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
Mudbound
A Quiet Passion
Dunkirk
Personal Shopper
Wonderstruck
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.

29 November 2017

First Impressions: Justice League

It wasn't totally against my will, but for some reason I did regrettably watch Justice League (2017) in the theater. And read this huge bit about THOR: Ragnarok (2017), I'm not Marvel biased, but everything that Ragnarok stumbled on, League fell straight on its face into a ditch. This was an absolutely atrocious film that doesn't deserve any attention at all. There are bits and pieces of things it does really well, so I won't go total ham here, but this is going to be an upsetting batch of impressions. Having said that, SPOILERS forever in this discussion.

Presenting all the good characters in this movie
This film's production history has been dissected to death, and at this point we even have a good idea of what is Whedon and what was Snyder. The more I reflect, though, and I anticipated this in our preview post, this reeks of a studio that saw a film headed in an unfavorable direction and switched directors with a dude who had the most possible direct experience with this kind of film. Now, I'm not so heinous as to delegitimatize Snyder's sincere family tragedy, but the Whedon replacement seems far too on the nose. Why not a David Ayer or Patty Jenkins or hell, even a Wally Pfister or something. He's not doing anything. Someone else who has been a part of this team or in house? Why the hell did they choose the one dude who has the exact opposite vision of a superhero universe as Zack Snyder does?

Well, Avengers (2012) changing the movie franchise game and cracking a billion dollars at the box office has a lot to do with it. I've said this before but WB keeps chasing what works while Disney dictates what works. It's a huge discrepancy. The clash of styles here is the source of all this film's problems. Physically, Whedon brightens everything up, ruining Snyder's design choices. Thematically, Whedon ignores all of Snyder's big dramatic ideas in favor of superfluous throwaway lines, ruining his on-going motifs. These go over better coming out of Robert Downey Jr.'s gag machine Tony Stark than from Ben Affleck portraying the dark conflicted Batman we all know and love that feels a little less weighty. It appears as if what didn't work was cut and it's clear that was quite a bit. This film is in shambles. It lurches from scene to scene lacking any coherent momentum, congruity, conflict, or stakes. It's fucking terrible.

I complained about this quite a bit with Ragnarok. Everything in that movie felt designed to get to the next Hulk vs. Thor scene. Nothing happened for a reason within the film, it was all external fan service. Ragnarok was carried by its charm, characters, and even its aesthetic design. Justice League contains none of this support structure. Every problem that arises is solved instantly. Steppenwolf's coming? Well, let's just get Superman to beat him. Superman's dead? Well, let's just revive him. With every problem that comes along the team instantly figures out a way to solve it with little significant debate or time for contemplation. When Superman finally comes back and goes nuts (for no real explained or lasting reason), he just punches Steppenwolf and that's about it. Good to have Superman back. No need to worry about all that fearing gods among men talk from the last two movies.

This is always a weird issue to have with movies that mostly feature people punching and shooting each other, but I'm talking about real conflict. Real obstacles towards characters' goals. And what was any character's goal? Nothing beyond vaguely saving the world, and that's important, sure, but we ought to feel some personal stake, right? Batman wanted to save the world in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), but that was interesting because 1) He thought he was saving it from the threat of Superman, which wasn't really a threat and 2) He was motivated by seeing his own people and his own company destroyed in Metropolis. And yes, I just used Batman v. Superman as an example of tangible character motivation and conflict as compared to Justice League, where a bunch of shit just happens.

Maybe it's spawned from Bruce's obsession with his visions of the apocalypse. If so, shouldn't those be more tangible? Or you know...exist? Shouldn't other characters be a little wary or suspicious of this ranting lunatic in a batsuit? Luckily the Amazons and Atlanteans have battled this threat before, which is a such a huge plot convenience to get them both on board. Batman doesn't have to actually convince anyone to help his mad quest. Convenience over conflict. It's terrible.

Steppenwolf is a huge part of this problem, and although Ciaran Hinds actually does more with the giant plastic CGI man than he had a right to, something about this should have been personal. I mean, he killed a lot of Amazons and Atlanteans, right? Shouldn't we feel some sort of stake in Diana and Aquaman's fight? He's just too nuts and eccentric to be a proper threat. On the other end of the spectrum, I do think that someone like Ultron who has all these quippy character moments is neutered because his motivation is never clear, therefore masking his threat. The best villain is somewhere in the middle.

And I'm not really looking for deep explanations or anything. I like how this movie didn't really care about explaining fucking shit. I have no idea what an audience who didn't at least see Wonder Woman (2017) would think. I at least saw that, but not Batman v. Superman, but I felt alright with that. If you had no knowledge of Apokolips or boom tubes or parademons I can't imagine what you'd feel in this film.

So much of that felt like a Saturday morning cartoon, which I actually dug. This boils down to a singular moment - when Batman whips out the Bat-Nightcrawler, which for some reason climbs up and down sewer tunnels. This kind of shit would never exist ever, but it's such a perfect Saturday morning cartoon / stupid comic book thing to throw up on screen. The movie doesn't totally buy into its own goofiness, but I'm so okay with shit getting weird. We just need stakes. Considering how much we're supposed to just accept and roll with, though, it's insane to think that this series evolved from the Nolanverse. Nolan was all about creating these reasonable real-world explanations for zany comic book antics. Snyder doesn't give a shit about any of that.

So what does this franchise want to be? It was supposed to be dark and brooding to contrast with Marvel's cheerful superfluousness, right? But it's dark and brooding but not...realistic? Fine, that's doable. But now it's dark and...inconsequential? This was a bad move and totally ironic that Marvel is definitely the more grounded superhero juggernaut right now. Besides Logan (2017). How did that fucking happen. X-Men is killing it in everything besides its core franchise, which is off the rails, but using different time settings to justify its garish comic book attire.

I digress. Let's talk about the characters, piece by piece, because they're the best part of this film. I've always said that Ben Affleck has his place (that profile was written eight years ago btw, and definitely definitely still holds up) and is usually an add to a movie rather than a distraction, although he appears so damn disinterested here. And fat. Like, it's weird to have a costume with abs over such fat. I get it, that's part of the point of older batman, but his appearing and disappearing beard, big buff gut, and conflicting characterization doesn't work well. I want to talk about his introduction, too, which is terrifying in Batman v. Superman but totally neutered here by the awkward confrontation with a criminal who seems to just want to hang out. In reality it's just so Fatfleck can bounce some one liners off him.

