Tag Archives: film

My Tribute to Moviepass

It seems common knowledge these days that Moviepass, the company that charged a pittance to see a movie every single day, was something of a scam. Yet, as it begins to pass, let’s be clear about what kind of scam it was.

It was the Robin Hood of tech scams. No blood-sucking Theranos or bafflingly conceived Juicero, Moviepass took from its swiss-cheese-brained venture capitalist investors and a series of fooled folks who thought they’d be in on the ground floor of the future (in a way they were) and redistributed their income to the deserving masses who simply wanted to see films.

We could poke holes in their business plan, but whatever could go wrong with a company that loses money when their service is used more than twice a month? Or what could be possibly be wrong about the assumption that people are willing to go to the movies about as much as they go to the gym? And who gives a shit? They did a public good and as they let out their slow death rattle and deny that the ship is sinking, they deserve a tribute.

I had the service for 3.5 years, from about February 2015 to August 2018. I’ve paid everything from $7.95 to $45 a month. I went through every single fuckup and innovation and finally got too frustrated with my inability to see a single movie in Atlanta, Georgia.

In that time, I saw 204 movies with Moviepass. That’s about 69 (nice) movies a year. The average for my demographic is 6.5 (I too walk out of movies, I get it). This should give you a rough idea of what something like Moviepass did for the cinematic experience and what a company not run by beautiful morons could do.

Because I’m an insane person, I of course, ranked them, listed in descending order from worst to best.

 

204 The Book of Henry
203 Jurassic World
202 The Snowman
201 Hacksaw Ridge
200 Entourage
199 Fantastic Four
198 Tulip Fever
197 Pixels
196 American Pastoral
195 Chappie
194 Alice Through the Looking Glass
193 Ratchet and Clank
192 Live by Night
191 Wilson
190 Masterminds
189 Suicide Squad
188 Ready Player One
187 The Dark Tower
186 Aloha
185 Sing
184 The Circle
183 Baywatch
182 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
181 Transformers: The Last Knight
180 X-Men: Apocalypse
179 Warcraft
178 Bad Santa 2
177 Downsizing
176 The Birth of a Nation
175 Independence Day: Resurgence
174 The Greatest Showman
173 Beauty and the Beast (2017)
172 Wrinkle in Time
171 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
170 Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them
169 Detroit
168 Florence Foster Jenkins
167 Pan
166 Justice League
165 Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
164 Jupiter Ascending
163 The Legend of Tarzan
162 The Light Between Oceans
161 Jason Bourne
160 Hardcore Henry
159 Money Monster
158 The Infiltrator
157 Leap!
156 Now You See Me 2
155 Assassin’s Creed
154 San Andreas
153 Kingsman: The Golden Circle
152 Ted 2
151 Storks
150 Ride Along 2
149 Battle of the Sexes
148 The Free State of Jones
147 Me Before You
146 Darkest Hour
145 Murder on the Orient Express
144 Snowden
143 Free Fire
142 Early Man
141 The Beguiled
140 Sully
139 Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
138 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
137 Southpaw
136 A Monster Calls
135 Spectre
134 Central Intelligence
133 The Fate of the Furious
132 Sisters
131 Miss Sloane
130 Frank and Lola
129 Denial
128 Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
127 The Post
126 Café Society
125 I, Tonya
124 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Out of the Shadows
123 Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
122 Ricki and the Flash
121 Minions
120 The Accountant
119 Antman and the Wasp
118 The Good Dinosaur
117 We Are Your Friends
116 American Ultra
115 Tomorrowland
114 Landline
113 The Florida Project
112 The Magnificent Seven
111 Vacation
110 Wind River
109 Dope
108 Trainwreck
107 The BFG
106 Nerve
105 Sleeping With Other People
104 Ingrid Goes West
103 Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
102 Power Rangers
101 Kong: Skull Island
100 Alien: Covenant
99 Finding Dory
98 Spy
97 The D Train
96 Blockers
95 The Walk
94 The Red Turtle
93 Star Trek Beyond
92 While We’re Young
91 Spiderman: Homecoming
90 Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
89 Sausage Party
88 Hidden Figures
87 The Eagle Huntress
86 Fences
85 The Shallows
84 A Quiet Place
83 Room
82 Moana
81 Ant-Man
80 Paper Towns
79 Atomic Blonde
78 The Neon Demon
77 T2: Trainspotting
76 Split
75 Neighbors 2
74 The Diary of A Teenager Girl
73 It Comes at Night
72 IT
71 Straight Outta Compton
70 Zootopia
69 Isle of Dogs
68 The Purge: Election Year
67 10 Cloverfield Lane
66 Doctor Strange
65 Krampus
64 The Lego Batman Movie
63 The Killing of a Sacred Deer
62 American Honey
61 Lion
60 Upgrade
59 45 Years
58 Hell or High Water
57 Game Night
56 Furious 7
55 Captain America: Civil War
54 Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2
53 Wonder Woman
52 Thor: Ragnarok
51 Bridge of Spies
50 It Follows
49 Good Time
48 Stronger
47 The End of the Tour
46 War for the Planet of the Apes
45 Eighth Grade
44 Nocturnal Animals
43 Paddington
42 Sing Street
41 Inside Out
40 Spotlight
39 The Edge of Seventeen
38 Logan Lucky
37 Mistress America
36 Star Wars: The Last Jedi
35 Magic Mike XXL
34 Jackie
33 Green Room
32 The Man from UNCLE
31 Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
30 Personal Shopper
29 The Nice Guys
28 The Lost City of Z
27 Brooklyn
26 Brigsby Bear
25 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
24 Manchester by the Sea
23 Hereditary
22 Arrival
21 Baby Driver
20 I Am Not Your Negro
19 Ex Machina
18 Get Out
17 Pete’s Dragon
16 Carol
15 Logan
14 Creed
13 Your Name
12 Paddington 2
11 Annihilation
10 Call Me by Your Name
9 Blade Runner 2049
8 You Were Never Really Here
7 A Ghost Story
6 Phantom Thread
5 First Reformed
4 Mother!
3 Sorry to Bother You
2 Mad Max: Fury Road
1 Moonlight and La La Land

