Review: “Black Panther”

Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER

L to R: Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Okoye (Danai Gurira)

Ph: Film Frame

©Marvel Studios 2018

It’s impossible to overstate the intensity of the discussion built up around Disney/Marvel’s Black Panther, technically not the first black superhero movie but certainly the first mega-budget blockbuster directed by an African-American and featuring a predominately black cast beyond just the titular hero. Two weeks after its release, a bulk of the hype and the conversation has died down, although moviegoers continue to add to its box office reign in a big way. If there’s one factor that was impossible to deny before it even came out, and that is even more clear after seeing it, it’s that the film works best as an emblem of black representation and a symbol of black agency, and as an accessible but layered exploration of the multitudes of ideals, viewpoints and experiences that exist in black communities across the world.

That a Marvel movie can serve as the vehicle for these types of loaded, emotionally intense concepts is at once absurd and yet not all that surprising. There’s no more efficient way of reaching the widest possible audience than through a big accessible Disney blockbuster, despite the fact Marvel Studios (18 movies in at this point) is not often known for its attempts to grapple with challenging social issues or engage audiences with political metaphor (usually it’s just handsome actors punching things and stopping alien laser beams). Thus, the praise for Black Panther should be leveled mainly at director Ryan Coogler (of Fruitvale Station and Creed fame) for taking the well-worn Marvel formula, overlaying a vivid, unique sci-fi world, and then populating it with well-realized, relatable characters and heavy, grounded themes.

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The unspoken goal of science fiction has always been to present an idealized or cautionary future in order to direct our collective imagination towards an optimal society. Believers in the real-life power of art would argue that in science fiction we first see the world as we hope/dread it will be. Then, somewhere down the line, real-life advances will be mapped onto those subconscious visions. Unfortunately, the continent of Africa and the African diaspora have been largely absent from the science fiction conversation over the decades. Coogler lays bare the injustice of this exclusion by demonstrating how far just a single powerful, badass depiction of an African future worth believing can go to spark the imaginations of generations of Africans and their descendants around the globe to seek to make this vision of strength and unity a reality.

Coogler is a believer in the power of movies to inspire real change, and that he was able to weaponize the unwieldy Disney machinery to this end is magnificent. Yet for all the ground it breaks, Black Panther harbors many of the Marvel franchise’s old flaws, ultimately making it Coogler’s weakest film on a technical and narrative level. Scenes proceed in a jarring, disjointed fashion well past the film’s first 30 minutes, by which point any decent plot should have found its central focus. Marvel is known for leaning heavily into its humor, but comedy has never been Coogler’s strong suit and the jokes here often fall flat, either because of faulty timing or faulty delivery. The effects, especially when it comes to green screen sets, are wildly inconsistent and sometimes atrocious, a shame given how richly detailed the architecture and costumes are.

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Where the film really excels is in its casting, which goes a long way towards bringing a very bloated laundry list of characters to life (as thin as most are on the page). Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Danai Gurira and Andy Serkis are some of the highlights, but Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole take care to make sure absolutely everyone gets at least one memorable moment to stand out. The list of supporting characters goes on and on: Letitia Wright (an instant fan favorite), Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Winston Duke, Martin Freeman, Sterling K. Brown, etc. One could argue that this mammoth roster is part of the reason the plot is often so unfocused, but there’s no denying the grandeur and scale that this multitude of stars brings to the screen.

The real story in terms of the characters is the main hero and villain. Chadwick Boseman’s regal stoicism as T’Challa, young king of the fictional, high-tech African nation of Wakanda, may rob him of some of the personality of his co-stars, but his composure and selflessness makes him a much needed counterpoint to some of Marvel’s other leading men, such as Robert Downey Jr.’s cocky Tony Stark or Tom Holland’s bumbling Peter Parker. More importantly, his dignified aura serves as an excellent contrast to Michael B. Jordan’s stand-out performance as the film’s central antagonist Erik Killmonger, who arrives in Wakanda from Oakland to claim the throne for himself. Jordan brings with him a brash, swaggering pathos that launches Killmonger to the top of Marvel’s pack of villains, which are usually bland, goofy or a combination of the two.

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Killmonger works so well because he embodies the film’s ability to represent something real and vital for audiences, which is a radical (but increasingly common) concept for mainstream movies. Though the plot comes down to simple ideological questions — if or how Wakanda should share its secret technology with the rest of the world — there’s a real sense of pain and frustration in Jordan’s performance, and Erik’s desire to weaponize that technology. Coogler (like T’Challa) ultimately chooses to focus on overcoming generations of injustice through pride and unity rather than by indulging Killmonger’s reasonable but misguided desire to turn those injustices on the perpetrators. If this dichotomy is admittedly simplistic, the context in which it takes place is shockingly nuanced for a blockbuster, especially in how it’s used to explore the fraught relationship between Africans and the descendants of those taken from the continent long ago.

In all, I was about as let-down by the narrative elements of Black Panther as I usually am by entries in the Marvel series, and more than a little surprised by how spotty the special effects were, given the estimated $200 million budget. The original Guardians of the Galaxy contained much more convincing CG and green screen work back in 2014. It’s a real bummer that a place as conceptually bold and as lived-in as Wakanda couldn’t receive best-in-class treatment. Yet the film comes alive in its best moments thanks to a tremendous cast of lovable characters, many moments of pulpy action (such as two waterfall brawls that recall Coogler’s Creed), a badass blend of science fiction/fantasy concepts, and its ability to speak to human history and experience like no Marvel film and very few blockbusters before it.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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Sam’s Top Ten Movies of 2017

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2017 was a year of uncomfortable confrontations. Outside of movie theaters, we’ve witnessed a head-on collision between political and social ideologies growing ever more vastly opposed and aggressive in that opposition. In the film industry and the larger media, ugly truths that have lurked in the shadows for decades have come to light, sparking a movement in the direction of justice and healing for the victims. A lot of unpleasantness, hostility and outright hatred has risen to the surface across our culture, and it’s no surprise then that the movies that defined the year have reflected these aggressive clashes. Grand blockbusters such as Wonder Woman and Dunkirk lit up the box office with depictions of courage and strength in the face of great adversity and darkness, while movies like Mudbound, Detroit and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri shined an uncompromising light on how little progress our society has made.

