16 December 2017

2017 Reflection: The Crap We Was

It's a long mirror to look back in and understand our anticipation of lots of media that dropped in 2017. I tried really hard to not set myself up for disappointment this year. I was mostly pleasantly surprised. This was an impressive year, all things told. It's important to be really refined about what we're looking for, and for all the complaining about the movies being dead or Peak TV uh...peaking, we had some good shit. Let's review the shit that we were pumped up for a year ago.

Taboo (01/10)

I went back and forth on Taboo a lot. In the end I liked it. It was a brutal look at the life of Tom Hardy in the early 19th-Century, full of some insane twists and turns that made for some addictive watching. I continuously got the impression that they were trying hard to be an admittedly scaled back Game of Thrones set in 1814 London. It's full of different parties trying to play against each other and manipulate a grand game of war, ships, slaves, and whore murder. It ended a bit softer than it should have and was never as good as it tried to be, but the acting, impressive production design, and incest are always welcome.

Run the Jewels 3 (01/17)

This dropped in December as I was writing this preview, so dammit, Killer Mike. 3 wasn't as good as 2, but grew on me as the year went on, culminating in "Legend Has It" featured in that stellar Black Panther trailer. I'm surprised they had commercial success with their insanely literate politically charged hip hop at all, but they proved again they're some of the best in the game.

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (01/20)

Hahahaa, alright, so there was a pretty specific way this could go. I'm further confounded about the Diesel after this - he is so clearly not in on the joke of his own ridiculousness. It actually had a decent premise, too. This movie was pretty fucking bad, but Ruby Rose was amazing in it. This did not turn into the Fast franchise nobody but Diesel wanted, but that's for everyone's benefit.

Legion (02/08) - FX
Just give him some McDonalds and be done with it

Legion was bonkers and continuously mind-blowing, often very literally. It changed the game for what Aubrey Plaza can do, made a star out of Rachel Keller, and showcased Dan Stevens as so much more than the arbitrary stand-in actor for Beauty and the Beast (2017). That dance scene, man. This leaves all those Marvel Netflix series in the dust by not being remotely concerned with superhero antics. Instead they focus on misuse of powers, mostly through lack of understanding, fear and self-preservation, and personal gain. Ironically, a series focused on mutants is the most human series yet.

John Wick: Chapter Two (02/10)

The most difficult uphill battle was that this was no longer coming by surprise. John Wick (2014) changed the game and a second chapter was neither asked for nor necessary. Yeah, we're glad we got it. From throwing the action to a car, the random mean streets of New York, and then a somehow even more impossibly bleak ending, Chapter Two delivered more action sequences that raised the bar for all other films to follow. We just can't watch sub-par action anymore.

The LEGO Batman Movie (02/10)

I enjoyed this a lot, but am generally less of a fan than I should be. It's an absolute love letter to superhero, particularly Batman tropes and history, which is all sorts of amazing, but there was a moment there when the metanarrative didn't add up with the actual narrative, and the "Joker in love with Batman" subplot (or...main plot?) felt inauthentic. Cramming in every other property that Warner Bros owns seemed forced and resolved far too quickly for how good this could have been. In its defense, it IS probably the funniest film of 2017 and Will Arnett continues to be a revelation in this role.

A Cure for Wellness (02/17)

Kind of like LEGO Batman this film was full of good, interesting ideas that never seemed to go anywhere. Yes, let's compare A Cure for Wellness to LEGO Batman... Dane DeHaan is serviceable enough, but the conspiracy pay-off isn't great. I don't know why we needed a big conspiracy at all. This movie worked fine as a meditation on creepy wellness sanitariums, which totally actually exist somehow and are totally manipulative pseudo-science. There's 3/4 of a good movie in here.

Logan (03/03)

Breathtaking? Amazing? Uncanny. Logan delivered on everything it tried to be and more. In an age of bigger and badder crashing and smashing superhero films, Hugh, Pat, and James found a way around all that. I still hate the doppelganger crap, and wanted Mr. Sinister, but this is fine. I guess. There's enough incredible scenes of tragic superhero downtime and growth, actual fucking growth to make this a great film.