That’s right, I copped out. Deal with it.

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Should You See?: ANNIHILATION

Trailer

(Quick note: This trailer is definitely not representative of the style of the film, though certainly of the feel. It’s a slower film than this presents and the stuff you see is even creepier and weirder in the actual film proper.)

Who’s This For?

Sci-Fi aficionados, anyone who wants to support strange and unique big budget filmmaking, anyone who really liked Ex Machina, fans of Andrei Tarkovsky, people who want to see something legitimately new on screen.

Who’s Gonna Be Turned Off?

Most general audiences, any fans of the book who expect total devotion, anyone who expected a traditional horror or thriller flick, anyone who’s not ready for a slow flick, anyone who’s watching right before bed

My Feelings!

It’s important first and foremost for those introduced to this through Jeff Vandermeer’s brilliant book to understand that this is ABSOLUTELY in no way similar to the book. While it maintains the spirit of discovery and wonder and terror, the film takes an entirely different narrative direction. One that is equal parts easier to grasp narratively as it is harder and scarier to grasp thematically and more disturbing in its imagery. This is not guaranteed to be loved by those who loved the book, but I think anyone who enjoyed that will enjoy this movie as well.

The actual movie itself is a rare sort of achievement. Seeing it makes it very easy to understand why Paramount was so nervous about its release (especially after their insanely ambitious and artistically brilliant mother! so famously crashed last year [not before becoming my favorite film of 2017]). This is not an easy or pleasing film. It is ambiguous and difficult to comprehend and disturbing in a way few major films ever are.

The best comparison (beyond things like Stalker that this film directly cribs on or Arrival that this film shares a space with) is the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is infused in this film through the depiction of things that should not or could not be. Annihilation is filled with images of creatures and places and phenomenon that seem wrong, like their existence is a challenge to humanity. Terror in this film comes from trying to wrap your brain around how something might exist and the rejection of the forms that you see.

It is to director/writer Alex Garland’s credit that I can legitimately say that there are things in this film that I have not seen before, even a few things I actually don’t have the vocabulary to describe. Think the end of 2001, an ending this film’s last 20-30 minutes sits comfortably alongside. Garland’s incredibly steady hand (influenced heavily by Tarkovsky) keeps things carefully trained and unfolding just slowly enough to wrap your head around before you get a new challenge that plunges you deeper in. You may be confused, but you’re never lost, and that’s the sign of the great work Garland does here.

This is not a character-based movie, these characters exist as archetypes inside a world that’s engulfing them. There is no character development, they exist to serve a larger purpose. The cast does amazing with that, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gina Rodriguez being marked as particular standouts. But if you’re seeking grand heroes, it’s gonna be hard to discover how little they matter but as vectors to something stranger and grander than they are.