Yet this year we also embraced movies that reflected not our darkest fears and most urgent battles, but our inextinguishable hopefulness, compassion and joy. The Florida Project and Lady Bird captured the magic of growing up at its most vibrant and emotionally in-tune. The Disaster Artist provided an encouraging take on the value of  unbridled creative freedom and collaboration. And Baby DriverSpider-Man: Homecoming and John Wick: Chapter 2 reminded us that there’s still space for escapism when we need it most. So make no mistake: though a lot of the year’s emblematic films tackled the most painful issues of the day (and often in equally painful ways), silver linings were in no short supply. My top 10 movies list starkly demonstrates this balance, with a mixture of the unrelenting ugliness that lies before us, and the intense persistence that keeps us striving for a lovelier and stronger tomorrow.

10. Logan

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Every year sees the release of numerous superhero flicks all vying for box office supremacy (to recap this year’s offerings: The Lego Batman Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League), but Logan stands apart from the rest. Director James Mangold, who previously made the breezy but brainless The Wolverine, is no longer content with churning out mindless, violent spectacle that will inevitably be lost in an endless current of identical product. Instead, he turns his attention inwards and explores what makes the genre tick and why these types of movies so often seem stuck on autopilot. This is a dark, gory and surprisingly self-aware Western-inspired story anchored by Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, who each give career-best performances in roles they originally took on seventeen years ago. With a haunting score by Marco Beltrami and desolate landscapes worthy of Cinemascope, Mangold has made something at once familiar and yet completely foreign.

Logan can be read in quite a few different ways. It’s most obviously a swan song for the generation of X-Men films that helped kickstart the world’s most popular movie genre at the turn of the millennium, and two of the great acting talents who made this possible. It’s an introspective breakdown of the superhero genre itself in the tradition of the revisionist Western, commenting not only on its own cursed existence to a cycle of violent conflict, but our wider society’s. It’s a character study of a broken man who must come to terms with his own aging and the inevitable deterioration of himself and those around him. It can even be seen as an allegory for demographic shifts in the United States, especially in the second half. Any one of these themes would be enough to elevate the film above any other superhero film of recent years, but the staggering amount of depth and nuance Mangold sneaks in, all while maintaining a breathless action-packed narrative, is a true accomplishment in blockbuster reverse-engineering.

9. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) 

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Director Noah Baumbach is known for his dry, acerbic wit, his films often featuring deeply unlikeable characters and themes of misanthropy, self-loathing or both. While his girlfriend and muse Greta Gerwig kickstarted her own directing career in a big way this year, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) shows little has changed in terms of Baumbach’s main creative interests. His newest film revolves around two estranged brothers played impeccably by Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller, both screwed up in differing ways after growing up under the vice of their pretentious, narcissistic artist-patriarch Harold, played by Dustin Hoffman (himself embroiled this year in accusations of repugnant and callous behavior). Harold Meyerowitz may be one of Baumbach’s most impenetrable, detestable creations, but the way in which Sandler and Stiller’s vulnerabilities reflect years of dispassionate parenting and obvious favoritism allows for easy audience empathy, and makes for the writer-director’s greatest achievement in character building.

As usual with Baumbach’s work, this is a talky movie, but dialogue remains energetic and propulsive throughout. Hilarious, searingly truthful lines fly like bullets, respecting the audience’s intelligence to catch what they can. The film subsists on awkward, ego-deflating humor milked out of constant flareups of passive aggression and insecurity from across the Meyerowitz clan. However, more now than ever Baumbach reveals a softer side that imbues the film with moments of striking beauty and warmth. Whereas his similarly-themed The Squid and the Whale provided only the faintest glimmer of hope that its young protagonist could escape or learn to grow beyond his father’s poor example, here the director envisions an almost naively optimistic way out in the form of the next generation of Meyerowitz: Eliza. Played by relative newcomer Grace Van Patton, Eliza feels different from any other character Baumbach has written, even the flighty Gerwig ones. She serves as a ray of originality and hopefulness, positing that even from the wreckage of a deeply dysfunctional family can grow something new and wonderful.

8. The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water is a fairytale of uncomfortable truths and a romance of immense sensitivity. The film’s picture-book narrative and art-deco style take the best elements from director Guillermo del Toro’s diverse array of past movies and pieces them together into his most complete and fulfilling work yet. The story focuses on a government facility that is (maybe not so secretly) housing a humanoid-reptilian creature found in the Amazon. The story is as much about all the different people working at the facility as it is about the Creature from the Black Lagoon-inspired monstrosity being held there. Exploring the lives of these human characters reveals a gorgeous and vaguely surreal 1950s-set world bogged down by the harsh reality of racial discrimination and constricting social norms. As usual, Del Toro uses fantasy and monster-movie tropes to pull apart troubling ideologies without becoming too preachy. In the process, he blends the elegance and emotionality of Pan’s Labyrinth with accessible humor and thrills.

Though the distinctive, evocative production design and convincing creature effects vie for the spotlight, the movie belongs to its cast, and specifically to Sally Hawkins as mute protagonist Elisa, who falls in love with the feared creature and eventually mounts a daring mission to release him from government captivity (making it a perfect companion piece to this year’s Okja). Populating Elisa’s world are friends (Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins, both immensely sympathetic and charming presences), foes (Michael Shannon gives the most vibrant and vicious villainous portrayal since Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa), and those whose intentions are less clear (Michael Stuhlbarg plays a conflicted Russian spy, adding a wrinkle of timeliness to the plot). Last but not least, Doug Jones (the actor, not the senator) gives del Toro another ethereal turn as the pivotal ‘monster’, who may or may not be an ancient God. Paired with Andy Serkis’ work in War for the Planet of the Apes, Jones’ helps make 2017 a poster year for motion-capture.

