Review: “The Fate of the Furious”

Fate of the Furious, The (2017)

The Fast and Furious franchise is one of Hollywood’s undisputed oddities. The schizophrenic naming system is its most obvious idiosyncrasy, but the series’ overall quality is just as unpredictable. These films range from unbearably bad (2 Fast 2 Furious) to regular bad (Fast & Furious) to mediocre (Fast & Furious 6) to decent (Tokyo Drift) to legitimately good (Fast Five), so in a way part of the excitement comes from not knowing where the next one’ll land on the scale. It’s been a white knuckle ride watching a series duct-taped together with flimsy characters, inconsequential plotting and gratuitous butt-shots, careen closer and closer to self-parody and ignominy with each increasingly ridiculous installment. Almost miraculously, these movies always manages to remain more or less on course, reveling in their own wild inconsistencies.

What began as a rather low-key story about Los Angeles street racers has evolved into balls-to-the-wall action spectacle of the most explosive caliber; the laws of physics have long since disappeared in the rear view. Full of wholesome camaraderie and impossible stunt work, the most recent entries are like a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and Brosnan-era Bond. Many long-running series fret over how to avoid jumping the shark, but Fast and Furious takes a different path by coming up with bigger and bigger sharks to jump over. The Fate and the Furious, the eighth film since 2001, shows no signs the franchise is going to pull back on the snowballing sense of scale. For instance, the ‘shark’ this time is a nuclear submarine (as close they’ve come to jumping over an actual shark).

Fate of the Furious, The (2017)

Long has it been established that the franchise revolves around ‘family’, with Vin Diesel’s Dom as head patriarch, a deceptively wise Jesus figure with a revolving door of ethnically diverse disciples. Every time he opens his mouth, the word “family” spills out like the most wholesome of Tourette’s symptoms. It’s a punchline by this point, but the unabashed hokeyness of Vin’s family mantra has become the series’ greatest strength. The conviction with which Diesel delivers his proclamations of unity, not to mention the genuine chemistry between the entire cast, is wildly effective in keeping audiences invested in the characters. In the absence of any serious stakes (at least three characters have died and come back to life in some way) or true emotional substance, Dom’s sweet, uber-cheesy value system is the glue that holds the whole rickety enterprise together.

This is important to note because, after a ludicrous opening sequence in Havana that harkens back to the series’ street racing roots, long-time series writer Chris Morgan throws a curveball that threatens to disrupt the very core that makes these movies work. One moment Dom is helping icy blonde stranger Cipher (Charlize Theron) with car trouble. Next thing he knows he’s betraying the rest of his crew, stealing a deadly EMP device and fleeing aboard Cipher’s high-tech airplane. At first the lack of explanation for Dom’s uncharacteristic turn is uncomfortable, decimating the lovable meathead figure before our eyes. Luckily, it doesn’t take long for his motivations to be made clear, and audiences are able to take a sigh of relief: family is still the filmmakers’ top priority.

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With Dom on the dark side, it’s up to the rest of his family to bring him back to the light, and also to deliver a tangible sense of team spirit in his absence. As usual, most of the laughs come from wise-cracking Roman (Tyrese Gibson), who’s especially on-point when mocking the new blank slate pretty-boy played by Scott Eastwood (aptly named ‘Little Nobody’). He’s second-in-command to their equally-bland new team leader, government operative Mr. Nobody, who’s at least afforded a semblance of charisma by the great Kurt Russell. Another fun new dynamic is the hostile, strangely adorable relationship between DSS agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and former villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), which gradually blossoms from bitter aggression into sweet, sweet bromance.

While the self-serious ‘DOM HAS TURNED ON FAMILY’ twist threatens to bog the story down with extraneous plotting (you know, the stuff that has always mattered least in these films), the substantial dose of comic relief from the family (rounded out by Ludacris’ Tej, Nathalie Emanuelle’s Ramsey and Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty) provides exactly that: relief. The lovable, dopey interplay assures the movie stays planted firmly at the intersection of dumb and badass. Oddly enough, the worst new addition is Charlize Theron, who’s usually the best part of anything she’s in. The ice queen shtick is tired, and she doesn’t do anything new or interesting with it. The franchise has always been full of archetypes, but they’re usually hilariously archetypal; Theron is just plainly so.

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Why am I still talking about the characters, though? This is a Fast and Furious movie and the main attraction will always be the high-octane set pieces. Fate‘s action sequences may not be the best-executed in the franchise’s long history, but they are some of the biggest and most creative nonetheless. Of special note is a spectacular mid-film section in which Cipher hacks hundreds of cars to incite a self-driving stampede through the city streets of New York (only slightly more terrifying and dangerous than your average drive through NYC). It’s these types of moments, void of all logic, that reminds us that blockbusters are at their best when they embrace the impossible. Ditto with the wacky submarine climax, complete with Tyrese wake-surfing on a Lambo door across a frozen river.

There are two main reasons that the action doesn’t live up to its predecessors: first, though director F. Gary Gray (coming off of Straight Outta Compton) does a great job handling the Nos-fueled car chases, he struggles with the on-foot scenes, far too choppy when compared to James Wan’s excellent hand-to-hand brawls in Furious 7. It’s odd that the camera never has any problem following the near hyper-speed vehicles, but comes down with a heavy case of the shakes when trying to keep up with Jason Statham’s legs. The second problem is that, as the size and scope of the action increases, so too does the need for CGI. As a result, there’s a noticeable reliance on computer-generated artifice over practical effects, which means the film will not age as well as the last few have.

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The movie’s other main issue is its length, which could have easily been cut down if not for the desire to introduce new characters such as Helen Mirren as Jason Statham’s foul-mouthed mum. While the newbies each have their moments, the movie never makes the case for why it was necessary to include Mirren, Eastwood or Russell, except to inject some new blood and set up for… whatever crazy title they come up with for the next movie. The best F&F films are those that have leaned on brevity rather than trying to be some sort of giant Avengers ordeal that’s overly concerned with the future.

Though unwieldy and mercilessly idiotic, this franchise has battering-rammed its way into the hearts of filmgoers, myself included, through pure willpower and bombast. The longer the series runs, the harder it becomes to turn on the ‘Fast’ family. As long as the filmmakers continue to genuinely care about the characters as much as theatergoers do, the series will always have a strange innocence and amiability that most blockbusters try to avoid in an attempt to be taken serious. Since taking a Fast and Furious movie seriously is contradictory to their very existence, by all means: bring on the stupid.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

Fate of the Furious, The (2017)

 

Review: “Beauty and the Beast”

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Not to sound too cynical, but it appears Disney’s been actively testing our tolerance for remakes over the past several years. First, the Mouse House reworked its animated classics Alice in Wonderland (1951), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Cinderella (1950) into sparkly new blockbusters. Acceptable, as the originals films have admittedly grown outdated (especially the latter two, while Alice remains shockingly ahead of its time) and deserved to have the cobwebs removed. Then last year they released their reimagining of 1967’s The Jungle Book, a slightly less antiquated movie but one that is fifty years old nevertheless and provided ample opportunities for the company to show off their advances in immersive computer graphics technology.

Now Disney leaps ahead a few decades for their first (but certainly not last) live-action crack at the Renaissance era (their hugely successful string of hits between 1989 and 1999). As one might imagine, the original Beauty and the Beast still holds up exceptionally well, making it difficult for Disney to hide behind the excuse that kids these days simply can’t connect with it, an argument that could more reasonably be made for, say, the original Cinderella. As such, this Beauty from director Bill Condon is the most glaringly unnecessary Disney production mounted since Tim Burton’s horrendous Alice attempt. Luckily, they’ve learned much over the last seven years about how to best balance what still works from the originals with the aspects most in need of updating.

