There are three lists, each one with different criteria, and all of them will follow these basic rules.

1. Only movies that I’ve seen and reviewed will be considered. This was an extremely busy year for me and there were A LOT of films I didn’t get around to. Fast Color, The Sun is Also a Star, The Tomorrow Man, Shaft (2019), Gemini Man, Terminator: Dark Fate, Ophelia, Marriage Story, Stuber, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, The Goldfinch, Downton Abbey (2019), Rambo: Last Blood, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Charlie’s Angels (2019)… the list goes on and on. This sadly means that a lot of noteworthy films from this year will not be considered for these lists.

2a. Only movies released in 2019 will be considered. While it breaks my heart to take Shadow (2018) out of contention, that one got a September 2018 release in China.

2b. Festival premiere dates don’t count. Because movies have been known to change in post between festival screenings and public release, I don’t consider a movie to be truly completed while it’s on the festival circuit. This leaves My Summer as a Goth in a grey area, as I saw this one in a public screening while it was on an independent tour outside the festival circuit. What the hell, I’m counting it anyway.

3. Only one award per film, and one award per category. I don’t want a situation in which one movie wins everything, and I don’t want to call any ties. That would be too easy, and frankly boring.

With all of that settled, let’s get to the Masterpieces. These are the films that I hold up as the greatest films of 2019 — the ones that challenged the audience and displayed technical mastery, encouraging the general growth of cinema and the world at large. In that spirit, let’s start with…

Best Light Drama

Gloria Bell was greatly acclaimed as an empowering depiction of life as a woman over 50, but it was otherwise a disposable trifle. Compare that to The Beach Bum, a film that basically canceled itself out by virtue of Harmony Korine’s brand of chaos.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco got a ton of well-deserved critical praise upon release, though perhaps the film was a bit too slow and contemplative for its own good. Little Women (2019) was a phenomenal adaptation that actually surpassed its source material.

And yet everything wonderful that Little Women did with regards to family, nostalgia, our innate need for communication, dealing with love and loss, and learning how to build a happy accomplished life, The Farewell did even better. It was also much funnier, with diabolical use of dramatic irony throughout, and the culture clash gave the film a ton of added layers to provoke thoughts and pull heartstrings.

Best Biopic

I’m putting Bombshell in here, for lack of anywhere else to put it. The film really was a remarkable dramatization of life and work at Fox News in the midst of a game-changing scandal. Likewise, while Ford v Ferrari may not technically be a “biopic” per se, it’s still a pulse-pounding depiction of a real-world story, worthy to be listed among the year’s best. And of course we have Just Mercy, which went through the motions perfectly well.

Rocketman makes the grade precisely because it pushed the definition of the biopic genre in bold and inspired ways. The whole production glittered with polished innovation. Compare that to Fighting With My Family, which was so funny and heartfelt precisely because of its authentic and down-to-earth no-frills presentation.

But the winner here is A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film that had the audacity to make its subject a supporting character. And it turned out to be the perfect means of examining adult topics in a PG-rated manner while directly showing the positive effect that Fred Rogers had on the world. Couple that with Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Fred Rogers and you’ve got an extraordinary biopic more than worthy of its subject.

Best Coming-of-Age Movie

I’m hoping that if I mention My Summer as a Goth enough times, maybe it’ll spark enough curiosity to get it streaming somewhere. Honey Boy is also more than worthy of an honorable mention, though that movie was just as much about Shia LaBeouf’s father as LaBeouf himself.

I’m sure any other critic would give this to Booksmart, the female-driven teen comedy that won over critics and audiences nationwide, even though it only made $24.8 million worldwide (against a reported $6 million budget, but still). While I agree that it’s a wonderful movie, I can’t get past those problems with the second act.

So I’m giving this one to Fighting With My Family, in large part for one of Florence Pugh’s many jaw-dropping lead performances this year. I can’t possibly stress enough how amazing the cast is overall, how deeply heartfelt the central development arc is, and how beautifully, unflinchingly authentic the whole movie feels.