7. Get Out

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The conversation over whether Get Out is a comedy, horror film or something else entirely is well beside the point for director Jordan Peele. His masterful, self-assured directorial debut is the year’s most striking and accessible indictment of modern racism, probing the more cerebral side of bigotry. While filmmakers like Detroit‘s Kathryn Bigelow were more concerned with showcasing brutal physical violence against African Americans, Peele’s more nuanced approach explores the existential dread that comes not from the muzzle of a gun, but from the lingering feeling of being perpetually unwelcome in one’s own country and in one’s own skin. In a year where racism has often been framed as belonging exclusively to those who defend statues of racist leaders or actively want to turn back the clock, Peele turns his attention to liberal racial bias. He confronts those who may say they “don’t see race,” but in the grab bag of identity politics end up other-ing people of color in similarly detrimental, though not always as overt, ways.

Peele’s background in sketch comedy means the heavy subject matter is always tempered with heavy doses of humor and pulpy horror tropes, which keeps it from drifting too far into intellectual territory and keeps it from becoming preachy. It’s a film made for blockbuster audiences (as its box office success proves), but with a meticulously calibrated message worthy of academic study. This balance is not achieved without some jarring tonal jumps (the comic relief scenes with Lil Rel Howery  feel like they’re from a different movie), but Get Out‘s accomplished balancing act is hard to overstate, especially for a first-time director. Hilarious, visceral, cunning and consistently surprising, the movie also features several excellent performances, especially from lead Daniel Kaluuya as Chris (trapped at his white girlfriend’s family estate) and from Betty Gabriel as Georgina, ‘the help’. Fantastic sound design and evocative lighting round out the most unique and vital mainstream film of 2017.

6. T2 Trainspotting

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Having been dumped into a few U.S. cities in the middle of March all but ensured T2 Trainspotting wouldn’t show up on many year-end lists. It was rejected by audiences, who likely assumed it was another shameless, unnecessary, nostalgia-baiting sequel to a classic that was fine on its own. But that right there is the genius of T2 Trainspotting: it is that shameless, unnecessary, nostalgia-baiting sequel… and it knows it, too. The film is about four middle-aged Scottish friends and former heroin junkies, who now live in the shadow of a glorious and responsibility-free past they (and director Danny Boyle) can’t possibly hope to recapture. Their story is no longer the wild odyssey the original was. Instead, they find themselves stuck in a darkly humorous, gloriously pathetic, deceptively stirring contemplation on nostalgia, addiction and the intersection between the two. You don’t need to know or care about the original 1996 Trainspotting, only that the story it tells is as revered by the characters who ‘lived’ it as by fans of the actual film.

The movie is shot and cut with a naive, overeager confidence that mirrors our lovably flawed, over-the-hill anti-heroes as they vigorously chase their own tails. All four leads, Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle and Ewen Bremner, clearly knew exactly what kind of film they were making: not a cheap cash grab capitalizing on a beloved property, but a bracing inquiry into why beloved properties get capitalized on in the first place. At a time when western society is ravaged by an epidemic of nostalgia (be it the angry fervor of MAGA or the throwback escapism of Star Wars, It, Blade Runner 2049 and whatever comes next), it’s poetic that a film about former addicts coming to terms with their flaws encapsulates our collective addiction with all things “past”. Danny Boyle lets us have our drug but confiscates it too, not with the smarmy, uber-ironic attitude of all the retooled, rebooted meta-debris out there, but with a tenderness and sincerity that provides comfort as we slide toward pop-culture overdose.

5. A Ghost Story

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Speaking of movies that are preoccupied with the unattainable past, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story provides a powerful and unique meditation on the emotional power physical spaces gain over years, decades, centuries, etc. Instead of tackling nostalgia, Lowery focuses on nostalgia’s cousin, sentimentality. The result is an entrancing, singular romance narrative in which the only obstacle between Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara’s lovers is the irrevocable passage of time. Lowery alternately widens and condenses the scope of the narrative to demonstrate how something, be it a relationship or a physical home, can at once be deeply personal and simultaneously much bigger than any one (or two) people. There’s a sense of awe to the fluidity with which the film flows, but the central romance is always just visible enough to keep audiences invested in something they can see and hear, in between the many intangibles that Lowery wishes to impart.

There’s a free-spiritedness (no pun intended) to the film’s sparse construction, which recalls the shoestring style of student filmmaking. For example, much of the film (which takes place mostly in a single house) features Casey Affleck as a ghost, not created using CGI wizardry but a simple white sheet with eye-holes cut out. Additionally, there’s a long, navel-gazing, existentialist monologue in the center of the film. And then there’s the several-minute-long sequence of Rooney Mara eating pie… and nothing else. If these and other qualities of the movie rightfully garner accusations of pretentiousness, they also unquestionably demonstrate the emotional heights a filmmaker can achieve when applying well-earned skills (in his case working on bigger films such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon) to the crazy ideas of an uninhibited creative force not yet jaded by the constricting forces of traditional Hollywood filmmaking and storytelling.

4. mother!

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“Distressing,” is among the more euphemistic adjectives one could employ to sum up Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, an unambiguous biblical allegory and environmentalist plea starring Javier Bardem as God and Jennifer Lawrence as the long-suffering Earth. Alternatively, one could call the film “confrontational”, “disorienting”, “ferocious”, “infuriating” or perhaps in the context of a greater cultural movement of 2017, “abusive”. It’s a sledgehammer of a movie created to generate harsh emotions, but remember what Inside Out taught us: all emotions have value, even the dark, uncomfortable ones Aronofsky brings to the surface here. Many find the film flat-out loathsome from beginning to end, while others stay with it until various points that arguably go too far. There is no denying the validity of either experience, but for those who can stomach it, mother! reaches a place of raw truth and power that few films ever manage to articulate, weaponizing cinema to shake the audience to their collective core.

The film’s blunt and uncompromising approach to its message does away with traditional characterizations or subtext. In fact, there are no characters in the film, only symbols. While the actors and their behavior come across as unnatural as a result (comedically so at times), they are elemental in their construction and purpose within the story. More widely problematic are plot threads (such as a yellow medicine or slimy squid-monster) which remain a mystery even when looked at through the lens of straight-up biblical subtext. However, submit to Aronofsky’s oddities and you will find yourself whipped up in an anxiety-inducing whirlwind of pure filmmaking craft. This is as much a straight-up horror nightmare as a timely, incendiary commentary on cycles of violence, masculine egomania, and the pain and cruelty that can come out of the creative process. mother! is the most divisive and intense filmgoing experience of 2017 by far.