This is maybe the best set of visual effects I’ve seen in a movie in sometime. What’s created feels natural to the world without ever looking obviously CGI’d while still maintaining just enough distance from reality. Kudos to the SFX and Production Design and Camera teams all around on this one, this is an impressive world they’ve created and some of what’s here still lingers with me.

Should You See It? 

Yes.

I think it’s worth supporting any film made on this scale with this budget and this many ideas in its head. You want more things that are new and weird and fantastic? It requires your dollars. Moreover, it’s worth showing Paramount that things like this don’t have to be relegated to Netflix.

But beyond that, it’s worth it as long as you know what you’re getting going in. You’re getting something difficult and disturbing and divisive. Something that’s new to fans of the book and even newer to the general audiences coming in fresh. A whole lot of folks are gonna stream out hating this movie and you may be one of them.

But if you’re not, you get one of the most singular, jaw-dropping, chilling and mind-blowing cinematic experiences of the year so far. You get new images and new thoughts. You get something that will leave its print on you long after you’ve left the theater.

Grade: A+

 

The Shape Of Water

Guillermo del Toro believes in the good of monsters.

There’s always been a beauty through which del Toro filters the grotesque and macabre. Through his eye, these creatures from the depths and horrors from beyond have an elegance and sense of awe that make them something more than a terror. They are animals or they are spirits and they have pain.

That warmth of spirit comes to the forefront in The Shape of Water, del Toro’s love-letter to Creature from the Black Lagoon and the mythologies and genres he grew up with. Anchored by incredible performance, technical brilliance, and a wealth of head and heart, The Shape of Water is a magical fairytale of a movie about people on the margins of society.

Set in the midst of the Cold War, government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings The Asset (Doug Jones), an amphibious humanoid creature, into a dark government research facility. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who spends her nights working at the facility alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her days sleeping and spending time with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa finds a strange connection with The Asset, one that goes deeper than anyone could have imagined.

I don’t want to go much further, this movie takes more delightful and interesting turns than anyone might have expected but let me drop one fairly major story note. Not so much a spoiler, but something that will help you understand where it’s coming from.

They fuck.

The lady and the fish guy fuck.

I tell you almost entirely so you can understand what this story is. It’s a lovely fairytale, something beautiful and otherwordly. But it’s a frank story about things like desire and love and what it means to be human (or not).

This is, perhaps more than del Toro has ever been, a film that feels free creatively. It’s a film that, despite maybe being his smallest, feels like his grandest in thematic vision.

You have a story of those on the margins. A woman who cannot speak can only listen to the voices around her. A gay man seeking to find affection, a black woman who no one will listen to, and something beyond human that can’t communicate either. A story of those people shoved to the side and told they aren’t human, given voice and allowed to make their story.

It’s also a story of love and romance, but one without the sanded off edges. This is a film with and about sex. Elisa is a woman who has desires that are communicated frankly from early on in the film. It’s about centering those desires and understanding how someone can interact with that, how desperately we long for affection that understands us.

It’s about that darkness coursing under the American history, the people we shoved into the underclass and the swath of destruction we cut across the land. The people who tried their best to stop it and were killed along the way.

This is a story about so much and it would be easy to get muddled and get lost in all the threads crossing and weaving. Yet del Toro is an absolutely talented enough director to weave into a tale that feels primal and real.

His world is characteristically gorgeous. While one of the least fantastic locations his film has been set in, it’s made with the same level of grimy detail and tangibility that his others have. The Asset is an incredible piece of design, even pulling off of Abe Sapien as it does, it’s still a distinctive and living creature that Doug Jones flawlessly inhabits.

The performance all around is incredible. It’s worth instantly reiterating that Doug Jones is an incredible creature performer and Michael Shannon plays a terrifying monster just as well, inhabiting an all-American man pushed to the edge, something too real to not be scary. Spencer and Jenkins also turn out great performances, Jenkins’ kindly friend a particular highlight.

But this is Sally Hawkins’ movie and she FUCKING nails it. Not a word is spoken (minus a brief and lovely jaunt into a fantasy) but she conveys everything through her smile and her body language and the touch she gives others. She embodies a deep well of life experience and gives character to every motion. It’s a beautiful performance, an absolutely incredible character from an actress who’s made it clear time and time again how good she is.