In particular, Beauty and the Beast’s simple yet effective romance remains mostly untouched. The relationship still goes from a captive/captor situation into a full-blown romance a bit too quickly while glossing over the disturbing implication of Stockholm Syndrome, but that was always an incredibly tricky dynamic which can likely never be full explored in a family friendly way… not to mention it’s patently besides the point. In a light and airy way, the chemistry between the actors works as expected.

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Emma Watson has never been a top-tier actress, evidenced most severely in her overly-emotive Hermione performances in the middle few Harry Potter films. She has of course improved over time, but it’s still clear from her performance as Belle that she does fear and sadness far more convincingly than love or joy. She more or less has the look and the singing voice, but does not give as indelible a performance as Lily James’ Cinderella. Likewise, it’s hard to heap too much praise on Dan Stevens as Beast, mainly because he’s covered in CGI fur (very, very good-looking CGI fur, I might add). His eyes do much of the heavy lifting, and in that regard he was another good casting decision on Disney’s part.

Those disappointed that last year’s The Jungle Book either omitted or watered-down much of the original’s music will be glad to discover that the new Beauty and the Beast actually includes more songs than its 1991 predecessor, written by original composer Alan Menkin. None of this new material can hold a candle (no pun intended) to the returning favorites, but they do fit seamlessly in terms of tone, and give the characters’ simplistic internal conflicts an extra dose of sophistication.

But it’s a shame then that the visuals that accompany these musical numbers are irritatingly inconsistent. Opening number “Belle” gets things off to a rocky start with dull shot compositions that too closely mirror the animated version, as well as some obvious lip sync issues. More painfully is that the same problems plague the funniest and most energetic of the original’s songs, “Gaston”, leaving it feeling oddly limp and hokey. Neither sequence takes advantage of the live action switch nor any of the technological innovations of the last fifteen years, settling for a shrug-worthy rehash.

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On the other hand, the two highlights of the entire film are the spectacular, dynamically shot “Be Out Guest” sequence with Ewan McGregor at the fore, and a recreation of the beloved ballroom-set title track, sung this time by Emma Thompson. While most remakes these days tend to ignite skepticism amongst weary audiences, these sequences exemplify Disney’s ability to evade such criticism by marrying old-fashioned earnestness with top-shelf technology. The creative magnificence of these soaring, lavish showstoppers makes it difficult to accuse the film of having little ingenuity, or to complain that the original simply ‘looks good enough’ and thus invalidates another go.

At the same time as they break visual ground, both songs demonstrate the company’s respect for the original, leaving the central tone wholly unchanged. McGregor and Thompson channel original performers Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury and attain the same warmth, while both scenes contain just enough callbacks to their 1991 counterparts to feel reverent without being redundant. Disney’s winning formula is to maintain the heart and soul of their older catalogue while modernizing primarily through external means (thanks to the best special effects and musical talent that money can buy).

In addition to gradually raising the bar for technical excellence, Disney has been working over the past few years to revise the outdated social values of some of their earlier works, mainly through a pointed emphasis on diversity and equality. Yet unlike animated hits Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia and Moana, the social justice efforts of Beauty and the Beast feel half-hearted, if not laughable. The highly publicized and supposedly revolutionary “gay moment” is less a watershed moment of acceptance and more a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod of admission.

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Meanwhile, the racial diversity on display is nothing more than trumped-up tokenism, made all the more obvious due to the relegation of the extremely talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw to a thankless side role (who has technically played her own ‘Belle’, and better). I’m certainly not arguing that there’s something innately wrong with having all-white leads, but if Disney is going to keep acting like they’re the new face of inclusion, feeble winks aren’t going to cut it. It not only undermines their own apparent goals, it undermines the hard-working actors of color whose side they claim to be on.

The social issues are ultimately insignificant compared to the very real narrative ones that plague the film. The first act feels noticeably rushed in an attempt to get Belle to Beast’s castle as soon as possible. The most baffling addition is an added thread revolving around Belle’s mother, which doesn’t serve any discernible purpose other than to take up time that could have been better used to establish a better emotional connection between her and her father, her sisters and Gaston.

Speaking of Gaston, Luke Evans is well cast in the role but the character and his comic relief sidekick LeFou (played by Josh Gad) remain wholly tangential until the end. They inject a sense of vitality and humor thanks to witty banter, but are too out-of-sync with the main plot to serve as a tangible threat. These problems could just as easily be leveled upon the original, but it’s too bad Disney missed their chance to rectify them to create a more cohesive story.

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The other comic relief characters are the cursed castle staff members headlined by candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellen), and they are fantastic in every way. Their designs are clever and imaginative while their intentionally janky movements are perfectly animated to humorous effect. It’s true that their more ‘realistic’ look allows for limited facial expressiveness compared to the googly-eyed cartoon versions, but each of the voice actors (including Mbatha-Raw, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald) bring them to life by tempering the cutesy, wholesome dialogue with sharp delivery.

Beauty and The Beast does little to pander to audiences, refusing to force an unnecessary ‘attitude’ or the heavy-handed irony that’s in style these days. Like the modern Cinderella and Jungle Book, the movie is unafraid to be schmaltzy and simplistic because it believes strongly enough in the moral core of the story it tells. At the same time, it doesn’t rest solely on the original’s laurels by providing spectacle that begs to be seen on a big screen. Though inconsistencies in the narrative, performances and musical numbers keep this the lesser Beauty, Condon does an impressive job of threading the needle between old-fashioned and newfangled to create a crowd-pleasing hit of sweet, pretty nostalgia.

Score: 3 out of 5

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Review: “Kong: Skull Island”

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

One of the smartest choices in monster movie history was made out of sheer necessity. In 1974, Steven Spielberg decided to shoot his film Jaws on the open ocean rather than in a tank on Universal’s lot. The filmmakers dragged three robotic sharks (collectively named ‘Bruce’) out into the Atlantic to proceed with a shoot that went 100 days over schedule. The production was a mess for several reasons, but one big problem was that the salt water began to distort and corrode the mechanical carcharodons. This posed a big problem for a movie that hinged entirely upon its ability to make audiences believe the shark was real.

So Spielberg made a decision that must have frustrated the engineers behind his aquatic animatronics: he would have to shoot the shark as little as possible. Thus, in many sequences Jaws is seen just below the surface or not at all, while John William’s iconic musical theme is constantly used as a stand-in for the benevolent fish’s physical presence. Though the simple result of unfortunate circumstances, keeping the shark hidden proved extremely beneficial. It forced Spielberg to adhere to an essential horror truism: a monster is much more frightening when left to the imagination. Instead of a waterlogged action-adventure film, a truly terrifying horror classic was born.

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The restrictions that plagued special effects-centric movies in the 1970s have since been eradicated and it’s fitting that Spielberg himself had a hand in it. After the Jaws ordeal, he must have felt absolutely liberated by the ability to use sophisticated computer graphics for Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds, later cementing CGI’s staying power by producing 2007’s Transformers. These days, blockbuster filmmakers are free to imagine fearsome foes of any size or complexity, and display them however they choose. This poses an important conundrum for Hollywood monster movies: should they show off their convincing effects as much as possible, or do they stick with the effective techniques Spielberg perfected by keeping the monster obscured… on purpose this time?

