31 December 2018

First Impressions: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

In what looks to be the Final Post of 2018, we're taking a look at a film I saw recently that unexpectedly blew me away. So much so that I gave it every award I have. I definitely want to shine some light on this number because like my anticipation leading up to it, it seems to have slid under the radar in a busy time of year. We're talking of course, about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). SPOILERS everywhere from here on out.

BFFs 4ever

Spider-Man dies! Granted we have seven Spider-People in this film, but it still hits hard seeing the most competent Spider-Man ever not getting out of a jam. It's emblematic of what this film does so well - trade on our common knowledge of the Spider-Man mythos to speed up the story, add new twists, and also insert a lot of jokes and great moments. I was arguing with someone recently that a film like Justice League (2017) was rushed at two hours and didn't have time to develop its characters. Spider-Verse balances much more characters in two hours and still allows us to get to know all of them, or in the case of Spider-Ham or Spider-Man Noir at least all we really need to know. It's not about run time, it's about how good the writing and characters actually are.

And Spider-Verse knocks it out of the park.

It's a sincere challenge to develop a whole new non-Peter Parker Spider-Man and this film does it with Miles Morales. It gives him a distinct origin from the Spider-Man we know, but with a series of events that develop to eventually hit all the beats we need. It's an ingenious way to sort-of reboot a character who has been rebooted quite a bit. Miles stands on his own as his own hero, and by the film's end when he claims his destiny and spray paints his own spidey-suit you know he's placed his own personality onto his hero role. It's very fulfilling to watch.

This is also true because of his status as a half-Puerto Rican/ half-African-American resident of Brooklyn, which feels so much more true to current NYC youth than the 1962 Queens White Boy that we've had in Peter Parker for the past fifty years. That culture and attitude is infused in every second of this movie, but never in a blatant way. It's a deft hand that makes this wacky, flashbang animated film feel more real than other recent installments. It's all about finding someone to replace the legacy of the fallen Peter Parker.

And the Peter we do spend a lot of time with, its an over-the-hill 38-year old from a universe we're more familiar with who is fat, jaded, and uninterested in heroics anymore. It's a Peter we haven't really seen before, and Miles' earnestness in getting him back in action, and even learning to be part of a team for the usually solo Spider-Man is a joy. There is all kinds of fun alternate universe bits, like Soda-Kola and signs for some weird Seth Rogen horse-racing movie. It's just slightly off, which is fun as hell to spot.

This is first and foremost a story about Morales finding his way as Spider-Man and I give the film credit for constantly focusing on that. It always knows where the real interesting parts of the story are. When all the Spider-Men are battling this movie's never in name version of the Sinister Six, the focus is wisely on Morales' search for the goober and his own inner conflict as he learns that the badass villain Prowler is his uncle Aaron. He is suddenly struck by the fact that his hero is an evil dude, someone who he wanted to be, and needs to fight him, while not hurting him, while more importantly, not being hurt BY him. Then he's shot by Kingpin, saving Morales, but also losing the uncle he loves and looked up to. It's crazy. Another film would have used this scene as a big action set-piece and lost sight of the conflict that's more important, but this film constantly looks so good that it doesn't have to rely on that action scene.

The best moment comes as Morales realizes his powers. There are a lot of these scenes in superhero movies. It not only references earlier Spider-Man movies (there's a lot of that), but for the first time it really shows what it must be like to leap off a building, plunge to the street below, and shoot a web hoping it latches on to something. There's great shot of him falling, but the camera is inversed so it looks like he's rising up to the building and claiming his place among great Spider-People. I was stunned.

The animation is truly breathtaking. I've never seen another film like it. I was annoyed at some blurry backgrounds here and there, to the point where I thought there were problems with the projector - but that was apparently intentional. The film was animated at 12 frames per second, which crazily feels like going backwards only a few years after Peter Jackson's 48 frames a second Hobbit movies. The difference is this has a purpose - it leaves the film feeling crisp and jerky - like reading a comic book! There is hatched shading, speech bubbles, big action blotches, and Kirby dots. It's the greatest comic to film translation ever and I wish all superhero films were animated now.

We don't need superhero films to be grounded in reality. They can be kid-like, silly, and fast and loose with physics and logic. These are stories inherently fantastic. This film had nearly no background for how the Spider gives Miles his powers and for that matter, how any villain or other hero exists. It simply doesn't matter. The film knows we're not here for background, or even crazy action - we're here for character and story. The fact that the film looks great from start to finish helps a lot.

The colors pop and race across the screen as literal dimensions collide. It leads to a fantastic conclusion as we get an environment of buildings and buses racing across the screen - perfect for a bunch of Spider-People to swing across. You can tell the intelligent work was put into this story - everything sets up everything else. It's amazing. This is also a love letter to Spider-Man lore as movies, comic books, old TV shows, and more are referenced in the background constantly. I can't list all the Easter Eggs here but it's LEGO Batman (2017) - esque in its cavalier attitude towards canon, instead focused on telling a hilarious, fast-paced, but ultimately still heart-breaking story.

The action! The drama! The spider-kicks

We haven't really even mentioned the voice cast. Unknown Shameik Moore anchors the film as Miles Morales and does a great job. I loved him singing along (poorly) to the movie's theme, Swae Lee's "Sunflower." It's a great character moment, a great song, and great cross-promotion. Other notables include borderline stunt casting of Nic Cage, John Mulaney, and Jake Johnson as various Spider-People. Cage keeps popping up in these things, which is great and this is somehow an incredble Mulaney vehicle as the doofy and self-aware living cartoon, Spider-Ham. Johnson is also well-suited as the fat, lazy, depressed Peter Parker. Lily Tomlin may be the best Aunt May ever, with a boost of spice, and Kathryn Hahn as a female Doc Ock is a great mix of loving that quickly turns sinister.

Of course, we've also got an animated Stan Lee cameo, in what will become one of his last roles. He's here more than the joke he appears as in most other Marvel movies, giving a sincere speech about Spider-Man and everyone's role as a hero, while retaining a sly "No Refunds!" wit. All the feels.

Now, the Spider-Fan in me had fun counting the Sinister Six in this film, which was a line-up never seen in the comics. It's all alternate universe so in good fun. They're never mentioned as such, but it was a good touch that we have six villains and six Spider-People to face them. They even line-up well. There's Tombstone to counter Spider-Man Noir, a more mechanical Scorpion to fight the Anime Spider, Doc Ock with a vendetta against the true Spider-Man, Prowler to battle Morales on a personal level, Kingpin to fund them all, and the Green Goblin, who we don't really see past the initial battle.

I was a little frustrated that the Kingpin was the big bad considering the recent apex by Vincent D'onofrio in Daredevil and the big screen lack of classic Spider-Villains like Kraven or Swarm or Vermin (okay, fine), but he's good to fill the role here of the millionaire / really strong douche that could conceivably fund the interdimensional portal thingie, with Doc Ock as a bitter lackey and other villains under his belt. Like most things in this film, it works.

What did you think of Spider-Verse? I rated it #2 on the year. I loved it so much. Am I crazy? Leave it below!

30 December 2018

Twenty GREATteen: Best in Film

Are you ready, folks?! This is what this and every movie blog is all about - the FINAL end of year movie countdown! I was getting pretty apprehensive about this, actually, until I realised that I change my mind every year anyway. As is tradition, I'll just go ahead and revise my 2017 list right now.