The Fate of the Furious (04/14)

I'm sorry. I'm off Diesel. I promise. That Statham baby fight, tho. And that Statham / Rock prison escape. And the Rock throwing a torpedo into a submarine. There was lots of madness here, but an empty movie with a wasted premise. The Last Knight (2017) wins this year's battle of "Heroes Becoming Traitors" movie twists.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (05/05)

Until my dying day I'll tout this over the original and over most of what else dropped in the blockbuster realm this year. I was hesitant to throw this up here because I'm always disappointed, but this worked in every way. Well, sure the middle of the film just chilling on Ego was a little flat, but damn they rode their characters so true, threw in a random Stallone, and gave us more feels for Yondu than any superhero character ever. How about that?

Dunkirk (07/21)
Don't forget your suntan lotion!

Here's another film that possibly surpassed expectations. We all know that Chris Nolan has to really try to make an outright SHITTY movie (I listed Following [1998] and Batman Begins [2005] among his worst. How is that even possible), but it was great to see that Dunkirk easily ranked among his best ever. It's kind of like when Pixar spits out an Inside Out (2015) that suddenly stand with anything they've ever done. This somehow plays with time more than any film he's done, despite cranking out two huge films that explicitly deal with some form of time travel. It's a wonder of editing, storytelling, and true drama.

Blade Runner 2049 (10/06)

There are a few weeks left of this year to crank out a few more choice films, but right now 2049 is at the top of my list. I don't think I've ever had a #1 most anticipated film actually come out as best of the year. I feel so validated. We'll get into this more when the time comes.

Now, we had a few mini-anticipation previews, so let's go through that:

Rock That Body - became Rough Night, sucked
Baby Driver - ruled
Downsizing - did not see yet, word of mouth has grown lesser since its announcement
God Particle - coming out 2018
Untitled Paul Anderson Fashion World Drama - became Phantom Thread, have not seen, but is evidently amazing
Logan Lucky - Definitely underrated, but a clear Soderbergh lesser work
Annihilation - coming out 2018
The Death of Stalin - US Release 2018
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - nuts, but okay
It Comes at Night - shitty
Mute - 2018
Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter - unknown release
The Coldest City - became Atomic Blonde, ruled
Brawl in Cell Block 99 - Have not seen, but word is it rules
Landline - did not see, relatively little hype
Free Fire - shitty, probably my biggest disappointment of the year.

Well, that's it for the shit we looked forward to. Not too shabby, folks. I could have told myself that xXx: The Return of Xander Cage would suck. I wouldn't have listened. This is the life we chose.

Stay tuned until January when we preview 2018! It never ends!

15 December 2017

2017 in the Ground: Everyone's Best Movie List

I've been really seriously tallying up my end-of-year movie lists for a while now, and to be honest, the last couple years it's like the Christmas gift that I give myself. This probably has something to do with it - tracking and building anticipation for my personal media consumption analysis for an entire year is an awesome thing to look forward to.

Last year, though, I noticed something odd when I began to tally up the movies I loved. They were totally different than everyone else's. It was as if all the other critics had gotten together and said to themselves, "THESE are the movies we are looking at, you may pick from them." This led to a La La Land (2016) / Moonlight (2016) showdown, which was a compelling match between two really good flicks, but also two drastically underseen flicks among the general public that was both bait-y and alienating.

To be fair, I counted La La Land #7 last year and left Moonlight off because I couldn't really get into it - I've since come around and they'll both land in my updated 2016 list that'll drop in a few weeks. My point was more that we kept seeing the same handful of indie films over and over again, like Fences, Manchester by the Sea, and Toni Erdmann. To be precise, all good films but critics seemed afraid of branching out and finding some variety. It's as if they thought they'd be derided for picking anything else.

2017 is far far worse. After I watched Blade Runner 2049 (2017), I was sold on it being the best thing I'd seen in a long time. It's not even a remote consideration on any one's list. I'm flabbergasted.