Honestly, I’ve talked enough, The Shape of Water is a movie that exists in the theater. It’s a beautiful, honest and vital piece of cinema from one of the great living filmmakers. It’s worth letting it wash over you, the world of wonder and the world of monsters.

Grade: A

 

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

It would be improper of me to chide a bird for flying or to mock them for having feathers. It’s simply endemic to who they are, being a bird and all. But on the other hand, if a bird had ended up underwater and was trying to fly through it, we might pause to consider whether or not this was the best approach.

Martin McDonagh is a crackling wit of a screenwriter and a surprisingly effective director. He exists with that sort of Sorkin-esque style where he crafts a singular voice through which his dark, ribald sense of humor and profane dialogue flows through all of his character, creating a unified vision of misanthropic worlds comprised of people who swear at their families.

This exact approach is why In Bruges felt so fresh and Seven Psychopaths felt so fun and why Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri felt so much like slipping ass-first onto concrete during a victory lap.

Three Billboards is the most serious story McDonagh has told yet. The story of small-town Ebbing, Missouri and a mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). Hayes lost her daughter, Angela, in a brutal murder and the police have come no closer to solving, no closer to bringing her justice.

So she puts a little pressure on and puts up three billboards. “RAPED WHILE DYING” “AND STILL NO ARRESTS” “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is the popular Chief of Police and he’s obviously not exactly thrilled about that sentiment being directed his way, especially as he’s dying and would like to end on a good note. Fortunately for him, most of the town is on his side, especially his second-in-command Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a controversial figure given his torture of a black man. But Mildred won’t back off.

Before I get into this, it is absolutely worth acknowledging that on every technical level, Three Billboards is the kind of success through which I absolutely understand why I’m the outlier here.

McDonagh’s penchant for directing actors has never shined through more than here. Much attention has been paid to Frances McDormand and even more attention is due. It’s a tour-de-force performance that kind of orbits the whole film around her gravity, all coiled rage ready to burst and lash out and leave just a raw, sad vulnerability at its core. She gets great moment after great moment from her dressing down a priest to a tender monologue to a deer that reminds her of her deceased daughter.

But Sam Rockwell is perhaps the secret weapon and surprise of the movie. It’s certainly a controversial figure, and we’ll discuss more of him later on. But Rockwell fills out the character so well, giving him such a heart and never excusing what he does, turning Dixon into a scumbag trying to do something decent for once in his fucking life.

McDonagh orients these great performances around a tightly constructed ensemble in a fairly tightly constructed film. It takes a few nice turns and keeps the drama moving along at a solid clip, reminding much of McDonagh’s theater background. But it’s not all just theater, Three Billboards really manages to pull off some gorgeous framing and shots, a lot of great quiet Middle America landscapes and great blocking of relationships between people.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri really is a great work of filmmaking and in a vacuum, it absolutely makes sense why McDonagh took on this story. A story of justice and mourning in America feels deeply relevant.

But…let me put forth…I don’t know if McDonagh’s style necessarily hits the story in the right way.

There is always a line between a story being told and the storyteller telling it. The best can absolutely merge themselves with any story. The best can also make any story told with their tongue. But even the best shouldn’t tell every story. Not every story should be told through every tongue, not every story translates properly.

McDonagh’s storytelling, his hyper-verbose and profane style, feels distancing from the raw emotion here and the difficult moral navigation. Far from stories of criminals and hitmen, the stories of real people make McDonagh’s style feel distant from humanity. It stands out more than ever that people just don’t talk like this. Which is fine, film is not and shouldn’t be reality.

When you tell a story that does strive for such reality though, it stands out when you distance yourself. You become an avatar of screenwriting contrivance, every moment standing out because it what technically is supposed to be there. The ugliness and sloppiness of real life feels lost here, such a dark story told by such a wicked wit.

It’s a movie that must show a mother half-joking that she hopes her daughter gets raped shortly before she does to give her a sense of guilt. It’s a movie where characters are complicated but their thoughts aren’t as to keep out of the way of the plot and of the style. Mildred has a streak of defiance, but her ideas about justice swing towards the point of the film. Dixon is a momma’s boy, but everything falls in line with what he does.

Three Billboards feels up and down like a contrivance, an attempt to make something McDonagh’s style is comfortable with without ever straining his emotional range or straining his thematic range.