Best Suspense Thriller

It’s such a damn shame that Little Woods didn’t get a wider release or more word-of-mouth. That was an amazing movie, all the more for tying a bold pro-choice message to themes of economic disparity and the cruel farce that is American healthcare. Likewise, Queen and Slim delivered great suspense and wonderful thrills with some of the most timely and hard-hitting social commentary I saw this year.

The popular choice for this one might be Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and it was indeed a masterful example of drawn-out suspense as only Tarantino could deliver. But while Hollywood is a great movie, Tarantino has made plenty like it. Nobody’s ever made a movie like Knives Out.

Where Hollywood kept pretty much all of its biggest plot twists for the climax, Knives Out delighted in yanking the audience every which way from start to finish. It’s bold, it’s timely, it’s innovative, and it’s an absolute joy to watch.

Best Crime Thriller

I know I’m splitting hairs, but there were simply too many great thrillers this year.

A prominent example is The Irishman, if only that movie wasn’t such a chore to sit through. Then we’ve got Cold Pursuit, a film that might have gotten more attention if it had a better release window, and more success if it wasn’t a decent imitation of better films from Martin McDonagh or the Coens. I would honestly take Hustlers over either one of them, a far more gutsy and innovative picture if only for the sincere effort at portraying the strip club industry and its employees.

But then we have Parasite, a film that combines social satire with family drama and bloody misdeeds. As with Knives Out, this is a movie that knows exactly how and when to play with audience expectations, delivering suspense and gut-punches with terrifying aplomb.

Best Racial Drama

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a breathtaking and deeply human examination of gentrification and colonialism. By contrast, while that movie felt entirely too real, Us was perhaps set too deeply in fantastic allegory. Even so, major kudos are due for examining race relations in an inventive, relevant, and batshit way that could never be done in a more realistic setting.

Even more than either of those two films, Just Mercy made a compelling argument for why we need movies about institutional racism. This movie directly shows how racism kills and why stories about POC need to be told, even if the whole film was undercut by a general sheen of Oscar-bait phoniness. Compare that to Queen and Slim, which had none of that movie’s weaknesses, all of its strengths, and accomplished so much more besides.

Queen and Slim went so much further in exploring the effect that political polarization is having on our nation, most especially in the poorer and less white communities. It is unquestionably the most inspiring, heartfelt, authentic, layered, and nuanced film about race in America released all year.

Best Mindfuck

This may be a controversial pick, but mindfucks are controversial films by design. I’m talking about movies like the psychedelic sexually-charged High Life, or the allegorical descent into divine madness called The Lighthouse. But I’ve narrowed my top picks down to Ad Astra and Midsommar, and I could go back and forth all day as to which one gets the win.

On the one hand, Ad Astra is better paced, better acted, and even with all the psychological chaos going on, it’s the more coherent film. On the other hand, Midsommar had the crazier imagery and the more shocking plot turns. It also had characters who were more deeply flawed, their misfortunes were more visceral, and the filmmakers must be commended for crafting an entire society in such vivid and exacting detail.

While Ad Astra is probably the better-made film overall, Midsommar is specifically the better mindfuck. I’m giving it to the latter.

Greatest Masterpiece

I want to make it clear that this isn’t just about the year’s greatest movie. If it was that simple, I’d give it to The Irishman, Ford v Ferrari, or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and call it a day. But for my top honor of the year, I’m not just looking for a great film — I’m looking for a game-changer. I’m looking for something so bold, so inventive, so intelligent and funny and heart-wrenching like nothing else that’s ever come before, that it advances the entire medium of cinema.

Sam Mendes put in a strong last-minute effort with the innovative and deeply powerful 1917. I’m still giving this to Taika Waititi.

If Jojo Rabbit was merely a sympathetic and palatable movie about a boy in the Hitler Youth, it already would’ve achieved the impossible. If it was only a movie that satirized Nazis in a way that took white supremacy seriously without emboldening our current plague of white supremacists, that alone would’ve made it a towering achievement and a godsend. Yet Waititi delivered all of that in a wickedly funny, powerfully tearjerking, sharply intelligent coming-of-age story. There are filmmakers 20-30 years Waititi’s senior who couldn’t accomplish so much in a single movie and do it half as well. And as timely as the issue of white supremacy is, you couldn’t find one filmmaker in a hundred who would dare to look for common ground with Nazis like this.