The Bad Batch
Brawl in Cell Block 99
Inrid Goes West
I, Tonya
Good time
Blade Runner 2049

Leaving out Okja, Baby Driver, Lost City of Z, and The Big Sick, all on my list last year, which all came close this year. Also leaving off War of the Planet of the Apes, which I did not consider this year. Let's get to 2018 and place the first stake in this fluid, ever flowing, every changing listicle process!

#10: Arizona - dir by Jonathan Watson, featuring Rosemarie DeWitt, Danny McBride, Luke Wilson

This is an under-the-radar movie but one that I identified with. It centers around the 2008 Housing Crisis, particularly in the boom state of Arizona, which quickly became a gloom state. It's mindless delusional excess and shines a spotlight on the every day realtors and people who couldn't really understand what was happening at the time. Then there's a heavy dose of suicide, murder, and explosive hijinks to boot. It's darkly funny because of McBride's portrayal of a hapless bum, but mostly strikes a tone between catastrophe and silent depression.

#9: The Favorite - dir by Yorgos Lanthimos, featuring Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

Lanthimos is approaching accessibility in his directorial efforts, which is a little disappointing from an obtuse standpoint, but resulting in pictures with a little more levity, fun, and what can actually be considered a movie. The Favorite is bitingly funny, emotionally over the top, and has a crisp dry charm we can now expect from Lanthimos films. It's a romp.

#8: Vice - dir by Adam McKay, featuring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carrell, Sam Rockwell

It's full of what amounts to stunt casting, but every single actor brings their all in this conservative satire that seeks to understand our most simultaneously under-the-radar and corrosive Vice-President. It's prescient in this age of political fear and manipulation while also being an acting and directorial feat. McKay is a little bit less cluttered than The Big Short (2015) but still seems to be finding his steady hand in drama after being such an accomplished comedy director.

#7: BlacKkKlansman - dir by Spike Lee, featuring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Jasper Paakkonen, Ryan Eggold

There's so much going on in this film - from the easy bridge to modern day racial struggles to the weary line between blue and black lives. Spike Lee has had plenty of great films in the past five years, but this seems to be a big one that really resonates with people. The writing and ending 25 minutes are a spectacular display of tension, irony, humour, and then ultimately tragedy.

#6: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - dir by Joel and Ethan Coen, featuring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleason

We saw this coming, and it's sort of natural to anticipate throwing a Coen Bros film on any year-end list, but I was still struck by just how good this was. It's a little bastardized because of its thrown-together Netflix nature, and not all of the six vignettes work, but the ones that do are spectacular and right at home in that darkly comic Coen style. It's continuously creative, wild, and more often than not expresses the bleak hopelessness of death and mistrust that comes with frontier life. One of the rare anthology movies that remains thematically consistent and cinematically beautiful.

#5: Widows - dir by Steve McQueen, featuring Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Ervio, Colin Farrell, Brian Tee Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Carrie Coon, Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall

Steve McQueen delivers an epic look at political, racial, and criminal struggles in Chicago and uses a twist on a heist film to explore a variety of related themes. It largely works and encourages re-watching, unpacking, re-analyzing. There's a lot here. The direction and writing are steady, with payoffs almost everywhere you look and plenty of fridge realizations for weeks to come. This is all in a heist movie confident to realize that the heist isn't actually important at all.

#4: Annihilation - dir by Alex Garland, featuring Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Nuva Tovotny

Finally some contemplative crazy body horror sci-fi for our generation. Annihilation exists on the bubble between sanity and madness, by way of an actual bubble that changes brains from sanity to madness. Also people into flowers and bears into skull bears. That's all besides the point. It presents an alien invasion as change, not destruction, and the equal fear that brings where we're unsure where being human ends. It's fantastic.

#3: The Death of Stalin - dir by Armando Iannucci, featuring Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs

The most slyly funny dark comedy of the year - Death of Stalin works as a deft political satire, an expert glance into the deadliest political game, and a reflection of the political state of our own country. This unfortunately came out in March, but I'm not sure it would get notice if it came out last week. It's a movie that rewards attention with its whipsmart and whipfast script and a real dark political sense of humor. Also Simon Russell Beale is quietly amazing.

#2: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - dir by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, featuring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tee Henry, Lily Tomlin, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicholas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Kathryn Hahn

Now, I just saw this, totally loved it, and gave it every award I have to give. The writing is so character based, the focus is on the moments that really matter, and the irony, passion, conflicting feelings in any given scene is a phenomenal achievement. That's in addition to the animation achievement, hilarity, and love letter to comics, Spider-Man, and Stan Lee. It's such a good feeling movie. No other superhero movie came close to the Top Ten in a year of great superhero movies. Other films that run two hours have trouble developing characters. That's a fallacy. The characters just need something worth developing. This film does it all.

#1: Sorry to Bother You - dir by Boots Reilly, featuring LaKeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Danny Glover, Omari Hardwick

The most flat-out bizarre film of the year, but also thematically and character consistent, you've never seen anything like Sorry to Bother You and never will again. It's a dramatic movie, with tough choices, insane choices, terrifying body horror, and some biting fucking political and racial humour. It never lets up in the wild world it's built and although it's definitely not a film for everyone if you stick with it and pay attention to the text that actually matters it pays off tremendously. This was a movie made just for me and I loved every single frame of this film.

Close Calls:

You Were Never Really Here
Black Panther
Infinity War
Deadpool 2

Is it weird throwing both Infinity War and Roma in the Close Call department?

Films That I Didn't Get a Chance to See:

Support the Girls
American Animals
Mission Impossible: Fallout
A Star is Born
The Mule

Hint: Look for these films in December 2019 appearing on my revised list! I hear really good things about Overlord but I think these were all solidly up my alley.

Also, Paddington 2 is acually apparently the greatest movie ever? I did not see it. Perhaps I should.

What did you think of 2018? What's your Top Ten? Leave it below!

29 December 2018

Amidst all this I watched BLADE!

There's been a big flurry of year-end posts about the Top Films of the year, the Top Movie Moments, music videos, political scandals, whatever. One big thing everyone seemed to miss out on was the simple fact that Blade (1998), on its twentieth anniversary year, came on Netflix Streaming.


Now, listen, I've seen Blade dozens upon dozens of times. Probably a hundred times. However, watching it again against all this other craziness, I felt compelled to ramble about it for a little bit. This is a fantastic movie, but I was more stricken by the fact that it exists at all.

Blade was like, a precursor to the modern superhero movie. It's easy to forget that this is a Marvel property for some reason. It's completely bizarre. For those of you out of the loop, Blade's mother was bitten by a vampire while pregnant with Baby Blade. Obviously, he then becomes a Daywalker, who is just a vampire who won't get roasted by sunlight. This does not prevent him from wearing sunglasses at all hours of every day.

It stars Wesley Snipes who totally just IS Blade. If this series is ever rebooted or brought into the MCU, Wesley Snipes needs to play Blade again. He's got a sword, UV guns, serum. He's got it all. Apparently he's even credited with such lines as "Some motherfuckers are always trying to iceskate uphill" which adds to this movie's insane charm. And needless to say, the MCU needs Wesley Snipes hanging out in the corner, hunting vampires, fighting Thanos. He won't turn to ash. That's his thing.

This film just has so much nothing to do with how the rest of these superhero movies turned out. It's hard-R and full of black people. There are so many damn black people in this movie. A black protagonist AND love interest? And they're both competent people whose success isn't based on their skin color!? It's insane. It's staggering to watch black people with human agency on screen. Blade's mother is also black and she SPOILER ain't so dead. It's amazing to watch.

I was also amazed how much this film feels like a Matrix (1999) rip-off except for the fact that it came out a whole year before! Blade is the precursor to not only superhero movies but all early 2000s RADICAL / TOO COOL action movies with leather, sunglasses, wire-fighting and gun kata. It's so insanely Matrix-esque, to the point where it genuinely feels like a knockoff.