Postscript thought:

Let me also add on a quick thought about Peter Dinklage’s character. Dinklage’s character has been on both sides of the discussion, an attack on the “Nice Guy” and the only decent person in the movie getting shit on at every single step. While I think it’s a rare misstep of characterization in this movie (McDonagh is ruthlessly clear on most of these), its bigger issue is how unnecessary this feels and how much he stands out. It’s a case of midget joke after midget joke with absolutely no nuance or purpose to it. There’s plenty of other moment where they point out how these folks are “un-PC,” a rare sort of meanness to a movie that doesn’t need it. In Bruges played it similarly right, here it feels like beating a dead horse.

That contrivance is perhaps what has so ended up grating about Dixon’s character to so many people. Trying to redeem a man who tortured black people would work in a movie that was maybe less darkly comic or had more complex ideas going on. But the contrivance here bends the arcs the wrong way, it makes Dixon’s redemption feel hollow, an idea rather than a fully implemented arc. Rockwell did a great job with a character that needs more work.

That’s what ends up being so disappointing about Three Billboards for me. It feels like a film that has all the best intentions and is so well-made and it ends up so misconceived. McDonagh is a talented filmmaker who swung at the wrong target here, not the storyteller who should tell this.

Grade: C

Lady Bird is a beautiful and true movie

The praise for Lady Bird deserves to start with a single detail. At two points during the movie, the song “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band plays as part of integral emotional moments. It’s a bonding for Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), something that gets them into the same emotional space. It’s not just what a perfect period detail that is, but what it says about the ethos of this movie.

Dave Matthews Band is not cool. Steven Hyden talks about this at length a little more (I’m pulling this idea from him but it stood out so much I had to repurpose), but Dave Matthews Band is not the kind of band that associates with having the kind of music taste that people in teen indie movies want to have, usually opting for the references points of what people in their 30s think is cool.

But it’s absolutely the kind of music a character like Lady Bird would be into in that year in that time. Lady Bird chooses to make sure its main character feels real rather than turning her into some icon of cool, to find a reality that grounds her rather than an attempt to impress the aesthetic.

With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig hasn’t necessarily blazed a new path, but simply made an exemplary version of a classic story by sticking to what feels real to her, by sticking to a rawer truth. The result ends up being a supremely confident debut, a warm film with a ton of life and a keen eye for those little human interactions.

Lady Bird follows Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), known as “Lady Bird” the name she gave to herself. It’s a coming of age story in Sacramento in Lady Bird’s senior year, 2002-03. Lady Bird wants nothing more than to get out of Sacramento and to the East, to New York where she thinks culture is, and away from her overbearing mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

And that’s your premise. Gerwig wanted a picture in the mold of The 400 Blows or Boyhood and in movies like that, the premise by necessity needs to be thin. You need room to expand and breathe and find all the little tangents that life goes down. Coming-of-age is a genre that functions as collage, all the little bits pulling together into a larger snapshot.

It’s about the people, first and foremost. Lady Bird is really great about capturing the deep flaws within people who are fundamentally good, not ever letting it diminish who they are and still letting what shines about them shine, both through writing and performance.

Saoirse Ronan takes the lead here and continues to prove that she’s one of the best young Hollywood stars. Her Lady Bird performance ranges from deliberately affected, trying to be something she’s not (a side-splitting moment as she tries to slide up on Lucas Hedges’ Danny), to achingly raw, cutting through the problems of teenagedom and learning who you are with a single question. It’s a truly great performance, one I hope gets the proper attention come Awards time.

But just as good is the character on the page she’s given. Lady Bird is the kind of character only the best coming-of-age movies fine. She’s absolutely nuanced, an intelligent and thoughtful girl capable of being cutting and selfish. Navigating the line is difficult, but Lady Bird never strays into her being unlikable or unrealistically good. She’s a person, Gerwig has created someone who feels real and who helps us understand the navigation of a difficult time in life. It’s not that it’s not angst, but it’s the kind of angst people actually feel.

You could easily write similarly about everyone in this movie, there’s a deep bench of extraordinarily well-written characters performed by great actors. Lucas Hedges has an Oscar in his future, let me tell you.

The other one who deserves to be singled out is Laurie Metcalf, playing Lady Bird’s mother Marion. In a way, this is her story too. Marion is coming to grips with her child moving on and with the difficulty of realizing that you have no way to actually grapple with the person your child is becoming. Metcalf does such a wonderful job of letting everything bubble just under the surface, of layering all her lines with the subtext and giving a really knock-out performance.