Let's go through the Prototypical List of Best Movies to Choose From:

Phantom Thread
Faces Places
The Post
A Fantastic Woman
A Ghost Story
Lady Bird
Get Out
The Florida Project
The Shape of Water
Call Me by Your Name
A Quiet Passion
Personal Shopper
The Post
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

That's pretty much the just of this, this, this, this, and this. Now, I don't mean to be a bitch, there's some cool variety to be found. Girls Trip and Wonder Woman pop up here and there, and the Vulture somehow also included Valerian and the Long Title About Planets that I Forgot, which is all kinds of campy and awesome. Colossal found its way as some honourable mentions, which is a film that I loved this year, and Okja creeps its way in, which is terribly underrated.

We also do see some big films like Get Out and Dunkirk earn recognition, which is rad. I just kind of think most of the rest of this is boring pretentious crap. Faces Places, get out of here.

Part of this rant is really just a prep - to let ya'll know that I know what the cinematic conversation is right now and how I plan on rejecting it entirely. I have no interest at all in the vast majority of this shit and my list is going to look totally insane in comparison. Of course, I reflect and morph and update each year after making a slew of terrible choices, but that's also what both watching films and creating long-lasting relationships with them is all about.

That more than anything ends up being how I judge films in the long run. Which films do I continually reflect on and adore for months afterwards. Which fall by the wayside? It's amazing the kind of time traveling that happens with some films. Sometimes I have no single recollection of a damn thing that happened. I watched The Magnificent Seven (2016) a few months back and can't tell you a single plot point. It's super possible that I just watch too many films and any slightly similar ones blur together, but there's also something to be said for distinctive, interesting filmmaking that sticks with you.

On the other hand, what does make a good film? Is it simply a compelling and logical sequence of events demonstrated through a craft that continually accentuates subtext and theme in addition to the plot played out on screen? Are films worth seeing once and analyzing for that merit in the moment without regard to the relationship we develop with them? Should films be thought of as "in the moment" films, where something super-relevant like A Fantastic Woman stands out, or does it stand out only because of its moment and not its craft? Or like Moonlight, does it do both? These are all questions worth asking and reflecting on when selecting a best of list.

For my money, I will mostly ride an overall feel, which comes about from craft, story, character, and in a grand sense, "what it's about." I always kind of think of this when considering big action blockbusters - of course we loved IT (2017) - the old film needed sincere updating and there were genuine thrills and an overall clear aesthetic, purpose, and narrative. Of fucking course no one saw The Dark Tower (2017), it alienated any fans it may have had by not staying true to its source and alienated any new fans by still being too damn fucking obtuse. This isn't hard to decipher. I should be a studio executive.

So that's where I'm coming from this year. I need to continue slamming movies and catching up over the next few weeks, and as it should be, I will post at the genuine end of the year, on the 31st with my Final List. Stay tuned, dear readers!

13 December 2017

My Long Obsessive History with Star Wars

I had to sit really hard for a while thinking of this post. I have a complex relationship with Star Wars, as I think we all do. I haven't done much to get hyped about The Last Jedi (2017) - it's coming out, I am obviously going to watch it, probably multiple times regardless of quality, and that's that. I only watched the teaser, which was months ago, I thought it was kind of vague and sucky. So, to be honest, I don't have much of a preview for you, here. It'll make a ton of money, probably less than The Force Awakens (2015), because that was the build up of a lifetime, but I've got to think more than Rogue One (2016) because that movie was so specific. It'll have cultural weight, but again, probably in between Ep VII and Rogue, although with each rapid-fire release, the individual films become less special.

So, instead, I'm going to take you on a journey today, folks. I want to talk about Star Wars fandom in general, my history with the franchise, which I think is shared by many, and the intersection of where we are with this behemoth that can maybe explain why I don't really give a shit about the latest installment in a franchise that has shaped much of my childhood. And who am I kidding, my adult life, too.

Mark Hamill didn't speak in The Force Awakens because
he's now just stuck on Joker voice.
This series exists as a confrontation between nostalgic obsession and a more thoughtful adult worldview. So let's get personal. On the one hand, Star Wars beats everything else I loved in my youth. Ninja Turtles, Donkey Kong Country, Marvel Comics, digging in sand - these were all my prime hobbies, and none holds a remote candle to Star Wars. Maybe Donkey Kong. I still play Diddy's Kong Quest on SNES. On the other hand, I can reflect now and say, "What the hell was I thinking?" Let's dig into this obsession before we discuss the merits of The Last Jedi.