3. The Beguiled

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Director Sofia Coppola has always been a strong visual filmmaker who often fails to provide an engaging enough narrative backbone to effectively prop up her reliably beautiful production design and understated performances. Luckily, she effortlessly, gracefully overcomes this former weakness with The Beguiled, a tense, lavish Southern Gothic set at a Virginia girls’ school during the Civil War. Based on a 1966 book which was adapted once before by Don Siegel, Coppola retains her usual affection for ornate costumes and set dressing while masterfully gifting her characters with an equal sense of vivid life and hidden darkness. Run by protective Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman at her most intense), the school’s students are played by the most talented actresses of various ages: Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys) and Oona Laurence (Pete’s Dragon).

Following the (unwelcome) arrival of Colin Farrell as an injured Confederate Corporal, each woman at the school responds to the exceedingly rare presence of a man in their lives in equally fascinating ways. Coppola does a fantastic job of revealing each of the characters’ goals at an organic and engaging pace, something she has struggled with in past films such as the hopelessly meandering Marie Antoinette and excessively ponderous Somewhere. Here, the ambiguity surrounding the Corporal’s intentions imbues the film with a paranoia that has gained additional effectiveness in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and ensuing domino chain. It all unravels into a violent, blackly comedic climax that builds beyond one-note ‘femme fatale’ tropes into something more complex, psychological and empowering. Coppola’s screenplay is the tightest of the year, and The Beguiled stands as both her most entertaining and substantial film since 2003’s Lost in Translation.

2. Good Time

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Good Time is not just a movie you watch; it’s one you get caught up in. It’s all but impossible not to, thanks to the dynamic, propulsive direction of wunderkinds Benny and Josh Safdie (the former also plays a prominent supporting role in the film). With this film the Safdie brothers have made the swift leap into the upper echelons of up-and-coming auteurs who will hopefully be making movies for decades to come. Doused in alluring reds and peppered liberally with menacing shadow, the look of the film is as transfixing as it’s brilliant, lost-in-time score by musician Oneohtrix Point Never. And as if they needed any more ways to keep your eyes and ears hooked in, Robert Pattinson gives an unrecognizable, powerhouse performance as scumbag hustler Connie Nikas. His one-night crime odyssey leads to all sorts of wild chases and intense escapes, with New York City presented as a gigantic funhouse ride Connie’s been on more than a few times.

Look again and you’ll find something deeper than sheer spectacle. Without pointing it out — specifically because the main characters often take little notice of it — the Safdie brothers build a stealthy critique of white privilege into their thrilling crime-flick framework. Many of the characters Connie interacts with are people of color, such as an immigrant security guard played by Captain Phillips‘ Barkhad Abdi and an impressionable teen girl played by newcomer Taliah Webster. Connie callously manipulates these characters and disposes of them when he can no longer use them. He’s able to dodge trouble and evade suspicion through his whiteness, sometimes in a calculated manner and other times in bursts of spontaneity. The film would be an invigorating slam-dunk without the shrewd social commentary behind it, but the extra heft makes for a truly must-see crime movie for the current day, and an instant classic.

1. The Big Sick

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Every movie on this list has dealt in some way with darker aspects of humanity: Logan and mother!‘s cyclical violence, The Shape of Water, Get Out and Good Time‘s racial injustices, the stuck-in-the-past melancholy of A Ghost Story and T2 Trainspotting and the dysfunctional, interpersonal dynamics found in The Meyerowitz Stories and The Beguiled. Luckily, the best film of the year also happens to be the most joyous. The Big Sick is a romantic comedy in a classical sense, but it feels fresh and new thanks to the buoyant, consistently funny autobiographical screenplay by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. Nanjiani also stars as himself (alongside Zoe Kazan in Gordon’s place), adding a sense of authenticity to the proceedings that would be difficult to replicate otherwise. Aided by solid direction from Michael Showalter and a perfect ensemble of supporting players, and The Big Sick makes for superb entertainment with sudden bursts of heartbreak and an overarching, universal emotional honesty that’s tough to beat.

On a conceptual level the film shouldn’t work at all, mashing two wildly different premises together with apparent abandon. Kumail struggles to keep his relationship with Emily (and his wider abandonment of Islam) a secret from his Pakistani parents, who want him to enter an arranged marriage. Just when this plotline seems to be heating up, an infection sends Emily into a medicated coma, where she remains for a bulk of the film. Instead of devolving into an unfocused mess in Emily’s absence, the story brilliantly shifts to a different kind of romance: one between Kumail and Emily’s parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Romano in particular is the movie’s secret weapon, a beaten-down, mopey guy who manages to say something awkwardly hilarious every time he opens his mouth. Using Kumail’s relationship with these two as a stand-in for his unfinished emotional business with Emily results not only in one of the most interesting rom-coms ever, but one of the funniest and most charming comedies of the decade.

As usual, there are many more than 10 worthwhile movies that came out this year (after all, there are more than 300 to choose from). Among those that didn’t make my list, I’d like to draw special attention to The Disaster Artist by James Franco, The Florida Project by Sean Baker, Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan, Phantom Thread by Paul Thomas Anderson, Band-Aid by Zoe Lister-Jones, Stronger by David Gordon Green, Lady Bird by Greta Gerwig, Call Me By Your Name by Luca Guadagnino and Raw by Julia Ducournau.

Additionally, you can check out my full ranked list of all the movies I’ve seen that came out in 2017, as well as my own personal ‘awards’ for the year by clicking this link.

See you in 2018!

“Filmography 2017”: A Mashup of 300 Films of the Year

“Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow… So much time you can bathe in it. So much time you can waste it. But for some of us, there’s only today.” These words come from this year’s film Before I Fall, one of over 300 films from 2017 that appear in my video “Filmography 2017”, which you can view above.