Gal Gadot is unsurprisingly solid as Wonder Woman, who is noticeably a bigger deal here, undoubtedly in reaction to her film actually doing spectacular. There are still somehow a lot of weird shitty male gaze moments, though. Seriously, her tits are hanging out in every damn scene. I wouldn't go so far as to call them misogynists, because I think both directors have had solid female characters in their films, but fuck you Zack Snyder for being a blatant exploiter of the female body and fuck you Joss Whedon for being a disguised one. Gal Gadot as Diana does so much more than just be beautiful, but that's all anyone seems to be able to talk about. She's the powerhouse here, although I always thought she could handle going toe to toe with Superman. Definitely not in this universe. Her will and passion keep the fragmenting Justice League together, even through Benfart's asshole and out of place Steve Trevor remarks.

Setting Wonder Woman in WWI, while really cool, thus presents a shitty problem for the DCEU. At least Captain America was frozen. What did Wonder Woman do for a hundred years? Just chill at the museum? Batman has a point that it's shady she didn't do shit, but at the same time that's not Diana's fault, it's the writers and orchestraters of this franchise. I wonder what reason Marvel will come up with for keeping the 90s-set Captain Marvel (2019)'s eponymous female hero out of the in-universe spotlight for twenty years.

Jason Momoa as alcoholic surfer bro Aquaman is a fucking amazing turn for that character and he's proving the kind of career you can make out of having a really huge chest. I love you, Miami Man. There are a ton of questions leading up to James Wan's Aquaman (2018), though. Like, is he the King of Atlantis or not? Is he secretive and subdued like in his intro or braggish and wacky like he is for the rest of the film? Does he dislike landlubbers or not? Who knows. What's up with Mera? Amber Heard is badass, but I don't think her name is even mentioned here. Why do they need to talk in air bubbles? They live underwater, right. This maybe gets nitpicky, but any time something really stupid happens that's just a way to take the audience out of the movie a little more. Piece by piece we end up not giving a shit.

Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller I'll do together because they're bros and personality-wise polar opposites. I'd love to see a Grant Gustin Flash mix in with this, although I can see how tonally that'd be kind of insane (besides, Ben Affleck isn't ever going to appear on a CW show), and how Gustin's Flash isn't really filling the Peter Parker-esque role Miller is. He's definitely funny and legitimately learning how to be a hero, which is really cool considering how powerful he is. I really loved his role as more giving support to all the big guns, which is how the Flash should be used. Except for when he gets really awesome and does stuff no one can. Speaking of that Justice League Wally West flash, this Justice League Barry Allen was totally just Wally West, ironically more so than the CW's Keiynan Lonsdale's Wally West. Ya'll still with me? I go ham in this shit.

Ray Fisher. Let's try this again. Word is that when Snyder was in charge of this film this was very much his movie and while he still has a fairly central role, Fisher does awesome things with by far the least recognizable of these characters. Cyborg is a classic Teen Titan who was definitely shoved into the New 52 Justice League to be both a token black character and a techno-guy to interface with all the new fangled technology running about. The mother box corruption is actually a nice arc and personal conflict for him to deal with. All shit that would make for a really interesting movie, Joss.

Let's go on to the least weighted character death ever. I mean, when Supes died in Batman v. Superman we all felt nothing. What made it so much worse, though, was how much Snyder TRIED to make us feel. Even the opening moments of this film just hammer us with Super-mourning. THE BIGGEST CONTROVERSY OF THIS FILM WAS HENRY CAVILL'S MOUSTACHE. His death was such a fucking joke! It's all masturbation. It's like when Optimus Prime died in Revenge of the Fallen (2009). No, that actually had some weight. Believe it or not, I've spoken about this at length, about how it's instrumental for the character of Sam Witwicky.

Even if we didn't know this huge spoiler, this could have been handled better. Actually show us the threat of a world without Superman. He only did his thing for what, a couple years? Months? Was he that important? It carries so much more weight even in Superman Returns (2006) when Lois rights that "World without Superman" article, since he leaves after having a huge impact for years within that movie's chronology. Kill off Brandon Routh at the end of that film, then we can actually mourn.

Yes, add Superman Returns to Batman v. Superman, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and THOR: Ragnarok which I've cited in this article as doing the same shit better than Justice League.

Just one scene of Affleck eating as many ho hos as he can
No one's actually sad that Superman is dead. His mom makes a joke about Lois being thirsty. Any actual drama is defused. Now, there will be some spoilers for other comparable movies from the Transformers and Guardians franchise here, so just skip this paragraph if you want to go into Age of Extinction (2014) cold. I love Deadpool (2016) and there is a time for jokes in superhero movies. But during the dramatic parts of Deadpool, he didn't make wisecracks! Even when fucking TJ Miller dies in Transformers: Age of Extinction we have a moment of respect with Mark Wahlberg. It's sad! Look at Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). We fucking care about Yondu and TJ Miller more than we care about Superman's death! This is because they're actually treated like characters instead of trading on their cultural weight. They had no cultural weight so the film had to generate it. The deaths were permanent. They were real. There was no magic box that could be re-purposed to bring them back to life.

Now, to be fair, using the Mother Box is not really any less stupid of a reason than Superman's return from death in the comic books. We don't have to get into the Reign of the Supermen, but that was significant. It took time, deconstructed various aspects of Kal-El, and added some characters that are legitimate and still kicking around the DC comic universe. Resurrecting Superman here is devoid of conflict. Batman suggests that the Mother Box could be used so out of the blue I didn't even realize what he was talking about at first. Wonder Woman protests, but this is a man's movie so she's silented. Then shit goes wrong. Don't worry, Cyborg can fix it. Shit goes wrong, don't worry, Flash can fix it. There's no tension, no struggle, not even a compelling urge to bring him back. Is Superman the only answer to Steppenwolf? Maybe? But we never know for sure. He's a very literal deus ex machina, though.

While we're on the subject we should note that Supes coming back and going nuts is an amazing scene, particularly when he notices the Flash and starts beating him down. Again, it's over too quickly and without satisfaction, though. Batman brings out Lois and everything is all good. Brainwashed, confused Superman is just instantly back to being a fucking Boy Scout. Why did he want to kill Aquaman? Who knows. Was there something wrong with his soul? Yeah, it got no pussy in that grave. I'm sorry. Thinking for more than a second about this movie has caused so much rage inside me. Batman should have just yelled "Martha" again.

Actually, legitimately that would have been a cool callback to stop his rampage as it stopped Bruce's back in Bv.S.

I won't get into the bizarre Russian family living alone in a nuclear wasteland intermittently being attacked by bug people. A whole movie centering on them would have actually been way more interesting. The sky turns red and mysterious flying monsters invade? That'd be sweet. It's fucking Lovecraftian, man. Like the ending of The Evil Dead (2013). Sick, man.

