15 December 2019

Because I watched it on DVD: Hobbs & Shaw

Here's some very late impressions for you - Fast & Furious presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)! So bold the title required two ampersands! I don't want to dive in like crazy, but this movie left me with a good dose of weirdness that we should address. SPOILERS forever, but who cares. This movie is ridiculous.

This looks like two other movies. Walking Tall (2005) and
I don't know, any other Statham movie.

I was a late bloomer Fast fan for sure. I got into 2 Fast 2 Furious (2002) repeats on the USA Network in the mid-2000s and like most of the world, was fully on board when the franchise shifted to straight action heist movies starting with Fast Five (2011). Like all good things, though, a good thing has been bled dry. The pinnacle seemed to be Fate of the Furious (2017), which was all kinds of terrible, but instead it turns out that Hobbs & Shaw found a way to push insanity forward.

It's a fine line why Fate sucked. I loved Furious 7 (2015). There was some line that was tripped and I have spent a lot of time trying to think of what it was. I think it has all to do with Vin Diesel's turn towards evil. It's in that weird zone between being motivated enough and not actually going all the way. Diesel can be a brutal character and even since the first film they've resisted leaning into this. Replacing fan favourites like Paul Walker with charisma-free Scott Eastwood wasn't great either. How could they have fired him?!

Hobbs & Shaw takes all this to another level. These films have always featured quasi-superheroic acts, but here Idris Elba is literally a technologically-infused supervillain. It's never quite explained how, but it doesn't actually matter. What might be weirder is that Statham and the Rock are actually able to fight this cyborg somehow. Sure, not right off the bat, but they eventually do get it together - by "working together." Of course they do. If anything, it's nice to finally have an excuse why all these people can survive these car crashes and submarine explosions.

But there's other weird stuff at play. This film feels like it's just made by the stars and producers rather than any kind of coherent screenwriter. I know what that sounds like - every film is culpable of this. But it opens with a straight-up cameo by Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, and I mean his character is just Deadpool. He doesn't have the mutant powers or guns but the exact same attitude and line delivery. Or maybe it's Ryan Reynolds. Hobbs & Shaw was directed by David Leitch, who did Deadpool 2 (2018), but it's still a weird move to just mash these franchises up so blatantly.

The movie also ends with a trip to Samoa, and it's almost as if between this and Moana (2016) the Rock is trying really hard to remind us that he's Samoan instead of just "generically ethnic." It's just bizarre that his estranged Samoan brother is able to fix a nanite-virus extraction machine that only one other dude could ever build. It all builds toward this anti-technology message which is bizarre in a film where the police rely so much on technology. There's no heart here. Nothing makes sense.

Again, I know. This is a Fast movie. Not making sense is part of the game. The thing is, though, not making sense in other films still fit into the rules of the established world. Sure, Vin Diesel inexplicably headbutt flies into a huge dude and the runway is like 28 miles long. But this was all in service of a reasonably exciting conclusion. Hobbs & Shaw more feels like an excuse for the actors and producers to flex their own interests rather than producing something that the fans might think is cool.

And the Samoan stuff is sort of cool. There's fire and stuff. But the Rock also convinces his brother far too fast that he's cool after twenty years in exile from turning in their car thief father. His line is that people are going to die because this white lady is carrying a virus inside her. Their mom just believe them and the story moves on. It's really bad.

Like other films, moving quickly can be a good thing, but Hobbs & Shaw seems to stumble from the start. There was opportunity to present a really interesting duology here but they don't really establish how Statham and the Rock differ in their methods. Sure, they call Statham a ghost and the Rock a bulldozer, but they're both fucking bulldozers. There still exists a really weird zone where Statham is moving towards a Fast hero, which doesn't make any sense. He killed Han in cold bold. How can Dom ever work him? Maybe the Rock doesn't have major beef, but we yearn for some retribution or guilt or catharsis!

What's more true is that these filmmakers wrote themselves into a corner by killing Han in what was supposed to be a direct-to-DVD crapshoot, but brought the character back because they liked him, but then liked Statham too much and wanted him to be one of the gang. Just not enough 40-year old bald men in this franchise. And Statham is talented for sure, but this movie is all over the place.

I also totally thought the movie was going to end at the electro-torture scene. Like, they built that up so much, like every movie ever, and then I checked the time and had over an hour left! It was structurally bizarre. It just makes me think that the Rock came in and told everyone to go to Samoa.

Anyway, unsurprisingly, Vanessa Kirby is the best thing here and a total badass. She also gets this bomb-ass intro song and it's nice that the movie continues the Fast tradition of having great soundtracks. She holds her own, although was definitely not children with Jason Statham.

Did Hobbs & Shaw push this terrible franchise over the brink or am I crazy? I will say it was more fun than Fate but it also feels like a series of missed opportunities. Maybe I should just watch At Eternity's Gate (2018) or something instead.