For instance, Cloverfield purposefully kept its monster mostly under wraps until the end in order to better reflect the disorienting, incomprehensible anxiety of the 9/11 attacks. And say what you will about 2014’s Godzilla (I will, it’s overrated), its insistence on keeping the titular lizard marginalized added immensely to the impact of its impressive third-act rampage. In stark contrast, Warner Brothers’s Kong: Skull Island goes the Michael Bay route. This movie is a toy chest and director Jason Vogt Roberts just wants to show off his toys. We see the big monkey in all its glory early on, not to mention a handful of other insane, imaginative species that live on his island domain. This bombastic approach turns out to be at once a breath of fresh air and a case of sensory overload.

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But it’s important to give some context first. Vogt-Roberts is the latest filmmaker to be handed a huge blockbuster after directing only a single indie feature (in his case 2013’s low-key coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer). This practice worked out for Warner when they hired up-and-comer Gareth Edwards, straight off of his low budget debut Monsters, to direct their Godzilla reboot despite his lack of experience. The massive box office success of that film earned him a job helming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and convinced Warner to set up an interconnected giant monster universe that contains Skull Island, a 2019 Godzilla sequel, and mash-up Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020.

So who can blame the studio for once again entrusting a young (and cheap) whippersnapper like Vogt-Roberts to create a sleek, modern King Kong story? At the very least the youthful energy he brings is on full display, reflected in an extreme visual dynamism. His camera spins, swoops and careens across the screen, jumping from character to character and location to location at a rapid pace. The production design is infused with dazzling colors and though the CGI doesn’t reach the industry high bar, Kong and the other huge beasts (including stilt-legged spiders, skeletal lizards and stone-horned buffalo) are inventive and evocative in their designs.

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Vogt-Roberts seemingly aspires to be a Quentin Tarantino for a new age, drawing from an eclectic range of pop culture from his childhood: instead of exploitation and westerns, it’s anime and video games. These aesthetic sources are clearly responsible for his decision to keep the monsters in the spotlight. Video games rely on having the enemies in sight as often as possible, while the freedom of 2D animation has lent anime a long history of gigantic monstrosities. It’s exciting to see the rise of a new generation with distinctive influences, but Vogt-Roberts is no Tarantino (at least not yet). At times it appears he’s more interested in paying homage to his influences than creating a coherent vision, and while this leads to an astonishing kaleidoscope of style, there’s so little substance it hurts.

For all the differences between this film and 2014’s Godzilla, both suffer from terrible scripts that both commit the same major sin: too many characters with no space to flesh them out or take advantage of the actors’ skills. The first half hour of Kong introduces a horde of characters played by an insane amount of talent including Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Kebbell, and both Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins from Straight Outta Compton (two actors who deserve the blockbuster break). Everyone is given at least one moment in the spotlight, but one is not enough. Much of the focus ends up going to John C. Reilly (as a WWII vet stranded on the island for decades), whose wacky delivery fits the tone but steals everyone else’s screen time.

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For a surprisingly long while, it’s possible to overlook the vaporous relationships and awkward dialogue because the visual bombast is strong enough to carry the movie on gonzo B-movie fumes alone. But the whole narrative crumbles hard in the final act, once it tries to ‘pay off’ emotional arcs that were barely even established in the first place. Suddenly, we’re asked to care about the well-being of these people, despite the fact that by this point half of them have died in abrupt and often hilarious ways. Certain characters are paired off by this point, but if you blinked at any point, you probably missed when and how these relationships happened.This awful storytelling manages to dull a terrifically badass climactic fight sequence with Kong at center stage because it constantly cuts to the dumb humans in the middle of the action.

Kong: Skull Island demonstrates the positives and negatives behind the Transformers approach to monster movies. CGI allows for a greater focus on the look and scale of whatever vivid creatures one can imagine, but it also encourages blunt storytelling that runs contrary to the genre’s suspenseful, legitimately frightening legacy. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t embrace its own insane frivolousness and jettison our attention on the human characters altogether, instead opting to emulate every other blockbuster by the second half. Vogt-Roberts leaks potential all over the screen (this is the clear result of a guy who’s been handed $185 million) and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here, but his Kong is another modern monster mishap. His successor would be wise to look to Spielberg for the answers.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

 

Review: “Logan”

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Logan is a film at war with its own blood.

As with every prior venture starring Hugh Jackman as the vicious, tortured, self-healing mutant Wolverine/Logan, it is a superhero movie down to its very DNA. This is clear from the opening sequence, in which Logan murders several men meddling with the vehicle that is his office and home. Of course, this introduction is meant to show off the film’s R-rating, which for the first time allows for an anatomically accurate demonstration of what would happen if Wolverine’s adamantium claws tore through actual human flesh. But on a narrative level the brutality serves no purpose. The cynical truth is that these movies simply need violence. Death and destruction are studio mandates. And it’s the filmmakers’ clear desire to escape from these conventions and from the genre’s innate cruelty that is reflected beautifully in Wolverine’s struggle.

Amidst sequences of nihilistic savagery and grit there is a warmth that handily demarcates Logan from its contemporaries and from every other X-Men film over the last seventeen years (yes, it’s been that long). The narrative begins in 2029 with few mutants left besides Logan, Charles Xavier (again played by Patrick Stewart) and vampire-like Caliban (Stephen Merchant). The three of them remain hidden in Mexico, believing themselves finally rid of the endless fighting that has long characterized their existence. By this point, though, the characters themselves are no less privy than the audience to the fact this will never actually be the case. Sure enough, conflict arises yet again with the arrival of the sadistic Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), who’s after Laura (Daphne Keen), a mute little girl with far more importance to Wolverine than he’d like to believe.

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What follows is a classic road movie that borrows the look and heart of a western. Wolverine, Laura and a Professor X (quickly slipping into senility) flee from Pierce and his small army through the southern United States in search of a rumored save haven, a promise of peace that may or may not actually exist. As Logan deals with his own deteriorating state caused by poisoned blood from his steel claws (in effect, his body is eating away at itself), Laura’s presence forces him to face the inner demons he has spent his whole life running from. The refreshing focus on the character’s emotional state is perhaps only possible because audiences have spent so long in the company of Jackman’s mutant. The same goes for the iconic Xavier whom Stewart has portrayed for just as long.

The leisurely pace, moody atmosphere and near-episodic plotting can sometimes cause the film to drag, but this is easier to swallow knowing it’s a sendoff of characters (and actors) who deserve the rest. Whereas most comic book adaptations consist of long strings of action punctuated with slower moments meant to build character, Logan is the exact opposite: it’s a quiet tone poem punctuated by bursts of violence, often shocking and novel in their goriness. The blood-soaked presentation not only works as a gimmick but as a tool to confront audiences with a hard truth: every blockbuster contains this level of violence, but the blood is often conveniently left out. By finally seeing an honest depiction of the carnage that Wolverine (and many other Marvel heroes) would realistically cause, it’s much easier to understand his pain and guilt.

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Last year’s Deadpool was another X-Men spinoff hailed by audiences and critics alike as a refreshing departure from the comic book norm. Yet it didn’t take long for many (myself included) to point out that while the movie gleefully mocked genre tropes, in essence it was as much a slave to convention as the latest Avengers bonanza. Making fun of how predictable and repetitive superhero blockbusters are makes for a hollow, hypocritical gesture when the parody maintains those same predictable, repetitive elements (although with admirable energy). A year after its release, Deadpool still drips with palpable frustration over a system that’s perpetually lacking in innovation, but the movie’s smug, snarky approach only emphasizes the futility of change.

Tellingly released in the aftermath of Fox’s own X-Men: Apocalypse (an ‘assembly line’ iteration in every sense), Logan is just as much a self-aware reaction piece to genre fatigue as Deadpool ever was, posing the same broad question: why do we keep consuming the same stories over and over, and why these violent, destructive stories in particular? The difference comes from the tools each film utilizes. If Deadpool’s weapon of choice is wit, Logan’s is soul. Instead of self-righteous sarcasm, director James Mangold goes the opposite route with a probing and contemplative approach, while retaining an unflinching impulse to shake up a tired system. After all, few in Hollywood know the constraints and pitfalls of making a big-budget comic book blockbuster more intimately than Mangold.