Let's wrap up with some Easter eggs, which this film does pretty well. There are lots of sweet teases for things to come, if we ever get another sequel to this trainwreck. There is a huge ancient battle against Steppenwolf and the Parademons that features a bunch of Green Lanterns, which is an amazing tease. There are also a few of the Old Gods, which conflict nicely with Darkseid and Kirby's New Gods. The main dude seemed to be Zeus, but I actually thought it may have been the original SHAZAM! Wizard. That'd be cherry as hell.

Finally, that end tease of the Legion of Doom. We've tried so hard. Sinister Six (2016) failed. Suicide Squad (2016) was a nope. Yes, at one point both of these movies were going to be released last year. Now, a film probably wouldn't focus on the Legion, but setting them up as adversaries seems a little weird when Darkseid is the obvious big bad. Perhaps the fact that his plan would be the exact same as Steppenwolf's (which was actually the exact same as Zod's from Man of Steel [2013]), maybe we're waiting a tick. All I want is an Evil Swamp Skull and someone yelling about pants. Do that and we're all happy.

So that's it, folks. I fucking hated this movie, but there are some good things in here. DC can do some things well and its characters are so damn good. It just wastes everything on rushed pacing, a plot that makes no sense, and a horribly misguided tone. I wouldn't watch it. Watch some trailers. They're legitimately funny and they contain every money shot. The trailer for Infinity War (2018) dropped today. Watch that instead.

22 November 2017

I'm in Love with the COCO

Seriously, Disney / Pixar really should have thought about their new animated movie's title. I mean, not only this, but do they get this at all? This is why you need an insane, inappropriate, drug addled pervert on staff at all times, Disney. Give me a call. But anyway, COCO (2017) comes out today, so let's talk about that.

And this dog! That looks pretty funny. Good enough!
This is the latest effort from Pixar, which is always a big deal, although it certainly feels a little less of a bigger deal than it was five or six years ago. Pixar has certainly lost its luster of late. Did you know that Cars 3 (2017) came out like five months ago? Because I completely fucking forgot. In those last five years the only film I've really been excited about is Inside Out (2015), and I didn't even see that in theaters. The last Pixar theme I got off my ass to see was Brave (2012), which is still a totally underrated movie.

That opinion isn't shared by that many people, though. So besides Inside Out the last really universally loved Pixar film goes all the way back to Toy Story 3 (2010). That's a significant amount of time, people. Now, I'm not one to trash sequels just for being sequels, especially because the first two Toy Story sequels were money as hell, but retreads of Monsters, Fish, and Car-people felt stale and forced. Pixar seems to be more comfortable retreating into its dependable library of hits rather than branching out on its own, which is totally insane because Brave and Inside Out had incredible characters and stories.

All of this is saying that we can't just expect Pixar to be good anymore. I haven't even mentioned The Good Dinosaur (2015), which is such a blip regardless of its actual quality. Everything we've heard, though, is positioning COCO to be one of their better flicks. This is a good thing. The movie is about some Mexican kid who wants to play guitar but his family won't let him so he goes to hell or something. That's as far as I can reckon. I wonder how this will play to Trump's America that would totally want to deport little Coco or whatever, but it's already the #1 movie of all time in Mexico, which is amazing.

This basic plot seems really played out. The "I can't do what my family wants me to do so I'm going to get lost and whatever" is a trope as old as storytelling. Apparently the plot gets really complex and spoiler-y, so maybe like Brave it gets super weird, unexpected, and awesome. I'm down for that. In Mexico it helped that it actually premiered near Dia de los Muertos on Noviembre 1, instead of three weeks later like in the United States. Imagine a Christmas movie coming out mid-January. Of course, Disney can't let it bump up against THOR: Ragnarok (2017).

It was so hard to find a picture NOT of Ice-T's wife.
I digress. This has gotten really positive reviews so far, and already feels like a Pixar event unseen since Inside Out. Sure, Finding Dory (2016) made a ton of money, but I never sensed that anyone cared. I didn't care about it. Maybe I'm just an asshole. COCO is apparently one of the most visually sumptuous Pixar flicks ever, which is saying a lot. Can it beat The Book of Life (2014)? Remember that shit? Like the same exact plot? I'm gonna go ahead and say yes. In addition to the pedigree being a little higher, the cultural force and interest seems far more significant.

And there's not a ton to compete with right now. Sure there's Justice League, but hell, that shit's going to be lucky to crack $40 million next week. It's been a while since families had something as good as COCO to check out in theaters, especially over a Thanksgiving break where Grandma doesn't want to watch Ben Affleck snarl for two hours (Maybe she does want a shirtless Jason Mamoa, but that's another story). This ought to do fine, especially with Disney essentially monopolizing theaters through Star Wars in a few weeks. Everyone else seems scared to drop their film in the weeks before The Last Jedi (2017), which basically means that COCO can run away with as much dough as it wants until then. It's crazy.

Culturally this could be a significant drop because it's all anyone will talk about until Star Wars really ramps up. It hasn't quite been that high level of discussion yet, which is odd because it actually drops today, on a random Wednesday. There's always a danger of getting lost in the Thanksgiving holiday, but flicks usually do well around here. I think it is definitely just geared towards a pretty specific, brown section of the population, which should be strong enough to give it a solid boost. Still, it's understandable that a lot of white dude film sites don't really care about COCO. I'm into how trippy and dream-like the Land of the Dead might be, but I probably won't see it with my bros in the theater over T-Give Break.

So what do you think? You down for some coco? And after a line, go the theater?

17 November 2017

THE JUSTICE FRIENDS

Today we see the opening of what should be a pretty huge event. Finally - the Justice League on the big screen!

Why is it, then, that no one seems to care? Maybe it's that awful Disney monopoly and Marvel bias that runs rampant across the Internet (bollocks). Maybe it's tough coming off a really good superhero year and it's easy to get overshadowed by THOR: Ragnarok (2017). Again, blaming Marvel, although it's worth pointing out that when I talked about how good 2017 is for superhero movies I literally DID NOT EVEN THINK OF JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017).

Of course Snyder needed a really jacked
Commissioner Gordon for some reason
I always preview these big movies trying to ascertain some kind of cultural context. To be honest, I was surprised that Justice League was coming out today. It feels like it should have been out months ago, right? It's almost like the DC Hype Machine is too strong. It's exhausting. We've seen trailers for so long that the green screen has changed during the scene where Aquaman lands on the Batmobile. Now there's way more fire. To be fair, Ragnarok did this, too, with a fairly iconic scene of Hela destroying Mjolner (that's not really a spoiler, it's the centerpiece of the trailer and film, happening like 15 minutes in) changing from Asgard to a random field.