Thus we have this intersection of horror, action, superhero, and blaxploitation in a film that was actually wildly successful and spawned two other sequels - the first of which was one of Guillermo del Toro's first mainstream successes, and the third of which led to so many insane stories about how crazy Wesley Snipes is that I'm forever grateful.

In addition to all this it's a decent movie. One scene leads to another, Blade has a nice character arc as he gets over his mother's death, and becomes a little less cynical. It is also one of those great movies where the heroes have a "home base" like a little lab where they hang out and do stuff. This is of course led by Kris Kristofferson, who I guess made music at some point and was not just "Old Dude from Blade." Kris Kristofferson is definitely dead and there's no way he comes back in Blade II (2002). It was a bit of a cultural phenomenon, I use the phrase "Daywalker" constantly.

To sum up this late December note, Blade is awesome, you should watch it again. It's far more prescient than you remember and a total forerunner to every action movie we've gotten in the past twenty years. Here's to Wesley Snipes in Avengers: Endgame (2019)!

Twenty GREATTeen: Other Movie Stuff

Every year that we think of it there are a handful of superlatives to bestow upon the great actors and actresses and a whole bunch of other stuff. These are the people who had a truly great year and we can look back on with fond or in some cases, really awful memories. As we continue to recount and categorize 2018, let's get at it!

Top Actor of the Year

Flame on!
It's weird to say Josh Brolin had a phenomenal year, but there were two months this summer where he appeared in major roles in Deadpool 2, Avengers: Infinity War, and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. While that's good, it just doesn't quite feel like Brolin had a breakthrough year or anything. Donald Glover is a great candidate, but he did most of his best work in TV and music this year. Instead, we give actor of the year to Michael B. Jordan - someone who deserves this every year, but whose villainous turn as Eric Killmonger captured our hearts in Black Panther, standing out as one of Marvel's greatest villains of all time. He followed up the end of the year with Creed II, which maybe wasn't as notable a splash as the first one, but enough that he showed range being both a tremendous hero and villain.

Top Actress of the Year

Faster Pussycat
In any other year this should have been Emily Blunt for turning in both A Quiet Place and Mary Poppins Returns, but the latter seemed to strangely fall off. We had huge cinematic breakthroughs for Cynthia Ervio, Awkwafina, and Lady GaGa of all people, but we gotta give this to the fantastic Tessa Thompson.

Riding off of THOR: Ragnarok (2017), she was the best thing about Annihilation, then Sorry to Bother You, and then joined our Actor of the Year in Creed II. Now, we just dissed Mary Poppins Returns, which will likely end up making more money than all these films combined but no one else seemed to pop up in so much quality shit this year.

Trailer of the Year

There were some really solid trailers this year for both 2018 and 2019 movies. Not all turned into good movies. A real quick rundown and then our winner:

SHAZAM! (2019) - This has not gotten enough attention because it looks fantastic and fun and good for DC.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) - Gareth Edwards did a fine Spielberg impression with Godzilla (2014) that largely whiffed until the final fifteen minutes. I can't wait to dive into Michael Dougherty's world.
Venom - I really dug the Venom trailer when it came out - it sells the madness and fun anti-hero so well.
Bohemian Rhapsody - there's a reason why this movie did so well
Creed II - I didn't even actually see this movie, but it's cropping up here. The trailer and tease of Drago is legit
Halloween - That first tease of Michael Myers in the asylum makes you forget Rob Zombie
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - There's a bit of everything here. Drama, stakes, comedy, heart, and a showcase for how good this animation is.

Okay, #1 Trailer of the year, it should be pretty obvious - Detective Pikachu

I don't know what the hell is going on with this movie. How is this a thing. It's Pokemon, but like, twenty years past the peak of the craze, but also the Detective Pikachu game was just released, but after twenty years, THAT'S what earns a full-length movie? Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu. Furry shenanigans. Will any of this work? The trailer is addictive for finding little Pokemon Worldbuilding nods and follows a great rhythm, jokes, stakes, and seems to know its own insanity. I'm totally in.

Sounds and Songtrack of the Year

This is a tough call between a slew of superhero films. Black Panther is obvious for the Soundtrack, but don't quite count out Deadpool 2. My pick is "Ashes" for not only sounding exactly like a 1990s Celine Dion song, but also being ridiculously thematically relevant to its film and emotionally deployed appropriately.

Other notables include "Sunflower" from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which is another song that the protagonist keeps coming back to (and perfectly sorta doesn't know all the words to). I also want to note Eminem's Venom song which was fucking terrible. Eminem had a terrible year.

I guess also "Shallow" from A Star is Born. This is the Oscar forerunner and is a legit track for sure that yeah, is thematically appropriate for the film it's in. Okay, okay. I still like "Ashes."

Villain of the Year

This was quite a year for villains. Thanos, Killmonger, the Shape - the bench is deep. There are two who rise above the pack, though. The first is Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale, who exudes a fantastic menace. No one scared more shit out of me, tough than Daniel Kaluuya's Jatemme Manning in Widows. He's calm, cool, collected, and kills without a second thought, but always enjoys toying with his prey. This was a great leap forward for Kaluuya, building on his other high profile roles in Get Out (2017) and Black Panther.

Hero of the Year

I debated this a lot. Maybe Natalie Portman in Annihilation or Jason Mamoa in Aquaman, Chief in Isle of Dogs, Cleo from Roma, Uncle Drew in his eponymous movie.  And I've cited it constantly here, and it may just be because I saw it very recently, but I'll give it to Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. He finds his own identity, bravery, and confidence and truly becomes the Spider-Man we all hope to be. It's a struggle based in character and when he exceeds because of his own skills, it's exciting to watch.

Well that's it. That's all we have to talk about. Certainly no Top Ten!!!

Just kidding, we're cranking that out soon!

28 December 2018

Twenty GREATteen: Top Movie Moments

Alright ladies and gentlemen, we're almost at the end of 2018, which means a ton of retrospective lists thrown your way. We'll get to our Top Films of the Year eventually, maybe even before New Year's Eve, but we want to take a moment and reconcile all the other fun stuff we got this year! Let's start with all the best scenes, some from terrible movies, some from great movies, but all from movies.

Best Movie Moments of 2018

Avengers: Infinity War - Thor & Rocket

So you could have a lot from this movie. The snap, Thor's arrival, the Soul Stone, bubble gun, "I don't feel so well", a lot of it was instantly iconic. However, the best scene in the movie is when it slows down a bit and Thor actually reflects on the tragedy in his life, something that THOR: Ragnarok (2017) was too fast-paced and goofy to do. It's a quiet conversation between Thor and Rocket Raccoon of all people. It's all pain covered by ego and a fine performance from Hemsworth.

Black Panther - Killmonger steals the mask

This is another film full of possible moments. The best, most clever, most character-driven scene though, is our introduction to Eric Killmonger. I love how the expectations of each character shifts dramatically as the white / black power structure is revealed, exploited, and turned on its head.

Upgrade - STEM takes over

This was a super underrated movie this year about a paralyzed man whose body is taken over by a computer chip that makes him a badass. The cool thing about scenes like this is watching Logan Marshall-Green's horrified face as it doesn't line up with the brutality his body is achieving. It reminds me a bit of Venom (2018), not the least because Logan Marshall-Green looks exactly like Tom Hardy. Anyway, the enigmatic camera work sucks you into the scene as the STEM chip takes over. It's darkly fun, horrifying, and sweet.