When I was a senior in high school and still unsure of what I wanted to study in college, I stumbled upon Gen Ip’s “Filmography 2010”, a 6-minute mash-up of that year’s movies on YouTube. The video sent my imagination reeling, and my appreciation of film as an art form exponentially increased. Though I can’t claim this was the sole reason I ultimately decided to study film, it’s safe to say Ip’s video changed my life in a profound way.

When you take the individual works of art – each made by so many individuals – and put them together, you get a vivid look into the collective imagination of our world, the shared dreams and fears of society. Seven years later, I’ve decided to pay my own homage to this idea with “Filmography 2017”. I hope you enjoy.


Full list of films in order of appearance:

  1. Suburbicon (dir. George Clooney)
  2. Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
  3. Last Flag Flying (dir. Richard Linklater)
  4. A Cure for Wellness (dir. Gore Verbinski)
  5. T2: Trainspotting (dir. Danny Boyle)
  6. The Glass Castle (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton)
  7. The Case for Christ (dir. Jon Gunn)
  8. The Meyerowitz Stories [New and Selected] (dir. Noah Baumbach)
  9. XX (dir. Jovanka Vuckovic, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent, Roxanne Benjamin)
  10. Raw (dir. Julia Ducournau)
  11. After the Storm (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
  12. Lovesong (dir. So Yong Kim)
  13. Personal Shopper (dir. Olivier Assayas)
  14. Visages Villages (dir. Agnes Varda & JR)
  15. Goodbye Christopher Robin (dir. Simon Curtis)
  16. Brad’s Status (dir. Mike White)
  17. A Family Man (dir. Mark Williams)
  18. Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (dir. David Fairhead)
  19. The Sense of an Ending (dir. Ritesh Batra)
  20. Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott)
  21. Ghost in the Shell (dir. Rupert Sanders)
  22. Good Time (dir. Ben & Josh Safdie)
  23. Polina (dir. Valerie Muller & Angelin Preljocaj)
  24. A Question of Faith (dir. Kevan Otto)
  25. Happy Death Day (dir. Christopher B. Landon)
  26. Tulip Fever (dir. Justin Chadwick)
  27. A Quiet Passion (dir. Terence Davies)
  28. The Mummy (dir. Alex Kurtzman)
  29. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (dir. Luc Besson)
  30. The Founder (dir. John Lee Hancock)
  31. Wish Upon (dir. John R. Leonetti)
  32. Daddy’s Home 2 (dir. Sean Anders)
  33. Victoria & Abdul (dir. Stephen Frears)
  34. Wonder (dir. Stephen Chbosky)
  35. Frantz (dir. François Ozon)
  36. The Fate of the Furious (dir. F. Gary Gray)
  37. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (dir. Errol Morris)
  38. David Lynch: The Art Life (dir. Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Rick Barnes, Jon Nguyen)
  39. Obit (dir. Vanessa Gould)
  40. Kong: Skull Island (dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts)
  41. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson)
  42. Gifted (dir. Marc Webb)
  43. The Star (dir. Timothy Reckart)
  44. Kedi (dir. Ceyda Torun)
  45. The Breadwinner (dir. Nora Twomey)
  46. Maudie (dir. Aisling Walsh)
  47. Leatherface (dir. Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo)
  48. Home Again (dir. Hallie Meyers-Shyer)
  49. Catfight (dir. Onur Tukel)
  50. Marjorie Prime (dir. Michael Almereyda)
  51. My Friend Dahmer (dir. Marc Meyers)
  52. The Transfiguration (dir. Michael O’Shea)
  53. My Scientology Movie (dir. John Dower)
  54. The Mountain Between Us (dir. Hany Abu-Assad)
  55. Split (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
  56. Collide (dir. Eran Creevy)
  57. Antarctica: Ice and Sky (dir. Luc Jacquet)
  58. Woodshock (dir. Kate & Laura Mulleavy)
  59. The Lost City of Z (dir. James Gray)
  60. All Saints (dir. Steve Gomer)
  61. Downsizing (dir. Alexander Payne)
  62. A Dog’s Purpose (dir. Lasse Hallstrom)
  63. Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent (dir. Lydia Tenaglia)
  64. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power (dir. Bonni Cohen & Jon Shenk)
  65. Born in China (dir. Lu Chuan)
  66. The Snowman (dir. Tomas Alfredson)
  67. Jane (dir. Brett Morgan)
  68. Strange Weather (dir. Katherine Dieckmann)
  69. Salt and Fire (dir. Werner Herzog)
  70. In The Fade (dir. Fatih Akin)
  71. The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker)
  72. The Boss Baby (dir. Tom McGrath)
  73. Mine (dir. Fabio Guaglione & Fabio Resinaro)
  74. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
  75. Jigsaw (dir. The Spierig Brothers)
  76. Radio Dreams (dir. Babak Jalali)
  77. The Bad Batch (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)
  78. Flatliners (dir. Niels Arden Oplev)
  79. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)
  80. Stronger (dir. David Gordon Green)
  81. Person to Person (dir. Dustin Guy Defa)
  82. BANG! The Bert Berns Story (dir. Brett Berns & Bob Sarles)
  83. Baby Driver (dir. Edgar Wright)
  84. A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)
  85. Landline (dir. Gillian Robespierre)
  86. All Eyez on Me (dir. Benny Boom)
  87. Donald Cried (dir. Kristopher Avedisian)
  88. Despicable Me 3 (dir. Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda)