This digresses besides the point. I don't really think I'm bias towards one studio or another, but I also have eyes and I've seen these damn movies. I actually never watched Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), because it looked far too stupid, then I read about that Martha thing and was just out. But I've seen all of both studio's other films in theaters, and I clearly didn't care for Ragnarok that much, so hopefully you can see some balance here.

This is all to say that, damn DCEU films are such hot fucking garbage. Wonder Woman (2017) is the clear outlier in terms of quality, and it seems like everyone (ESPECIALLY Warner Bros) knows it. Zack Snyder being the core champion of this entire overextended franchise is one of the more obvious bad calls in movie history, but the production of this film gets kind of muddled.

Now, his family faced a true and devastating tragedy that ultimately led Zack to step away from the film. Still, Warner Bros so quickly replacing him with Joss "That Man's Playing Galaga" Whedon seems like such a chase for the few leftover magical bits from The Avengers (2012) that they can possibly grab. Both these directors have very contrary styles, though. Snyder formed the DCEU through his dark and brooding colour palette and intense comic-driven Frank Miller-esque imagery. Whedon drove the current Marvel style of bright colours, witty banter, and a mix of realism and silliness. Did I just say The Avengers was realist? Realist in contrast to the hyper-reality of Batman v. Superman, which is super-ironic because they were originally going for Nolan-esque, right? This is all a trip, man!

In the end, who knows how this film turned out. Advance word is...suck. That's no real surprise. DC always seems to be chasing rather than innovating these days. Superhero team-up movies are in? Well, let's put ours out super-late even though we've had reliable franchises and more popular heroes for the past thirty years! Actually, Superman (1978) turns forty next year. How did we get two movies where the fucking Vision teams up with heroes before Superman did? There's also a clear tonal shift after "funny" superhero movies like not only the banter in Whedon's flicks, but Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Deadpool (2016), and yes, now Ragnarok proved to be moneymakers. They got this so wrong with Suicide Squad (2016), though. That's simply because this is all superficial. It doesn't matter of a movie has funny jokes or insane premises or whatever. What matters is if a movie is good or not - if we care about the characters, the stakes, if the plot progresses from action and reaction, and if what it presents is iconic and aesthetically pleasing with a clear sense of space, action, investment, and engagement. Non-Wonder Woman DCEU movies don't really do that, and that's why I just haven't cared about them as much as Marvel films. Marvel has its own problems, but they're legendary compared to DC's crap. I mean, look how much fun Deadpool 2 (2018) is having with its trailer this week, just trolling every body. It's confident in its product, that's why.

In addition to always having all of their properties under one neat little roof, as well as having a decades-long head start on Marvel that they totally squandered, I really can't figure out why Warner Bros keeps screwing this up. They knock other franchises like Harry Potter, IT (2017), and Mad Max out of the park. Well, maybe not that last one. Further than that, though, this group of heroes gave us the greatest string of animated series ever. From Batman: The Animated Series right on through Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, creator Bruce Timm brought a slew of stories to the small screen, all with themes adults could appreciate while still being accessible to children, full of action and character and long over-arching narratives that informed and grew each season and even from series to series. Hell, though Batman Beyond into that mix, which somehow becomes integral to JLU's ultimate conclusion. How did they get animation so right and live action so wrong?

The same goes for the latest upsurge in CW programming. They hit that line between kitsch and comic book melodrama so well while making everything grounded and believable. Why do the movies become overstylized and go off the rails? Or the better question may be, why not have Grant Gustin be the Flash here instead of Ezra Miller? Is it because the Flash kind of sort of has his own Justice League going in the Arrowverse? Or is it just that this film series wanted to do its own thing with the character? There's big bucks to be had by seeing all these heroes together, not throwing new actors at us!

And on that note, this isn't even a fully proper Justice League film since Superman is dead. Nah, there's no way Superman is actually dead, or at least he won't stay dead. This is the most obvious terrible secret in film history. It was super public that Henry Cavill had to digitally erase his moustache for fuck's sake! Supes will probably appear here, but it's going to take a bit longer for a proper Justice League team-up.

With pecs so big they're boobs!
Getting back to that Justice League animated note, I'm also struck by the villain choice. Who the hell is Steppenwolf? No one knows who Steppenwolf is. I always think back to what I know the most, and when comic knowledge gets a little rusty, it's definitely the TV shows. Characters who didn't appear in anything in the 90s or 2000s to inform my childhood definitely get blurry. There are so many damn recognizable DC big bads from over the years. Even if you didn't want to blow your wad with Darkseid right away, while go to Steppenwolf? There are plenty of other baddies on Apokolips or other New Gods to play with. Or Mongol or Imperiex or Brainiac or anyone fucking else. It seems like another huge misstep from a movie that is adding up quite a bit of them now.

This is where that tone gets muddy, too. So you want to be jollier, and that's fine, but have you seen this thing? The entire world is on fire, and I'm sure that Steppenwolf is trying to turn Earth into Apokolips, because that's what these assholes always do. Is that the time to be going nuts and screaming "Yeah!" and stabbing Parademons? The criticism comes back full circle - be fun if you want to, but Deadpool got to be fun because it was just Ryan Reynolds being a selfish asshole with no pretense for heroism.

This has all been extremely negative, I know, but I'm just not convinced this is going to be any good. Why tug at my heart strings, oh Warner Bros!? There are a few things to look forward to, though. Gal Gadot has turned into a perfect Wonder Woman, and seeing more of her, as the reshoots purportedly have done, is a good thing. Also just coming off of The Bad Batch (2017) I'm super into how insane Jason Momoa is, although that's not totally in Aquaman's character. Although, let's face it, depending on how he's written, Aquaman is either a stuck-up nerd or angry silent warrior. Momoa seems to be going for uh...bro. Just straight dude California bro. That's rad. It's a fun way to make this fish-talking character actually cool and interesting.

Financially for all the griping DCEU films tend to do fine. I wouldn't expect Avengers-level numbers, but with Ragnarok burning off a lot of demand in its first two weeks (despite a pretty damn good hold), the path is clear for a #1 opening for sure. I'm curious if there's room for two big Superhero films along with a Pixar drop next week. After that, though, the studios have REALLY cleared their schedules in anticipation of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017). The path is clear for this film to do some work, even if this weekend isn't much.