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The same goes for Jackman. There are few actors who have portrayed the same character over so many years and so many films, let alone one that has been imposed upon time and time again to pesky studio meddling, always adjusting the character to fit a perceived audience rather than staying true to a singular vision. Jackman has been a supremely good sport considering his starring ventures have ranged from excellent (his fierce original performance and recently X-Men: Day of Future Past) to abysmal (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but it’s clear that he, along with those behind the camera, have always had to dull his claws muzzle the unstoppable rage he embodies to keep things PG-13. This is no longer a problem. The claws are out, and Wolverine is finally unleashed.

Mangold’s attempt to understand the character, and to simultaneously make sense of the vexing Hollywood system ultimately turns out to be one and the same, resulting in a brilliant meta-narrative in which Logan acts as the walking, bleeding, self-loathing manifestation of the superhero genre as a whole. Though disillusioned, Wolverine seeks an answer to the same question posed earlier: why do we keep consuming the same stories over and over, and why violent, destructive stories in particular? His life is the definition of insanity, fighting the same battles over and over (seriously, read some plot summaries of X-Men movies to see how repetitive it gets), yet always hoping it will finally end. Still, conflict follows him everywhere. There is seemingly no end to the vicious cycle that pains him, just as there’s seemingly no end to studio executives recruiting him (or perhaps someone younger) for yet another round of senseless violence and suffering.

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Yet the movie tries anyway, and so do its heroes. The plot sees Wolverine literally fleeing from the genre’s worst and most inevitable impulses: convoluted/convenient plotting, mindless action sequences full of blaring chaos, an un-intimidating antagonist (Halbrook’s Pierce is as bland as it gets), and the promise of a sequel or ten. All of these familiar drawbacks encroach on the film itself, leading to certain moments that fall back on traditional, dull storytelling techniques in a very disappointing way. Yet unlike Deadpool, Mangold at least valiantly questions why a movie like Logan apparently can’t exist without these flaws. Without spoiling anything, a couple of plot points in the second half demonstrate the only logical conclusion for what should, and perhaps one day will, happen to today’s most thriving genre. The ending is not only poignant – it feels correct.

If the suggestion that Logan is actually a commentary on the superhero phenomena seems far-fetched, Mangold doubles down on the idea by drawing a (sometimes too) clear parallel between his film and the Western. The setting, lighting, and narrative structure make this apparent enough, as does a recurring, overt reference to 1953’s classical Western Shane, a major influence on Mangold’s work. But the darker tone and a deep reckoning with the consequences of its genre more accurately aligns Logan not with the patriotic, violent ’40s and ’50s classics of John Wayne and co., but with ‘revisionist westerns’, later entries that question the values earlier westerns had perpetuated in the American cultural psyche.

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One of the most famous revisionist westerns is 1992’s Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood (one of the most recognizable figures of the genre) as weathered cowboy Will Munny, who must face all the terrible things he (and the western mindset) has done in the past. It’s hard not see Jackman’s Logan in relation to Eastwood’s Munny, attempting some sort of retribution on behalf of a system of Hollywood films that may just reflect the worst of their contemporary societies. It’s not completely fair to compare the woefully racist and ultra-aggressive classical western to the increasingly diverse superhero movie, but at least in terms of massive popularity, repetitive content and a penchant for violence, there are striking similarities that have not gone unnoticed. What the CGI-fueled, mass destruction-obsessed, and globally set exploits of Marvel’s cinematic universe says about today’s society will be up to future film theorists to debate.

That Logan is more insightful and inquisitive than most superhero movies isn’t to say that it doesn’t work simply as crowd-pleasing action spectacle with a suitably unique vibe. The action is well choreographed, the score is fantastic, the performances are formidable, the dialogue draws real emotion and much of the shot composition is excellent. But it’s the acute self-awareness that makes this a special film that rises with the best of the genre. It isn’t as deep and nuanced an experience as The Dark Knight (still the gold standard) but the desire to be more than its DNA is strikingly sincere. Logan is thoughtful, artfully made entertainment that acts as a touching tribute to a character and franchise that helped start a filmmaking revolution, as well as a visionary look into what the future may hold for comic book adaptations in the right hands.

Review Score: 4 out of 5

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Exploring The Deceptive Brainlessness of ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’

[Note: this article was originally posted on Moviepilot.com]

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John Wick: Chapter 2 would like us to believe it has nothing to say. It’s a breathless, trashy descent into ultra-violence set in an assassin underworld where murder is as natural as breathing. Following another year of high-profile shootings, surely a film of such unrepentant brutality is bound to leave a bad taste in the mouth. Yet, it never does. That’s because, even more so than its fiercely frivolous predecessor, Chapter 2 is actually a remarkably stealthy satire that, through its inventive world-building and crazy characters, holds a mirror to society’s shameful, near-religious fetishization of violence. In reality, this film has plenty to say, but the effectiveness of its message hinges on its ability to disguise itself as nothing more than shallow escapism.

The film’s mindless exterior is so skillfully crafted that it’s easy to get caught up in its vicious whirlwind. Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad expand on all the best elements of the first John Wick film without losing its tight focus. The action sequences are larger, weightier and more over-the-top, mixing in old-school slapstick that laces the carnage with dissonant humor. Whereas the original took its time before revealing exactly what Wick was capable of, the sequel doesn’t have the element of surprise and the filmmakers smartly chose to begin, quite literally, at full throttle. From there, each new set piece escalates in scale while shifting the stakes and introducing new absurdities all the way to its eye-popping climax. Stahelski’s background in stunt work is apparent in the immense physicality and attention to detail within every frame, while Kolstad ensures each action scene forwards the plot rather than distract from it.

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Part of the first film’s charm was how easy it was to explain (they kill John Wick’s dog, John Wick kills everybody), the plot was never more than an excuse to offer a tantalizing glimpse into an intriguing fantasy world. I don’t mean “fantasy” as in wands and muggles, but much like a certain Wizarding World, the assassin community that Wick belongs to has its own peculiar rules and traditions, well-respected (or feared) figures and complex institutions tucked secretly within our own. The first film dropped audiences into this shadowy world with little explanation, leaving it up to viewers to imagine just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Though Wick 2 opens the scope of the order far beyond New York’s Continental Hotel, for the most part it still obscures just as much as it reveals, continuing to revel in its own mysteries.

All of this results in an immersive, beautiful bloodbath ballet, where we’re asked to smile and laugh as the body count rises. In that respect, the movie doesn’t seem different than any other mindless Hollywood blockbuster, save for an excess in style. Many reviews have inevitably chalked Chapter 2 up as a “guilty-pleasure” action flick, and the filmmakers themselves don’t appear to want fans to read any farther into it than that. However, good storytellers know that a story doesn’t resonate as deeply as Wick’s does without something deeper going on under the surface. Some may note that one element fans gravitate towards is the cavalcade of peculiar characters that Wick meets on his blood-soaked quest. It’s not their peculiarities that are the key to the film’s effectiveness — it’s what they all share in common.

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Some of the figures Wick meets are nefarious, such as central antagonist Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Some are oddly cordial, like bodyguard Cassian (Common), even when he’s out for John’s head. Then there are the in-between oddballs like the indeterminate Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, perhaps the most tonally out-of-place performance in the film, but a welcome extended cameo nonetheless). Despite their differences in demeanor and motivation, all are bound by a single, unalterable code. The absolutism of this complex system is unmistakably similar in form and function to any organized religion, made clear through constant nods to Catholic imagery (especially during the Rome-set middle stretch). The assassin order is carefully illustrated as an overtly absurd belief system, and that gives it a relatability that’s as effective as it is hard to pick out amidst all the blaring gunfire.