Star Wars dominated so much of my time and attention from about 1994 to...well, the present. I was born in '86, which is actually this Star Wars Dark Period. In the Late 80s Star Wars mania died down, with only some Ewok and Droid TV shows to sustain us. It really sucked! Just look at this timeline. And yes, I went through all of it and re-ordered each section by date of media release and  NO I'M NOT OBSESSIVE.

I'm mentioning all this because I think that every nerd has some relationship with Star Wars, but that really depends on the era he or she is born into. There are the original fans who saw the first trilogy in theaters, maybe kids who were born in the 60s or early 70s. Then there are the next generation who had to gobble up re-releases (keep in mind that all three OT films had substantial theatrical re-releases prior to the '97 Special Editions) and VHS. Those fans are still pretty potent, and were able to catch up on quite a bit. Then, my generation, who I think is really special for one reason - we were all Expanded Universe.

Now called "Legends" and not canon (oh Star Wars canon...you change every fucking year and are yet so holy), this shit exploded in the early 90s. We had Splinter of the Mind's Eye and a shitload of scattered comics and stories, but starting with Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire in 1991 we started getting all these really good novels. Dark Empire and The Glove of Darth Vader and the rest of the Jedi Prince series followed (okay, the latter is kind of shitty, but it was Star Wars YA in like 1992, I ate that shit up). The 90s exploded with this shit, from Darksaber and the Truce at Bakuura to Tales from Jabba's Palace, which gave complex backstories to every single fucking side monster stopping by Tatooine. This, combined with VHS gave me such a world-building appreciation of Star Wars and as more and more books and intricate media came out I was hooked even more. One of my proudest possessions is a huge hardcover Wildlife of Star Wars book. Okay, so I got that one in 2010. I said the obsession was '94 to present!

We had Shadows of the Empire, both comic and video game, and of course, this all built to the Special Edition re-releases of '97 and The Phantom Menace (1999). I can't overhype that we thought these were good when they came out. It's kind of like that moment where you realize that your parents are fallible and Santa isn't real. We didn't think Star Wars could do any wrong. We were so damn absorbed in this world. Well, I keep saying "we" but I was. I laughed at Jar Jar Binks. I was supposed to! I was twelve! Anyway, I was so caught up in this world that I immediately dove into everything Phantom Menace. I knew all the Jedi Council members, new weird-ass worlds, and all the filler background trade disputes. It was all golden, baby!

Except it definitely sucked. Like it DEFINITELY sucked. Looking back with a critical eye on my childhood is like taking a machete to this tortured franchise. Hey, we got Machete Order, right? During Attack of the Clones (2002) was fourteen and nearly fifteen. This is where that first moment of cognitive dissonance creeped in. Is it possible that I was wrong? I cheered for the Yoda fight with Dooku because it was campy and ridiculous. Why was this old former puppet doing flips? It was zany and fan service-y in all the best ways for a teenage boy to love and go nuts for. Except I was going nuts for the ridiculousness of it all, not out of genuine appreciation. It was unbelievable that a major film would actually do this sort of thing. This is my "walking in on my parents having sex" moment. Revenge of the Sith (2005) came out when I was in college, which is a weird age span to experience these films. Pre-teen to freshman year of college. It was also a seminal moment where I was now an adult. As a man it was time to leave these childish things behind. No, I definitely bought a shitload of those Star Wars Transformers.

The prequels signaled more than just a new batch of shitty films, though - they ushered in an era where Star Wars was never going to leave us. Instead of the occasional Super Return of the Jedi for SNES or Shadows of the Empire, we had complex, engaging video games that came out a few times a year. We had serialized shows - seriously, the Clone Wars only took three years, how did we get 129 episodes over six seasons? And that was the damn SECOND animated show to depict the time period!