12 November 2017

Exploring Underacknowledged References in Stranger Things

I don't much review television here at Norwegian Morning Wood, even though I watch quite a bit of it. Actually, truth be told, in reality I actually don't get around to all that much. You can check for yourself. It's mostly cartoons. Simpsons. The occasional shitty Flash episode. I don't get in a ton of the prestige television, mostly because I just don't have time nor the capacity for emotional investment. Or access. I'm a cheap bastard.

Whaddap playa
But I've devoured both seasons of Stranger Things. I'm not one to call the show brilliant or anything. It rides nostalgia and overacting over any good, layered ironic writing or truly original ideas, but the characters are endearing and iconic, which is simply rare in these times. More than anything, though, Stranger Things is addictive. Watching it is a compulsion. Each episode climaxes with such a hook that you need to let the next one unfold, which it can do so easily by the nature of Netflix's binge-friendly streaming platform.

So this is all to say that I think Stranger Things is okay. It's not really terrible, but it's not the kind of show I obsess and drool over. For Season 2 I did watch an episode every night for nine straight nights, which was a nice way to let it settle and really think about what was going on. Let's just say SPOILERS here because I want to ramble unencumbered. I generally enjoyed Season 2 more than the first, but I want to mostly give praise for how different it was.

Season 1 set up this central mystery of "What Happened to Will Byers?" which developed and ran its course to include shady psychic child-napping government institutions, spooky monster dimensions, and nerd killing. It's all compelling stuff. It also constantly pays homage to classic 80s genre fare. There are references a plenty to Star Wars, The Thing (1982), Dungeons & Dragons, The Evil Dead (1981), a slew of Stephen King adaptations, but mostly a lot of story elements from E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982). There are so many more.

Season 2 does a lot of this same stuff, but I'll give it credit for slamming through a whole new crop of pop culture references. Ghostbusters (1984) is perhaps the most prominent, but a lot of the first half of the season feels like Gremlins (1984). However, I was most struck by how Empire Strikes Back-y (1980) this season was. Now, there was nothing crazy revealed like the Demogorgon is Will's father or anything, but a lot of the story structure seemed to ape this very famous sequel. There were also definite Aliens (1986) vibes, from Eleven's new Ripley 'do to the inflation of dangerous protagonists. That tunnel scene with the army dudes hunting Demodogs was totally just...Aliens.

But back to Empire. I was struck by the famous Bryan Singer quote describing X2: X-Men United (2003), which he supposedly modeled on Empire. Season 1 was driven on this strength of this core group of friends, even if one of them was missing. Eleven was absorbed into that group and they made their stand together, solving the central mystery, and all the psychic monster dimension junk that came with it. Season 2 sees everyone fractured, doing their own things and exploring the ramifications of that in their relationships. It spins different characters off with each other in unexpected ways. Lucas and new girl Max. Dustin and Steve, which is the most legendary team-up ever. Eleven and Hopper. Nancy and Jonathan, who were kind of a thing in Season 1, but totally go for it here. Mike, ostensibly the lead in Season 1 gets much less to do, and if anything, is more paired and connected to Will, a connection that grows stronger the more Will recedes and the Shadow Monster takes over.

In Empire, we saw this, too. Luke and R2 go and do their own thing on Dagobah while Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO fight Mynocks and Space Slugs, then head to holla at Lando on Bespin. We even see a bit of that. Lando was a smoother, cooler Han Solo. Here, Billy is a tougher, cooler, more asshole-version of Steve. A...Supersteve, if you will. The big thing is, though, that the group splinters and the most powerful character doesn't interact with anyone else for most of the series.

"Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister" (S2;E7) really hammered this home for me. For an episode so late in the season, when so many pieces are coming together it was a bold move to feature only Eleven in a largely stand-alone story. Some critics have said that it interrupts the momentum and flow of an otherwise tight story, but quite the opposite, the episode is integral to her character. It's her Dagobah. She finds an older master with a background and abilities similar to her, trains and hones those abilities, then is pulled away because she senses her friends in danger. This is exactly Luke's journey in Empire.

Now, it's important to remember that Luke doesn't actually do shit in Empire. The great irony is that he abandons his training and rushes back to save his friends, but it's all a ruse by Vader. Luke's presence doesn't affect anything with them. Han is still frozen in Carbonite and sent off with Boba Fett. It's Lando and Lobot that save the day and are about to escape when they have to turn around to save LUKE's ass as he dangles from a weather vane. Eleven's presence is admittedly cooler, she's not the Hawkins, Indiana big gun, she's their ONLY gun. It's breathtaking and insane that it takes nine episodes for Eleven to reunite with the party, but that delay makes the reunion all the sweeter.

There is a lot more to Stranger Things 2, from its amazing Lovecraftian elements to its great expansion of world development, and Steve being dreamy and awesome, but using two of the greatest sequels of all time as its plot points is a solid move. This show hinges around the 80s, and although that can be a little played out (where is my early 2000s TRL-infused nostalgia), using some of the greatest movies of that era as its direct inspiration serves the purpose of the show well. Any Back to the Future (1985) references coming up next? C'mon, the Upside-Down is definitely capable of time travel. #BarbLives. And where is Lucas' love of Conan the Destroyer (1984)? There are endless possibilities.

By the way, speaking of Lucas, one of the weirder bits about Season 2 was how it clearly had something to say about race, but always seemed to afraid to say it. From Mike's insistence that Lucas be Winston Zeddemore when they play Ghostbusters to Billy's subtle racism (there's no other explicit reason he forbids his sister from hanging out with Lucas), there's a little undercurrent of social justice here, but always seems to afraid to point it out in words. Afraid to alienate its younger base, perhaps? It's hard to say, but comes off feeling half-baked and awkward.

Smashy smashy!
And for the record, because I like doing this, Dustin is totally Ray Stantz, as the show makes clear, Will is definitely Egon Spengler, although he lacks Egon's confidence, he maintains his role as the most socially awkward and holds technical knowledge simply from his connection the Upside-Down. Dustin is probably the Spengler in terms of knowing random shit, but he's also the most lovable and hopeful, which is a stronger Ray trait. Mike and Lucas definitely fight for Venkman. Mike had him in the first Season, scoring the love interest and wit while Lucas was more a man of action, very contrary to the slacker Venkman. In Season 2 Lucas' character is developed much more and has the bigger love story along with more time to shine making wry comments. That leaves Winston as the odd man out. Lucas was definitely the Zeddemore of Season 1, but there's not a great analogy in Season 2. The blue collar audience surrogate is Hopper more than anybody else.