As with any faith, the followers of the assassin order walk among us every day; they’re the baristas, the bouncers, the businessmen and the buskers. They look, speak and present themselves as anyone else. Internally however, their entire lives are built around a strict adherence to a rule system that is assumed honorable and moral, and thus can not be defied under any circumstance. If this were a religion, though, their God would be death. The order’s way of life revolves around killing and little else. Murdering others for money is as simple a tenant as prayer or a matter of etiquette, like washing one’s hands before eating. As one can deduce, this leaves almost every character in John Wick: Chapter 2 completely desensitized to violence, which has its own adverse effects on them. Because death is clearly not desirable but is nonetheless a necessary part of their lifestyle, they might as well enjoy the process. Thus, killing people is frequently referred to as “business” and weaponry is savored like fine wine.

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We only meet one character in the film who has successfully “broken free” of this order: John Wick. Keanu Reeves seemingly plays Wick with this idea in mind. His face is constantly pained as he carries the unmistakable weight of religious guilt on his shoulders. He doesn’t want to enjoy the process because he’s seen that the order generates copious harm and hypocrisy to be swept under the rug. After all, nobody can question an absolute. However, as Wick learns the hard way, you can never truly leave a closed system without the specter of hellfire looming over your shoulder. Part of him wants to atone, but atonement in this world means death. So he must sin. He must break rules. Anyone who has experienced a crisis of faith can relate to and find a release through John Wick’s plight, as can anyone who’s ever questioned a large, powerful institution and felt the fire as a result. Wick is a secular Jesus for any and all.

Except he kills for our sins.

While the film’s religious metaphor is deceptively nuanced, the connection made between organized religion and violence should not be mistaken as an attack on religion. Rather, it’s an attack on humanity’s morbid fascination with blood and guts, and specifically America’s disproportionate obsession guns and gun rights. The film does not claim that religion will necessarily lead to corruption and danger, but instead warns that an increasing desensitization to — and interest in — violence could blossom into an almost religious fervor; that is, if our society does not become self-aware as to how ridiculous it is to fetishize death and destruction — as most blockbusters seem to encourage. That’s what makes John Wick: Chapter 2 and its predecessor so different.

The insane amount of mass murder that takes place on screen is not at all ridiculous to its characters. It’s just business. But it is ridiculous to us, the audience, who react with laughter at the absurd indecency playing out, as though it were a Buster Keaton comedy. By letting us in on the joke while the characters play it straight, the movie goes beyond being just another violent romp and becomes a timely, self-reflexive tool for audiences to mock their own savage tendencies and hopefully reflect on them on some subconscious level. That the final action sequence takes place in a hall of mirrors is not merely a great source of spectacle — it’s a symbol of the filmmakers’ intention to confront the audience’s depravity while allowing them to delight in it, to see the image and our reflection at once. In less pretentious terms: To have our cake and eat it too.

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Had any of its messages been more clearly spelled out, John Wick: Chapter 2 would have lost the narrative simplicity of its predecessor and could have fallen into preachy territory, or even garner accusations of sacrilege. It’s Stahelski’s skillful grasp over filmmaking as a celebration of the surface image that allows him to distract so masterfully from the important messages Kolstad imparts, working on the psyche from within. All the longwinded analysis in the world doesn’t matter, as the movie is meant to be enjoyed without a second thought. It only works when it’s working in secret. So enjoy John Wick: Chapter 2 for its mindless action, for its debaucherous excess, for its shallow, fleeting joys. But remember that not all guilty pleasures are equally guilty.

Review Score: 4 out of 5

 

Review: “Patriots Day”

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By dramatizing the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that followed, Patriots Day serves as a prime example of Hollywood’s willingness to play with fire when it comes to depicting recent history. The film visually harnesses the dismemberment and murder of U.S. citizens not just as a depiction of endurance in the face of terror, but as a catalyst for star-studded popcorn entertainment. The resulting movie is an undeniably effective and poignant one, but troublingly so. While it may be the most suspenseful true-life thriller since 2013’s Captain Phillips, the way it utilizes a national tragedy to facilitate a patriotic blockbuster rife with gunfire and explosions keeps the specter of exploitation firmly on the film’s tail. Its fundamental tactlessness may not detract from the gripping filmmaking on display, but it does leave a disconcerting aftertaste in its wake.

Patriots Day is directed by Peter Berg and, like his previous two films Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor, stars Mark Wahlberg in a story that attempts to tow the line between serving as a respectful tribute to brave, real-life U.S. citizens, and providing flashy and often questionably violent entertainment. While Horizon had a strong first half by establishing believable characters, only to devolve into a mindless survival slog with dark and sometimes incoherent action, Patriots has the opposite issue: The set-up (taking place in the hours leading up to the marathon) is all-around atrocious, jumping around its large mostly-male ensemble to introduce banal relationships with wives, girlfriends or crushes. This is one of the most tried-and-true tearjerking tricks in the book, but it’s also one of the most lazy and cliched, especially when used as shamelessly and repetitively as it is here. What’s worse is that these dull, cheesy scenes are shot in the same shaky, quick-zoom camera style used in the action scenes. The first fifteen minutes seem to suggest the film is both a technical and narrative dud.

The bigger issue is the film’s immaculate recreation of the marathon itself. From a production design perspective, this section is undeniably impressive in its authenticity, but it’s hard to see the many shots of gushing blood and severed limbs as anything other than exploitation, pure and simple. It’s not the way the aftermath is depicted that’s the problem. In fact it’s quite well edited with quick, jarring flashes that are structured like vivid traumatic memory, and the slick use of real news footage helps ground the on-the-ground camera work in a real sense of space. Rather, the fact the filmmakers went through the effort to fully build these sets, populate it with these actors and spend millions of dollars on explosion effects, fake blood and screaming extras makes this sequence feel so… maybe insensitive is the wrong word, but certainly imprudent. It’s especially disconcerting since the whole scene exists solely to add emotional weight to the more traditional thriller narrative that follows, turning real terror that real people went through into just another convenient plot point.

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There are other ways to convey the anguish and pain of a traumatic event than to stage a meticulous reenactment. Take 2010’s Zero Dark Thirty, which also followed a high-profile manhunt for a terrorist, in that case Osama bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow ingeniously opened the film with a black screen, over which played a haunting audio montage of actual panicked phone calls from within the Twin Towers during the September 11th attacks. Without a single image, without a single shred of fiction, she effortlessly established the deep, almost indescribable human emotions that drives the entire film forward. Had Bigelow gone the Patriots Day route, Zero Dark Thirty would have opened with a thirty minute recreation of the towers’ destruction. But she understands the importance of restraint, whereas Berg takes a ‘whatever works’ approach to manipulating audiences, more concerned with keeping audiences from getting bored.

The objectionable nature of the movie’s first half is complicated by the fact that the rest of the film, a mixture of well-written procedural problem-solving and bombastic action, is pure cinematic bliss. I remember watching live helicopter footage as police amassed around a tarp-covered boat in an inconspicuous suburban backyard. I knew that this dramatic standoff and the series of events that lead to it would make its way to theaters eventually. Maybe not this soon, and maybe with not quite so many big names, but it was inevitable. What I didn’t expect was something this visceral, especially when it was announced that the director of Hancock and Battleship was hired for the job. Yet Berg has proven himself a formidable action director over the past few years and has outdone himself here. Every scene is efficiently paced and there’s a great oscillation between white knuckle suspense and breakneck action. In its more intense moments, the camerawork and editing become intentionally disorienting while remaining coherent in terms of being able to read the space.