  89. Rock Dog (dir. Ash Brannon)
  90. ‘Til Death Do Us Part (dir. Christopher B. Stokes)
  91. Carrie Pilby (dir. Susan Johnson)
  92. The Other Side of Hope (dir. Aki Kaurismaki)
  93. Paris Can Wait (dir. Eleanor Coppola)
  94. Monster Trucks (dir. Chris Wedge)
  95. Logan Lucky (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
  96. Folk Hero & Funny Guy (dir. Jeff Grace)
  97. Cars 3 (dir. Brian Fee)
  98. Baywatch (dir. Seth Gordon)
  99. Wolf Warrior 2 (dir. Wu Jing)
  100. CHiPS (dir. Dax Shepard)
  101. Underworld: Blood Wars (dir. Anna Foerster)
  102. xXx: Return of Xander Cage (dir. D.J. Caruso)
  103. Spark: A Space Tail (dir. Aaron Woodley)
  104. My Little Pony: The Movie (dir. Jayson Thiessen)
  105. The Nutjob 2: Nutty by Nature (dir. Cal Brunker)
  106. Kung Fu Yoga (dir. Stanley Tong)
  107. Atomic Blonde (dir. David Leitch)
  108. I Do…Until I Don’t (dir. Lake Bell)
  109. Buster’s Mal Heart (dir. Sarah Adina Smith)
  110. Only The Brave (dir. Joseph Kosinski)
  111. Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (dir. Joseph Cedar)
  112. The Space Between Us (dir. Peter Chelsom)
  113. Battle of the Sexes (dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)
  114. Birth of the Dragon (dir. George Nolfi)
  115. Sleepless (dir. Baran bo Odar)
  116. The Greatest Showman (dir. Michael Gracey)
  117. Goon: Last of the Enforcers (dir. Jay Baruchel)
  118. Justice League (dir. Zack Snyder)
  119. The Ottoman Lieutenant (dir. Joseph Rubin)
  120. Thor Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi)
  121. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)
  122. Spider-Man: Homecoming (dir. Jon Watts)
  123. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (dir. David Soren)
  124. The Lego Batman Movie (dir. Chris McKay)
  125. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (dir. James Gunn)
  126. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (dir. Jake Kasdan)
  127. Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan)
  128. American Made (dir. Doug Liman)
  129. The Great Wall (dir. Zhang Yimou)
  130. Leap! (dir. Eric Summer & Eric Warin)
  131. The Emoji Movie (dir. Tony Leondis)
  132. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (dir. Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg)
  133. Fist Fight (dir. Richie Keen)
  134. The Foreigner (dir. Martin Campbell)
  135. Rupture (dir. Steven Shainberg)
  136. Girls Trip (dir. Malcolm D. Lee)
  137. The Lego Ninjago Movie (dir. Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan)
  138. Power Rangers (dir. Dean Israelite)
  139. It (dir. Andy Muschietti)
  140. Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins)
  141. The Dark Tower (dir. Nikolaj Arcel)
  142. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (dir. Paul McGuigan)
  143. The Last Word (dir. Mark Pellington)
  144. Columbus (dir. Kogonada)
  145. Lemon (dir. Janicza Bravo)
  146. California Typewriter (dir. Doug Nichol)
  147. American Assassin (dir. Michael Cuesta)
  148. Happy End (dir. Michael Haneke)
  149. Friend Request (dir. Simon Verhoeven)
  150. Colossal (dir. Nacho Vigalondo)
  151. Super Dark Times (dir. Kevin Phillips)
  152. I, Tonya (dir. Craig Gillespie)
  153. Manifesto (dir. Julian Rosefeldt)
  154. Their Finest (dir. Lone Scherfig)
  155. Unlocked (dir. Michael Apted)
  156. Kidnap (dir. Luis Prieto)
  157. Unforgettable (dir. Denise Di Novi)
  158. Free Fire (dir. Ben Wheatley)
  159. The Book of Love (dir. Bill Purple)
  160. Hostiles (dir. Scott Cooper)
  161. Graduation (dir. Cristian Mungiu)
  162. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
  163. Same Kind of Different As Me (dir. Michael Carney)
  164. Killing Ground (dir. Damien Power)
  165. Crown Heights (dir. Matt Ruskin)
  166. Marshall (Reginald Hudlin)
  167. Detroit (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
  168. Step (dir. Amanda Lipitz)
  169. Whose Streets? (dir. Sabaah Folayan)
  170. Trophy (dir. Christina Clusiau & Shaul Schwarz)
  171. Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
  172. It Comes At Night (dir. Trey Edward Shults)
  173. The Devil’s Candy (dir. Sean Byrne)
  174. mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
  175. Beauty and the Beast (dir. Bill Condon)
  176. Going in Style (dir. Zach Braff)
  177. BPM (dir. Robin Campillo)
  178. God’s Own Country (dir. Francis Lee)
  179. Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees)
  180. City of Ghosts (dir. Matthew Heineman)
  181. The Little Hours (dir. Jeff Baena)
  182. Keep Quiet (dir. Joseph Martin & Sam Blair)
  183. Menashe (dir. Joshua Z. Weinstein)
  184. Novitiate (dir. Margaret Betts)
  185. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (dir. Steve James)
  186. Ingrid Goes West (dir. Matt Spicer)
  187. All the Money in the World (dir. Ridley Scott)
  188. LBJ (dir. Rob Reiner)
  189. The Post (dir. Steven Spielberg)
  190. Ex Libris – The New York Public Library (dir. Frederick Wiseman)
  191. Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the House (dir. Peter Landesman)
  192. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (dir. Paul W. S. Anderson)
  193. 11-8-16 (dir. Don Argott, Duane Andersen, et al.)