Hold the Dark - Iraq

Hold the Dark, a long contemplative movie about wolves eating children in Alaska that somehow isn't that great has a handful of spectacular moments, including an oft-talked about shootout in an old barn, but the mid-film break to focus on Alexander Skarsgard in Iraq really did it for me. The cold righteousness, the American domineering presence, the lone cigarette. It all captures chaos and war in an ironically noble way.

VICE - Mid-Movie Credits

This one just dropped, but I've never seen a movie so drip with dry sarcasm as when just before Dick Cheney gets the call from George W., the movie paused and presents an alternate history where he never entered politics again and spent the rest of his life peacefully fishing with his family. As the film's credits literally start to roll on this saccharine ending, we get a big "JUST KIDDING" and Adam McKay's playfully insane romp through the VP's life rolls on.

Hereditary - Watch Out for that Sign!

Spoiler here and I won't even link the clip because I can't deal with it, but there's nothing like a weird-looking little kid sticking her face out the window and getting bashed by a street sign. Like everything in this movie it's depressing, intense, and played perfectly.

Blindspotting - Rap Scene

I haven't seen this movie nor do I really know what it's about, but it's got to be some kind of white cop killing black folk movie, but all those complicated feelings about the issue are wrapped up in this one four-minute-long rap by Daveed Diggs. I knew this dude from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and this is all sorts of amazing acting. It'll grab you by the pooper.

Sorry to Bother You - Horses

This scene is better left unwatched if you have't yet seen Boots Reilly's Sorry to Bother You because it's that moment where the film completely comes off the rails and you can't tell if it's a dream or not. From there the film gets insane and bonkers but always stays thematically coherent. A close runner-up is this scene, which captures white appropriation and mindless pop more than anything else in any movie ever.

BlacKkKlansman - Final Phone Call

There are a lot of great moments as BlacKkKlansman draws to its focal point - from the ironic deaths of KKK members to the final phone call between Ron Stallworth and David Duke where he blatantly exhibits a vocal tick that Duke had previously espoused to Stallworth as emblematic of the Negro persuasion. Duke's hypocrisy is revealed once more, Stallworth has his last laugh, and then of course, the film goes on to show that despite this small victory, not a whole lot else has changed in succeeding forty years.

Bohemian Rhapsody - LiveAID

This flick has appeared on a decent amount of year-end lists, and whether folks loved it or hated it, we can call agree that the ending Live AID sequence is phenomenal. It uses the event as the apex of Freddie Mercury's career - that wasn't really true, but it works great for the narrative the film was trying to tell. It's meticulously recreated and a true stunner for those of us who didn't experience the concert firsthand or those of us who forgot how great of a band Queen really was.

Annihilation - That Bear

There are a lot of pretty insane body horror moments in Annihilation, but nothing beats the Bear. As the weird alien bubble is mixing up genes and souls and whatever else, somehow Tuva Novotny's character Cassie gets absorbed or at least copied by a big scary scull bear who then roams around the room of our other protagonists. We're at a loss for the madness taking place within the bubble and what exactly is going on, but that's part of what makes the Lovecraftian horror of the film so effective. Damn that scream...

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - Leap of Faith

Stan Lee's cameo (likely to be one of his last) is a good candidate here, but this scene choked me up. Miles Morales finally ascends to become the Spider-Man he can be - claiming his own spin on the suit, fulfilling the Leap of Faith forshadowing, and expressing more than any other film has the actual thrill and danger you must feel jumping off a building and hoping your web shooters latch on to something. In a close to perfect movie, a close to perfect scene.

Deadpool 2 - High Wind Advisory

The second Deadpool movie starts to take aim at superhero team-ups, recruiting a who's who of modern trendy actors like Terry Crews, Bill Skarsgard, and Brad Pitt and promptly kills them all in a horrible skydiving scene. It's a subtle play - from Shatterstar who is trying so hard to be cooler than everyone else (killed by his own cool hair blocking his view of helicopter blades) to poor Peter, his last act of nobility killed by acidy spit. It's what Suicide Squad (2016) tried so hard to achieve. Of course, Domino and her luck lands perfectly and the entire scene is set up by continuous wind advisories. It's a fantastic moment.

What did you dig this year? Stay tuned for more movie stuff and maybe even some reviews!

26 December 2018

First Impressions: Widows

So timely. I've never had this backlog of movies to blog about, but I saw Widows (2018) a few weeks ago - it was fantastic, no one seems to be chatting much about it, so here we go. This will shortly get into Spoilertown, USA so go watch this flick if you're sore about such things.

See, it's like Ocean's 8 (2018) but good and also its own thing
First, we need to talk about how this movie exists at all. The core premise is that a handful of bank-robbing husbands die on a job, so their eponymous widows carry out their final heist plan. See, that doesn't even sound that great. It's contrived. It sounds like it should be a Melissa McCarthy comedy movie. It feels like a weird exercise in distaff counterparts that shouldn't work at all.

Then you read a little more and see that this is the first film Steve McQueen is making after winning the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave (2013). It's also the first screenplay Gillian Flynn has written since Gone Girl (2014). These are two films that will never be off my Top Ten lists. Anyway, suddenly that makes you re-appreciate the premise. These is a serious competent writer paired with a serious, competent director. There's something else going on here.

The cast reads incredible. Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Ervio, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Carrie Coon, Brian Tee Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal (for like two minutes). I could talk about any of these people being competent serious actors. This is suddenly a high stakes drama and no goofy joke movie. It surprises and twists both in its plot and metanarrative, confounding our own expectations with how much this can be about. It's about housing, institutionalized racism, gerrymandering, gender equality, crime and corruption, grief, betrayal, gun violence - the list goes on. The film touches on everything you could think of and has a deft wit about all it sees.

Let's get into the actual plot and subversion of expectations. Damn how criticism of The Last Jedi (2017) ruined that phrase. It just feels sarcastic now. Anyway, the blokes led by Liam Neeson blow up and it's a bummer for all attached women, but that could have been it. Instead, it becomes very clear very soon that all of these dudes were involved in some nefarious shit and their absence really ruins their widows' lives. Michelle Rod loses her store because apparently her husband didn't do a thing with the money she gave him for rent. Elizabeth Debicki, who needs to be in everything, is left adrift without purpose and turns to prostitution.

The film dresses it up in a bit of brilliant character work. See, Debicki is always chasing a better, more glamorous life. She gets it and her client fills the husband-sized hole in her life, but at the end of the day, it's still paid banging. There's this intersection and irony between her delusions and desire that's somehow fully explored even though she's like the fourth-most important character here.

Finally, Viola Davis gets the toughest hand when she's visited by Atlanta's Brian Tee Henry, who also now needs to be in everything. Henry's running for office against Colin Farrell, and both of them are up to some shady shit. See, the money Liam Neeson blew up trying to steal belonged to Henry, a career gangster criminal trying to turn over a new leaf. I was sold on him genuinely trying to do some good for his community, but he's still in that world, exemplified by his brother, Daniel Kaluuya, who is a nasty sumbitch. They demand Viola gets them their money.

Thus she finds out that Liam planned one last major $5 million heist. Obviously it can't be all that hard. She pulls together the Widows Team and they go to work. Viola is fearsome here, a cold-hearted demanding bitch who gets shit done. Some of that is her dead son shot by cops while talking to her white father. This movie just drips irony, man.