The minute I walked out of Jojo Rabbit, I knew it was the one to beat for my Greatest Masterpiece selection of 2019. To see my picks for the greatest disappointments, check back in tomorrow.

Just Mercy

Posted January 13, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

I’m a fan of Destin Daniel Cretton. I should hope that’s obvious after all the numerous times I’ve been telling you all to see Short Term 12, even in spite of that movie’s atrocious camerawork. And yes, The Glass Castle was a misfire, but I’ve seen far worse and it’s not all bad by any means.

So now director/co-writer/producer Cretton is coming out with Just Mercy, his highest-profile awards push to date. Here we have a phenomenal cast with the likes of Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Rafe Spall, Tim Blake Nelson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Rob Morgan, and of course Cretton’s longtime collaborator Brie Larson.

(Side note: Cretton’s next project is reportedly Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings over at Marvel. I don’t know if they’ll find a way to shoehorn Captain Marvel into that picture, but we’ll see.)

The movie chronicles the early career of lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who also exec-produced the film and wrote the memoir the screenplay was based on. He’s played by Michael B. Jordan, another exec-producer. The film has various legal cases as minor subplots, but the main thrust of the film concerns Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx, who was not a producer here, so far as I can tell).

In 1986, a white woman named Ronda Morrison was murdered in the Alabama town of Monroeville. A year later, police arrested McMillian for the crime. Even though McMillian and Morrison never knew each other, no motive was ever established, no evidence was ever produced, and numerous witnesses place McMillian eleven miles away from the time and place of the crime. All the police could ever produce was a self-contradictory and totally nonsensical account from a white career criminal (Ralph Myers, played by Tim Blake Nelson) who produced the testimony for a plea bargain.

(Side note: The film makes a huge deal out of Monroeville’s claim to fame as the home of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, a story that features a black man wrongfully convicted of rape. Nobody in town seems to notice the irony.)

Yet McMillian was imprisoned on death row before the trial even happened. He was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison. A month later, one Judge Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. (Yes, this is seriously a true story, look it up.) overrode the ruling because he thought it was too soft and sentenced McMillian to death.

Enter Stevenson, a lawyer fresh out of Harvard. He could’ve gotten a job anywhere, but he got a federal grant to set up a law firm in Alabama representing convicts on death row. Of course he takes up McMillian’s case pretty much immediately and we’re off to the races.

To repeat: Stevenson and his colleagues are representing convicted murderers and rapists, working to get them lighter sentences and maybe even exonerate them completely. Of course they’re met with no shortage of resistance — nobody wants to see homicidal psychopaths walking the streets.

First of all, that’s treating prisoners as inhuman monsters and scumbags, conveniently depriving them of the rights and the dignity any other person would be perfectly entitled to. Take, for example, the case of Herbert Richardson (here played by Rob Morgan). He’s on death row for killing someone with a pipe bomb. Yet he’s also a Vietnam war veteran who came back with such crippling PTSD that he can barely function. Should his deteriorating mental state be a mitigating factor? Would it do more good for him to be on death row or in a hospital? In all of Alabama, there’s maybe something like a dozen people who are even willing to consider the question.

Secondly, that mindset rests on the assumption that everyone on death row or serving life in prison really is a monster that deserves to be there. It assumes that the system is perfect, or at least fair. And that is demonstrably untrue. Especially in a southern Confederalist stronghold like Alabama. Another fine example is Anthony Ray Hinton (here played by O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who got convicted for two murders and served 28 years on death row on no evidence and for no other reason than because he was black. (Yes, seriously.)

In plenty of past reviews, I’ve talked about the need for nuance in portraying white bigotry. I’m sick and tired of movies populated with white racist caricatures so pompous and overblown that they’re no longer recognizable as human. Racism has to be portrayed as something more subtle and omnipresent, so hard-wired into our culture that it’s easy to justify or ignore.

Somehow, this movie tries to take both approaches. It doesn’t really work.