  194. Wonderstruck (dir. Todd Haynes)
  195. Alive and Kicking (dir. Susan Glatzer)
  196. Lowriders (dir. Ricardo de Montreuil)
  197. The Only Living Boy in New York (dir. Marc Webb)
  198. Risk (dir. Laura Poitras)
  199. The Shack (dir. Stuart Hazeldine)
  200. 47 Meters Down (dir. Johannes Roberts)
  201. Thelma (dir. Joachim Trier)
  202. My Cousin Rachel (dir. Roger Michell)
  203. Phoenix Forgotten (dir. Justin Barber)
  204. Score: A Film Music Documentary (dir. Matt Schrader)
  205. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (dir. Angela Robinson)
  206. Beach Rats (dir. Eliza Hittman)
  207. A Woman, A Part (dir. Elisabeth Subrin)
  208. Rings (dir. F. Javier Gutierrez)
  209. Darkest Hour (dir. Joe Wright)
  210. Blade of the Immortal (dir. Takashi Miike)
  211. The Beguiled (dir. Sofia Coppola)
  212. The Book of Henry (dir. Colin Trevorrow)
  213. Wind River (dir. Taylor Sheridan)
  214. The Void (dir. Steven Kostanski & Jeremy Gillespie)
  215. Murder on the Orient Express (dir. Kenneth Branagh)
  216. The Bye Bye Man (dir. Stacy Title)
  217. Trespass Against Us (dir. Adam Smith)
  218. Life (dir. Daniel Espinosa)
  219. Berlin Syndrome (dir. Cate Shortland)
  220. Smurfs: The Lost Village (dir. Kelly Ashbury)
  221. John Wick: Chapter 2 (dir. Chad Stahelski)
  222. Geostorm (dir. Dean Devlin)
  223. Transformers: The Last Knight (dir. Michael Bay)
  224. Kingsman: The Golden Circle (dir. Matthew Vaughn)
  225. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (dir. Guy Ritchie)
  226. Wonder Wheel (dir. Woody Allen)
  227. The Promise (dir. Terry George)
  228. Megan Leavey (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
  229. Thank You for Your Service (dir. Jason Hall)
  230. The Belko Experiment (dir. Greg McLean)
  231. Gook (dir. Justin Chon)
  232. War for the Planet of the Apes (dir. Matt Reeves)
  233. Annabelle: Creation (dir. David F. Sandberg)
  234. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (dir. Oz Perkins)
  235. 9/11 (dir. Martin Guigui)
  236. Human Flow (dir. Ai Weiwei)
  237. Bushwick (dir. Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion)
  238. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (dir. Dash Shaw)
  239. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh)
  240. The Dinner (dir. Oren Moverman)
  241. The Wall (dir. Doug Liman)
  242. Logan (dir. James Mangold)
  243. The Man Who Invented Christmas (dir. Bharat Nalluri)
  244. Blind (dir. Michael Mailer)
  245. Roman J. Israel, Esq. (dir. Dan Gilroy)
  246. The Zookeeper’s Wife (dir. Niki Caro)
  247. The Hero (dir. Brett Haley)
  248. Lucky (dir. John Carroll Lynch)
  249. Beatriz at Dinner (dir. Miguel Arteta)
  250. The Circle (dir. James Ponsoldt)
  251. American Fable (dir. Anne Hamilton)
  252. The Fencer (dir. Klaus Haro)
  253. Snatched (dir. Jonathan Levine)
  254. How to Be a Latin Lover (dir. Ken Marino)
  255. Pitch Perfect 3 (dir. Trish Sie)
  256. Table 19 (dir. Jeffrey Blitz)
  257. Boo 2! A Madea Halloween (dir. Tyler Perry)
  258. The Limehouse Golem (dir. Juan Carlos Medina)
  259. The Layover (dir. William H. Macy)
  260. The Trip to Spain (dir. Michael Winterbottom)
  261. 3 Idiotas (dir. Carlos Bolado)
  262. Dean (dir. Demetri Martin)
  263. Song of Granite (dir. Pat Collins)
  264. Tommy’s Honour (dir. Jason Connery)
  265. The Disaster Artist (dir. James Franco)
  266. Little Boxes (dir. Rob Meyer)
  267. Rough Night (dir. Lucia Aniello)
  268. Night School (dir. Andrew Cohn)
  269. One  Week and a Day (dir. Asaph Polonsky)
  270. Ferdinand (dir. Carlos Saldanha)
  271. Patti Cake$ (dir. Geremy Jasper)
  272. Brigsby Bear (dir. Dave McCary)
  273. Wilson (dir. Craig Johnson)
  274. The Commune (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
  275. The Square (dir. Ruben Ostlund)
  276. A Fantastic Woman (dir. Sebastian Lelio)
  277. Song to Song (dir. Terrence Malick)
  278. Just Getting Started (dir. Ron Shelton)
  279. Forever My Girl (dir. Bethany Ashton Wolf)
  280. Everything, Everything (dir. Stella Meghie)
  281. Fifty Shades Darker (dir. James Foley)
  282. Princess Cyd (dir. Stephen Cone)
  283. Churchill (dir. Jonathan Teplitzky)
  284. Father Figures (dir. Lawrence Sher)
  285. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (dir. David Bowers)
  286. Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich)
  287. I, Daniel Blake (dir. Ken Loach)
  288. A United Kingdom (dir. Amma Asante)
  289. Loving Vincent (dir. Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman)
  290. Molly’s Game (dir. Aaron Sorkin)
  291. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (dir. S. Craig Zahler)
  292. Chuck (dir. Philippe Falardeau)
  293. Call Me by Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
  294. The Big Sick (dir. Michael Showalter)
  295. The Lovers (dir. Azazel Jacobs)
  296. Band-Aid (dir. Zoe Lister Jones)
  297. Lady MacBeth (dir. William Oldroyd)
  298. Sleight (dir. J.D. Dillard)
  299. 3 Generations (dir. Gaby Dellal)
  300. Before I Fall (dir. Ry Russo-Young)
  301. Breathe (dir. Andy Serkis)
  302. Gilbert (dir. Neil Berkeley)
  303. I Am Michael (dir. Justin Kelly)
  304. The House (dir. Andrew Jay Cohen)