It’s abundantly clear from the start that there are too many characters in the movie, and this ultimately means there’s not enough screen time for any of them in particular. Heavy hitters such as John Goodman, JK Simmons, Kevin Bacon and Michelle Monaghan put in good work in wasted roles, while Mark Wahlberg is an uninspired choice who gives an equally uninspired – though serviceable – performance. Certainly, Marky Mark did a much better job in Deepwater Horizon, and the fact that his police officer character Tommy Saunders isn’t based on any actual human being is a crucial breach of the supposed authenticity on which the movie stands. Luckily, the film’s misuse of its big stars ends up something of a blessing in disguise, as it allows less well-known performers such as Khandi Alexander and especially Jimmy O. Yang to shine in pivotal moments that end up being the film’s most memorable.

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But nothing in the film is as fascinating or unique as Alex Wolff’s portrayal of young terrorist Dzhokar Tsarnaev, masterfully illustrating the nature of modern terrorism by emphasizing its horrifying relatability. I knew people like Dzhokar all throughout college and, no, I’m not referring to ethnicity or religion at all (the film is mercifully void of xenophobia). Dzhokar is a normal American college kid, living in a dorm and smoking weed with friends… the only difference between him and them is that he’s been secretly radicalized by his older brother. Their extreme ideology is familiar as well, visible not just in the many senseless attacks that strike the globe per year, but in the average internet comment section that seems to attract scared, vulnerable, angry individuals of all cultures and creeds. The fact that anyone you know could potentially be so consumed by hate that they’d kill innocent people is scarier than any stereotypical image of a terrorist, and the script takes brilliant advantage of this, especially in one exceptional scene in which the two brothers discuss ‘the truth’ behind 9/11 with a hostage.

It’s perhaps thanks to the strength of these stand-out moments and performances that the film manages to end on legitimately rousing note, despite how blunt and manipulative everything is up to that point. As with Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, Berg concludes with a respectful and legitimately moving tribute to the real heroes and victims of the story. It’s odd that he felt it appropriate to shift so quickly from explosive action set pieces (with some humor that is as effective as it is wholly misguided) to an emotionally raw salute to men and women who experienced the horrors that he depicts as entertainment, but what’s even stranger is that it actually sort of works. The more exciting Patriots Day becomes, the more magnified its troubling real-world implications seem, but Berg seems to demonstrate that there’s value in using pop culture escapism as a unification tool, even if it means forgoing a certain amount of sensitivity in the process.

Score: 4 out of 5

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Sam’s Top Ten Movies of 2016

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There are two ways we can choose to frame 2016 now that it’s in the rear view mirror: as a year of relentless struggle, heartbreak, political strife and social unrest, or as a year that tested our endurance and reinforced our resolve to always see the best in humanity and work towards putting out best selves out into the world. As with most trials and tribulations, that’s the overarching choice – to let our hardships define us, or to use those hardships to shape our own, stronger definitions of ourselves. If all of this seems terribly overblown and melodramatic just you wait, as I will now attempt to explain what should be the least important real-life issue of the year, the film industry, in this exact context:

As many of my reviews have noted since January, this had been a decidedly bad year for cinema in many respects. This summer, executives were rocked by a string of flops. Many of these were sequels or reboots to established franchises, or at least hefty moneymakers in their time, yet these sure bets such as Zoolander 2, Allegiant, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Neighbors 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence, The BFG, Ghostbusters, Ben-Hur, Inferno and Bad Santa 2 all managed to either flat-out bomb or disappoint financially. It’s a dismal picture, especially considering how unnecessary or just plain bad many of these movies were in the first place. Many of those that did manage to succeed critically and commercially weren’t much better from a quality perspective. There were gems here and there (as my list will reflect), but overall this has been the most depressing lineup of the decade, both for Hollywood and the independent sector.

Even the start of the last quarter was ominous, with anticipated Oscar hopefuls like Sully, The Birth of a Nation, Snowden, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and promising studio films like The Girl on the Train and The Accountant failing to gain any traction. To follow the common consensus for 2016 would be to simply conclude, “this was a terrible year for movies just like it was a terrible year for everything else, so let’s move on and hope next year is better.” That was my position going into the final stretch as well. But something unexpected happened: great movies started pouring out on almost a weekly basis. Many were smaller indies, ones that you had to actively seek out, but film distributors were truly saving the best for the last… and cutting it closer than most years. So, do we define a year by the disappointment and cynicism of the majority, or by the surprise success and genuine spirit of a minority unwilling to be engulfed by negativity and doubt? I choose to celebrate 2016, both in and out of cinema, for the little victories, the small nuggets of hope and the perseverance of the few. And may that perseverance pay off on 2017.

Here are my top ten movies of 2016:

10. Manchester by the Sea

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Themes of grief are easy to come by on this list, but no film conveyed such a strong sense of lingering misery than Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful drama about a depressed Boston handyman (Casey Affleck) and his suddenly parentless teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). A revolving door of heartbreaking flashbacks emphasizes the futility of trying to escape from the painful memories of the past, demonstrating in a natural and vivid way how those traumatic experiences can consciously and subconsciously continue to effect one’s ability to move forward with their lives. This is rendered all the more effective thanks to Affleck’s immensely understated performance. He’s one of the rare talents who can sum up a scene’s worth of dialogue in one move of an eyebrow, or an empty stare into space. While the measured pacing and intentionally unresolved ending may rub some the wrong way, they ultimately serve to construct the year’s most true-to-life depiction of the intangible and immeasurable cost of trauma.

So how is it then that Manchester, such an expertly constructed downer, also manages to be one of the funniest movies of the year? That might be the true key to the film’s genius. While Affleck’s cold isolation (befitting the film’s frigid winter setting) seeps off the screen in every sequence where he’s by himself, or at least trying to be, there’s an unavoidable warmth every time he’s engaged in conversation with just about everyone he meets, especially Hedges’ cocky but charming high schooler. Laugh out loud humor comes all the more easily because, by all accounts, nothing should be funny about the situations any of these characters are in. Lonergan seems to be saying that, while it may be impossible to forget one’s painful memories or to restart one’s broken relationships, it’s equally fruitless to evade one’s happy memories or to restart one’s loving relationships. It’s an unexpectedly positive message, one everyone should take with them into the new year.

9. Certain Women

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This year has been an undeniably embattled one for women. Many saw the defeat of Hillary Clinton not just as the literal expression of a host of national ailments, but as a symbolic loss for gender equality in America. A less high-stakes, but no less indicative controversy occurred earlier this year with the hostile online reaction to the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, which carried with it the unmistakable whiff of misogyny (though it’s debatable just how much of a factor that was). On the other side, there’s been vocal backlash, mostly from the conservative sphere, against what some perceive as the hyperbolic and equally hostile rhetoric of fervent feminist circles derogatorily referred to as ‘Social Justice Warriors’. The point is that, whichever side you stand on, loud voices and vitriolic language was the name of the game for gender politics in 2016. Maybe in hindsight, we can all agree that what we needed wasn’t to out-yell our adversaries, but to find more subdued methods for expressing our viewpoints and airing our grievances.

