What I’ve Been Watching – February 5-11, 2019

In addition to catching up on some new releases (spoiler: I sort of liked GLASS), I had Paul Verhoeven on the brain this week. After watching the thoroughly sub-par remakes of Total Recall and Robocop, I had to revisit the originals (along with Starship Troopers, the obvious next step) and as always, I was completely delighted.

FEB. 5

TOTAL RECALL (2012)
Blu-ray

Okay, I know I talk about SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY all the time but I’m going there again! Occasionally when watching SOLO, I remember that the material is based material from the original Star Wars trilogy, and I think, “oh right, that’s Han Solo.” At a few points during Len Wiseman’s limp remake, I remembered how much I like the original Total Recall a something on-screen vaguely reminded me of it. There have certainly been remakes that have improved on their forebears by reinterpreting material that had a lot of room for improvement (Ocean’s Eleven, Pete’s Dragon) or going in a very different direction (Suspiria). Total Recall, unfortunately, does neither and instead shies away from almost everything that made the Schwarzenegger vehicle the crazy, hyped-up and thoroughly unforgettable experience it is.

I try really hard not to dump on movie franchises that take an R to PG-13 ratings bump, but in the (good) Verhoeven sci-fi flicks, the absurd violence is kind of the point, as opposed to a means to an end. By trading blood squibs for a more pedestrian mode of swoopy, hyperkinetic (and MPAA-friendly) action and taking out all the weird stuff like Mars and mutants, there’s nothing interesting let to hold on to as a viewer.

I should note that I watched the theatrical cut and supposedly the extended director’s cut is a little better, but I don’t care enough to give it another chance right now.

ROBOCOP (2014)
Blu-ray

Compared to the original, the remake of Robocop is pretty useless. The first Robocop is a perfect movie. The remake is predictably forgettable and messes up some things that didn’t need fiddling with, but at least compared to the Total Recall remake by at least attempting to have some ideas. It doesn’t really work and some of the ideas are fairly undercooked, but some kind of effort is visibly being made.

In the end, the problem with both the Robocop and Total remakes is that they are conventional remakes of films that only appear to be conventional on the surface. This newer film may have a take on drone warfare to fill in for the first Robocop’s “urban politics” and the material with Samuel L. Jackson’s “shock jock” is clumsy but holds up in 2019 relatively well (though it can’t hold a candle to classic Verhoeven news footage).

FEB. 6

SPLIT (2017)
YouTube VOD

*SPOILERS FOR SPLIT I GUESS?*

I missed this film during its initial run, but if I had the big reveal that it’s a quasi-sequel to Unbreakable would have been lost on me in the theater. Since my occasion to watch Split comes upon the release of Glass, my reading of the film relied on it being part of a larger unit, and not its own thing. I don’t think that’s inherently bad, even on a first reading, but it’s my only reading. It was fun looking for all the little hints, but the mystery was gone.

Split is a movie that may not be a complete home-run but, there are some very strong moments that make the whole thing worthwhile (the abduction scene in the car is particularly compelling in its use of film language to reveal information at the same pace as the characters on-screen figure it out) and James McAvoy’s suite of performances is undoubtedly showy but still thoroughly compelling. I was expecting something like a bottle movie in the vein of 10 Cloverfield Lane, but Split is a little more expansive than that with subplots that take place outside the subterranean lair and tone down the film’s potentially gimmicky nature.

Would I have bothered with Split at this point if it was not part of a trilogy? Probably not. But M. Night Shyamalan is nothing if not a shrewd marketer and showman, and his ploy worked on me.

FEB. 8

THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART (2019)
Theatrical – 2D IMAX Digital

This movie is really good, right? Am I crazy? Why is nobody talking about this movie? The first Lego Movie was such a revelation that there’s little the sequel could do to make a similar cultural impact, but this still feels like more of a non-event than it should be. Why do I always have to stick up for the family movies? The Lego Movie 2 is really good!

The Second Part picks up directly after the first movie, and continues with the “twist” of having the LEGO narrative stand in for a family relationship. This time the focus is on the relationship between the brother and sister (played by Brooklynn Prince of The Florida Project!), takes a different tack from The Lego Movie’s bracing anti-corporatist bent and instead focuses on a message of kindness and acceptance that feels a little more in-step with current times. If possible, the form of pop music is weaponized even more this time around as The Second Part is almost a full-on pop musical with pointedly catchy songs and surprisingly funny lyrics.

This time around, the subversion is aimed a little more carefully, and finds its most potent target in the form of Chris Pratt, who is a much bigger star now than his last LEGO appearance. In addition to the main character of Emmett, he also plays a twisted amalgamation of his most popular film roles as a denial-plagued, raptor-wrangling space rogue to devastating effect. Is there precedent for a major film meta-dunking on its star this hard?

FEB. 9

TOTAL RECALL (1990)
Blu-ray

After sitting through the Verhoeven remakes, I wasn’t going to sleep well until I watched the originals again. They are all brilliant in their own ways, but if we lump RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers together as a loose unit we see a ton of recurring themes that reflect Paul Verhoeven’s uniquely outside-in perspective on the American blockbuster, and why they continue to be as entertaining and relevant as ever. Verhoeven’s sci-fi films may appear to be stupid on first glance, but what seem to be bizarre choices are often very deliberate and crucial to the spirit of the movie.

Take Total Recall, for example. Why would Arnold Schwarzenegger, in all of his can’t-miss-it Shwarzenegger-iness, be cast as a schlubby blue-collar construction worker named Douglas Quaid? And why would this rando guy be married to Sharon Stone circa-1990? And why is he able to brutally kill everyone in the bloodiest fashion imaginable? The true nature of Arnold’s character, and the nagging question of whether he is dreaming or not, are an integral part of the story’s structure and and add subtle shades to the film which grow more rewarding on each repeat viewing. The actual answers are not important, but they do invite parallel readings that are equally convincing.

As with any Verhoeven joint, there is plenty of material here that many will consider of questionable taste and your mileage may vary but there’s so much good stuff here. The production design and special effects are still mostly spectacular, and it’s always great to see Michael Ironside.

ROBOCOP (1987)
Blu-ray

What makes a perfect movie? Is there such a thing? In all seriousness, the only movie I can immediately think of that I would consider “perfect” while not being too much of a hipster would be Paddington 2. Why? Point to any individual element in the film in any narrative or technical aspect and you can find excellence, and it is delightful and engaging from scene to scene and minute to minute. I love everything about Paddington 2.

So the crucial question: is RoboCop really as good as Paddington 2? Does it spark as much joy? Fuck yes it does, RoboCop is incredible.

Total Recall has a grander visual scope and Starship Troopers has bigger ideas, but in RoboCop seemingly everything from the cast to the nutty, heightened tone to the offhandedly brilliant script converges in every single scene to make a film that never stops being a joy to watch. It works as a dumb popcorn movie, but it’s actually an extremely smart popcorn movie with a lot to say about class, crime and consumerism, a biting satire that still hits all the right notes. RoboCop is also ironically the most human of Verhoeven’s sci-fi fare, and the plight of the protagonist is actually taken seriously and isn’t subsumed by the film’s overall message. On top of that, it features one of the most iconic moments of extreme, graphic violence ever in mainstream American cinema in the ED-209 scene, and it’s just as hilariously insane today.

STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997)
Blu-ray

There are a handful of movie-watching experiences from my youth that I consider truly formative, and seeing Starship Troopers late at night on cable at too young an age was definitely one of them. At the time I didn’t really get the whole fascist angle, but I did know that it was weird that a movie that looked so good and so expensive got away with being so insanely violent. That’s the key to Verhoeven’s brilliance: this dumb-looking movie keeps being rewarding in different ways over time, and is complementary to audiences at multiple cinematic reading levels. Looking back today, it’s perhaps even more shocking than ever that such a baldly subversive movie got made at such a high technical level; it’s a hundred-million-dollar faux-propaganda film about American space Nazis.

If RoboCop was Verhoeven’s most human work, Starship Troopers is pointedly the opposite. The characters, narrative and visual storytelling all work in service of the fascist satire, not just for the sake of being cool (it’s been well documented that the cast was hired more for their, ahem, Aryan looks than their talent). Pulling visual inspiration from Nazi propaganda like Triumph of the Will and framed as a classic WWII-style propaganda feature, Starship Troopers appears to advocate for a future society that is prototypically American-looking and nakedly, horrifyingly fascist. Plenty of heightened Verhoeven choices clue us in: why does all of the Earth-bound material look like, to use a modern reference, a CW show? Why are all the people so eerily perfect-looking? Why is everyone in Buenos Aires white and apparently American? Why does Neil Patrick Harris show back up in the third act looking dead-eyed and wearing what looks like an SS officer uniform?