I mean, yes, the movie has its heart and its head in the right place. The filmmakers use this central premise as a springboard to talk about poverty, bigotry, exploitation of prison labor, the disproportionate number of colored people locked up and/or on death row, and a wide number of related topics.

Moreover, we only ever see a white character drop an N-bomb once, in a mocking caricature of the white redneck stereotype. Otherwise, every white character in this movie is careful to never openly use racial epithets or explicitly call people of color inferior. It’s never about race to these white people, it’s about crime and punishment. It’s about keeping murderers off the street and making sure citizens feel safe. All talking points that sound perfectly sensible to anyone who’s never been in a black neighborhood. Try asking McMillian’s family and neighbors if they feel safe. Ask them how they feel about upholding a system that could put them to death for literally no reason at all.

And of course that’s not even getting started on Ronda Morrison’s death. Why go to all the time and trouble of finding her real killer when we can sleep in ignorant comfort knowing we blamed it all on a guiltless scapegoat?

There are a great number of thoughtful and relevant statements to be found here, delivered in a heartfelt way. And for the most part, they’re made by soaring, overwritten speeches, delivered by A-list actors straight into the camera, shot in extreme close-up. It doesn’t make the performances any less remarkable, but it gives the film an unpleasant kind of Oscar-grabbing self-importance. The message itself is perfectly authentic, but the presentation doesn’t feel that way.

It certainly doesn’t help that the characters are so clearly delineated between “good guys” and “bad guys”. In the former category, we have such charismatic and fiery talents as Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, and Jamie Foxx. On the other side… Look, you don’t cast Rafe Spall or Tim Blake Nelson to play sympathetic characters, especially not in a race drama like this. They’re going to play total shitweasels because that’s their wheelhouse. It’s fascinating to me how every white character in this movie (Brie Larson’s character and her family excluded) could be written in such a nuanced and credible way, and yet presented onscreen as garish racist stereotypes.

Then we have the matter of the execution scene. Without giving too much away, Stevenson does sadly lose a case and he watches a client die in the electric chair. It’s an especially horrific method of execution, and the film is clear in telling us about it. In fact, the filmmakers have to tell us about it verbally, because they cut away at the last second to show us the reactions of the onlookers.

I understand why the filmmakers did this, but it’s not a choice I agree with.

To start with, this is very clearly and explicitly a film about the inherently cruel and (in America, at least) racially motivated practice of the death penalty. It’s counter-productive and frankly a little chickenshit to go through all this trouble in framing such a dramatic execution only to pull the punch at the last second. Yes, it would’ve been shocking and grotesque to portray it onscreen — what better way to show the actual practice as shocking and grotesque? Either drop the bomb or don’t, but don’t settle for half-measures like this.

Seriously, countless filmmakers have already depicted black people getting mercilessly beaten and shot down in cold blood by cops. Is that really so much more palatable than depicting a black man being executed by the state? Either way, the blood is on our hands. If that’s your message, fucking own it.

Just Mercy is a perfectly good film, but it could’ve been better. There’s a lot of powerful stuff in here about institutional racism, the inherent cruelty of capital punishment, the courage needed to stand up to a blatantly prejudiced system, and so on. The filmmakers clearly knew what they were doing, which makes it all the more disappointing when they play it safe and easy. The performances are deeply passionate and worthy of such a horrific subject, but there’s still an artificial Oscar-bait sheen the filmmakers can’t seem to wipe off.

The attitude is there, but the authenticity is repeatedly undercut. I’ve seen many, many worse socially-minded dramas, but there are still a handful of others I’d recommend first. There’s no rush to go see this one, especially since it got shut out of this year’s Oscars.

1917

Posted January 11, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

1917 is the latest passion project from director/producer/co-writer Sam Mendes, inspired by war stories told by his grandfather. The film is dedicated to Alfred Mendes, who served in the 1st Rifle Battalion of England during WWI and later went on to find success as a novelist. As for the rest… well, the trailer tells you pretty much everything you need to know going in, but I’ll be happy to elaborate.