This is for those mid-90s kids who truly grew up alongside the prequels. I don't really know their relationship with those films, if they think they're good, if they've grown cynical, if Jango Fett and Sio Bibble are truly "their" Star Wars characters, but it's harder to shake off movies you saw when you were four than ones you saw at age 14. They also consumed so much more expanded universe than we did, on a massive scale. Star Wars at the turn of the century was more ubiquitous than it ever had been - the movies itself mattered less than the merchandising. This was of course pioneered back in '77, but truly perfected here. These kids are just now starting to reach the age where they can think critically about their nostalgic childhood and it's a little too early to tell what they'll come with for or against the prequels. There are already all these insane theories or positions out there that the prequels are secretly good or that us old farts never understood Ring Theory or whatever. That's all compelling, and I'll give prequels what little good they are due, but it's all mostly compensation to mask something terrible you loved as a kid.

Man, I was super fucking into the movie CASPER (1995). Whoops.

With another ten years comes the last generation, impossibly born post-Revenge of the Sith. These are the kids who will watch The Force Awakens and Rogue One, and of course, The Last Jedi for the first time and own them as THEIR Star Wars. I'm curious to see how they end up reacting to these films. First of all, all the nostalgia infused in these films is never going to work on the same level. Sure they will be able to understand if not right now, then eventually the intertextuality of all the similar plot points. That will never be a reach back to their childhood, though, it will always be parallel. In that regard I'm curious if they think of Star Wars as all one amorphous glob or the old films as derelicts of the past, weird campy epics with shoddy effects and weird hairdos (ohh...Luke's coif...and Cassio Tagge...I talked about my love of his and the other Moff's '70s sideburns here).

Oh yeah - THESE guys too
While there seems to be a new Star Wars for each generation of kids to experience, where the dissonance happens is when you're an old man like me experiencing each wave at drastically different times in your life. I saw the original trilogy in their theatrical glory as a wee lad, then experienced the Special Editions and prequels during my formative years, and now as a full-grown-ass man am experiencing the Sequel Trilogy. In doing so I carry the full weight of my eight years of writing on the Internet level of critical thinking about film while balancing the love, hatred, betrayal, adoration, bewilderment, and inspiration this franchise has delivered to me for the past thirty years. It's a complex set of emotions that will always inform any review or interpretation of these new films.

This is what makes Star Wars gargantuan. It's beyond a new Alien movie or a new Pirates movie. There's nothing comparable to the eternal multimedia empire of Star Wars, which impacts everyone a little differently, but nevertheless in ubiquity. I try hard to take each of these new films on their own, but at the same time, they don't even want to stand on their own. If they did they wouldn't have teased us so much with Han Solo or both plots being intrinsically tied to A New Hope (1977) or the Sequel Trilogy still being indebted to the on-going Saga of the Skywalker clan. SPOILER - Kylo Ren is Rey's father!

At the same time, though, they jerk us around with the Resistance vs. the First Order and Snoke and all this bullshit that they don't seem to care at all about explaining. Sure, the Original Trilogy didn't need to explain everything little thing, but that was also coming out of the blue, not after forty years of precise and intricately detailed Expanded Universe material to bolster one of the most popular movie franchises of all time. Like I said, my generation in particular was first introduced to this mess through the now-Legends material. It's tough to shake off that none of that existed now without having the competence to fill in new material. Maybe The Last Jedi will solve all questions and in ten years' time we will look back on this with context and understanding. We just need a long enough time scale.

Then again, fuck that, we could understand the Emperor in A New Hope because we know what Emperors are and how Empires and rebellions work. What the hell is the First Order? How are they powerful? Are they actually a global threat or a thorn in the New Republic's side? Are they the insurgent terrorists, now? Ugh I hated The Force Awakens so much from just a nerdy world-building perspective. That's terrible because the characters are outstanding and Rey grabbing that lightsaber in the snow is one of the greatest movie moments ever.

I'm really cold on Last Jedi, both in anticipation and my literal knowledge about it. It's just a movie to me now. That's awful and cynical, but I need to be proved wrong. I've reached a point where in my life now we've had bad Star Wars for longer than we had good Star Wars. It's a tough hill to climb for Rian Johnson, but I hope for the best. 2017 has already brought us Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Blade Runner 2049 so there's no more excuses not to make a big money-making blockbuster that isn't great. Let's go, Star Wars.
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