Even putting the message aside, Starship Troopers is also one of the best-looking special effects movies ever made and will likely never be topped in terms of its combination of CG and large-scale practical model work, especially for a film that is so unabashedly hard-R in terms of violence. It looked pretty convincing in 1997, and it still does today. High art masquerading as dumb schlock, a classic.

FEB. 10

GLASS (2019)
Theatrical – DCP

I’ll admit up-front that I don’t feel fully qualified to say much about M. Night Shyamalan’s epic conclusion to his oblique superhero trilogy, though after seeing it I feel sort of thankful I didn’t spend almost two decades waiting for it. Whatever anybody’s expectations of the ultimate conflict between Mr. Glass, The Horde and whatever you call Bruce Willis (Mr. Unbreakable?), Shyamalan makes sure to snuff them out as coldly as possible.

The first act plays out in a fairly logical way, as Mr. Unbreakable searches for and eventually confront McAvoy’s Horde. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know all three characters are placed together at a mysterious psychiatric facility under the care of a shifty Sarah Paulson and at this point the movie politely sits down at a table, pushes its chair in, places a napkin in its lap and proceeds to systematically eat the established rulebook for the superhero genre. This isn’t inherently good or bad, but there’s no denying that the shift in setting knocks the wind out of the movie and it never comes back. The climax of the film isn’t a superhero brawl, but a group therapy session. Bruce Willis has very little to do. The script talks about comic books like it’s from another dimension.

There are plenty of nits to pick and there’s a good chance some of it went over my head, but I have to give Shyamalan credit for putting up the money and making this nutty movie that seems to exist mostly for its own sake.

THE RUNNING MAN (1987)
Amazon VOD

I was looking to watch something that matched at least vaguely in tone with my week’s Verhoeven-ing, and I decided on this forgetting that Demolition Man was also sitting on my shelf. In theory, this hokey, gaudy satire about a deadly game show of the future should be pushing similar buttons to something like Robocop, but it’s simply not close to as interesting or complex. AH-nuld stars as a man framed for murder and placed in a game show where death row inmates fight against crazy assassins for a national audience. There’s some seriously potent 80’s cheese to be had which is its own kind of fun, but there’s no reason to take The Running Man very seriously.

FEB. 11

PAPRIKA (2006)
Blu-ray

With Total Recall still on the brain, I went back to Satoshi Kon’s anime mind-bender for another movie about dreams. The story revolves around a stolen device that can hack into people’s dreams without their knowledge, and the film pushes an “are they dreaming or not” conceit to the max. Basically, after the first act almost any character could be in a dream space at any time, which allows for any scene to fly off the rails almost instantly. The result is a film that constantly keeps the audience guessing and invested, even as the plot begins to lose the thread by the end.

AKIRA (1988)
Blu-ray

Akira is one of those classics I can appreciate, even if I don’t completely “get it.” A sprawling, sci-fi anime epic whose plot is too nuts to handily describe, Akira also remains a formidable technical presentation. Every time I get new speakers, this is one of my first test discs. Hearing Akira on my new 5.2 surround system for the first time was just as terrifying as I was hoping for, and the final half-hour remains just as disturbing and bewildering.

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What I’ve Been Watching – January 29-February 4, 2019

This week, I caught up with a Best Picture nominee I was not looking forward to, experienced Netflix’s anime Godzilla trilogy, celebrated the imminent return of Criterion to streaming and caught an advanced showing of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

JAN. 29

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)
Theatrical – DCP

I will admit up front that I am naturally predisposed to dislike Bohemian Rhapsody for a few reasons, but maybe the most pertinent are that I tend to resist pedestrian Oscar-bait biopics like this one, and I never really liked Queen. Out of all their songs, the one that gives this film its title is perhaps my least favorite. It’s too much. With that noted, I still feel comfortable saying I didn’t like this movie at all.

You remember that part in SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY when that Imperial officer gave Han Solo his last name and you were like OH SHIT THAT’S WHY HE’S NAMED HAN SOLO?! Bohemian Rhapsody is a lot like that, but with Queen. See re-enactments of your favorite performances! Learn the secret origins of some of your favorite songs!! This is a basic-ass movie aiming for the back row, like they feared if Rami Malek’s teeth were a little smaller people wouldn’t notice they were there.

I also can’t let it skate by that if you consider any of the news stories surrounding this film, from the Bryan Singer factor to how certain story elements fail to align with reality in concerning ways, I don’t feel any compelling reason to question my feelings about this one, awards or not.

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (2007)
Amazon VOD

I needed to get Bohemian Rhapsody off of me, and based on some discussion lately Walk Hard seemed like the obvious choice. It was uncanny, watching a relatively lowbrow comedy from over a decade ago systematically rip apart the “prestige” Best Picture nominee I just watched in a theater. I liked the songs better, too!

I’m a sucker for films that are primarily about other films, they get the film-school neurons firing. Walk Hard may appear on the surface to be a dumb comedy, but it uses the form to slice open the musical biopic genre with surgical precision and lay bare many of its silliest and most overused conventions. If anyone creatively involved in Bohemian Rhapsody remembered watched this movie, they kept it to themselves because Walk Hard lays down a minefield the Rhapsody gallops over with total abandon. Framing device of career-defining performance? Check. Distant relationship with parents who want to hold the singer back? Check. Band members struggling as frontman grows more distant? Check. Cutaways to random people watching along in a bar somewhere during a big song? Check. It was 90 minutes of ferocious slam dunks. What I’m trying to say here is Bohemian Rhapsody sucks.

JAN. 30

MIKEY & NICKY (1976)
Criterion Channel

All hail the return of Criterion to streaming! I will admit to being a long-time subscriber to FilmStruck who didn’t actually use the service that much due to my format preferences, but having been taught over and over again not to take things like this for granted, I figured I should get started right away with their first movie of the week, a feature that will run until the full service launches April 8.

Mikey & Nicky, a 1976 gangster drama by Elaine May, immediately reminded a lot of the Safdie Bros.’ Good Time, a film which has been stuck in my craw since I saw it in 2017. Both films can be described as nocturnal odysseys that follow doomed, hopelessly toxic men into the deepest depths of their own wretchedness. Nicky, played by John Cassavetes, is the cursed soul who stole too much from the boss and has a price on his head, and in his naked desperation he harms anyone that gets too close. Nicky is exactly the sort of man our society is learning to stop romanticizing, and the film knows it: scenes involving Nicky’s fraught and manipulative relationships with women have both a rawness and sensitivity that can manifest best from a female perspective. This only makes me feel worse about dozing off during a screening of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in film school. I’m really sorry.

JAN. 31

GODZILLA: PLANET OF THE MONSTERS (2018)
Netflix Original

When I first selected this blindly off my Netflix home screen a year ago, I did not know Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters was the beginning of a tightly interconnected trilogy so when I got to the abrupt cliffhanger ending, I was very confused. Now, the trilogy is complete. I often wonder about what exactly a Netflix film is, and more to the point if I count them as films for purposes of accounting. Even Netflix is unsure how to brand this Godzilla trilogy and uses the terms “A Netflix Film” and “A Netflix Series” interchangeably, but seeing as how each part got a theatrical release in Japan and is movie-length, I’m counting them.

While Shin Godzilla was Toho’s return to live-action following the American film in 2014, Planet of the Monsters is the studio’s first attempt at animation. While I don’t gravitate towards anime, one thing I like about it is that of any film form, it seems the most limitless in terms of scale. Just about anything can happen in anime, so for Godzilla’s first entry into the medium the setting is suitably fantastical. This trilogy is set in a future where kaiju have overrun Earth, and humanity has abandoned the planet with the help of some humanoid extraterrastrials who were previously displaced by kaiju on their planets. When the survivors decide to return to Earth and defeat Godzilla, they find the planet has violently mutated to accommodate a new dominant species.

As in many a Godzilla picture, while there is time to fight the monster there is much more time for lots of discussion. Planet of the Monsters juggles a lot of themes and its meditation on humanity not being at the top of the food chain are interesting, but there’s also a lot of crazy gobbledygook science too, of which your mileage may vary. The cast of characters is largely indistinguishable from one another. The high-concept premise is compelling, even if the prevailing mood can get cold. This being the first of an interconnected series, the movie doesn’t attempt to function as a standalone feature.