I gotta get that one top button style down.
Now what we eventually find out is that the $5 million actually belongs to Colin Farrell, being money he embezzled out of the transit system. Thus, when it's eventually stolen, he ain't reporting shit. It's a good plan by Liam Neeson, who originally just wanted Viola to sell the book to the Manning brothers (Henry and Kaluuya. I remembered their names), and everything would be square. See, Neeson isn't actually dead - he just took off with that money so he could go shag Carrie Coon on an island somewhere while also helping out Colin Farrell by subtracting his political opponents' election funds (while of course simultaneously helping out his opponent by giving them the means to steal Farrell's own money). Are you still with me?

The crux is that Viola doesn't get scared and turn the book over. She's a queen, so they steal the cash themselves. Part of this movie is watching a group of women who have no idea how to pull this off PULL THIS OFF. They screw up, blow their cover, lose their driver, need to hire Cynthia Ervio (a total badass who holds her own against Viola in some pretty cherry scenes). There's a labyrinthine plot here, but it's largely fueled by character.

Take Colin Farrell. He's not really cut out for politics but feels both pressure from his Robert Duvall father and is dealing with the mess he left him. When Duvall catches the ladies stealing from their house, Michelle Rodriguez shoots him dead. Farrell, who would have preferred losing instead wins the election on a wave of sympathy for his legendary dead father. There's so much irony and payoff in this movie. Every scene has a purpose even as we spend way too much time with this wack rich white family.

In the end, this isn't quite an Ocean's 11 (2001) fun heist movie. McQueen wisely understands that the heist doesn't really matter. Breaking into the house isn't a big deal and their only safecracking is blackmailing the security business' owner into giving them the code. It's a heist movie that cares about its characters, irony, and plotting more than the texture of these things. That may be unfulfilling for some who are expecting that wacky Melissa McCarthy madcap heist film, but I found it immensely satisfying.

This is also that rare film designed for adults. I couldn't believe it sitting in the theater. There was compelling drama, continuous tension, edge of your seat stuff, an intricate thinking plot, and good character work. Not one cape or car chase. I mean, I like capes and car chases, but it was a very different movie for 2018.

As far as flaws go, it's a little on the long side, and there were some long, seemingly disinterested takes from McQueen that I questioned, but this is generally a damn fine film. As I mentioned in the intro, it doesn't seem to be getting all that much praise or award talk generation, but it's a fine addition to our 2010s film canon as anything. Now go watch Aquaman (2018) or something.

Twenty GREATteen: Best in Music

It's about time we round out every little pop culture facet of 2018 - or as we're calling it for some reason, Two-Thousand GREAT-teen. It was pretty great, right?

Remember when we could even say that years were great? What was the last great year we had? The world is awful. That's why we have some fun music to jam out to - something needs to distract us from real problems. Whether or not there's value to both pursuing fruitless entertainment and making lists about it is beyond our scope. Let's have fun!

Best Songs of 2018:

There were actually a lot of songs I dug hardcore this year. As we do, without much evaluation, here is a smattering of the best we had, new and old from this GREAT year:

"Psycho" - Post Malone ft. Ty Dolla $ign
"Finesse" by Bruno Mars ft. Cardi B
"Nice for What" - Drake
"Stir Fry" - Migos
"All the Stars" - Kendrick Lamar ft. SZA
"Pray for Me" - The Weeknd ft. Kendrick Lamar
"Be Careful" - Cardi B
"King's Dead" - Jay Rock, Kenny, Future, James Blake
"This is America" - Childish Gambino
"Feels Like Summer" - Childish Gambino
"Girls Like You" by Maroon 5 ft. Cardi B
"Taste" by Tyga
"Humility" - Gorillaz
"Crush" - Tessa Violet
"Nice for What" - Drake
"In My Feelings" - Drake
"Hunnybee" - Unknown Mortal Orchestra
"Best Hugs" - DRAM
"Mo Bamba" - Sheck Wes
"See You Again" - Tyler the Creator ft. Kali Uchis
"Thunderclouds" - LSD
"Thank U, Next" - Ariana Grande
"Sicko Mode" - Travis Scott ft. Drake
"Sunflower" - Swae Lee, Post Malone
"Just a Stranger" - Kali Uchis ft. Steven Lacey

That's some list. My favourite song of the year of course is WIN by Jay Rock.

Some stray observations - this was a huge year for many artists. Travis Scott, Drake, Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, it was maddening. Ariana Grande made a really great case for Artist of the Year and no one made a bigger hyped album than she did with Sweetener, only to then drop her greatest single as a response to the heartbreak that followed the Pete Davidson puppy love that made said alubm. "Thank U, Next" ended up being one of her best tracks of the year and one of the best songs anywhere.

However, it's gotta be the B. 2017 was a huge year for her blasting on to the scene, but 2018 proved that she has the goods to stay. She was on every song ever, dropping four singles of her own, but being featured on an additional nine tracks. Led by "Finesse", "I Like It", and "Girls Like You" spreads over a solid amount of genres and across the entire year. She's a bridge between hip-hop, pop, and Latin and the most 2018 artist ever.

This year was also a tipping point in how we listen to music. Radio Top 40, Spotify Top 40, and album sales had nothing to do with each other. I named Camila's "Never Be the Same" the Summer Jam Queen, but few agreed with me. It was probably Drake. It's not like adaptation is bad - we just need to figure this shit out.

Music Video of the Year:

As soon as it dropped, there was no question. There's no video more in the political moment, with a beat and flow that stands on its own, lyrical relevancy to both what's on screen and in its own context and also dramatically captured our attention. Between Atlanta, SOLO (2018), and everything he did as Childish Gambino over summer ("Feels Like Summer" was also an amazing video), Donald Glover had a hell of a year.

Albums of the Year:


As we usually do, I like to separate music into three big mega-genres. Pop, Hip-Hop, and Rock. Rock never has any good albums anymore, so we'll start there. There was some interesting stuff made by Father John Misty and the Gorillaz that I'm into, but nothing that stood out as the best they've done (or better than even 2017. Also they're barely even rock).

No, we'll give 2018 to the 1975 and they're album, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. The album oscillates between these Vampire Weekend hipster vibes and some slow contemplative work that straddles genre, autotune, and simultaneously uplifting and depressing beats. There's super 80s synth on "It's Not Living" and that Tool Time song is poppy and engaging as hell. Some tracks are a little on the saccharine side, but there's always a bite around the corner.

Top Tracks: "Love It If We Made It", "I Like America & America Likes Me", "I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)."


There were a lot of great pop albums this year. Ariana's Sweetener would be the obvious choice because it's super popular and pretty damn good. Robyn's Honey was also notable, but to be honest, sounds like the same exact stuff she made ten years ago. I mean, I like that, but it just seemed like nothing innovative. No, we'll give it to newcomer Kali Uchis and her debut, Isolation.

Her vocals are haunting, seductive, and scathing. Every single track is an earworm. It's awesome. There's a pop sensibility there with a beat that has a little more edge. She had some high-profile collabos with Gorillaz, Tyler the Creator, and Bootsy Collins but always appears as the dominant voice. To be honest, I was looked with the first real track, "Miami" and never let go. There's some funky lovemaking shit on this album, boi.

Top Tracks: "Your Teeth in My Neck", "Dead to Me", "Tomorrow", "After the Storm"


I had a tough time with this, actually. Scorpion? Astroworld? Invasion of Privacy? Ye? There were a lot of high profile albums, and even though the latter there will surely be left off a lot of lists because of his pro-Trumpiness, Kanye actually made a lot of good shit this year. Instead, let's cop out and just say it's the whole Black Panther album.