This is what makes Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women such essential viewing, and so different from all other depictions of women on screen this year. It’s the slowest, quietest and most ambiguous masterpiece of 2016, but it is also one of the most confident. The first secret ingredient is patience, as Reichardt utilizes long, static shots, minimalistic dialogue and hushed ambient noise to emphasize the interminable wait her four female characters must endure to claim their deserved independence and self-worth. The second ingredient is trust: trust in her characters who may never get what they’re looking for but never lose their will to keep searching, trust in her actors who with the most minuscule of looks and subtlest of line delivery turn themselves into sympathetic, full-bodied heroines, and trust in her audience, who she believes can understand and empathize with these women’s struggles without having it laid out or even fully resolved for them. Perhaps it’s these two qualities -patience and trust – which bring these specifically female issues to such vivid life, is what ongoing identity debates could use more of in the coming months and years.

8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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The highly-celebrated Star Wars: The Force Awakens didn’t make my Top 10 list last year, so it comes as a genuine surprise that I enjoyed this newest entry as much as I did. This is mainly a product of director Gareth Edwards’ top class world building skills. The diverse array of planets are so intelligently and meticulously detailed, illustrated with the most impressive visual effects to date. More impressive still is that the film manages to be the grittiest Star Wars yet, without sacrificing the franchise’s penchant for bright colors, quirky creatures and imaginative environments (try it some time, Fantastic Beasts). Unlike the freewheeling, optimistic spirit of past Star Wars films, this is a brutal war story and that tone sets itself apart, while connecting to and expanding on established lore in fascinating ways. As someone who doesn’t really consider himself a Star Wars fan (I hadn’t seen the original three films until I was well into college), the fact that I was so invested not just in this standalone story but in its implications on the series as a whole is a testament to how deeply the franchise has seeped into popular culture, as well as just how consistent and passionate Disney managed to be with its rejuvenation of the brand.

While a mindless action flick at heart, the writers also went out of their way to explore themes of moral grayness and responsibility that one would expect from any high-minded war movie. Most telling, droid K2SO seem at first nothing more than the traditional scene-stealing comic relief, an Imperial droid who’s been reprogrammed to fight for the Rebel Alliance and has lost his filter in the process. But there’s something to be said about the ease in which he is able to switch sides with a simple circuitry adjustment, compared to the complex moral conundrums that continuously haunt the humans heroes. Meanwhile, one of the main criticisms I’ve heard is that those humans aren’t nearly as memorable as Rey or Finn. While I won’t deny that, the relatively flimsy character arcs and relationships didn’t bother me much, since this particular story is focused more on the struggles of one collective versus another, and is only concerned with individuals in how they come to terms with the side they’ve chosen. Once that happens, the movie culminates in a stunning final battle, undoubtedly the most exhilarating, explosive spectacle of the year.

7. The Handmaiden

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The less said about this spoilerific South Korean gem, other than every open-minded person should give it a shot, the better. It’s a gloriously manic mindf*ck in the tradition of twisty Hitchcockian classics, where director Chan-wook Park (of Oldboy fame) takes just as much obvious joy in playing with his audience as the audience does in getting played with. This intriguing erotic thriller makes use of Park’s greatest strengths with incredibly stylish, dynamic visuals, enigmatic characters, impeccably placed plot reveals and dark, envelope-pushing content, in an outrageous package that will appeal to fans of fellow master provocateurs like Quentin Tarantino. The Handmaiden is one of those rare ‘pure cinema’ experiences that never, not for one second, settles for being anything other than hypnotically engaging. Park assaults the senses with rampant bursts of intrigue, deception, violence and sexuality, demonstrating all of those elements in unique and edgy ways that will boggle the mind, first to consider how anyone could have thought of it, and then to consider how they were crazy enough to actually follow through.

This oddball work of art also contains one of the strongest and most distinctive romantic relationships in cinema history, certainly a surprise coming from a filmmaker who is commonly known for emotionally detached, socially isolated characters. There’s always more than meets the eye to the evolving bond between Korean Sook-hee (the eponymous handmaiden with mysterious ulterior motives) and Japanese Hideko (the heiress she serves), no matter how many times you are tricked into believing you’ve figured it all out. The way in which their connection grows is depicted via an onslaught of the most bizarre, outrageous and inexplicably beautiful scenes I can recall. It becomes neigh impossible to pick out a ‘most memorable’ moment from among the dazzling pageant of insanity that just keeps one-upping itself. It’s a modern masterpiece so cutting-edge that I would struggle to recommend it to those of a certain age or disposition, but for fans of the weirder and darker side of cinema, The Handmaiden is a must-watch of the highest order.

6. Nocturnal Animals

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Similar to The Handmaiden, fashion designer-turned master director Tom Ford’s second film is so delightfully devious in its construction that its own inherently flawed nature, including jarring tonal shifts and ludicrously gaudy presentation, becomes a godsend in an era when movies are often either too afraid to take themselves seriously or too afraid to break their own illusion. Nocturnal Animals is afraid of neither. In fact, it hinges on the ability to enable and disrupt audience immersion with equal fluidity. It is a bold film, impeccably acted and cleverly arranged so that fantasy and reality don’t so much blur together as they do embrace each other with knowing grins. It’s ‘story within a story narrative’ is not a revolutionary technique, but Ford weaponizes the device to force viewers to reconsider how they engage with fiction and how it shades their perception of the real world. It presents a world in which fiction is both more believable and more diabolical than truth, and (in addition to being useful tool for understanding the spread of ‘fake news’) that messaging serves as empowerment for audiences as much as it does for the filmmakers who get to manipulate their willing servants.

While the complex themes and playful manipulation of structure and genre tropes are what will allow the film to thrive as a subject of film theory and criticism for decades to come, it’s also worth noting that the film’s pulpy, lurid story is just plain entertaining on a surface level. Much of the credit can be placed on the remarkably tight editing, immaculate pacing, crackling dialogue and some of the year’s greatest performances. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two very different types of characters in the film, an intentionally confusing but inherently fascinating choice that only an actor of his caliber could pull off with such success. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an actor whose work I have despised in the past, gives a career-best turn as the slimy, sadistic main antagonist, while Michael Shannon steals the entire film in a role that is simultaneously hilarious and tragic. These three in particular are responsible for Animals’ handful of stand-out scenes, which become almost transgressively tense and gripping. It all makes for a stunningly idiosyncratic tale built to make people talk and think about it for days or weeks, whether they want to or not.

5. Swiss Army Man

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You know how I said The Handmaiden had one of the most distinctive romantic relationships in cinema history? By default, Swiss Army Man must be up there as well, as Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe star respectively as an insecure loner and a dead gaseous corpse, who learn to love each other in order to survive in the wilderness. It may sound like I just threw a bunch of random words together to form that last sentence, but that is indeed the premise of this absurd debut movie from a pair of commercial directors who simply call themselves ‘The Daniels’. It’s the year’s wildest ride, unflinchingly it’s own thing in the tradition of post-modern oddities such as Being John Malkovich. What makes this one special isn’t simply that it’s weird but that it openly explores what it means to be ‘weird’, and why that’s often seen as an ostracizing quality, both in art and in real life. That earnest self-awareness allows the film to speak directly to its audience, forming a connection between screen and viewer that is a rare and special thing.

The Daniels also continuously find inventive ways to expand on its premise, of a dead body with enough survival applications that it could put Bear Grylls out of business. The film is strangely moving and downright hilarious in equal measure, thanks especially to Radcliffe’s commendable commitment to the role of an innocent corpse with a heart of gold. It somehow manages to be his best performance to date, and definitely a wise choice as he continues to distance himself further from his most famous role. The erratic nature of the plot is reflected in all other aspects of the movie as well, from the infectious acapella score by Andy Hull & Robert McDowell, to the makeshift, childlike design of the sets, props and costumes. The result is a production that may be inane, but it is at the very least incredibly consistent, singular and heartwarming in its inanity. It presents a vision so unique and captivating that it forces you to forget everything you know about conventional film narrative and then invites you to have fun in the chaos that remains.