FEB. 1

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014)
Blu-ray 3D

The second How to Train Your Dragon is a textbook sequel for this sort of movie, in that it does almost everything right: it allows us to spend more time with characters we like, maintains the first film’s pleasant atmosphere while considerably upping the dramatic stakes, and tells a story that feels essential instead of extraneous. While the first film was largely about the vikings overcoming their prejudices and internal conflicts and learning, well, how to train their dragons, the sequel introduces a real human villain. Having the antagonist be an external force doesn’t allow for as much character growth and can cause the film to feel occasionally overstuffed, but the upside is that the danger and emotional stakes are ramped up considerably. There is some real drama here, moreso than the other installments.

The Dragon series falls well with the Dreamworks house style and looks good enough without being showy, but the character animation, especially of Toothless, may be the single most crucial component that all the movies get right. The mind-control sequence (which feels surprisingly risky) only works because Toothless’s physical characterization is so distinctive.

GODZILLA: CITY ON THE EDGE OF BATTLE (2018)
Netflix Original

The anime Godzilla trilogy lumbers on in a very similar vein to the first installment. The story picks up immediately with nary a refresher, and follows the remaining survivors as they encounter an Avatar-esque native tribe, spend a lot of time discussing in pretty specific detail how to defeat Godzilla, and fight amongst themselves before taking another shot at the monster. BUT – is Godzilla the real monster here?

There is a lot going on in these Godzilla films, and it’s easy to detach a bit as the exposition flies around willy-nilly. The crazy plot is contained in a movie that might be a little too earnest for its own good, and attempting to detail what happens feels like a silly exercise if you’re not at least somewhat familiar with Godzilla lore. Mechagodzilla City, anyone? Godzilla spends even more time sitting dormant than he did in Plane tof the Monsters, and while his presence is still felt because almost every conversation is about Godzilla, it’s a stretch. I’m very glad I’m approaching this series with all of the installments now available, as I can’t imagine City on the Edge of Battle is very useful as a stand-alone piece.

FEB. 2

GODZILLA: THE PLANET EATER (2019)
Netflix Original

I don’t know if the final chapter of Netflix’s Godzilla epic is the best of the three, but it at least bears the closest resemblance to a more typical Godzilla movie. Godzilla is awake for more than 5 minutes this time, and the stakes shift from the humans fighting Godzilla to Godzilla fighting another monster. Some religious themes which served as undercurrents in the previous installments are brought much more to the fore, and the macro stakes really outweigh the personal ones as the series ostensible lead character, Haruo, is largely sidelined in favor of a conflict that grows larger than human concerns. The Planet Eater goes out there and gets metaphysical, and I can’t accuse the trilogy of not ending on a crazy enough note. Is it enough to get you on board if the first two parts didn’t do it for you? Maybe not.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD (2019)
Theatrical – DCP

The How to Train Your Dragon series has held up for a while now as sort of the Planet of the Apes of animated franchises: you may not think about them every day, but these sneaky-good films show up and consistently over-perform installment after installment. Unsurprisingly, The Hidden World continues the streak and ends the series on a moving high note that cements this series’ status as one of the great film trilogies.

It’s one thing to develop a well-rounded cast of human characters, but the way Toothless is not only characterized but given a meaningful arc as a character that is, well, an animal that can’t talk. The dragons are never strongly anthropomorphized, they always behave like animals, but Toothless isn’t marginalized and his story, whether he is on-screen or not, is the crucial thematic core of the film. There’s also human conflict which pushes the story along to the titular hidden world and an enjoyably snakey dragon-hunter villain played by F. Murray Abraham, but the vikings, the dragons and how both they and their relationship evolve is where the good stuff is.

If you’ve seen the How to Train Your Dragon 1 & 2, making the trip to see The Hidden World should be a no-brainer but if you haven’t, this is the perfect chance to catch up on one of the best mainstream film series you might have missed. Each entry enriches the others in an essential way, and taken as a unit the accomplishment of this trilogy is kind of staggering.

BULLITT (1968)
Blu-ray

Bullitt is a movie I’ve been aware of for a long time, and I knew two things about it: it’s got Steve McQueen in it, and there’s a car chase. Now having watched it, I can say that it’s got Steve McQueen in it, and there’s a really good car chase. Unfortunately, this masterful sequence (which is no less visceral today) happens in the middle of the second act and the rest of the film runs out of steam. McQueen has a flinty, Daniel Craig Bond kind of vibe and is fun to watch, but it’s difficult to recommend that you watch the parts of Bullitt that are not the car chase.

FEB. 3

ASSASSIN’S CREED (2016)
Blu-ray 3D

Movies like Assassin’s Creed are one of the biggest reasons I miss the glory days of MoviePass. I went to see this one afternoon as a random toss-off that I had no expectations for, and I ended up feeling down to clown with its weirdness. I’ve never played any of the games myself so I have no personal insights into its fidelity to the source material, but I took note of lots of jumping and slashing, which seem like things you would do in those games. The cast is bizarrely overstuffed with the likes of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Michael K. Williams, Brendan Gleason, Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling (!), and I can’t help but enjoy it even as I sometimes stumble through the hazy plot (and strain to see through the literally hazy visual effects). I continue to be intrigued by the dreamlike flying shots that begin each “flashback” sequence, as they sport a unique multiplane look that comes close to replicating an old-fashioned animated tracking shot with several planes of depth.

Assassin’s Creed joins the club with the Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla of movies that have 3D Blu-rays that are more available than most, but aren’t a great technical showcase for the platform. Godzilla is overwhelmingly dark to the point that adding 3D glasses can severely compromise perception of detail, and Assassin’s Creed’s showcase sequences are bathed in a thick layer of fog that does no favors for depth perception and invites ghosting. Sort of a shame.

FEB. 4

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)
Netflix Original

Is this the sort of movie that only Netflix money can buy? It’s rare to see an anthology film approach the mainstream, and even rarer to see an anthology helmed by one (set of) filmmaker(s). The six segments vary plenty in terms of tone and story, but they are uniformly well-cast and gorgeous to look at. The Coens’ particular brand of comedy is as black as ever, and you can be assured that not everybody makes it intact to the end of their story.

The opening segment that gives the film its title is the most immediately arresting and distinct in terms of tone, and I’m relieved it wasn’t spoiled for me. The fifth segment starring Zoe Kazan is the most substantial and rewarding and does the best job grounding the comedy enough to actually get invested. In a rarity for the anthology format, each segment truly feels like it has the production value of a feature uncompromised by a restrictive budget. I didn’t watch all six segments in one sitting and watched on a few different devices, and I can attest that the material really benefits from a large screen. Some of the wide shots could pass for expanded IMAX frames in terms of their scope, and it’s a shame that the cinematography will be largely relegated to phones and TVs. This is a Netflix film I would have watched in a theater.

What I’ve Been Watching – January 22-28, 2019

This week,  stuck with mostly catalog films as I revisited the four original Alien films in their alternate versions,  explored Disney’s most controversial film and saw what I can only imagine will be the most batshit theatrical release of 2019.

JAN. 22

ALIEN (2003 DIRECTOR’S CUT)
Blu-ray

In revisiting the original Alien “quadrilogy” for the first time in at least a decade, I figured I would spice things up by watching all of the alternate cuts. Acknowledging that the first two installments have reputations for being stone-cold classics for a reason, the Alien series is perhaps most notable as a whole for its marked inconsistency. This inconsistency even extends to the ways in which the alternate cuts function in respect to their theatrical counterparts.

Of the four alternate cuts, the original Alien and Resurrection feel less necessary. I fondly remember Alien as one of the first movies that really blew me away as a kid, and it’s still comfortable and familiar to me. The Director’s Cut trims back a little bit of the atmosphere and adds some more information, an interesting supplement but it won’t become my go-to. As much footage is removed as is added, so this isn’t really an “extended” cut, either. It’s just different.

One fun thing about rewatching some of my favorite films from when I grew up after such a long time away is getting to experience them in high definition for the first time. I know HD is nothing new and 4K is already upon us, but a Blu-ray with a solid transfer, especially blown up on a large screen, is absolutely nothing to sneer at and the video presentation for Alien is stunning.

JAN. 23

ALIENS (1990 SPECIAL EDITION)
Blu-ray

I was never as big of a fan of this much-extended cut as everybody else, but this viewing turned me around a little bit. I watched the theatrical cut a few months ago, and was sometimes thrown by the lack of footage I assumed would be there. This version adds more meaningful material than I remembered, even if there still is a little bit too much extra baggage. The material that fleshes out Ripley’s motivations are very welcome, especially given Sigourney Weaver’s powerhouse performance. Over 25 years later, there are still very few mainstream films I can point to that can contend with Weaver’s mix of toughness, compassion and vulnerability. Her Oscar nomination for this performance is not a joke.