Our stage is set during Operation Alberich, at the Western Front during the Great War. Germany has been falling back to the Hindenburg Line and the massive 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment (led by Colonel Mackenzie, played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is ready to move in and deliver one last crushing defeat to the Germans.

Problem: The higher-ups have received new aerial surveillance, showing that the Germans have been fortifying a new defensive line for the past several months. They haven’t been retreating, they’ve been luring the 2nd Battalion into a trap. And they’ve cut off the British phone lines for good measure. So now General Erinmore (Colin Firth) must arrange for a direct order to be delivered by hand, to stop all 1,600 soldiers of the 2nd Batallion from attacking before they all charge in to get slaughtered.

Enter Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), whose brother (played by Richard Madden) is a lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion. So naturally, he has a deeply personal reason for getting this letter delivered ASAP. For assistance, he enlists the help of Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay), who just happened to be sitting next to him at the time. The two of them have to complete this mission alone, to move as quickly as possible, and they’re running through territory freshly burned clean (and perhaps not entirely deserted) by the German forces.

So, long story short: Our protagonist has to deliver a message within 24 hours or his brother dies along with over 1,500 soldiers. Simple enough, right?

To get this out of the way early, there are a few name actors in this cast. This is a cast featuring such talents as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, and others. None of their names are above the title, and for good reason. They each get maybe two or three minutes of screen time, just long enough to do something noteworthy. Then again, it’s always noteworthy when someone else comes in — so much of the film is spent with the same two characters on a lonely and desperate mission, meeting any British soldier behind enemy lines is a sight for sore eyes.

One important thing the trailer won’t show you is that aside from one plot-motivated blackout, the entire movie is presented as one long continuous take by way of various hidden cuts. It’s really quite impressive how the actors, sets, and camera movements are choreographed to get all the necessary coverage without breaking disbelief or cutting the footage. Moreover,it certainly helps that the film was shot by Grandmaster Roger Deakins, with Lee Smith (who rightfully won an Oscar for stitching together Dunkirk) on editing, and Thomas Newman writing the atmospheric score.

That’s not even getting started on the production design from Lee Gassner (the Oscar-winning designer who put together Blade Runner 2049 and the last three James Bond movies). The costumes were designed by Jacqueline Durran (another Oscar winner, whose other most recent work can be seen in Little Women (2019)) and David Crossman (he’s either designed or supervised the costumes in some capacity for all five Disney-era Star Wars movies to date). I could go on, but the point stands that this entire cast and crew is bursting with talent, and every last ounce of it is up on the screen.

Everything about this movie, from the single-take presentation to the tiniest detail, is built around immersion. This is a movie built from the ground up to put us right there in the trenches, among the dirt and dead bodies piling up everywhere during the Great War. In fact, it’s a mercy that our two viewpoint characters are played by perfectly talented and relatively unknown actors, because it’s that much easier to put ourselves in the characters’ places.

Make no mistake about it: Following Blake and Schofield is exhausting. The two of them are never allowed to catch a break, and neither are we. Not knowing when or where the next attack will happen makes for great suspense, and the action is so much more thrilling when it finally happens.

Even when the characters do get some precious downtime and they’re going on about stories or some unimportant crap, the camera keeps rolling. There’s still a great deal of underlying tension because they’re still in a war zone and explosion or gunfire could break out at any minute. And of course, the clock is still ticking with hundreds of lives depending on that message.

But perhaps most importantly, these moments put a human face on the thousands of lives destroyed by the senseless war to begin all modern senseless wars. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of extras in this movie, and it’s astounding how Mendes so capably makes every single one register as a fleshed-out human being. It pays heartfelt tribute to the veterans of the Great War while advancing the crucial message of “war is hell”.

Which brings us to the recurring motif of medals. Time and again, the characters talk of medals as nothing more than bits of tin and ribbon, poor compensation for dying on the battlefield. Yes, they’re supposed to be rewards for acts of extraordinary heroism, it doesn’t make the recipient any less dead or the war any more worthwhile. Trees are another prominent recurring motif, very powerful in their symbolic representation of life and comfort. This is especially powerful at the sight of all the trees burned up and/or cut down in the war effort.