It was a solid flick - I'd call it good and not great, but it delivered one of the best inspired by Albums of all time. I like how Hip-Hop artists take this on, like Jay-Z with American Gangster (2007). Anyway, Kendrick Lamar could have phoned it in - instead this album has relevant movie tracks, a great launching point for some monster songs this year, and room for some actual introspective shit. This is maybe a cop-out to just give it to Kendrick Lamar this year, who seemed to mostly spend it having fun with Jay Rock. I don't actually plan on highlighting Panther all that much in my Top Movies Post, so let's jazz on it here.

Top Tracks: "Opps", "Paramedic!", "Redemption"

And there you have it, folks. That's all you need to know about the music of 2018! What do you think? It was an underrated year as I look back on it. Keep jamming, baby!!

18 December 2018

Coming this Christmas! Sherri Bobbins, Miami Man, Bumblebee Prime

We've been in a black hole all Fall, and in the process missed out on some great previews. The latest crappy Harry Potter movie that's trying to be a thing. An animated Grinch that seemed to direly miss the point. Another Creed. Another Ralph. Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) that I can't figure out was good or bad. Another Robin Hood movie for some reason lol. And a Spider-Man animated film that is actually pretty amazing. Oh, Mortal Engines (2018), haha man that looked stupid.

This "Road to a Blockbuster" column has been going strong for a while here at Norwegian Morning Wood - I suppose we just wrapped up a month's worth of critical introspection with a few quick lines. There's your Fall Blockbuster season. It was pretty rough. But we need to dig a little deeper for a bunch of releases scattered across this week and the Holiday Season! Let's dive in!

Sherri Bobbins Returns
I've been singing you songs all day I'm not a bloody jukebox

Even as a kid I could not give less than a flip about Mary Poppins (1964). Maybe it was just the weird way everyone was totally okay with this random magic chick popping in and zapping everything. Something never sat right with me. Young Dick van Dyke is pretty amazing and although I'm more a fan of Blonde Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music (1965), her role is certainly iconic here. The movie is significant enough that other movies are made about making this movie. That one-two punch for Julie Andrews is actually damned amazing.

So we have Mary Poppins Returns (2018) which is really just the latest in a long line of Disney re-hashes in their bid to take over the world. Like, none of these movies are good. Except The Jungle Book (2016), that was actually super underrated. These are worse than superhero movies taking over. It's totally derivative. Returns is at least some attempt at continuing the story, but I get the impression that it'll drip nostalgia and fan service in the cringiest way. I have no interest in settling in for a warm fuzzy trip down memberberry lane, especially when I don't even like the original source material.

I'm not sure exactly why that is. I usually enjoy musicals and I'm a big fan of silly cute animation. Mary Poppins just always feels so smug and I hate winking at the audience. In the end I'm too cynical for the cheer she brings to the little children. But seriously, she's like a witch, right? She probably fucking eats these kids.

All that said, the crew behind this is pretty good. Emily Blunt is very reliable and she pairs this with A Quiet Place (2018) to have one of the stronger 2018s. Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer are great additions along with some classic actors like van Dyke, Angela Landbury, and Julie Walters for some reason. Gotta appeal to the crowd who actually saw the 1964 flick in theaters I suppose. Director Rob Marshall is also a real safe pick for the modern musical. It's also got Lin Manuel-Miranda who I'm just totally over. I mean, he's okay but everyone thinks he's the greatest artist of the century. He's the epitome of New York Bubble. Drives me crazy. It ought to be clear that I'm not that into this and will totally skip it.

Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy

We've also got Aquaman (2018) in a few days. First in Entourage and now real life! Word is this movie is just bonkers and insane and makes no sense in all the best ways. Somehow Jason Mamoa and Aquaman are perfect casting and this could be one of those few great DCEU films.
As long as he's surfer bro we're gonna be fine

I stay up late at night wondering what is going to happen to this crappy cinematic universe. What kind of world do we have where Batman and Superman movies fail and the Wonder Woman and Aquaman movies knock it out of the park? So much of this rides on casting. The MCU largely works because the three leads of Downey, Evans, and Hemsworth just own each of their roles. Affleck was never right and while Cavill could have and should have been a great Superman, Synder really wasted him. Gadot and Mamoa, it's up to you.

Director James Wan is more famous from horror films and Furious 7 (2015), otherwise known as the second-best Fast and Furious movie. He's already proven to be a great, conscientious, and marketable director, and a cast rounded out by Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, along with Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Willem Dafoe (is that all for real?) makes an intriguing picture, even if it's totally just the exact film as THOR (2011) but underwater. Who cares, I liked THOR. Also Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta who totally has the exact bomb-ass helmet and laser eyes from the comics and Superfriends TV show. I'm so pumped about Black Manta. That to me just shows that Wan's sensibilities are in the right place.

Ultimately Aquaman caps off an incredibly competitive Superhero year, including Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) which literally just happened. I think it can stand on its own, but it's not going to bust through any records. Disney is pretty bold in not backing down from Mary Poppins Returns' release date, but also totally right that they'll come out ahead.


Competing most directly for dumb male butts in seats is Bumblebee (2018), the first of what we can only hope to be many Transformers stand alone spin-off films. The trailer got a lot of hype, I didn't much care because these movies are so bad, but this is also the first non-Michael Bay movie, so there's hope! Sweet Primus there's hope.

It's a paired down flick featuring, to our knowledge, just the Yellow Autobot Bumblebee and I guess the Decepticon Blitzwing? Bumblebee teams up with Hailee Steinfeld, who is awesome but hasn't quite matched her work in True Grit (2010) against both that jerk and John Cena, who I hope punches through a wall or something. Reserved WWE Films The Marine (2006) and 12 Rounds (2009) John Cena is not great. Insane Blockers (2018) and Sisters (2015) John Cena - now that's something I can get behind. He works best as a meme, people.

Anyway, this has been getting good reviews, but for a Transformers movie that's like being the smartest kid with down syndrome. At best we already got perfection with this "Kid befriends Space Robot" in The Iron Giant (1999) and a surprising amount of other movies. As franchises mature, though, and folks realize that something like Age of Extinction (2014) is past its Optimus Prime and over the top, yet STILL make a movie worse with The Last Knight (2017), it's nice to see the powers that be try something new. This has worked well with the X-Men franchise which long ago got tired of making the same X-Men movie and started doing period pieces, comedy pieces, lone gun westerns, and psychological horror movies (in addition to you know, also the same crap). I'd like to see where this goes.

At any rate it gives me an excuse to watch one of my favourite videos ever. Long live Oreobot! I mean, if they don't play John Cena's theme during every single explosion they've really missed out on a golden opportunity here.

There really is something beautiful about not even remotely trying to hide your product placement. Or male gaze for that matter. Michael Bay is not deceptive. Deceptivecon. Moving on.

Second Act

I don't know what this is. Jennifer Lopez is someone who gets fired and steals someone's identity or something? I half-watched the trailer. I think I have the just of it.
Haha, alright, cool.

First of all, there's a lot of "Woman YOUR age" jokes, which I think are supposed to land except that Jennifer Lopez turns 50 next year and totally looks 30. That ends up being a rough call on women who absolutely look great for their age. They should have cast someone who has aged horribly. Leah Remini is a year younger and right there!

There's actually a bit of madcap humour here and Migo Ventiglia or whatever is really rocking that This is Us moustache everywhere he goes I guess. This is not terrible counter-programming for old women who don't want to see any of the crap I listed above and to be honest, it's like #2 on movies on this list that I'm interested in right now.