I remain torn about some of the additions. The sentry guns are badass and sort of iconic, but have no bearing on the plot. The “before” sequence on LV-426 provides a different perspective and has some cool production design which is not seen again, but it doesn’t make the movie play any better even if it’s worthwhile to see for fans of the franchise and, at least to me, takes away a little bit of the mystery. However, James Cameron loves his extended cuts and a scene that expensive and logistically significant that was not going to be left in the trash.

When I was a kid and watched most of my movies on a little widescreen portable DVD player, it drove me crazy that Aliens was shot in a narrower aspect ratio than the others. It still still sort of does, but while Aliens is a lot of things, visually expansive is not one of them. The cast is bigger and there are a lot more aliens, but this is still a confined corridor-crawler and the confined frame keeps you closer to the action.

JAN. 24

ALIEN³ (2003 ASSEMBLY CUT)
Blu-ray

And suddenly, close to 15 years later, my reading of the Alien 3 novelization makes sense. This is a very different movie than the one I remember, and while it’s definitely a better film than the theatrical cut it doesn’t really feel like a complete film on its own. Both versions trade some lapses in continuity, and the aptly-named Assembly Cut feels more complete in terms of narrative but less technically polished. Attempts are made to explore some themes about gender and Ripley’s actions and relationships in mostly masculine environments in more depth than previous installments, and there’s an interesting religious undercurrent that’s mostly cut from the theatrical version.

The assembly cut is too long and is raggedy at best, but it’s an interesting glimpse into what this movie might have been in an alternate universe (maybe one where Trump isn’t president). Compromised movies like this with no “optimal” version are fascinating largely because they leave things to the imagination. There’s enough there to see that a real attempt was made and at one point the ideas were there. What if Alien 3 was good?

JAN. 25

ALIEN RESURRECTION (2003 SPECIAL EDITION)
Blu-ray

Out of the original four films, Alien Resurrection always felt to me the least, well, legit. Alien and Aliens are classic complements, and Alien 3 in either of its “finished” forms may not be a traditionally functional movie, but there are definite, specific ideas fighting to get through. Resurrection is a loony, tonally-mismatched splatterfest that tries to be a bit of everything but can’t commit to anything. Just as Aliens is arguably more interesting in the context of other James Cameron films than as a sequel to Alien, so it may go with Alien Resurrection and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The filmmaking bears his recognizably in-your-face (and wet) stamp, and seems to be fighting with Joss Whedon’s script which is, as they say, “Whedonesque.” The special edition cut adds little to the film, besides a cheeky new opening title sequence and a coda that I was surprised to find I didn’t mind.

JAN. 26

SERENITY (2019)
Theatrical – DCP

Here’s another one where Twitter got me into the theater. Trailers have been playing in theaters in front of almost every R-rated movie for what feels like a year, but they gave me no hint at the pure insanity at the heart of this film. I saw the headlines proclaiming this to have the craziest third act in ages, that it had to be seen for its sheer loony audacity. I resisted the urge to read the spoilers and instead speculated wildly about the most far-out metaphysical twists I could imagine (the island is on another planet, everyone is already dead, Matthew McConaughey is in a Truman Show-type situation, etc).

As you can imagine, I spent much of the film guessing the twist instead of trying to assess it critically, since objectively Serenity is not a good movie. That being said, it turned out that my craziest pre-viewing guesses weren’t that far off and Serenity is playing on that level. The underlying premise of this movie is truly insane, and barely hinted at in any of the marketing. Bring a friend, and you’ll have a good time.

UNBREAKABLE (2000)
Amazon VOD

M. Night Shyamalan isn’t a total blind spot for me, but I can’t say that I have much of a connection to his work. I mostly liked Signs, that’s about it. With all the hoopla surround Split and Glass I figured it was time to catch up, and I watched Unbreakable as blind as is reasonably possible. I was enjoying it and found it curious as a genre exercise, a drama about superheroes with basically no superheroing. Then, it ended. I don’t often get surprised by endings, but this one got me not because of the plot twist, but its abrupt nature. I thought I was still in the second act, and it just ended. In some ways I guess that has to count as a kind of success, since I was ready and willing to watch more movie.

Unbreakable’s stance as superhero movie that really isn’t a superhero movie still feels unique, especially in today’s climate. I think I get what Shyamalan was going for by pulling out the rug and bolting while the audience is dazed, though I’m glad I didn’t spend almost two decades wondering if there would be a sequel.

JAN. 27

BLADE RUNNER (1982 THEATRICAL CUT)
Blu-ray

There’s a whole generation of people that grew up with the theatrical version of Blade Runner as their memory of the film, but as I came around late enough that the Final Cut became the most easily-available version of the film to acquire, the 1982 cut has always existed to be as more of a curious novelty. Watching it in full for the first time, I can confirm that while both the voiceover and the happy ending are both kind of bad, it interested me to see how Blade Runner 2049 accounted for them without totally canonizing them. It’s hard to forget that Deckard might be a replicant, so having the theatrical version only account for this obliquely (or in continuity issues) is jarring. Regardless of my feelings about the cut I watched (which are partly extra-textual anyway), Blade Runner is still a formidable piece of work as a noir-inflected genre mash-up and a rarely-challenged visual spectacle.

JAN. 28

SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946)
VHS

In celebration of figuring out out how to hook an old VCR up to my projector, I decided to unearth one of my prized possessions: a shitty Chinese VHS bootleg of Song of the South I found at a convention at least 15 years ago. How does Disney’s most controversial film play in woke 2018? Um, quite badly.

For the socially-conscious Disney fan like myself, there are two specific and distinct ways to read Song of the South: there’s the race angle, and the Splash Mountain angle. It will always be fascinating that one of the highest-profile Disney attractions worldwide is linked to a film that is basically toxic, and indeed most of the story content of the animated Br’er Rabbit sections has made its way into the various iterations of the ride, with some alterations (in particular the cringeworthy tar-baby scene). On a technical level, the animated sequences are strong enough to stand with the best Disney work and the integration of animation and live-action footage is remarkable for the time.

However, about 75% of the film is not animated, and that’s all trouble. The live-action story takes place on a Georgian plantation where the white masters and the black help (the film ostensibly takes place during post-Civil War Reconstruction, but this is never confirmed explicitly) coexist happily, with no effort made at any kind of commentary or political overtones. The absence of strife is unsettling, though even in this idyllic portrayal of the Old South the black characters only exist to serve and occasionally impart a valuable life lesson on the white kids. Coming from a genuine place or not, this kind of portrayal of the subject matter can be straight-up harmful without the proper context. None of this is helped by the fact that the live-action sections are horrifically dull and come with little to bear a recommendation. I can’t really blame Disney for keeping this in the vault.

What I’ve Been Watching – January 15-21, 2019

Another week has gone by. This week, I discovered the joys of Batman & Robin and watched some other movies that were better.

The Oscar nominations came out yesterday, and they are what they are. There are some very interesting picks (two actresses for Roma, lots of love for The Favourite, the whole documentary category) and plenty of stuff that I thought should have gotten more love (First Man score, Eight Grade, Widows, Paddington 2). I’m not very happy with the Best Picture field; usually there are one or two films I’m uncomfortable with but this time there are four (A Star is Born, Green Book, Vice, Bohemian Rhapsody). I’m paying attention, but I’m not terribly enthusiastic about this year’s group. It will really come down to what wins.

JAN. 15

BATMAN FOREVER (1995)
Blu-ray

Like the Tim Burton Batman films, the two directed by Joel Schumacher also completely passed me by. I’ve been very happy to watch them for the first time and experience them on my big screen in all their crazy glory, but I wonder how I would have felt about them if I saw them when everybody else did. Val Kilmer is fine if unremarkable as Batman, but the villains steal the movie with Jim Carrey ‘s Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones’s Two-Face both seemingly doing loonier variations on Jack Nicholson’s Joker. The stagey set design and crazy lighting make for a film that has an aesthetic that may be kind of tacky-looking but is definitely distinctive. It’s almost like sitting in the front row at a stunt show at Six Flags. Fun, but not deep.

JAN. 16

BATMAN & ROBIN (1997)
Blu-ray

Incredible. Stunning. Wow. From the opening scene onward, I was pinned to my seat, mesmerized by what I was witnessing. How did I miss this? Batman & Robin is the sort of movie that suffers from bad decisions at almost every conceivable opportunity. The laughable dialogue, the Dutch angles, the completely ridiculous production and costume design, it’s all so much. Clooney is Clooney as Bruce Wayne, and that’s sort of okay, but he looks completely lost when wearing the suit. There’s no denying that Batman & Robin is terrible, but I’ll probably revisit it every now and then since it’s so spectacularly terrible. Bat-butt forever.