13 December 2019

NMW's Decade-Late Best Films of the Decade - 2000s Version!

Listen, when we do a list, we're going to do it right. Even if it's ten years late!

We actually did put forth a Top Fifteen Films of the Millennium back in 2009 (in TWO PARTS!), when this blog was still in its infancy. Looking at that list and what I've come up with today in 2019, a few things struck me as odd. So let's go through that first.

The 2000s were weird. It is weird to realize how weird it was. Going through my shortlist of about twenty or so qualified movies I was struck by just how many major cinematic blockbusters and superhero films made the list. I still watch all these of course, but none these days feels superior to a small indie film in its resonance with me. I don't know if that's me aging and looking back on these days with nostalgia or a genuine shift in filmmaking. What draws me towards the latter hypothesis is the simple fact that a movie like Avengers: Endgame (2019) isn't even a movie. It's a brand. It's a good brand, and elicited one of the most moving emotional responses in me this year. But it's hard to evaluate as an actual movie.

Films in the 2000s were all over this. There are tons of clever, game changing films produced by big studios, but even the smaller movies here feel bigger. They were Oscar darlings or critically lauded, classic comedies. I look at my 2010 rankings and see Under the Skin (2014) and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) and can't picture these coming out in the 2000s. Is it a shift in distribution methods? Or maybe just a rapidly increasing niche market where I'm able to find these things.

Looking back ten years on it's also clear that so many of these films have been canonized as great. I can put on No Country for Old Men (2007) any day of the week and know every minute of it, and by this point it's a ranked list no-brainer. There is still some debate in the 2010s. It doesn't help that I personally haven't really connected with recent Oscar winners. When this decade opened with The King's Speech (2010) and The Artist (2011), neither of which have really improved on age, that disconnect becomes clear.

Some spoilers for all these 10+ year old movies here, so go watch them first. Or stop reading a movie site, why are you here if you haven't seen these yet.

So, here is what I got:

#10: ELF (2003)

dir: Jon Favreau

Somehow Favreau and star Will Ferrell created not only an instant classic Christmas movie but also the most re-watchable movie of all time. It's also very genuinely funny. This was an early foray into Ferrell's "man-child" persona, here quite literally with the Peter Pan Syndrome Buddy the Elf unable to differentiate childish elfish culture with that of early-2000s adult New York. It never gets too dark, but flirts with danger enough to give an edge to the ever-present sweetness. Buddy never falters, either, even at his lowest, suicidal point he doesn't back down from his kind values, and it gives this film its staying power. 2003 also gave us the Christmas classic Bad Santa which equals this film in writing and memorability, but to make a film this instantaneously universally beloved is an underrated feat. To do it with a movie that's actually good is next to impossible.

#9: Mean Girls (2004)

dir: Mark Waters

Oh, Lohan. Somehow the biggest name going into this film became the worst name coming out. This is the kind of comedy that exists above all others - infinitely rewatchable by anyone on planet earth. It casts itself with such undeniable swagger and confidence, prone to sublime fantasies that mix in perfectly with its rock steady premise. It's the side characters and endlessly quotable lines that keep this movie going strong and like ELF, is rewatchable until the end of time.

#8: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

dir: Jake Kasdan

I originally had Shaun of the Dead (2004) in this spot, and I'm going to backhand it in here by acknowledging it as the culmination of early millennium Zombie fever (...of course that shit just never actually ended). In much of the same way, Walk Hard was the culmination of early millennium Apatow fever, although in seeking to parody all the self-serious movies that came before it, Walk Hard actually succeeded in being better than any of them. It's an underrated parody in part because it's so stealth. I didn't really get it on first viewing because it's so subtle and more interested in walking a very thin line and acknowledging biopic tropes. It's tough to walk the line. What's amazing is that no one has learned. Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) is actually just Walk Hard. I think about it every day.

#7: Tropic Thunder (2008)

dir. Ben Stiller

This is perhaps the most meta movie ever made and exists as both a send-up of war films as well as Hollywood, excessive actors, out of control budgets, and insane producers who are scarier than drug cartels. It's full of set-ups, pay-offs, irony, and characters who all experience real growth. I'll never forget my grandfather describing a new movie he saw a commercial for that he couldn't believe and I slowly put it together that it was Satan's Alley. The first four movies today have all been comedies, and that says a lot about my sensibilities as a film fan.

#6: The Prestige (2006)

dir. Chris Nolan

The 2000s gave us Christopher Nolan on a huge stage and many people will pick The Dark Knight (2008) (I did in 2009), and while that's solid of course, I was far more impressed by the topsy-turny filmmaking of The Prestige, easily beating out fellow period magician film The Illusionist (2006). Hugh Jackman is so underrated here, as well as most of the Batman cast and even Scarlett Johansson shows up briefly. David Bowie and Andy Serkis show up for some reason. The movie is about a simple rivalry, but it's the questions that linger - when Wolverine and Batman each caught on to each other, how the hell Wolverine became a British Lord, and who really earns the Prestige after the trick. It's a melding of subject matter into filmmaking that rewards repeat viewings.