It’s easiest to talk about all the dramatic elements here, all the realizations and the grappling and the good and bad people. But Lady Bird succeeds because it weaves a warm sense of humor into the whole proceedings. Always good-natured and always ebullient, think the contributions that Greta Gerwig made to the work of Noah Baumbach without his inherent darker cynicism. There’s a lot of great little moments and asides, those that make you smile and those that make you sink into your seat knowing the horrifying embarrassment from your own life that you can map onto the experience.

Look, I’m just saying that I also tried to feel smart by reading a copy of The People’s History of the United States in high school and I didn’t get that shit until last year. So I feel you Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).

And hey, Gerwig’s handling of all this is helped by the fact that Lady Bird is an incredibly finely made picture. A film that is handsomely shot, well-edited, and absolutely drenched in great period detail (given that we can now make movies in periods I lived through).

I also just have to appreciate any movie honest about financial struggle. Not making it a point, not showing “one bad day poverty” as some deep lamentation or some noble endeavor. Just there, just a part of it, just an extra obstacle to pushing through the month. Having grown up that way, I really appreciate the way Lady Bird conveys it.

Lady Bird is the kind of film that makes you excited to see the next one from an artist. A film that’s absolutely lovely, wonderfully true, a film that feels so specific that everyone can relate.

Grade: A

Justice League is a flawed and enjoyable-enough crossing of the finish line for the DC Film Universe

Far be it from me to ever give a movie too much slack, but it’s a minor miracle that Justice League isn’t a total 12-car pile-up. After all, this is a movie that had at least 2 major creative sharp turns during the course of it with the critical failure (albeit commercial success) of Batman v. Superman and the tragedy-laced departure of director Zack Snyder to be replaced by Joss Whedon, two directors who could not have styles more worlds apart. Had it been an absolute mess, we could have simply sighed, understood, and moved on.

So again, let reiterate the petite miracle that Justice League kinda works. It is by no means a rousing success. There’s enough flawed narrative and weirdly bad CGI to make sure that this falls just short of managing to come in for a smooth landing or even a landing where it doesn’t take some damage. But a better-than-expected set of characters and a more resonant thematic work helps make Justice League something that you can at least see steering towards a much better place, finally.

Picking up in the wake of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death, the world has fallen into chaos. Its beacon of hope-

By the way, let’s take a brief early sidebar. In this film’s attempt to essentially right the ship of DC state, one of its most jarring (but very welcome) choices is to not only change the character of Superman, but to pretend that was how we always was. He’s not the controversial, complicated (like your bad high school boyfriend), and feared figure of Batman v. Superman. He’s a corny, charming and human hero that the world mourns deeply and falls apart without. I get the need to reboot without rebooting and I’m certainly happy they did it, but it is odd.

has gone out and darkness looms overhead. That darkness is in the form of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), a general of Apokolips who has come to terraform in its vision. Standing in his way is Batman (Ben Affleck), who’s figured out the invasion is coming, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who knows the power of this ancient enemy.

Together, the two must recruit other superpowered individuals across the globe. From Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a troubled loner seeking solitude, to The Flash (Ezra Miller), an eager young man hoping to get his father (Billy Crudup), to Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former football star who was stitched back together with mechanical enhancements after a devastating accident.

Our scrappy group of heroes is perhaps the best thing about this movie. Of our returning (that I can talk about), Gadot has such a star quality, a charismatic screen presence who’s enrapturing to follow, and her Wonder Woman is a very classical sort of superhero, with shades of that fundamental decency and belief in good that Christopher Reeve had. Affleck’s Batman is still sadly underdeveloped, but he gets more room to breathe with the ability to make a dry joke or two and lighten the character up just a little bit.

But hey, you knew that. It’s the new ones you came to see, so let’s just run down them.

Ezra Miller has been a star on the rise since Perks of Being a Wallflower and here you see what he can do in a bigger picture. He gets to play a Spider-Man role, a young hero in awe of the adults around him trying to figure out his place. The effects for him could use some work down the road, but there’s an exciting quality to a superhero who doesn’t come in ready to fight, playing more with nervous energy than many of the characters around him have.

Momoa is functionally playing Aquaman at his bro-est, think a Zack Snyder version of The Brave and the Bold’s cheesy, over-the-top-at-all-times Aquaman. It’s an enjoyable enough performance, though underdeveloped given that he’s the reluctant member, filling in a role that Batman often plays in team-ups like this. If they given him more room with his place in Atlantis, we might really see something interesting.