What did you think of Stranger Things 2? Did it do it for ya? Are you on the Empire bandwagon? Do you think that Stranger Things 3 will add a bunch of Demoteddy Bears and a Slave Eleven? That's super disturbing. Better go with Slave Hopper.

10 November 2017

Daddy's Murdered on a Train, Other Stuff

There's two major film openings this week, folks, and neither are really big blockbuster action-types, but both have some franchise aspirations in their own way. Spoiler, but neither is going to light up the cinema, either. I can call this a mile away. I can tell you that a redux of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) isn't going to do well. Why would it ever do well? Daddy's Home 2 (2017) is one of the least-inspired comedies in a while, but considering that somehow Daddy's Home (2015) is second only to Elf (2003) in Will Ferrell's all-time grosses (The LEGO Movie [2014] technically out-grossed it, and you could even call it a live action Ferrell movie, but that doesn't feel Ferrell-esque as much as his more classic films), it was only natural that we get a sequel. Let's talk about each of these films in that order.

For real
FUR real
I don't even know if I have much for Murder on the Orient Express. There is an all-star cast here, with Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, and Daisy Ridley. Before you get too excited, with the exception of Ridley doesn't that sound like an amazing cast twenty years ago? I don't think the woes of the current Hollywood system are as much about actors not being appealing anymore as it is a reliance on A-listers that were popular in the 90s. This is all to say that I don't care. Depp has been slumming in everything lately. Dafoe has always slummed in weird shit. Pfeiffer has underwent a mini-renaissance the last few years and she's actually a bit more interesting as an elder actress than she was in Scarface (1983). So that's a mixed bag at best.

Kenneth Branagh is terrible. He does Shakespeare well and pops up randomly in mainstream shit ranging from Wild Wild West (1999) to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2001), and of course, this year's Dunkirk (2017). Still, his last few directorial projects in order are Cindarella (2015), Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), and THOR (2011). Why. Why in every sense of the world is this someone whose art is worth seeing?

The worst part may be that the first fucking image you see is Branagh in the most ridiculous moustache ever, but it's played completely seriously. Look, I know it's a European period piece, but have some restraint to make things palatable to today's cynical audience, dammit. This film just doesn't seem like it's doing itself any favours. It's definitely going to play to an older crowd. No young person has ever heard of Agatha Christie, much less can appreciate her work.

Now, the merit of the film will largely depend on how accurate the adaptation is, but considering this is the fourth live-action screen adaptation, including previous films and TV movies, is there anything new to say? It's a mystery story - isn't not knowing the ending critical? This story has been around for 80 years, man! Of course, maybe the young audience doesn't know whodunnit, and maybe even the older target audience has forgotten. It's going to have to be a compelling movie, but I'm struck the same way I was when that shitty Alex Skarsgard Tarzan movie came out last year. Who the fuck cares about Tarzan? Studios seem to be grabbing anything with name recognition for the sake of name recognition, not whether that property is even engaging.

Murder has like a 67% on Rotten Tomatoes right now and may do okay, but it'll fade out of consciousness quickly. To me that's the greatest crime of all, and is the source of a lot of the vitriol in this preview. Why could this try to be new or cool or interesting? It's just a bunch of shit that we won't think about next week or next year or in the next ten years. Who cares. It's a cultural tragedy.

Altho isn't this tough cameo lessened by how goofy
John Cena has become the past few years?
WE'LL FIND OUT
Moving on from that trainwreck (wha-hey!) we have Daddy's Home 2. What I can say about this one? I was eager to see the first film because it did really well and Mark Wahlberg for some reason plays off Will Ferrell so well. It was such a damned waste of time. It's a film that doesn't know how goofy it wants to be. Tonally it's like Kicking and Screaming (2005) without any of the fun cameos or cheekiness meets Step Brothers (2008), but without the surreal nuance. It's crazy to see what director Sean Anders does while he's trying to be Adam McKay. The Other Guys (2010) and Step Brothers had such solid world-building around them where every actor was so game for subtle weirdness. Daddy's Home tries so damn hard but falls flat over and over again. And this guy made That's My Boy (2012), which counts me as the only existing fan in the world!

Anders returns for the sequel, which hasn't made anything appealing at all. It's all very Meet the Fockers (2004)-esque, where it portends to bring a bunch of new older characters played by former A-listers into the mix to challenge and reverse the roles of the former protagonists and antagonists. For some reason people seem weirdly cool with Mel Gibson now, who has appeared in a ton of movies for someone with his racist and conservative views. But that's stunt casting for sure. John Cena is now always welcome, and John Lithgow is a doof, but that seems to work well here. It all makes me think about how much more pigeon-holed and thrown in a corner capable actress Linda Cardellini is going to be.

This is a Christmas movie, which is coming out far too early. Then again, we had A Bad Moms Christmas (2017) last week for reasons that completely escape me. It could make some bank because the first one is well-liked, but I think that novelty has worn off, and this November is looking pretty busy already. It's not totally a family-friendly comedy. Then again, I have no idea what the audience for Daddy's Home was (was it new parents? college kids? bros? working stiffs? Moms who wanted to see Mark Wahlberg's chest?), and maybe those people will turn out again. I don't see this doing well financially and culturally...I mean, how often do you quote Daddy's Home?

Hollywood is not incapable of churning out interesting new and exciting quotable films. A lot of the major 2017 releases have just been junk. Will Ferrell is already having a rough year as he finds it difficult to find new ways to riff on his immature persona. Adult movies like Orient Express aren't really that sexy, either, at least how this has been presented. It's not just that moviegoers only want to watch superhero movies and horror movies, those are just the only ones doing a good job at capturing our attention. They're what's in with culture now. Turning your nose up at that trend isn't good for anybody.

What will you watch this weekend?

05 November 2017

First Impressions: THOR: Ragnarok

Deep breath.

That's for me, not necessarily you, dear reader. I was heavily anticipating this film, and let me say off the bat that I was disappointed. That seems to lean contrary to current popular opinion, but it must be said. I'm pretty deep into MCU lore at this point to add to my nerdy comic knowledge, and I'm not dismissive based on superhero fatigue or blockbuster fatigue or destruction porn or anything else. I want to spend some time with this getting at the heart of story and when moments and plot developments are earned and when they're cheapened. I want to talk about post modernism vs. sincerity. And most of all, I want to talk about how easy it would be to come up with a porno called THOR: Ragnacock. SPOILERS forever.