#5: The Departed (2006)

dir. Marty Scorsese

Otherwise known as Boston Accent: The Movie, this was a huge play for Marty. Like The Prestige, it's really about two rivals trying to outdo each other, while swearing and shooting each other all the way through. It stars every actor ever in their best role ever, especially Mark Wahlberg playing himself. The movie is really about deception and self-deception, though, and the continuous turns of loyalty and double-crosses that are all totally earned is what makes this movie watchable every day of my life. Like most Scorsese films it exists more as a series of scenes that are forever re-playable. It feels like a giant montage in the best way.

#4: City of God (2002)

dir: Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund

This is an epic saga of the city of Rio de Janeiro and there hasn't been a better film to expose life in the poorer and more dangerous city neighborhoods. It's a ride from start to finish, nominally starring protagonist Rocket, but so freely whisks in and out of dozens of characters lives as the city and people and violence shape everyone. It's the only foreign film on this list and one that I had heard a lot about but proved to be instantly enthralling when I watched it. Unlike a lot of films here, I don't know if I'm up for another watch. It's exhausting. In a good way. Maybe again.

#3: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

dir: Peter Jackson

It's tough because all of these films should really be here. The Fellowship (2001) may actually be the best one and I always go back and forth. But everything comes to a head in King and it serves as the poster-child for inexplicably the only franchise that didn't run out of steam by the third installment. It certainly helps that they were all filmed at the same time with the same crew and it's astounding that in an age of insta-sequels more films haven't actually gone after this method. It's iconic, epic, baffling, and a lot of fun. It never wants to end, but neither do I want it to.

#2: No Country for Old Men (2007)

dir: Coen Bros

I still remember leaving the theater thinking "Wait...evil wins?" That's the point of No Country, and while it's the little things like Anton Chigurh and low key hilarious lines ("Llewellyn, what's in the satchel?" Alright, that's not funny, but it gets me) that make it watchable, I'm also always shook by the sudden and terrifying off-screen removal of our protagonist. It should be on Psycho (1960) levels. Or at least SCREAM (1997) levels. But better. It drops the audience into the sea of nothingness and while we wait for someone to get a comeuppance, Tommy Lee Jones just retires instead. We're left adrift and after everything settles we're still not settled.

#1: There Will be Blood (2007)

dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

An excessively long character study starring the best character actor there is or ever was, Daniel Day Lewis. It works here and makes a phenomenal film. 2007 was nuts. Atonement (2007) didn't even make the cut. Evil wins again, but this time it's a long, drawn-out evil, sudden violence replaced by sustained greed and conniving ambition. It's another collection of fantastic scenes that all prove iconic, memorable, and at times very concerning. There is some debate as to what everyone represents, who is the milkshake and who is the straw but in the end it's just Capitalism winning over everyone else. And that is the message of the 2000s. And every decade.

Naturally, we have some Honorable Mentions. This is really just a weak excuse to proclaim that I appreciate a lot of movies. I'm okay with this: Finding Nemo (2003), Wall-E (2008), Zodiac (2007),  Bad Santa (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Ocean's 11 (2001), The Hangover (2009), The Rundown (2003), Memento (2000), Inglourious Basterds (2009), The Hurt Locker (2009), Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Wrestler (2008), Gran Torino (2008), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), In the Loop (2009), Cast Away (2000), In Bruges (2008).

What do you think? What would you list look like ten years ago? I'm surprised by how much this hasn't really changed. Also how canonized this decade has become. I'm not sure there is really much debate at all towards the top. What say you?

08 December 2019

First Impressions: Knives Out

Back in January I was looking forward to Knives Out (2019) as some kind of Rian Johnson Daniel Craig murder mystery whodunnit that would succeed because Johnson could dig into the tropes and come up with something interesting. What's amazing is that I actually said that these movies are either contrived or give themselves away too early. What then might we say about this one that totally blows its mystery within the first hour and then continues to be compelling? SPOILERS forever as we talk about Knives Out!

Sitting in the Game of Thrones Interrogation Chair

Like most folks I first found respect for Rian Johnson from Looper (2012), which was such a cool idea with some really inspired casting and genuinely creative uses of the premise, if you are able to ignore some time travel nonsense (the film even encourages us to just go along for the ride at one point). It was enough of a fresh sci-fi that I was locked in and excited about his take on The Last Jedi (2017).