JAN. 17

HEIMA (2007)
DVD

I was looking for something interesting to break in my new sound system, and this DVD that’s been sitting on my shelf for 10 years fit the bill perfectly. Heima is a basically a concert film, documenting an Icelandic homecoming tour Sigur Rós embarked okn in 2006. The band traveled to a city or two, but focused on small towns and remote locations and found some truly unique and visually striking performance locations. Sigur Rós might not be everyone’s bag, but if you’re as familiar with the band’s music from that period as I am, it really is a breathtaking experience.

JAN. 18

SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
Blu-ray

Spider-Man 2 is one of those movies I saw in theaters and never got around to again, but it made enough of an impression on me that even if the memories were vague, I never really forgot it. Especially with all the talk around Into the Spider-Verse, I felt it a was a good time to look back and not only does it hold up, it still blows away most of the field with ease. It’s very possible that my experience was enriched simply by being surrounded by so much good Spider-Man content between Homecoming, the PS4 game and Into the Spider-Verse, but Spider-Man 2 taps into the themes that drive the best Spider-Man stories: how it sucks to be Spider-Man but it’s a burden that has to be carried. Almost a decade and a half later, this still counts as not only one of the best entries ever in the superhero genre, but a real film that can stand up to almost anything.

JAN. 19

THE BIG SHORT (2015)
Blu-ray

I didn’t really like Vice, and I was wondering how a viewing of The Big Short would hold up after viewing Adam McKay’s latest. I was a little worried about a Neill Blomkamp-like effect where later films sort of demystify the filmmaker’s style and rhythms by echoing them badly. As it turns out, McKay’s quick-cutting, fourth-wall breaking style of montage simply makes a lot more sense for this material than for a biopic about Dick Cheney, at least in this instance. The financial crisis is tricky material to try and adapt, and the almost nonstop barrage of explanation is necessary for the audience to understand the outcome. You can argue that the approach is abrasive and will serve some audiences better than others, but it pretty much works. The cast is broad and compelling, and they may be playing real people (or composites) but it’s nobody we’ve heard of.

Vice, on the other hand, is a parade of events we largely know of involving people we’ve heard of, along with sardonic running commentary telling us how bad everything we’re seeing is. Little is left for the audience to arrive at themselves. It’s arguably more gonzo, when the source material and the “character” of Dick Cheney might have led you to believe that might not be the case. Movies are manipulative by their very nature, but it shouldn’t be this obvious. The Big Short is much more effective.

JAN. 20

GREEN BOOK (2018)
Theatrical – DCP

How would I have reacted to this movie a few months ago? That question, and the potentially scary answer, took up a lot of my thoughts while I was watching Green Book. Being a fairly close observer of Film Twitter and someone who generally likes to know what’s going on in the film world, I went into Green Book very aware of its problems and with my guard up. With that stance, of course I found plenty to dislike about it. Scenes like Viggo Mortenson’s thuggish driver telling Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley he’s not black enough because he doesn’t listen to the radio or eat fried chicken, and passing it off as funny, absolutely raised my hackles. I felt similar discomfort watching A Star Is Born as the central relationship felt very wrong, like I was seeing the sort of thing we shouldn’t be promoting as good or romantic anymore, but at least that’s part of the DNA of that story going back to its earliest iterations. Green Book seems to think the relationship between its two main characters is not only good, but a model for others. That’s scary and regressive.

But would I have come to that conclusion with as much certainty if I didn’t have the context? What if I saw Green Book cold at a festival? I do the best I can, but I’m just a twentysomething white guy and occasionally I need to be reminded of my privileged perspective. I might have viewed it through this lens, but what if I wasn’t really paying attention? This movie felt like a trap set for me: Green Book is designed to be pleasant and agreeable to watch and I’m happy to spend time with this cast (I won’t be upset about Mahershala Ali winning Best Supporting Actor). But there’s something insidious going on here that I can’t ignore. If there’s something rotten at the core of this project, no amount of dazzling craft can keep it from being compromised.

CASABLANCA (1942)
Blu-ray

I have a shocking news update: Casablanca is still good. It’s an intimate drama that manages to hold the weight of the world on its shoulders, and no less relevant today. The climate of corruption and tyranny feels familiar. The film looks stunning on Blu-ray; it often amazes me how resilient celluloid is, and how good catalog titles can look on the format.

JAN. 21

INCEPTION (2010)
Blu-ray

Here’s another one that I only saw once (in this case at the shittiest theater in Central Florida that still played first-run movies), but it left a huge impression. Inception does what many of the best movies do: it works because it has such a mastery of film form that the story could not be told as well in any other medium. Inception has to be a film, and it comes from the ultimate mainstream formalist: Christopher Nolan.

Nolan is patient stacking his dominoes. The film is divided roughly in half, between the setup and the heist. The first half is almost straight exposition: there’s a lot of information and concepts that need to be conveyed in order for the back half to work. I don’t find this half particularly difficult to sit through, but your mileage may vary. The setup is worth it, as at its most heightened action is happening on four simultaneous timelines (!) and the rules are rarely brought up again. By the time Joseph Gordon-Levitt is flying around a hotel room in zero-g and punching guys, it makes perfect sense.

I also had a different reading of the heist section after recently watching all the James Bond films: the snowbase setting and ski chase could come from half a dozen Bond flicks. This might be as close as Nolan gets to 007.

There all sorts of movies out there and excellence can be found from anybody and any budget level, but only Christopher Nolan can make this kind of movie with a huge studio budget. It’s almost a miracle that on top of that, Inception is so good.

MORTAL KOMBAT (1995)
Blu-ray

I got a lot of video game vibes from Inception (one of the characters is literally a level designer), so I figured I’d follow up with a video game movie I found in the bargain bin a few days ago, another 90’s movie I’ve never seen. I was unsurprised to find Mortal Kombat was pretty terrible, but it’s got a fun time-capsule quality to it. The script is atrocious, and everyone is hamming it up for the kids. Christopher Lambert is super weird. Anyway, I tend to learn something from bad movies where the mistakes are pretty obvious so this viewing experience was enriching in its own way. Even if the sound mix on the Blu-ray is ghastly.

What I’ve Been Watching – January 8-14, 2019

It’s week 2 of this little experiment, and I’m still at it. I accidentally went on a bit of a modern Godzilla tear, indulged in some political paranoia, and filled in one of my big blind spots by watching Tim Burton’s two Batman films.

JAN. 8

SHIN GODZILLA (2016)
Blu-ray

One night a few months ago, I popped in Shin Godzilla while half-asleep, immediately got overwhelmed and put it away again. I decided to get in the right mindset and give it a shot again, and I was thoroughly amused and entertained by this bizarre take at a Godzilla movie. This was Toho’s first pass at a live-action Godzilla following the 2014 American effort, and the result is something much less conventional. The film is presented like a top-down look at what the the government response to a kaiju event would be, sort of like an Armando Ianucci film with Godzilla. I might not know anything about Japanese government, but the allegory and satire about the absurdity of government bureaucracy were still clear.

When there is monster action, it’s striking for how visceral and gross it is. This version of Godzilla appears to have slithered out of the sea still mostly in fish form, with terrifying, bulbous, lidless eyes and gills that leak huge quantities of dark viscous liquid. It’s also a huge confused animal that can start off doing little more than dragging itself around and running into things. It evolves into increasingly dangerous forms and the ending hints at bizarre possibilities that will never be explored, as Toho will not be pursuing a sequel.

Shin Godzilla is an incredibly dense film, and and the occasional cutaways to Godzilla come close to serving as a relief from the onslaught of densely-packed dialogue and a parade of important-sounding speaking characters that numbers in the hundreds. I wouldn’t normally mention this, but for those of us who don’t speak Japanese this subtitle track is makes for a lot of quick reading as the dialogue at the bottom of the screen is supplemented with an almost constant stream of names, titles and locations that, in a rare occurrence, almost made me wish I was watching on a smaller screen.

JAN. 9

GODZILLA (1998)
Blu-ray

I missed this one growing up, but I used to have a weird thing for Roland Emmerich so I picked this up from a bargain bin out of curiosity and now seemed like as good a time as any. In almost every respect, I was not very impressed. The script is *quite bad* and gets bogged down with way too many subplots that don’t really involve Godzilla, and like most Emmerich epics this film is far too long for its own good. The special effects are a mixed bag, but the weird mix of intricate (if often unconvincing) city model work is blended with a CG Godzilla that’s a little too far ahead of its time. Even two decades removed, the raptor chase baby Gozilla chase is too close to Jurassic Park for comfort and comes off as deficient.