I have no problem giving 1917 a full recommendation. Sam Mendes and his all-star crew set out to make the most immersive and heart-pounding war movie they possibly could, while also paying heartfelt tribute to those who served. It succeeds on all fronts. The single-take presentation serves as an innovative and compelling hook, the visuals and sound design are all aces, the lead and supporting actors are all solid, and the extras are somehow even better!

This is a lean and mean war drama masterpiece, the like of which hasn’t been seen in a very long time. Absolutely not a film to be missed.

Spies in Disguise

Posted January 1, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

First things first: Spies in Disguise is a misnomer. While there are indeed multiple spies in this movie, only one of them wears any kind of disguise. The plural is only there because of the rhyme. Imagine my disappointment to find that the movie only features one international superspy getting turned into a pigeon. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The superspy in question is Lance Sterling, voiced by Will Smith. The character is pretty straightforward: He’s a James Bond parody by way of Will Smith’s swagger. Also, because he’s animated, he’s free to defy all known laws of physics.

The bad guy is Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), though I don’t think he’s ever referred to by name in the movie. Mostly, he’s just called “Robot-Hand”. Anyway, he’s a cyborg with a grudge against Lance, and he’s just stolen a highly advanced assassination drone. Even worse, he’s framed Lance for the theft. So now Agent Marcy of Internal Affairs (Rashida Jones), along with two operatives code-named “Eyes” and “Ears” (respectively voiced by Karen Gillan and DJ Khaled) are chasing after Lance Sterling even as he’s trying to clear his name and stop the real supervillain.

Enter Walter Beckett, voiced by Tom Holland. He’s a socially awkward misfit prodigy in the tech department whose work is consistently rejected because of his peculiar obsession with glitter and kittens. Basically, Walter is trying to find non-violent solutions for an extremely violent world.

With nowhere else to run, Lance goes to Walter for a way to completely disappear. He needs to move quickly all around the world, and he needs to stay off everyone’s radar. What Lance gets is an unwitting mouthful of Walter’s highly experimental gene transformation formula. Thus Lance is transformed into a flying animal with 360-degree vision, capable of seeing light waves invisible to the human eye, blending into any crowd or environment with perfect ease.

The pigeon: The ultimate disguise for a spy. Also, Pigeon Lance can talk. Nobody knows how.

Right off the bat, this movie struck me for how “adult” it is for a PG-rated animated kids’ movie. For example, while off-color jokes by way of nudity is nothing new, and there’s nothing here that’s terribly explicit, I have no idea how the filmmakers could get away with so many butts and nudity-related jokes and not get a PG-13. Also, there are stereotypical Yakuza baddies in this movie from the very first action scene. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that, but I’ll leave it to somebody more qualified than I to examine the cultural sensitivity of the Yakuza’s portrayal here.

Then we have the violence. I know kids nowadays see actual handguns and swords in Marvel films all the time, but to see them in an animated kids’ movie (and again, one with a PG rating) is rather jarring nonetheless. But then, this level of violence is rather necessary for a central thematic point.

Lance works with the viewpoint that it takes fire to fight fire. There are people in the world who are genuinely evil, and they can’t be taken down with anything less than guns and bombs. Walter completely rejects that argument, arguing that letting villains bring heroes down to their level is still a net loss. Fighting fire with fire only leaves everyone burned. Though fighting fire with glitter bombs and inflatable hugs doesn’t seem to be doing much, either.

This is easily the most potent theme in the film, with the strongest material for Holland and Smith to work with. It certainly helps that both characters have lost people important to them: It’s heavily implied that Lance has lost good people in the field, and we know for a fact that Walter’s mother (voiced in a prologue by Rachel Brosnahan) was a police officer KIA. One suffered loss and it hardened him. The other suffered loss and it gave him the mission of making the world a kinder, safer place.

What’s even better about Walter is that he finally gets a chance to test his prototype inventions on the field. Some work better than others. Hilarity ensues.