4. Everybody Wants Some!!

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Though it came and went from theaters without much notice from general audiences, this year saw the release of director Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to his teen classic, Dazed and Confused. While it appears it won’t gain a level of popularity near that of its 1993 predecessor, Everybody Wants Some!! easily matches that film in terms of raw transportive power and youthful optimism, qualities that continue to mark Linklater as one of the most vital filmmakers alive today. This is a light and mostly plotless comedy taking place in the collegiate world of the 1980s (whereas Dazed took place in a ’70s high school), revolving around a house full of knuckle-headed baseball players in the golden days before classes begin. The experience of watching the movie is akin to hanging out with a bunch of new friends, and as they make tiny realizations about themselves and their place in the world, you learn it right along with them. It’s a movie with the rare ability to trigger the epiphanies of a developing mind in those who have already developed. In other words, this is a powerful form of emotional, developmental time travel that takes you to a physical and mental time and place you thought was long gone.

The movie has come under fair criticism for its treatment of women, being that it centers around a group of bros (née jocks) who care more about getting laid than everything else… other than maybe baseball, which in turn they care about mostly because it will get them laid. That many of the characters (though notably not protagonist Jake, played by Blake Jenner) constantly objectify women is not up for debate – they do. But the claim that Linklater himself is condoning or encouraging this is just plain wrong, especially by the time Beverly (Zoey Deutch) becomes a major presence in the story and reveals herself as the smartest, most self-assured person in the entire film. To not depict the rampant misogyny of the time period (which is not much better on current day campuses) would do a disservice to the ability of storytellers to paint an authentic picture, and to these young characters who feel all the more human for their flaws.

3. Sing Street

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While everyone is going gaga over La La Land, few realize that a much more honest, charming and inspiring musical came out much earlier in the year. That movie is Sing Street, an instant classic that would certainly be recognized as such if not for the lamentable decision to release it back in April when Disney’s The Jungle Book juggernaut was decimating the box office and eating up moviegoers’ attention. Directed by John Carney (Once and Begin Again), this ’80s set coming-of-age dramedy focuses on young Dublinite (Dubliner? Dubloon?) Conor, who is forced into a Catholic high school and decides to start a rock band in a classic bid to win the affection of a girl (Lucy Boynton, one of the year’s most under the radar acting revelations). Luckily for those tired of this cliched set up, the girl ultimately becomes less important than Conor’s blooming sense of self, his newfound appreciation of friends and family, and his burgeoning musical abilities. In the bargain, we get a string of infectious songs, hilarious scenarios that reek of teenage awkwardness, and a warm and authentic illustration of how the people who influence us in turn lead us to influence others in an unknowably wide, unconscious chain of shared self-expression.

Carney has become known for conveying these kinds of sophisticated, ineffable themes through the use of music, and this time he pulls it off with more nuance and skill than ever. By seamlessly blending classic ’80s rock songs with his own original compositions, he perfectly captures how artists take what resonates with them and then twists them into something wholly their own. It may be the most accurate and impassioned portrayal of youthful creativity ever put to film, but Carney’s secret weapon is the bond between Conor and his MTV-loving older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), who serves as a classic Obi-Wan mentor character for most of the film, until their relationship suddenly explodes into something far more complex, heartbreaking but ultimately inspirational. By the time the credits roll, what started out as a standard (but impeccably made) teen movie has become one of the world’s most sincere and indispensable demonstrations of the binding powers of art. Works of art never exist in a vacuum; they are psychic collaborations between the artist, everyone the artist has ever known, and everywhere the artist has ever been.

2. Moonlight

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An extraordinary vision of human compassion, Barry Jenkins’ soul-rending masterpiece needs no introduction. It’s a decades-spanning portrait of an individual with a cracked understanding of his own legacy and sexuality, with three talented actors cast to play Chiron as a child, a teenager and an adult. Of course, this was a choice made out of logistical necessity, yet it perfectly emphasizes the fluidity of human experience, how one can look at him or herself in the mirror and not recognize themselves as the person they used to see. Still, the three performers (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) meld into one singular being so seamlessly that the result is nothing short of miraculous. Without any hint of distraction this casting could have caused, we’re allowed full immersion into a poetic narrative with sparse but potent dialogue that lets the movie do what movies do best: show. Exquisite cinematography from James Laxton providing ethereal colors, intimate closeups and long, bravura tracking shots make for astounding visual spectacle that allows the emotional intensity to bore deep into the mind.

However, much of the film’s incredible poignancy comes not from Chiron but from those who help or hinder him on his path to becoming himself. There are negative influencers like his drug-addicted, verbally abusive mother played by Naomi Harris, who lends Chiron’s earlier years tragic weight as the boy absorbs feelings of self-loathing into his malleable young mind. But then there’s Juan, an almost clairvoyantly understanding father figure played by Mahershala Ali in what is without a doubt the finest supporting performance of the year, even with a relatively limited amount of screen time. Juan understands how important it is to feed Chiron self-worth at an early age, so that when he eventually leaves the picture, his caring and warmth continues to echo throughout the rest of Chiron’s life. Juan is the rare fictional character that is so well-realized and inherently complex that he follows you out of the theater, so that we may carry his words of infinite wisdom wherever we need it most. That pretty much sums up the movie as a whole. It’s a film that manages in spite of its specificity, to speak to each viewer directly.

1. Arrival

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Arrival is science fiction filmmaking at its very best, employing a combination of evocative imagery, modern special effects and contemplative hypothetical scenarios to confront real-life issues on scales both small (personal loss and regret) and large (political instability and the fear of planetary destruction). It’s a movie about communication, both how we transfer our ideologies and emotions from one person or group to another, and how we communicate our own complicated feelings to ourselves. But first and foremost, it’s a highly suspenseful and beautifully eerie thriller that sticks out by downplaying those moments of spectacle that most directors would play up, masterfully withholding visual information to build maximum tension and a sense of dread. It isn’t afraid to dive deep into complex ideas about language, and probes existential themes without an ounce of pretension, but that it manages to juggle all that high-minded content and still remain so totally gripping is the mark of a true masterwork, and a must-see for any and all audiences.

As with previous films from director Denis Villeneuve (he just keeps getting better and better), the atmosphere is thoroughly dour and oppressive, with a dark and muddy color palette and Johann Johannson’s foreboding, ethereal score. And then there’s the script, which takes frequent right turns to linger on Amy Adam’s traumatic loss of a child, suddenly breaking the focus away from the aliens – again, most studios would never allow such an untraditional, anti-blockbuster approach. What’s most astonishing is that despite all this dreariness, at the end the film unexpectedly morphs into something unexpectedly joyous and inspirational. How this happens is for you to experience for yourself (and it is an experience) but let’s just say this is one of the rare, transcendent movies that has the power to recalibrate your brain and change how you view the world long after the movie is over. It serves as a potential tool for living a better life and diffusing conflict, and as a reminder that all the hardship and grief you may face, in 2016 and beyond, can look a lot like hope if you just adjust your perspective.

As always, there are far too many great movies for me to leave it at 10, so I would like to leave you with the following honorable mentions that I would recommend to just about anyone: Patriots Day by Peter Berg, Life, Animated by Roger Ross Williams, Weiner by Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg, The Neon Demon by Nicolas Winding Refn, The Witch by Robert Eggers, Loving by Jeff Nichols, Don’t Think Twice by Mike Birbiglia, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years by Ron Howard, Hunt for the Wilderpeople by Taika Waititi, and Fences by Denzel Washington.

Additionally, you can check out my full ranked list of all the movies I’ve seen that came out in 2016, as well as my own personal ‘awards’ by clicking this link.

See you in 2017!