Fisher is the newest actor here, so naturally anything he’s gonna do is the biggest surprise. Fisher is actually really good here, giving Cyborg a little more substance than the Frankenstein monster he’s written as. There’s a cool, calm relaxed assurance to his character, something I wasn’t expecting but that Fisher really sells.

And perhaps most importantly, Justice League gets a team dynamic right. While Steppenwolf may not necessarily be the threat the movie needs (is he really that much more powerful than Ares?), there’s a sensible dynamic that brings them together. If The Avengers are a team of the personally flawed who had to get over themselves, then the Justice League (never called that in the movie) are a team of the tragic who have to move on. Each of them has lost something and they have allowed it for too long to consume them who need to save a world that has lost something and been consumed by it.

Justice League is essentially a movie about how those around us can help us move through tragedy. How the depths of despair can be escaped with a hand reaching down.

It’s a shame how much it gets right because the disastrous production got just enough wrong to keep it from really succeeding as it should be able to.

Steppenwolf may rank as one of the worst comic book movie villains period, down around Malekith the Accursed or Enchantress. His motivations are completely muddled, his threat is unclear, and the mythology behind him is only glancingly referenced, avoiding the substance an obscure villain like Steppenwolf would need. The lack of physical presence from Steppenwolf is noticeable too, an all-CGI character might be fine…

If it wasn’t for the weirdly terrible effects work in this film. I get that reshoots likely forced a lot of quick fixes, but the sheer amount of CGI might also come some way towards explaining why none of it felt focused on. Terrible green-screen, a lot of clearly visible actor replacements, maybe one of the most jarring human effects I’ve ever seen, and Steppenwolf himself looks plasticky and fake, like someone’s having an action figure fight the Justice League. Cyborg also falls victim to this from time to time, his design is just too busy to really look good. There’s a very substandard quality to something that takes up so much of this movie.

Which’d be fine if this film worked well narratively. To its credit, Justice League fixed Batman v Superman‘s pacing problems. This is a snappy, fast-paced narrative that’s always got something happening. The problem is that it’s got it happening way too fast. The jump from moment to moment can be jarring, much of the actual machinations don’t hold up to much scrutiny (I’m sure), and there’s a lot of introductions to people that only matter for a scene.

We’re given an early moment to a terrorist group led by Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) that Wonder Woman defeats. They get introduction, a monologue, and a whole action sequence and then are unceremoniously dropped without any explanation of why they got that much time. There’s multiple things like this throughout the film that just don’t work.

Plus your mileage will absolutely vary on the mechanics of the writing. Between Terrio and Whedon, the dialogue is…corny. This one feels like a Saturday morning cartoon more than anything else, and not necessarily the Bruce Timm cartoons. Your enjoyment of this film is really going to depend on how the film’s sense of humor works for you and how much you can get over some clunkers.

I’ll say this much. I could vibe on Justice League‘s sense of humor and the clunkers didn’t bother me much. There’s an entertainment value to this movie that works, character moments and beats and sequences that really do soar and get the fist pumping. This is the worst superhero movie this year, but it’s more the fault of the quality of the rest rather than simply the issues here.

Justice League is an enjoyable enough ride and one that steers the DC ship in the right direction. It feels like a purge of the universe that came before it and the creation of one that may be far more sustainable. One more full of heroes that want to do good and a world that is worth saving.

Objective: C
Subjective: B

A24 Double Feature: The Florida Project and The Killing of A Sacred Deer

The Florida Project

What do you do when a film whistles just past you?

The Florida Project, director Sean Baker’s tale of the disaffected and forgotten poor on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, is by all means a work of raw and honest beauty, something wonderful and deeply humanist in a way that absolutely deserves to be as celebrated as I can imagine this film will be.

Yet I must confess that something didn’t quite hit right for me about this, didn’t take that extra step from being a great made film into be something truly special. The Florida Project is a wonderful movie, yes, but what’s missing?

It’s not the cast, for sure. It’s a largely unknown/non-professional cast minus a few familiar faces, most notably Willem Dafoe playing the manager of the motel our main characters live in.

The story revolves around children, Brooklynn Prince playing a young girl named Moonee is our star, and yet all of them feel only as affected as children do. The performances don’t have that child actor showiness, but they still retain the artificiality that children naturally have, trying to figure out words and posturings they don’t know how to use just yet. Prince is particularly extraordinary, the perfect eyes to a world of wonder.