There was one element of this film that did stick out to me though, and it had nothing to do with Godzilla. One of the more frivolous subplots involves a power struggle between the female lead, a staff member at a TV station who is manipulated by a superior, a reported played by Harry Shearer. An early scene features Shearer trying to arrange a very Harvey Weinstein-like meeting with his subordinate that is way too close to what we know now to be coincidental. It’s a chilling, uncomfortable moment in an otherwise limp affair.

JAN. 10

GODZILLA (2014)
Blu-ray 3D

Gareth Edwards’s take on Godzilla gets a lot of shit for not doing much of meaning with any of the characters, and while I agree that the human stakes evaporate in the second half once Bryan Cranston bows out, I view that as more of a feature than a bug. The titular creature is largely withheld from our view for more than half the film (the cutaway from the airport fight is still one of my favorite uses of film grammar for comedy in an ostensibly serious movie), and the more we see of Godzilla the less we see of the humans. In fact, people have no effect on the main plot by the end and the only thing the humans accomplish is distracting a monster for a second by blowing up a nest, and retrieving a nuclear bomb that a monster stole. That’s it. Other than that, it’s all about Godzilla and a couple other monsters that look like blown-up versions of the bugs from Starship Troopers.

From a both a thematic and chronological standpoint I think watched this little series of Godzilla movies in the wrong order, but it was good to finish with a movie where Godzilla actually fights giant monsters. The fighting is pretty cool, too, once you get to it. The second MUTO kill involving atomic breath was maybe my favorite cinematic moment of that year, for what it’s worth.

As an A/V note, this is not my favorite 3D Blu-ray. The separation and depth and everything is good, but this is such an oppressively dark film at times that my equipment couldn’t really pull off enough contrast with glasses on to see everything at times. Some of these super-dark scenes would test the limits of any projector, even without dark glasses.

JAN. 11

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
Blu-ray

Of course, I went into this with the thought in the back of my mind to read this in a kind of Trump-centric way but I ended up mostly being rewarded in other ways. Certainly, Senator Iselen’s spouting of red scare propaganda has all sorts of echoes to today’s climate of fake news and information warfare, but more interesting are the other performances and the artistry at work. This certainly isn’t a scandalous picture today, but the wild, dreamlike cinematography and a constant, gripping feeling of dread make The Manchurian Candidate just as arresting as ever.

JAN. 12

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011)
Blu-ray

I guess I’m just not quick enough for this one. I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shortly after its release ,largely on the strength of serious accolades from my friends. I didn’t really get it, and while I liked the showcase of performances from an amazing cast and dug the musty, smoke-filled atmosphere, I was usually distracted by just how lost I felt in the story. Several years later with a few more years of movie watching and life experience under my belt, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy still confounds me. I never really felt like I knew what was going on beyond what was right in front of me, and by the end I wasn’t really moved because I still didn’t know what the hell had happened or how we got there. There’s a lot to like about Tinker Tailor, but watching it sort of feels like going to a concert where I don’t know the band.

JAN. 13

BATMAN (1989)
Blu-ray

Oddly enough, I had a similarly disconnected feeling watching Tim Burton’s Batman. Here’s another one I did not grow up on (I had this hipster thing in middle and high school where I was too cool for Tim Burton) and was only vaguely aware of via its reputation. Upon watching it for the first time I didn’t really know what to make of it. Batman seems to be a bit at odds with itself, with Burton weirdness tugging away at schlocky studio conventions. Michael Keaton has really strange energy and rocks a hairdo for the ages. This is also a real visual feast with the sort of huge sets that don’t get built anymore and some impressive matte paintings. However, for whatever reason I rarely vibed with it when I was watching it. Maybe I still have some resistance to Burton I haven’t un-learned. Maybe I needed a little more context. This is one where listening to the Blank Check afterward made a big difference and connected some dots I was missing.

JAN. 14

BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Blu-ray

Maybe my resistance was dropping after processing Batman for a bit or maybe it’s just a better movie, but I had a much better time with Batman Returns. It’s always fun to see Christopher Walken in things, but Danny DeVito really steals the show with a truly revolting performance. Michelle Pfeiffer is definitely doing some sort of thing. Returns seems to have more of its own groove than Batman, it’s generally a lot darker, kinkier and slimier. I’m also down for that weird 90’s shit like the clown fight. This is one of those sequels that feels much more locked-in and sure of itself.

I’m fascinated by the production design in these Batman movies, particularly the massive sets. They’re incredibly impressive, so much so it’s almost distracting. Maybe that’s just because I’m so used to how modern movies look, with CG augmentation everywhere, that it’s almost shocking to see that much construction.

What I’ve Been Watching – January 1-7, 2019

Welcome to the newly-rebooted Worrying About Film! I may not have been posting, but I’m watching more movies than ever before and want to start talking about them.

The format is going to be a little different going forward, as I’m going to be using this page in addition to my Letterboxd page to keep track of my ambitious (and very silly) goal of watching 500 movies in 2019. These aren’t really going to be reviews and I’m not aiming for a deep level of critical analysis, there just isn’t time. Consider this more my public-facing film journal, at least for now.

A note on film selection: if I don’t go to the theater, the vast majority of the movies I’m watching come from my burgeoning Blu-ray collection. I use a 1080p projector, and at large screen sizes the difference in quality between streaming and disc is much more obvious than on, say, a 50-inch TV. There are some downsides to this, including that for those following along at home, any streaming availability of many of these titles is purely coincidental. Also, due to the sheer volume of titles I want to watch, I do a lot of my movie shopping at big-box stores and I always check bargain bins and look for sales which ends up steering my selection of titles mainly towards American studio movies. And yes, I know my taste in movies is boy-ish. I get it.

Let’s begin!

JAN. 1

AQUAMAN (2018)
IMAX with Laser, 2D

This was a rewatch, largely out of curiosity to see what this crazy-ass movie looked like in the tallest open-matte format possible. When I saw a flurry of stories in late November of last year that the vast majority of Aquaman would be shown in “full-screen IMAX,” I was skeptical at best. Warner Bros. and the DC comics movies do have a history of tinkering with the format, but the film was not shot with 15/70 IMAX film cameras. I was initially disappointed when the IMAX countdown was shown in 1.90:1, the standard IMAX Digital aspect ratio, and then the first 15-20 minutes were in scope. When the frame finally opened up, I was intrigued by what I saw: the IMAX with Laser version is definitely taller than 1.90:1, but it doesn’t quite fill the screen. This is a sneaky-cool large format event that’s not getting enough attention.

As for the movie, it’s still ridiculously entertaining a second time even as the seams become more obvious. It’s balls-ass crazy from start to finish, and I go to sleep feeling better knowing that something this gleefully unrestrained was given big studio money. Jason Momoa’s character was one of the few beacons of hope in last year’s soulless, depressing Justice League and this time around he loses none of his appeal without having to say “my man!” once. This is a movie that features an army of fish people riding laser sharks fights an army of anthropomorphized crab people. And there’s an octopus playing drums. And a character who calls himself OCEAN MASTER.

The script is broad enough to appeal to international audiences, with a startling amount of screen time dedicated to characters spouting some very detailed exposition and an overall sense of levity that doesn’t translate to the film being all that funny, at least in the text. This film also possibly invents its own trope, with no less than four separate conversations being interrupted by explosions. It would be easy to call this a bad movie, but what would the fun in that be?

JAN. 2

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)
Blu-ray

One of my favorite little surprises of 2018 doesn’t hold up quite as well on a repeat viewing a few months later (for spoilery reasons, mostly involving Anna Kendrick’s character), but it was still pleasure to revisit. A Simple Favor is weird mish-mash of tones and veers between broad, adult-ish comedy and dark crime drama, mostly settling on the former. This was marketed as something different from Paul Feig, and I guess it is, but it’s still aimed at the same audience. The easiest thing to say is that this movie is an awful lot of fun to watch, especially with the right company.

CASINO ROYALE (2006)
Blu-ray

I got the complete James Bond Blu-ray box set a few months ago, and I’ve been slowly working my way through it since, watching many of the 007 movies for the first time. The 007 series never really entered my home as a child, and Casino Royale was the first Bond film in which I took an active interest and the first I saw in a theater. It blew me away then, and it’s even better now.