Welcome to Hell

Or Marwen. Marwen, need to get that right. This looks terrible. Just truly awful. Steve Carell is some PTSD survivor living out his fantasies through puppets or something. I think it's problematic at best that he fantasies women in his life as objects for him to play with and control his destiny and at worst it's... well, probably that. Robert Zemeckis is one of our greatest directors ever for everything he did in the 80s and most of the 90s, but damn has he fallen down the shitstorm rabbit hole. I'll give him credit for maintaining a drive to make really weird animated stuff, but his sense of story and mass appeal has gone out the window. It's not great.

Surecock Holmes

There's a nice callback for long time readers. I've avoided everything here. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are Holmes and Watson - done, I'm in, it'll be great. Probably. For some reason Sherlock has been done to death lately, on literally every level - period movies with Downey, Jr, modern-day stuff with Cumberbatch, and that one with Lucy Liu on CBS that no one cared about. Arthur Conan Doyle's creation is still really popular, who knows why. I suppose it's just public domain and it's easy to reproduce the beats with really simple notes to go on without being so specific as to offend any serious fans. Easy as that. Hopefully this is funny or something.


Adam McKay's takedown of Dick Cheney really appealed to Golden Globes voters and could make a splash with the Academy. I didn't think The Big Short (2015)'s method of parceling out fast-paced, "you don't really need to understand these crooks" method of storytelling really worked, but individual scenes work incredibly well. McKay is still a phenomenal director and I'm curious how he does with the bio pic, especially for a figure no one really likes.

The cast is top to bottom amazing, from Christian Bale to Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Amy Adams, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Lily Rabe, and Tyler Perry for some reason. I'm disappointed that Tyler Perry is making another appearance in a non-Tyler Perry film that's not randomly in Star Trek (2009) or his ridiculously good work in Gone Girl (2014). Haha, I forgot Alex Cross (2012) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016). Tyler Perry's non-Tyler Perry work is insane.

I digress. This ought to be fun.

That about wraps it up for the year. What are you looking forward to seeing in December?

17 December 2018

First Impressions: Bad Times at the El Royale

I saw this movie like two months ago. It was the one with the chick singing to the bearded dude, right? I sort of remember it. Now that my life has finally slowed down some I can actually write about these things. Let's dive into a big spoiler-y thing about Bad Times at the El Royale.

I knew remarkably nothing about this movie. Like, I did not know the cast at all. We walked in late and my first thought was "Jeff Bridges is in this movie?" Except I DID know this because I previewed it last year. Convenient that 10 months on I forgot every single thing about the premise, except that it was some kind of hotel shoot 'em up.

That's basically all we have to run on when the movie starts. It's clear that not all is quite right with any character we're introduced to, and that eventually goes for the Hotel itself. It cleverly sits half in Nevada and half in California which is a unique premise that never really goes anywhere. Knowing absolutely nothing was cool, though, because as we meet each of the slimeball characters in this film we learn that everyone is deceiving everyone else, until we get to Chris Hemsworth, who is just an awful human being but someone who is at least comfortable with his awfulness. More on him later.

Right off the bat we learn that this is a Tarantino film by way of Drew Goddard. Goddard is a very competent director and everything in this movie looks and feels right, but as soon as I realized that, it took me out of the moment a little bit. There's title cards, cool dialogue, an interactive structure, and little character moments and flashbacks for everyone. It's not nearly as unified or coherent in theme as a Pulp Fiction (1994) or Inglorious Basterds (2009), which brought me out of what they were trying to do. The texture seemed to overtake the text, as in an attempt to be cool seemed to overrule the actual story.

For instance, most of the film seems to keep going despite who we are supposed to be focused on. Sure we get little moments based on Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Ervio, or Dakota Johnson, but it's not Rashomon (1950) - style or anything. The film would have been fine without it. Texture over text.

That distracting structure aside, the film is generally very good. There are a few plot threads that go no where, mostly due to characters dying SPOILER, but we warned you anyway - Jon Hamm's FBI character seems to perish without much consequence for anyone. We also don't seem to ever get much insight into the Hotel's nefarious owners, but that's also part of the point. There's some ever-present mystery with a few things - a highly valuable roll of film containing a famous person caught in a lewd act, a Manson-family esque group with shady origins, a bank robber trying to piece together his old heist. Unresolved threads might also be part of the point - any one of these tales might have made for a good film on their own. Like a hotel, though, we only get glimpses of all these shattered lives as they bash together for a few days they happen to be in the same location.

I said this was very good, right? Despite being a little indulgent in showcasing 70s soul songs, Cynthia Ervio is a revelation here, tough for being a relative newcomer among Hamm, Bridges, and Hemsworth. BlacKkKlansman (2018) did this, too - maybe I'm just not into 70s Soul enough, but the singing scenes went on forever. Indeed this flick is nearly 2.5 hours and while most of that moves, an editor would have helped.

It sure looks good. From the fluorescent lights of the hotel to each color-coded room to rain, fire, and snowy flashbacks this is an attractive film. It sells itself on being something rarer and rarer - a mid-range original Adult-focused action / drama / mystery. Part of its pedigree is the impeccable camera work, lighting, and framing which are all top notch. The camera moves inside secret rooms, passageways, and ideas revealing more and more as we blast our way deeper into the seedy chaos under the surface of the hotel. It's rad.

The film reaches its peak with a mostly shirtless Chris Hemsworth sneering and grandiose, easily earning Villain of the Year status in a year where he also fought fucking Thanos, so it's truly a sight to see. The film develops his svengali-hood and allure over poor Dakota Johnson's sister in an ever present menace and manipulation. There's some really great character work between abducted and abductee here, even as Dakota seems like the villain, then hero, but ultimately pretty gray. There are no heroes in this story. Except Cynthia Ervio.

Also walking that line is the Bell Boy, whose name nor actor I know not (for the record I quite enjoy blithely discussing films based on actors and what's-it-faces. I'll continue). He too has a well-developed character, from ordinary slacker to drug addict to murderer blackmailer to being manipulated himself to finally the hero we all deserve. It's a little deus ex machina, but at a steep enough price that Goddard gets away with it.

All in all El Royale works more than it fails, and certainly more than it deserves to. I was hoping it might sneak into an underdog "Best of 2018" slot, but not really. Maybe Top 25 though, and that's rad, too.

14 December 2018

Twenty GREATteen: Best Films That I Saw, Regardless of Year

We have a couple weeks left to go in 2018 but I'm not sure any film I see will crack this Top Ten, so here we go.

Each year in addition to our traditional end of year lists that every website ever makes, we take some time for personal evaluation of any and all movies seen for the first time in the Calendar Year 2018. We've been at this for a while now, and it's more a cool motivation to think critically about all movies you watch, catch up on some old ones that you've never seen, and for you, the viewer to gain some insight into my madness.

First, let's recap the last few years:

2017: Blade Runner 2049 (2017): I was really into BR2049. I still am. It was my #1 anticipated movie, the best of the year, and the best of anything I saw that year.
2016: Seven Samurai (1954): A great example of catching up with a classic that I had never seen and it totally blowing me away. I encourage you to check it out!
2015: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014): This was me getting into a film from the previous year that I had simply missed before 2014 was over. It was still great.

And, because I'm insane I also did this at the mid-year break. To be fair, without looking at that I made the following list, and amazingly, I kept five of my top six, in roughly the same order.

So, regardless of year, let's dip into the Top Ten of 20GREATTeen. I just copied this from the mega-list, we'll keep the method of viewing because that's always interesting. Also, sign up for Netflix DVD service.