And okay, I often feel like the only person on the planet who feels this way, but The Last Jedi was amazing. Every day it feels more like the New Star Wars Trilogy was completely made up on the fly and that's just not a good thing. I love that Rian Johnson decided to blow up the whole thing as well as mess with every idea at the core of Star Wars itself. It's amazing. Weirdly, not many people liked him messing with childhoods (or giving women positions of authority), but I love how he clearly sees terrible characters like Po Dameron as worthless as they are and acknowledges Luke not as a godly chosen hero but a whiny brat from Tatooine.

Sorry, off topic here. But after that whole debacle it's great to see Johnson clear his palette with this original zany tale that works like a somehow worse version of The Royal Tenenbaums (2003) with a brilliant immigration subtext. Also a murder mystery that's not exactly obvious, but plays its hand very early, but in doing so finds a more ingenious way to keep its momentum going. Let's start with the plot.

Christopher Plummer is an aging author and executor of a publishing empire with an assortment of terrible children and in-laws who are all looking for a piece of the pie. A big theme here is what it takes to truly become self-made or just launching oneself from a position of money and privilege. It may be the first of quite a few digs at Trump, but hey, that's what every possible piece of culture is now.

Beyond the titular family head is a truly amazing cast of characters. Jamie Lee Curtis is arguably the only one semi-admirable. Her husband, Don Johnson is a cheating piece of shit with the sorts of veiled racist rhetoric against immigrants that fuels most of the Republican Party. Michael Shannon is an awkward, creepy follower in his dad's footsteps. His son is not explicitly shown, but told to be a Nazi troll, a sly dig at the young white men in today's society turned by the more selfish and racist parts of the internet. On the other side of the spectrum is a "snowflake" daughter and her mother, Toni Collette, double dipping generous funds to pay for what seems like a never-ending school. Rian Johnson shows us both sides of today's hypocritical political society in very subtle ways. Finally there's Chris Evans as Jamie Lee Curtis' son, who seems like an aggressive piece of shit without much real direction in life.

LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, and some other white guy round out the non-family cast, and they're all great. Each cog works in this machine to spit out a pretty entertaining movie. Ana de Armas is revealed early on as the accidental killer of Chris Plummer, but she's ironically the only one without motivation and it was totally an accident! Or was it! There are plenty of double crosses and twists that are largely earned, although it does leave us with a lot of talking and last minute reveals, mostly by Daniel Craig, who does his best Logan Lucky (2017) southern accent. It's actually becoming a nice niche for him that largely works just because it's the farthest possible from James Bond.

It is entertaining to watch Bond vs. Captain America for much of the latter part of the film. Chris Evans also plays heavily against the type he's generated in recent flicks, but is really a sleezebag remisicent of earlier roles in Sunshine (2007), Not Another Teen Movie (2001), and The Losers (2010). Remember him in Push (2009)? No one saw Push. I liked Push. Anyway, through a bunch of twists and turns Chris Evans really did the poisoning, or at least tried to, and was going to set up Ana de Armas, but because she is good and awesome at life and everything he got his comeuppance. It's very satisfying and surprising in ways that are both befitting of the genre and intriguing within the genre. It all just works.

The stages of the actual murder involve a cheeky sequence where Ana de Armas ingeniously needs to cover her own tracks (quite literally) as Daniel Craig enlists her to solve her own crime, her being the least suspicious. This is then reversed as she suddenly becomes the most likely when she is revealed as the sole inheritor of Christopher Plummer's will. It all drips with irony that keeps us engaged until the end.

As I mentioned, there is also this political undercurrent here. Ana de Armas is worried that her mother will get deported if she brings on a lot of attention. The attitudes of the family are largely that they are privileged and deserve what's rightfully theirs and care not for this intrusive immigrant swooping in and stealing what's theirs, even if she earned it. It's full of a lot of lip service for both the right wing and left wing members of the family that show their true colors when the chips are down. There's a few legendary moments - from Michael Shannon promising Ana de Armas the considerable resources of the family, then she asserts that those resources are now hers. Chris Evans demands their ancestral heritage, but Daniel Craig rightly points out that they purchased this house in the 80s. It's all on the nose, but still delightful.

The film looks great, is filled with fantastic actors on limited sets and budgets. It is certainly heavy on the dialogue and monologues, but this is a murder mystery centered around a slain mystery novelist. You know what you're getting into. The characters all have their own distinct motivations and quirks without becoming caricatures. It's everything you could want right now.

Most importantly, it's clever. That's one common thread I feel is missing from most films these days. I just watched Hobbs & Shaw (2019), which may inspire its own DVD-based post soon, but most big blockbusters just don't feel iconic or clever any more. They're full of missed opportunities to be great. It's so rare to have a mainstream movie like this full of compelling dialogue, layers of irony, interesting characters and relationships that bounce off each other. It's very well done and worth watching.

Did you see Knives Out yet? Or just watching Frozen II (2019)?
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