Casino Royale introduces a new Bond in Daniel Craig along with a darker tone and it reboots the series chronology, but on watching it after going through the entire 007 series, I was struck by how much it is still very much a classically-structured Bond film with so many of the familiar beats where you’d expect them, like the cold open, Bond girl, opening credits, M, various chases, etc., but are transformed when given a certain amount of weight and seriousness.

Also, Daniel Craig may be the best Bond but Jeffrey Wright is definitely the best Felix.

JAN. 3

GOOD TIME (2017)
Blu-ray

There were films I liked more in 2017, but few memories of my movie watching that year have stuck with me more than watching Good Time. This is a 100-minute panic attack of a movie that never lets up and never allows the viewer any distance from the action. This film was released around the same time as Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and while both films are extremely different they share a similar aura of dread and claustrophobia. Good Time may not display the same level of strict discipline when it comes to camera placement as Aronofsky’s film, but it spends just as much time in close-up right in the main character’s face and leaves the audience just as little room to wriggle away from the deeply unsettling shit happening on-screen.

In this film Robert Pattinson is an absolute terror, a toxic void of a character who displays a remarkable lack of empathy, hurting anyone he gets close to and moving on too quickly to give it another thought. As he rushes to scrounge for bail money after leaving his mentally disabled brother behind during a bank robbery gone bad, we watch his character seize and exploit every drop of human kindness he can find and turn it into something awful. The experience of watching Good Time is stressful and deeply uncomfortable, but also intensely powerful and impossible to forget. Props must also go to the thrilling and sometimes, intentionally overpowering synth score from Oneohtrix Point Never that both totally rocks on its own and seriously amps up the panic. A great watch next time you’re feeling adventurous.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008)
Blu-ray

Quantum of Solace is a thoroughly strange beast. For one thing, it’s the first Bond film to be a direct sequel and takes place immediately after the events of Casino Royale. It’s also a part of that peculiar class of films and TV shows compromised beyond repair by the 2007-08 writer’s strike; Quantum shot without a finished script. The consequences are clear: this film is 45 minutes shorter than Casino Royale and must have twice as much action, and almost every second of screen time that isn’t action feels like an afterthought at best. In a similarly anomalous twist, the action cinematography is shaky, zoomed-in and cut up within an inch of its life in a fashion similar to the then-popular Bourne series and can border on nonsensical at worst.

That being said, this is a vicious, snarling monster of an action movie that almost never lets up from the first scene onward. Few movies have started faster or louder. For what it lacks in on-screen blood, it compensates for with aggressive camera work and a booming, brutal sound mix that might make this release worth it for budding home theater enthusiasts like myself strictly on the technical merits. Quantum of Solace might not have shaken my soul, but it definitely shook the house.

JAN. 4

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)
Blu-ray 3D

Like many folks I wrote off How to Train Your Dragon before it came out, mostly on account of its dumb-ass title and the (what I still consider to be) bizarre casting of Jay Baruchel in the lead part. How wrong I felt when I finally discovered it a few years later, and it’s still a joy to revisit before the trilogy-capper comes out in a few months. While the plot and characters of this film may not be the most memorable or distinctive on their own, this is a thoroughly entertaining effort that is solid in almost every respect.

JAN. 5

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT (2018)
Blu-ray

I’m not afraid to say the newest Mission Impossible was one of my absolute favorite films of 2018. When you stop and think about it, in today’s climate we see very few truly high-performing action movies that aren’t green-screen CGI spectacles with little grounding in reality. I can’t think of another film this year that really applies (with the exception of The Night Comes For Us, which was a Netflix release), and the only films I can think of that qualify from 2017 were John Wick Chapter 2 and Baby Driver, neither of which are really competing at this level. Of course there’s a ton of CG and visual-effects trickery happening in Fallout, but a sense of real weight and a grounding in reality achieved by doing real location shooting and stunt work (personally performed by Tom Cruise) elevate the whole affair to a level that it really demands to be taken seriously alongside other prestige fare that is less steeped in genre.

DREDD (2012)
Blu-ray 3D

In a lot of ways, action movies don’t get a lot purer than Dredd (okay, maybe Aquaman). It’s a unique kind of comic book adaptation that dispenses with any kind of origin story or really almost anything in the way of plot or character development. It feels like a single issue in the middle of a run: the characters and the world are established, and the viewer is dropped into what feels like just another story among many. The waters are almost never muddied with any kind of nuance, and there are no significant revelations. However, Judge Dredd kills a lot of people in interesting ways, has some killer one-liners and everyone has a good time.

It’s also worth noting that this is one of my favorite 3D discs. Dredd was shot natively in 3D and is obviously designed around the format with demo-worthy shots abounding. Movies like this are a big reason I invested in a projector.

JAN. 6

SKYFALL (2012)
Blu-ray

When I first saw Skyfall, my exposure to James Bond was mostly via the previous two Daniel Craig films. Walking out of the theater, of course I was first overwhelmed by how good it was, and I had a hard time believing that many of the other Bond movies could possibly operate at that high level of filmmaking proficiency. Having seen all the Bonds recently, I can confirm that even (and especially) among its peers, Skyfall is exceptional. Perhaps most immediately obvious is the film’s look; Roger Deakins shoots the film like a prestige picture and the results are jaw-dropping (I’m sad that I’ll never get to see the IMAX 1.90:1 version again). We probably won’t see the likes of the bold, stripped-down third act again. and while not every beat in the conclusion lands perfectly it certainly is the most substantial single act in any 007 film. When he’s on-screen Javier Bardem instantly cements himself as one of the most captivating Bond villains. I love Skyfall, and it’s one of the few Bond films I’d be tempted to revisit out of continuity.

JAN. 7

SPECTRE (2015)
Blu-ray

I normally hold a soft spot for movies that swing for the fences only to to fall over spectacularly, but Spectre mostly makes me sad. Things start off well enough with a fairly impressive opening setpiece in Mexico City that always tricks me into thinking the movie will be better next time, but by the end I’m left feeling hollow and disappointed. The swing Spectre takes is a big one, as it attempts to connect all the Daniel Craig-era 007 films together with the big shocking twist of bringing back the original 007 Big Bad, Blofeld. Sort of like Star Trek Into Darkness, it doesn’t really work on audience members who are familiar with the original material and makes no sense in the context of the movie. The best twists reframe and inform what came before, the reveal in Spectre adds nothing to the overall series. The thing I felt most sure of by the end is that Bond is eventually going to have to reboot itself again as the new continuity staggers under its own weight. You can only break a character so many times.

Every New Movie I Watched in 2017, Ranked!

I apologize for staying away from this blog for so long, but I have still been watching movies! To prove it, I’ve ranked almost every film I watched that was released in 2017, along with a little review for each. I’ve excluded a few documentaries and some Indian films that you may notice in my Letterboxd diary, and there are several big awards contenders that are still in limited release (Phantom Thread, I, Tonya, and The Post immediately come to mind) that I have not seen yet but would likely be in my top 10 or 20.

2017 may have been a terrible year for the world at large, but it was a great year at the movies.  Just because a movie is in the bottom half of this list, doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. This list will be updated periodically throughout January to include the prestige films still in limited release.

And now without any further delay, the list ranked from least to greatest. I’ve included trailers or clips where I felt it was appropriate.

80. THE SNOWMAN

That what is arguably the worst film of the year couldn’t be saved by my predominant male crush (and accomplished actor) Michael Fassbender only better helps to illustrate the true disaster that is The Snowman. The cinematography and atmosphere along with Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson’s performances aren’t bad when taken on their own, but terrible filmmaking decisions abound in almost every disjointed, nebulous scene (likely caused and compounded by an abbreviated shooting schedule).

79. CHiPS

I don’t know why I went to see this movie. A raunchy, R-rated comedy based on a series I have no familiarity with and written at a third-grade level. Not for me.

78. TULIP FEVER

It is true what you have heard. Tulip Fever is a mess.

I saw this film prior to Weinsteingate and went primarily because of my awareness of this film’s famously troubled history. As many Weinstein projects famously do, this film was reportedly the subject of a lot of post-production tweaking mandated by Harvey Weinstein himself, and what I saw on screen was a disjointed mess that didn’t make any sense; a period sex drama that wasn’t sexy and half a caper film that was missing most of the important information. Bad enough to be notable, certainly not bad enough to recommend; and in today’s media climate, absolutely toxic.

77. TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT

You may want to buy a copy of this film if you have a huge new home theater system you need to show off or test, but apart from that this film has very little entertainment value. The Last Knight continues the Michael Bay franchise’s penchant for being technically ambitious but artistically careless. The fanciest cameras in the world only enable Bay, instead of saving him from himself.