Meanwhile, Lance Sterling has always been the headstrong center of attention, and now he’s forced to take the most inconspicuous and mundane form imaginable. He’s always been a lone wolf, and now he has to grudgingly accept whatever help he can get because he can’t really do much as a bird. Thus we have your typical development arc in which the loner learns to discover friendship and it plays out exactly as you’d expect. In fact, in the filmmakers’ mad dash to cram two hours of plot into a 100-minute film, they embrace every cliche within reach.

It’s a good thing Smith and Holland are putting so much into their characters, because the rest of the voice cast kinda sucks. Yes, Ben Mendelsohn acquits himself well enough, but this archvillain role is so deep into his wheelhouse, he barely even has to make an effort. Rashida Jones suffers because Marcy is more effective as a plot device and her characterization is wildly inconsistent. Likewise, poor Karen Gillan can’t seem to pick an accent and stick with it. DJ Khaled is every bit as obnoxious and wretched as you’d expect. Reba McEntire shows up, woefully miscast as the head of the spy agency, and painfully phoning in every line.

Really, the whole movie seems to have a tone problem. The film whiplashes between juvenile lowbrow humor and heady (by kids’ movie standards) discussions about non-violence. We’ve got the pathos of Walter’s dead mother, next to whatever inane thing comes out of DJ Khaled’s mouth. And lest we forget, this is still a hard-PG movie, a kid-friendly deconstruction of the inherently adult spy thriller genre. Finding a happy medium in all of this was apparently too hard, so I guess the filmmakers decided to bounce back and forth between extremes with the hope that it all evens out in the wash.

With all of that said, I still got a kick out of all the various sight gags. The action scenes are a lot of fun, and I have to admire the filmmakers’ commitment to the central notion of a man getting turned into a pigeon. Likewise, while the more “mature” moments feel out of place, I have to give the filmmakers credit for being bold enough to go there, and for giving no less time and attention to the more cutesy jokes. Last but not least, while the plot is predictable from first to last, at least it moves along at a good clip.

Spies in Disguise is certainly not the best animated film of the year, but I’ve seen worse attempts at establishing a new IP. It’s important for kids to have a movie that expresses non-violent themes in a timely way that doesn’t talk down to its audience, and doing that by way of a spy thriller parody was honestly kind of genius. And of course it helps that the film is loaded with so many entertaining action scenes and amusing sight gags. With all of that said, I have a hard time getting past the cliched, predictable plot and the poor overall quality of the voice cast.

This one gets a second-run recommendation.

Uncut Gems

Posted December 28, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Good Time is an oddity to weird to live and too rare to die.

My review of Good Time

I’m starting to think that this is the general style of the Safdie Brothers. I might just as easily have written it for Uncut Gems, their new passion project. Except that Gems is actually the inferior film. I’ll explain.

This is the story of Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler. He’s a Jewish jewelry broker working out of the Diamond District in New York. He’s married to Dinah (Idina Menzel, what in the Nine Hells are you doing here?) with three kids, and on the verge of a divorce because Howard’s been banging one of his employees on the side (Julia, played by Julia Fox). Ratner has an extremely posh house somewhere upstate, plus an upscale apartment in the city, his kids have every possible comfort, and his jewelry business brings in such high-rolling celebrities as Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics (playing himself, if you can believe it).

Problem: Howard has a crippling addiction to gambling. Every time he gets the money to pay off his debts, he puts it on another sports bet. Naturally, the loan sharks are getting rather aggressive at this point.

The good news is, Howard has taken delivery of an uncut black opal straight from the mines of Ethiopia, which he plans to auction off at upwards of a million dollars. The bad news is that Kevin Garnett — ever the superstitious athlete — has become obsessed with the opal, convinced that it could give him the power to win the playoffs. Thus Howard is pressured to loan the opal to Garnett, who reneges on his deal to return it. Hilarity ensues.

Can we get back to Good Time for a minute?

That movie was about a main character who gets into criminal shenanigans for the sake of his family. Everything illegal that he did for money (and he pulled a lot of illegal shit in that picture), he did for a mentally handicapped younger brother who couldn’t take care of himself. That’s sympathetic. There’s a character you can root for. Those are clear stakes we can emotionally invest in.

Let’s compare that to Howard.