So, let's back up. There's a reason why I always call these things "First Impressions" instead of reviews or critiques or whatever. I like these as collections of my brain-things immediately after first seeing a flick in the theaters. I never give any rating or even a recommendation, because I fundamentally believe that movies and art in general are too subjective to assign an arbitrary rating to. My feelings are also generally too complicated to distill to a simple thumbs up or down. There are good things and bad things with every film and it's important to establish that personal critical eye for yourself. Just saying that a film is 8 out of 10 or 4 stars out of 5 or whatever cheapens and accelerates a judgment process which is convenient at the expense of being accurate, nuanced, and personal.

I can't believe I just called my impressions nuanced. Ya'll remember Hairy Pothead and the Breastly Swallows, Fart Poo (2011)? In my THOR: Ragnarok (2017) preview I talked about 2017 being a great year for superhero films. Uncanny, even. Advanced reviews had called Ragnarok the best of the lot, and I thought, damn, maybe Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) ends up being the worst one a lot that included Logan (2017), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), and Wonder Woman (2017). Nah, Ragnarok is definitely at the bottom. It's a fun movie for sure, but leaving the theater I felt so hollow.

Logan was ruined for me by the stupid doppelganger enemy that could have been so much more, but it angers me that it worked so extremely well thematically. Wonder Woman wasn't groundbreaking in anyway except in its underlying feminist message, which somehow in itself is revolutionary. However it's an extremely well-crafted, executed, and most importantly, satisfying film. I still think that Guardians Vol 2's character work surpasses the original, but what makes that film work more is how sincere it is.

What I think hinders both Homecoming and Ragnarok is this issue of sincerity. I've been ruminating on this more and more ever since watching this video essay about David Foster Wallace's views on the subject. It's not like post modern works are bad or lesser, in fact some of the shows listed here like Arrested Development and South Park are amongst my favourites ever. But there is something to be said for sincerity. Despite Guardians' constant pop culture references through its tracklist and its characters' detached attitudes, there are stakes and heart here, particularly developed in the sequel, that far surpass any Marvel film. It's less battling each other because the plot demands it and more battling each other because of a sequence of events and character interactions that lead them there.

Starring Raiden!
Ragnarok is by design contrary to this, often explicitly. Let me ask you this, why does Thor end up on Sakaar? Because he falls out of the bifrost, and supposedly everything that falls into the abyss is pulled there through wormholes. It's not a crazy stretch to think that Hulk ended up there the same way, by apparently flying his stolen quinjet...into outer space...outside of Earth...and into a nearby wormhole. I can buy Thor's arrival there, but Hulk's arrival and subsequent meeting with Thor stinks of something else: 1) because Hulk disappeared and we need him back for Infinity War (2018) and 2) because fans wanted to see these guys team up. Quick note - as I predicted, this movie would have been so fucking more fantastic if we didn't know Hulk was coming. He's set up so well.

I begin with this specific criticism because it's emblematic of what Ragnarok is all about. It forces everything for the sake of being cool. Very little is earned. Also as I predicted, most of Thor's supporting cast, particularly its humans are cast aside with extremely little thought. In its own way this is liberating - as if saying "Yeah, his relationship with Jane Foster was already totally forced and clichĂ©, and Natalie Portman doesn't want to do this anyway, so fuck it." Definitely fuck Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard, too. What hurts a little more, though, is how quickly the film dispenses with Thor's Asgardian friends.

Now, the Warriors Three and Sif were never really interesting characters (although they arguably are in the comics. At least that asshole Volstagg), but Fandral and Volstagg are literally killed instantly with hardly a line to utter beforehand. I got the feeling that Tadanobu Asano, who played Hogan, must have just had a better agent that got him an actual meaningful and prolonged death scene. This is all over this film. Idris Elba is a solid star now. His character gets to live. Why isn't Mark Ruffalo in this more? Well, probably because he didn't have the time to spend on it. It feels like no one is committed.

In its first twenty or so minutes, Ragnarok is all about loss, so it's bizarre that we feel none of it. Where the cynical post modern interpretation fails is where it's hard to care about all these big losses when it's coated in jokes and quips. Anthony Hopkins' Odin relatively unceremoniously passes away into golden space dust, providing the inciting incident for Big Bad Hela to appear. Loki and Thor, though, have hardly time to grieve, nor does the movie seem to really care. None of this loss feels painful. After Thor loses his hammer, rock monster Korg laments that it sounds like he's lost a loved one, which Thor acquiesces to, although we hardly see his pain or grieving for either it or his father.

And this is where I'm torn, because the overall structure of these losses is perfect screenwriting. The opening scene with Muspelheim Demon Surtur is a brilliant demonstration of Thor in his fighting prime, using his hammer in more and more compelling ways, with a camera that zooms, pans, and follows Mjolner like the character it is. It's a beautiful set-up for the Hammer's destruction four scenes later. These are clear stakes, but it's also oddly rushed, as if it needs to keep moving and get to Thor vs. Hulk as fast as it can.

There are other wonderfully subversive moments there. Loki-as-Odin's staged homage to himself is a great creative way to summarize the events of THOR: The Dark World (2013), handy and necessary because no one say that fucking movie. Direct sequels always seem to have a tough time with this - Marvel seems to have largely not cared because everyone sees their stuff, but this revealed character and served as exposition. It's awesome.

Let's spend some time on the characters. Hulk speaks a lot here for the first time, and it's revealed that Banner has been in Hulk mode since the end of Age of Ultron (2015). That's a wild reveal, but his characterization is also so inconsistent. He goes from unreasonable savage beast in the Gladiator Arena to big dude chilling in the hot tub in an instant. It doesn't have any progression. Again, and this happens over and over, it's unearned. Thor and Hulk's reconciliation is unearned because there wasn't actually any reason for a tiff to begin with. It functions for the sake of the plot rather than the sake of the characters. Why were Thor and Hulk sharing a room, anyway? They were there for at least a day! It's infuriating. And wait - is Mark Ruffalo permanently the Hulk now? He didn't change back at the end of the movie! Oh no!

While we're on the subject of gladiators, we might as well refer to another point in my preview that I was worried about - that this film is trying to be way too many things at once. There is a solid intergalactic gladiator Planet Hulk film in here that somehow comes across as even less developed than its comic counterpart. This is again due to lack of build-up. When Hulk fought Silver Surfer at the apex of Comic Book Planet Hulk it was after many many fights and developing relationships with his eventual revolutionary buddies. Thor is just thrown in here. We actually only see ONE Gladiator match. What the hell, Taika?!