76. THE MUMMY

RIP Dark Universe (2017-2017)

This film was rotten to the core, and never had a chance. The Mummy was designed to serve as a springboard into a new cinematic universe based on the Universal Monsters, and if you think that sounds ridiculous, you’re not the only one. This feels like a shallow corporate product without much of a hint of a personality, designed to hit the beats necessary to set up countless sequels that nobody will ever see. Even Tom Cruise, one of my problematic favorites, brings nothing to this.

75. GEOSTORM

Yes, of course Geostorm is bad. Unfortunately, its horrendous release timing in relation to 2017’s disastrous hurricane season is the most remarkably bad thing about it. Otherwise, this serves mostly as a boring knockoff of the mega-disaster films we saw so much in the 90’s and 00’s. Independence Day (or even The Day After Tomorrow) this ain’t, and what is left instead is a lot of stupid dialogue, thin plotting and useless characters, and not nearly as much geostorm-ing as you would expect. Possibly worth it for the countdown clocks liberally sprinkled throughout the final act screaming “TIME TO GEOSTORM.”

74. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

There’s some fun to be had in watching the Pirates franchise try to one-up itself in the Rube Golbergian craziness its action sequences, but once you get past the elaborate physics gags it’s painfully obvious that this hollow franchise is about to crumble into little pieces and be swept out to sea. And eaten by a Kraken. And probably resurrected in 10 years. Alas.

73. THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD

A weird mash-up of buddy comedy and pulpy Euro-action, this film will be most notable for somehow staying at #1 at the American box office for three weeks straight. It’s a moderately entertaining paycheck movie for all involved, and not much more.

72. THE DARK TOWER

The last thing a 90-minute major summer movie should be is boring, but that’s only the first of its myriad sins. The Dark Tower represents an attempt to glom together elements from the entire breadth of Stephen King’s mammoth fantasy series and make it look like a YA movie, which is as awful and pointless as it sounds. Matthew McConaughey hamming it up as the villain and Idris Elba being Idris Elba aren’t near enough to save this confusing mess.

71. TABLE 19

Throughout my life, there have been few things I have hated more than going to weddings. I’ve always hated weddings. If there was ever a low-profile lightweight comedy that was going to land for me, it should have been this one. Unfortunately, Table 19’s cute premise centering around a table of social outcasts at an otherwise chummy wedding is not enough to buoy an entire feature; the quirky and winning cast including Anna Kendrick, Tony Revolori, Stephen Merchant and June Squibb aren’t enough to save what turns into a somewhat joyless exercise. The more bitter you are, the better shot you have at enjoying this awkward tonal clash; I’m just not sure what the point would be.

70. KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD

A very promising first few minutes (embedded above), followed by almost two more hours of predictable Guy Ritchie drudgery. This marks yet another would-be franchise starter that takes time that should be spent telling a story, and instead sets up movies that will never be made. It also reeks of post-production story changes, as a few characters exist in the film with little to nothing to do. This is on top of the fact that the medieval setting and Ritchie’s bro-ish swagger are, at best, strange bedfellows. Watch the opening sequence and continue about your day.

69. THE GREAT WALL

All films are, to some extent or another, a product of commerce. As 2017’s rocky box office performance has indicated, with more options than ever audiences are more fickle and use quality as more of a determinant of how their entertainment dollars will be spent. This paradigm rewards good work, but the sort of high-dollar, CG-heavy, explosion-y by-the-numbers corporate-product blockbusters that Hollywood has been churning out for the past decade or two are not the sure bets they once were. Case in point: The Great Wall.

The premise of this Chinese-American coproduction sounds straight out of an international corporate conference call – Matt Damon, along with a few other recognizable Westerners like Willem Dafoe – go to the Great Wall of China and mostly stand at the sidelines as the might of an ancient Chinese army attempts to hold off an invasion of weird alien dog things. Does that sound generic? Don’t worry, different parts of the Chinese army are decked out in matching primary colors! The Great Wall perhaps stands closest in form and content to the later Transformers or Fast & Furious movies – designed to play as broadly as possible to the widest available international audience – but it’s so broad that it lacks any soul of its own.

68. THE BOSS BABY

This one played fine as I was watching it, but left a bitter aftertaste even before 2017 turned against men.

67. DOWNSIZING

Poor Matt Damon. He stars in the two most tone-deaf, misjudged movies of the year: Suburbicon, a 50’s-set black comedy about crime in the suburbs that was awkwardly saddled with a B-plot about racism that should have stayed on the cutting room floor. Downsizing is equally uncomfortable, but it has just enough self-awareness to make the discordant tone both more bothersome and harder to pin down.

The societal allegory is obvious: in the future, people can shrink themselves down to a tiny fraction of their normal size; this is ostensibly to help the environment, but in reality it is because wealth is magnified at that size and a middle-class schlub can suddenly afford a tiny mansion. This premise is explored a fair bit in the opening act, but once the film quickly jettisons Damon’s downsized everyman from new wealth to a familiarly drab existence, the gear switch to societal commentary is botched terribly and the film stumbles along for another hour and a half with no clear sense of purpose; its big ideas are squandered. Damon plays a character so useless and frustrating he brings the whole film. The film doesn’t even bother making many jokes about scale, a clear missed opportunity.

Whiff.

66. GOING IN STYLE

Going in Style serves as a great way to get Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in the same place and riffing off each other. While this in itself is delightful, it’s not enough to sustain this lightweight comedy that feels tailor-made for your next Delta flight.

65. THE BELKO EXPERIMENT

This one’s for the midnight horror crowd only. If a take on Battle Royale in an office building sounds appealing to you, this movie will probably appeal to you. If you’re on the fence, there is nothing in this movie that will win you over. It’s bloody, ugly, morally bankrupt and, in a bit of a surprise considering the screenplay was written by James Gunn – it’s not even particularly funny. Make the decision that’s best for you, here.

64. JUSTICE LEAGUE

If nothing else, I will grant Justice League this: it could have come out much, much worse.

This film’s fate was likely sealed as soon as Zack Snyder’s name was attached, and several turbulent years, a new director and reportedly $250-300 million later it has crossed the finish line damaged and smoking but somehow intact. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Justice League is a good movie, but it at least manages to introduce a bunch of characters, throws in a few jokes, come in at two hours and still make sense, and doesn’t take many egregious missteps.

Justice League crossed a low bar, but maybe I should be thankful that it at least did that. The DCEU films that aren’t Wonder Woman all come from a compromised position, and we can only hope that this film serves as the uncomfortable but necessary corrective. Had DC played their cards right from the beginning, Justice League could have been a huge event. Instead, it’s something a little more complicated and less satisfying.

63. THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

I’m pretty sure I asked myself, “what the fuck am I watching?” more during The Greatest Showman than any other film this year. This movie is bonkers- an original film musical, a period piece with modern music that sounds like it was written for a theme park with messaging that sounds like it was cooked up in a corporate boardroom, and a glistening vehicle for the shining beacon of humanity that is Hugh Jackman. The musical sequences are sort of worth seeing, and everything in between is disposable mush. Even though this is new material, the film is nonsensical and feels like a three-hour production shoehorned into a 100-minute movie. I was both entertained and bewildered.

62. THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS

One of my most gaping cinematic blind spots is the back portion of the ‘Fast & Furious’ film franchise. I’ve seen the first three installments (The Fast… 2 Fast… Tokyo Drift). but from what I’ve heard, the rest that I skipped are the good ones. Perhaps I went into the eighth chapter in Universal’s cash-machine franchise underserved by not having a better knowledge of the franchise’s convoluted soap-opera plot or what it looks like when the action is really firing on all cylinders. Maybe I wasn’t in the right headspace, but I never connected with this film.

I used to work at theme parks, and 8 Fast 8 Furious reminds me a lot of the rides and shows you see there: very loud, very obvious; everything and everyone is playing big and broad and to the back of the room for the biggest possible (global) audience. This broad aim is what makes the franchise financially successful, but it’s also what makes it so impersonal: the F&F series is the wedding DJ of the movie world.

61. SUBURBICON

I normally like to give points for ambition, but Suburbicon should have aimed a little lower. Originating as a long-shelved Coen Brothers script, in the hands of George Clooney it has arrived in the world as a snarling, two-headed Frankenmovie; the Coens story of a suburban family falling apart at the seams competes with a side story about racial unrest that effectively derails the film with its obliviousness. These stories might have had a chance as separate films, but awkwardly mashed together they don’t amount to much of anything besides a tonal disaster.

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