It revolves around the adults who raise them too. Their actors are all equally extraordinary. Newcomer Bria Vinaite, playing Moonee’s mom, is a powerhouse standing right alongside Willem Dafoe, giving maybe his most likeable performance ever. These are people who feel real in their quiet desperation, in the need to just get by day by day.

All of that is thanks to the filmmaking of Sean Baker, quickly becoming one of our best filmmakers telling stories of the forgotten people. The Florida Project really is a gorgeous-looking film, finding the wonder that children must in these dirty and dilapidated urban places. There’s an honesty to it that never loses a belief in the humanity.

The film is funny and charming and really deeply affecting in how much it loves and believes in the misfits that occupy its frames. Baker knows what it means to actually care about these people like few filmmakers do, never coming down to the level of tourist.

I mean all these nice things, truly. But I want to throw back to the film Sean Baker did right before The Florida Project for a quick point of comparison.

Tangerine, his iPhone-shot film about two transgender prostitutes (Alexandra and Sin-dee) in LA during Christmas, has a moment at the very end of the film where Alexandra takes off her wig and offers it to Sin-dee while she’s cleaning her own. It’s a raw and very vulnerable and beautiful moment, something so specific and such a moment of human kindness that feels like it peels back the layer of film artifice and feels like you’re watching this real moment of kindness.

The Florida Project never really has that. There’s a similarly honest feeling to the whole film, but never the moment that really digs down to be honest and raw. And it leaves the whole film feeling as though it tells an honest story in an artificial way. Never finding that moment where it can get real. Perhaps that’s where it just barely misses my heart.

Grade: B+

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

It’s rare for any year to yield a film as divisive and distancing and engrossing and fascinating and sickening as mother! It’s even rarer for a film to yield two films that you walk out of imagining that there’s a very real chance 95% of the audience hated it. But that’s 2017 for you.

While The Killing of a Sacred Deer is certainly not as jaw-droppingly audacious as Darren Aronofsky’s middle-finger masterpiece, it’s something just as difficult and insane to grapple with, something mythological and terrifying and confusing.

It’s hard to quite grasp what happens. Colin Farrell is Steven, a successful doctor married to Anna (Nicole Kidman), an equally successful doctor, with two children. Steven has also befriended a young boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). The two have a past that seems to revolve around the death of Martin’s father as Steven operated on him.

Martin seems to blame Steven for it, and for not marrying his mother (Alicia Silverstone) and giving him a family, and chooses to take his revenge. Steven must kill one of his family or they will all succumb to a mysterious illness that may or may not be caused by Martin. It’s unclear.

An off-putting enough premise, but filtered through the Yorgos Lanthimos (director of The Lobster) lens it becomes something truly bizarre. The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems to eschew human belief and action totally, turning them into living embodiment of the avatars of narrative. Lanthimos characters are bizarre and stiff, like a robot pretending to be human, and it makes an off-putting story into something bizarre and hypnotic.

It helps that Lanthimos has such an incredible grasp and control of what he wants to do that it keeps all that from spiraling out of control. That bizarre detachment of his character is his whole world, something perfect and pristine in arrangement and design, terrifying in its coldness and threatened by somebody who is all willingness to tear the perfection down.

Farrell and Kidman are great in this film, no surprise. Kidman is having a banner year and Farrell is having a late-career renaissance, Lanthimos’ ability to pull really reserved and mannered and complex characters out of him contributing to that. But the real surprise is Keoghan, playing perhaps the most terrifying villain of the year. He somehow manages to make his very presence unnerving, yet its hard to understand the true nature of his evil. He is something twisted and unknowable, all the scary for what we imagine he must be thinking as what is revealed.

Lanthimos has created something uneasy, something so pitch black that terror and comedy feel intertwined in the sheer ambiguous insanity of a work like this. He leaves no questions answered and seems to revel in making his viewer actively uncomfortable. A slightly-dragging second act notwithstanding, Lanthimos manages to keep such thrall over this bizarre world that you don’t mind how little he does to solve it, you suspect that was never the point.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is perhaps one of the most deeply unsettling things you’ll see this year (besides the aforementioned mother!). Its actual value is certainly going to be evaluated on a personal basis but undeniable is that Lanthimos swings for the fences to create something truly dark, truly disturbing, and truly worth watching.

Grade: A