It reminds me of the also-forced Replicant Revolution in Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Totally shoe-horned and undeveloped. Why even bring it up? It's as if these films think we've seen this trope far too often (which is definitely true), but instead of subverting or lampshading the trope, it's replaced with absence, which leaves the audience feeling hollow and unfulfilled. I'm not saying it should have just followed the trope, but why even bring that up as an issue? When Thor tries to play up Korg's revolution as a distraction so he can escape...nothing happens. It's clear that Loki just had the codes to the Grandmaster's orgy ship, and even despite Loki's trickery, they just steal it and escape. How much better in every way would actually co-opting a meaningful revolution to serve Thor's own selfish ends be? He's becoming Loki. He's letting one doomed people down so he can go to his own people (who at this point, I may add, have tried and failed at the same thing). Look at the real world implications of conning the masses to serve your own ends. That's an every day thing thanks to Russian hackers now. This pushes characterization so much further than just a space battle escape to the Devil's Anus.

That's it. Right there. "Devil's Anus." Haha, that's a funny name. Funny name will cover up the fact that it's a lame and played out escape scene. Orgy ship has no guns. That's a funny concept. It'll cover up the lack of cleverness in the plot structure. Don't get me wrong, a lot of the jokes land, and they're great, but it lacks substance, which ultimately renders it meaningless. This shit is so disappointing after What We Do in the Shadows (2014) was full of post modern interpretations of horror tropes that had fucking consequence and meaning towards its characters.

I'm getting too depressed and angry at this film. Let's talk about some good things, because there's a lot of great things and it's mostly Tessa Thompson and Cate Blanchett. Thompson is an incredible revelation as Valkyrie. She's a strong independent female character, which is totally rare in Marvel's world. She does some flirty flirty with Hulk / Banner, and even has a really brief moment with Thor, but not making her into a love interest, especially with the absence of Natalie Portman was an amazing move. Now, Blade Runner 2049 is fresh in my mind, but it's like Sylvia Hoeks' Luv again. Hey - an actual badass action heroine with star potential. Let's go! Tessa has been great in a lot of underseen shit, from Dear White People (2014) to Creed (2015), but this has got to be it. If this girl can't be a star after this, there's no justice anywhere. I kept watching her hold her own against Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hiddleston, and Mark Ruffalo and sat there amazed. She's confident, fierce, vulnerable, and empathetic. Also a mean drunk. She's awesome.

Cate Blanchett's Hela may be one of the greatest Marvel villains ever. She's campy and insane and incredibly dangerous. Even though her power of...generating knives of...any size I guess, seems lame, damn she kills a lot of fools with that. It was jarring hearing the calm and measured voice of Galadriel speaking such campy insane villainous lines, but I loved every minute of it. Her character's background and motivation could have definitely been more developed, and it's another issue that the film doesn't seem to want to care about the ramifications of Odin's sins in even a way that The Winter Soldier (2014) did with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s past, but what are you going to do. This is how THOR: Ragnarok works. She's a delight every time she's on screen, and for a trilogy largely about two feuding brothers it's something to behold that two women are by far the most compelling people on screen.

This perfectly timed trailer moment isn't actually
in the film.
Speaking of that other brother, Hiddleston is definitely sleepwalking through Loki at this point. He looked really jacked, probably because he's moved towards macho lead in things like King Kong: Skull Island (2017) rather than greasy worms like Loki. His hair also had a sincere Tommy Wisseau vibe, which is not great. He had a lot of serviceable scenes, and his Get Help banter with Thor is priceless, but generally his schemes seemed much less charismatic and clever than they had in the past.

There's a lot more cast here. Karl Urban as Skurge actually has the most character development out of anyone, although who cares. It's impressive that apparently his death scene is ripped straight from the comics, but I ended up not caring. It's still amazing that two Lord of the Rings actors are in here, even if his character doesn't end up doing much but look like he's regretting all of his life choices.

Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange is here for no fucking reason at all. This is again a neat missed opportunity where his magic could square off with Loki. Nope, just played for laughs as Loki falls for thirty minutes. It cheapens the subsequent Odin death scene with its abject goofiness. Now, on the note of the good doctor, one thing I really liked about Doctor Strange (2016) was how the film's climax hinged on his cleverness in exploiting a loophole to solve the day, not his brute strength or citywide destruction. Ragnarok has some of that in the sense that in order to save the day, Thor and Loki must initiate the apocalypse that have ostensibly attempting to prevent for the entire movie. There is some nice jazz about a country being its people, not its land or whatever, but it mostly felt like a cop out deus ex machina more than anything else.

On that note, we should talk about Thor. Not Chris Hemsworth because whatever, but Thor himself. He loses his hammer, hair, and eyeball in this film, but this movie also really knows how to cut him lose. "Immigrant Song" plays twice, and serves as a leitmotif for him at his most badass. It's also fun to note that no other pop song is used - Led Zeppelin totally monopolized the song budget (one other quick budget note - 2017 Marvel-making-money Asgard looked so much better than 2011 we-don't-know-if-THOR-will-work Asgard). His lightning channeling was amazing and just a delight. I don't know why he needed a Ghost Odin every time, though. Those scenes were the closest I came to calling this a really good movie.

Finally we have Jeff Goldblum as....Jeff Goldblum. This is the most Goldbum role ever. He's nuts and largely fantastic. Again again, though - his character has no consequence, that is, unless you stay to watch the end credits scene, which doesn't even wrap things up, ending things on a pretty soft joke ("Let's call this revolt a tie") and hard cut. He's a really compelling villain because he's weird and eccentric and kind of sinister without necessarily trying to be. It's on the opposite side of the spectrum as Hela, who is all about death and wanton destruction. The Grandmaster just wants to have a game with his people, and is more too idiosyncratic to care than overtly evil.

On the technical side, I noticed some surprisingly sloppy green screen, notably from the decision to move the jaw-dropping trailer moment where Cate Blanchett melts Mjolner from Asgard to Norway. That really took my brain out of the moment, but also makes me wonder what the hell script revisions this thing went through where an entire location could be changed like that. I mean, that's crucially Hela's first appearance! Immediately after that, they're beamed to Asgard and the movie's plot starts. How the hell could that scene have ever been on Asgard? What other movie is out there?

Despite all this non-stop complaining, I should admit that I wasn't totally disappointed with Ragnarok. It looks really fresh and is legitimately funny, even if it doesn't come close to Guardians or Deadpool (2016) levels. It's fun to spend time with these characters and be a little looser than previous Thor outings. It's easily the best Thor movie and scores points above a lot of other cookie-cutter Marvel movies. At the end of the day, though, despite its glossy coat, it ends up being an okay 2017 superhero movie, and not a great one.
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