Yes, somebody fucked him over and backed out of a promise to give back the outrageously expensive gemstone that could pay off Howard’s debts. That sucks. I get it. We’ve all been screwed over by some asshole who wasn’t as reliable as promised, and it’s a shitty position to be in. But here’s the thing: There is literally zero good reason why Howard had to loan out the gemstone in the first place. Hell, if Howard never intended to sell or loan the opal, he had even less than no good reason to show it off at all. And that’s not me saying that, that’s Kevin Garnett saying that!

More to the point, Howard didn’t get into debt for medical expenses or mortgages or anything sensible like that. He got into trouble with loan sharks over sports gambling. He wasn’t even gambling because he needed the money — he’s operating a thriving jewelry business in New York City, and he’s surrounded by no shortage of material luxuries that he could sell off at any time.

Even when it comes to his marriage and his family, he’s throwing all of that away for an affair with an employee, which might even put his business at risk for no reason whatsoever. Last but not least, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that the loan shark threatening Howard with severe bodily harm is his own brother-in-law (Arno, played by Eric Bogosian), so of course Howard’s wife and kids are in no danger.

I know we don’t necessarily need a sympathetic protagonist, but we do need stakes. Howard’s life is totally miserable and there’s no sign that he’s going to change his ways anytime soon (even if he wants to), so what does he stand to gain if he comes out on top? For that matter, what difference does it make if he loses and dies? I hate to sound so callous, but his family was in the process of dumping him anyway (because he had an affair, remember) and he doesn’t seem to have any friends aside from his mistress, so what does anyone stand to lose if Howard doesn’t succeed?

I just don’t get the point of this plot. As far as I can tell, this is yet another crime thriller that warns against the sins of pride and greed. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done a million times in other, better crime thrillers.

Adam Sandler’s been getting a ton of acclaim for his lead performance. I’m not seeing it. You do realize that “the best performance of Adam Sandler’s career” is faint fucking praise, right? No way is this Best Actor material. Not when he’s squawking half his dialogue with all the fiery intensity of goddamn Gilbert Gottfried.

In all honesty, nobody comes out looking good in this picture. I know for a fact that Idina Menzel can do so much better than play the frigid ice bitch like she is here. Likewise, Julia Fox is greatly hampered by the paper-thin floozy she’s playing here. And this might be the worst performance I’ve ever seen from Lakeith Stanfield, because he (like Sandler and Garnett, for that matter) is tasked with being an inconsistent argumentative asshole who yells all the time and causes trouble for no reason whatsoever.

This is a loud and ugly movie from a filmmaking team that specializes in loud and ugly movies (again, see Good Time). The Safdies love, love, LOVE their extreme close-up shots, the better to get every last wrinkle and mole hair on that 50-foot screen. I commend the Safdies for depicting the street-level culture of New York in such exacting and intricate detail. From the criminal underbelly to the upscale millionaires to the Jewish middle-class family, the Safdie Brothers are admirable in their unflinching and authentic portrayal of New York City, warts and all.

But the ugliness can’t be an end in itself. The ugliness has to be a means to an end. If it’s for the sole purpose of making a misanthropic crime thriller with nothing deeper to say than “pay your debts, don’t cheat on your spouse, don’t gamble more than you can afford to lose, and don’t do business with people who are clearly not trustworthy”, then what use does anyone have for it?

On a miscellaneous note, the Safdies show a penchant for soundtracks with an ’80s synth vibe. I’m not sure it necessarily matches what’s onscreen, but I dig it.

As with Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and David Ayer, I admire the Safdie Brothers’ filmmaking ability even as I hate how they use those abilities. I could tolerate Good Time because that movie was at least unpredictably batshit and it had a sympathetic protagonist worth following. Compare that to Uncut Gems, in which there isn’t a single character worth rooting for and everything goes predictably wrong even if the plot has to bend over backwards. And no, I refuse to elevate Adam Sandler’s performance here to the level of the Oscars simply because he rose above his typical lowbrow oeuvre.

There are better awards contenders out right now, folks. Even with the beautifully gritty presentation, I wouldn’t recommend bothering with this one.