#10: Boyz N the Hood (1991) - Netflix DVD

Why It's Here: When you watch upwards of 240 movies a year what matters most by December is what stands out. This was the first of a wave of early 90s Ghetto films that have never really stopped, but it's still the best. The cast is a who's who of 90s Black Actors, most of whom have become great 2010s Black Actors like Cuba, Angela Bassett, Ice Cube, Morpheus, Morris Chestnut, and Nia Long. It tightens its grip on your and never lets go, while never necessarily fetishizing, glamourizing, or exploiting hood gang violence like it easily could have.

Why Did I Watch This? This had been in my DVD queue for a while because it's just a notable movie, but certainly riding that post-Straight Outta Compton (2015) wave of gangsta films my interest was peaked in seeing something a little more authentic and focused. It also clued me into a lot of 90s references, from Eek the Cat! to Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996).

#9: mother! (2017) - Netflix DVD

Why It's Here: Okay, this is a divisive movie that most people hated, but I think it's bloody brilliant. As soon as I realized the whole thing was a parable I was super on board, sussing out the layers of metaphor. The final fifteen minutes is one of the most amazing tour de forces of cinema I've ever seen. There are few who agree with me.

Why Did I Watch This? All the controversy, insanity, and hype, both negative and positive, coming off the recent release the previous Autumn.

#8: Good Time (2017) - Netflix DVD

Why It's Here: There are a lot of "night gone bad" movies out there, but few with such immediate and visceral action and reaction as Good Time. Robert Pattinson has done incredible post-Twilight work just about everywhere and he endures nonsense here from beginning to end as his character can't quite shake the criminal he is at heart despite being pulled in tragic other paths of family, poverty, and neglected redemption. It's really engaging stuff.

Why Did I Watch This? It showed up on a lot of Best of 2017 lists, but what pushed me over the edge was Pete Davidson just LOVING this movie. He knows his stuff.

#7: Thelma & Louise (1991) - Hulu

Why It's Here: The great irony of this movie is that it's totally a fitting movie for 2018 yet you get the sense that it would never be released in 2018. I weirdly watched a solid number of Geena Davis movies in 2018 (I think three of them, two are on this list). This movie just kept unfurling and I was awestruck how spot on every single line of dialogue was for a film made nearly thirty years ago. It was really depressing. This movie was crazy popular, too! It was a film that has etched itself in pop culture lore and well worth catching up on.

Why Did I Watch This? At the time it filled a niche both on expiring soon from Hulu and me needing a 1991 movie to fill one film from every year. But that could have been any film - from my more familiar Simpsons knowledge to the definitive relevancy, this was a good pick.

#6: The Death of Stalin (2018) - Theater

Why It's Here: I miss witty, conniving comedies so much, and this was the wittiest, most conniving comedy I've seen in a long long time. Consistently hilarious, dark, brutal, timely, and really well-shot, this just hit all the right buttons for me. Armando Iannucci is a masterful screenwriter, but I also feel like this film isn't getting nearly its just dues come December. I watched it and knew it'd immediately be at or near the top of my 2018 list.

Why Did I Watch This? I had heard about the production years ago and it seemed interesting, then got far more interesting when I learned it was a comedy. The trailer sealed it for me, a local theater was playing it, and there we go.

#5: Sorry to Bother You (2018) - Theater

Why It's Here: I knew I'd fall in love with this. Similar to Death of Stalin this is right up my alley with its dark but clever humour. That's always the key - this film gets outlandish, more outlandish than just about any other movie I've ever seen, but the satire is always purposeful, stuffed with metaphor and relevant. It's uncanny. The cast is full of hot young actors from LaKeith Stanfield, who should be in everything, Steven Yeun, to Tessa Thompson who WAS in everything this year, and Armie Hammer, who I think is the most underrated actor in anything he shows up in. Did I mention how nuts this film gets? It's best not to spoil anything and let the magical realism take you in.

Why Did I Watch This? The trailer really sealed the deal, but knowing LaKeith from Atlanta and Get Out (2017) and Straight Outta Compton (2015) helps. Also Boots Reilly from The Coup as director was really intriguing. Mostly I heard this film was bonkers and it reliably was, which made me happy.

#4: City of God (2002) - Netflix Streaming

Why It's Here: This is a truly epic piece of filmmaking. There is hardly another film made that captures an entire generation of an entire city in two hours, but City of God destroys all competitors. I give the film a tremendous amount of credit for introducing dozens of characters played by unknown or even non-actors but imbuing all of them with a personality, function, actions, and reactions that reverberate throughout the city and the film itself. The protagonist may not even be the main character. It's a fantastic achievement.

Why Did I Watch This? I heard about this film years ago but didn't know much about it, only that it was notable but I think I read it in a big 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die book, and it also helped me get a 2002 film. Netflix Streaming helps.

#3: Shin Godzilla (2016) - Netflix DVD

Why It's Here: In the wake of a long span of time with no Godzilla, and then a lot of spins on the Kaiju but no real innovation, Toho decided to completely reinvent their own creation. We've had the American version - Godzilla (2014), which was by and large pretty good, the animated Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017) which is nigh unwatchable, and sure, let's through in the Pacific Rim movies to round out our recent Kaiju splurge. But no film was as flat out excellent as Shin Godzilla, which recrafts the Godzilla mythos into a disaster relief film in the wake of Fukujima. Godzilla is weird, deathly, and truly terrifying. His atomic ray is purple and shoots out of his back, tail, and a horrifying separating jaw. The human drama is actually compelling and casts a critical eye on Japan-US relations, self-reliance, relief, and prevention. It's top to bottom amazing and far beyond any mindless Kaiju Beat 'em up. Okay, I'm still looking forward to Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), though.

Why Did I Watch This? I heard it was good a while ago, and wanted to catch it, especially after watching this video essay. It was also October and I sorta justified it as a Halloween Monster film.

#2: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) - Netflix DVD

Why It's Here: Yeah, this is an obscure one. It was actually nominated for nine Academy Awards but only won one. It is truly a bizarre film, taking place almost solely in a brutal 1000+ hour long dance competition in the Depression Era, when people were just desperate enough to submit their minds and bodies to grueling spectacle for a quick buck. It's a real bleak film full of madness and despair disguised as a fun romp. It's precise, the acting is sublime by Jane Fonda, Gig Young, and many more, and you feel every bit the pain they go through until it becomes a meaningless exercise as futile as their misguided hope was in the first place. It's rad, man.

Why Did I Watch This? I forget how I got into it, but there is this weird sector of old entertainment of like, people putting hands on cars the longest, or dancing the longest and the insanity that ensued. It's a weird forgotten corner of our pop culture history. Also that Always Sunny episode. I think I just saw the title of this on a Wikipedia list or something and thought, "Damn, that's a weird title." It is and damn it's brutal. So metal! But I like exploring these subaltern, forgotten zones. Also, this wasn't even available on Netflix DVD for the longest time, I had to literally wait years.

#1: The Fly (1986) - Hulu

Why It's Here: It starts perfectly in media res, has an incredibly focused and limited cast of characters, believes in science, hubris, love, regret, body horror, it's so good. In 2018 Geena Davis' boss / stalker coming to save her is troubling, but the film works out that he gets some pretty rough comeuppance and she ends up being her own hero. Then again, this is a film without any real heroes - only complicated characters full of dreams, danger, and gross acne. From the slow transformation both physically and mentally to the doomed love story, this is a brilliantly constructed screenplay. Could have used a monkey-cat though.

Why Did I Watch This? I'm a big Goldblum fan and the pop culture relevancy of this is strong. Again, mostly Simpsons tho that's mostly the 1958 version. I watched this pretty recently because it was leaving Hulu, and I knew it'd be good, but damn I was blown away.

What did you watch this year? Am I too big on The Fly? Bet you didn't see that one coming.
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