*Notes on inclusion: films were eligible for ‘Filmography 2017’ if they received a theatrical release, wide or limited, in the United States within 2017. This disqualifies Netflix original films apart from a couple exceptions which received day-and-date limited theatrical releases.


Music used in Filmography 2017:

Zummuto – Your Time

Sunbears! – A Lovely Tuesday Afternoon in June

Arcade Fire – Windowsill

Mondo Cozmo – Hold on to Me


 

Review: ‘Baby Driver’

Ansel Elgort

Once again, it’s a summer of inevitabilities in Hollywood. Superheroes are perched at the top of the box office. A flare in Minions merchandise signals a new Despicable Me entry. There’s a new Transformers, and yes – it’s very bad and extremely long. Studios will try to restart properties nobody cares about anymore, like The Mummy or Pirates of the Caribbean, and then they’ll wonder why they can’t succeed.

Even Wonder Woman, loudly celebrated for its ability to break new ground with its female lead, devolves into typical blockbuster slush towards the end. And then there’s the most obvious inevitability, which I’m demonstrating right now: critics complaining about an industry that has abandoned taking risks on original concepts, especially when it comes to big, mainstream entertainment. Enter Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, a movie so intensely old-fashioned in its craft yet cutting-edge in its energy and wit, that it serves as a powerful adrenaline shot for a sequel-fatigued theatergoing public.

Edgar Wright has long been known as one of the finest and most vivacious writer-directors working today, even if his cult hits Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World have never had the kind of box office heft to give studio executives much trust that he could draw the attention of anything wider than a niche, hipster audience. Baby Driver handily puts those doubts to rest, with a lovably despicable cast of characters and gloriously old-school action.

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This is a crowd-pleaser in every sense of the world, a music-infused heist film merges the beating heart and tapping toes of La La Land with the white-knuckle car chases of a James Bond film and the aggressive, self-reflexive humor of Tarantino. At its center is the fantastic Ansel Elgort as Baby, a quiet yet goodhearted getaway driver with a constant ringing in his ears to go along with the violent, psychotic musings of the scumbag criminals he’s forced to work (portrayed by such charismatic faces as Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm).

Baby’s skills as a driver, his ability to get down and dirty without ever betraying his central values or sacrificing that which matters most to him (which includes his many iPods and his girlfriend Debora, played by the immensely charming Lily James of Cinderella fame) makes him an instantly iconic protagonist, and also reflects Edgar Wright’s own convictions as the director of intensely idiosyncratic entertainment. Anyone who followed his troubled and ultimately unsustainable collaboration with Marvel on what was supposed to be his Ant-Man will know that, like Baby, Edgar Wright can play the game as well as anyone but will not surrender his own principles and standards.

Baby Driver is a fun film, but it’s fun in Wright’s own special way. Manic, dynamic editing, obscure pop culture references and that particularly British style of fast-paced dark comedy are given the Bullitt treatment with old-school car chases and wacky stunts shot with minimal CGI (and it shows). It’s all set to a constant pulse-pounding soundtrack that’s perfectly synched with the action. This not only offers a portal into Baby’s enigmatic conscience, it lets the audience know it’s okay to have fun, to not take it too seriously. Paradoxically, this makes the pivotal moments of suspense and emotion feel even more pronounced, because Wright lulls viewers into a false sense of silliness.

Ansel Elgort;Lily James

The simplistic nature of the “just when I thought I was out…” narrative is perhaps best-suited to Wright’s already-dizzying style. Whereas Scott Pilgrim was radical in both form and content (and bombed at the box office as a result), Baby Driver employs a more traditional construction to avoid alienating viewers who might otherwise find his work disorienting. Even though there are segments that drag significantly and it occasionally falls victim to infuriating tropes such as ‘the villain who just won’t die’, the end product is an accomplished mixture of what Wright always does best, and what studio blockbusters can do best when they’re fully committed to original, audacious ideas.

Significant credit should go to Sony for taking such a bold risk. After disastrous attempts to build a rebooted Spider-Man universe around Andrew Garfield and to restart the dormant Ghostbusters franchise, it’s heartening to see them investing in genuinely exciting adult blockbusters, including an action-musical-comedy-heist film. Even more gutsy, Sony invested in Edgar Wright, a director who’s never made profitable films and who’d just had a messy break-up with Disney over his unwillingness to compromise with the studio’s mandates. But he has made good films, and it’s a wonderful thing that this still means something to Hollywood, especially during a summer of such inevitability.

Score: 4 out of 5

Ansel Elgort;Jamie Foxx

Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

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The first several minutes of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 act as an exhilarating kick-off for 2017’s summer movie season. The colorful, confident and comedically satisfying opening credits sequence makes it clear that director James Gunn’s goal is to recapture the flashy freshness of his 2014 predecessor, only turned up to eleven. The scene (featuring a winning combination of adorable Baby Groot and Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky”) is packed with Guardians’ trademarks: outsized personalities, witty banter, imaginative sci-fi spectacle, nostalgic musical choices and an overall anarchic sense of fun. It is about as good as a first impression can get.

It doesn’t take long, however, for that confident veneer to fade and Vol. 2 to reveal itself as a movie exceedingly burdened by its precarious place in the superhero movie landscape. It is not only the sequel to a surprise hit praised for its inventiveness, but also the fifteenth film in an interconnected cinematic universe often criticized for its precise lack of inventiveness. It’s a lose-lose situation, as Gunn can’t possibly match the original’s novelty while simultaneously giving fans more of what they liked about it. He (and the Disney brass) ultimately choose to go the route most blockbuster sequels take: it doubles down on the familiar and simply pretends that it has something new to show.

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This isn’t to say there aren’t fresh elements to the film, or that they aren’t some of its main assets. Though Vin Diesel’s Baby Groot is clearly a Disney ploy to insert the cute, easily marketable side characters found in their animated films, his toddler-like behavior and the reactions they elicit from the team is used to smartly build on the idea of the Guardians as a real family. Meanwhile, the hilariously naive insectoid Mantis, played wonderfully by French actress Pom Klementieff, fits perfectly within the established crew, providing a few moments of the genuine sweetness that the first film did so well, but that the returning cast never quite recapture within their own flimsy arcs.

The script’s fatal miscalculation is that it splits up the entire cast for a large chunk of the film. Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis chat, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker) bicker, sisters Gamora (Zoe Seldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) brawl, and Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord bonds with long-lost father Ego, played by the ever-charismatic Kurt Russell. Breaking the cast up like this is a good idea in theory, as it allows Gunn to zero in on several specific relationships. In practice, it’s a complete disaster. Because the story jumps from one subplot to the next like an overstuffed, expensive sitcom episode, none of these threads are given nearly enough space or time to develop. An identical mistake was made in last summer’s similar sci-fi adventure Star Trek Beyond.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-2-image-gamora-zoe-saldana

As a result, the plot progresses at a snail’s pace and the characters are unable to develop naturally. The Star-Lord/Ego storyline, ostensibly the emotional core of the movie, devolves into a guided tour of exposition on Ego’s fake-looking planet right in the middle of the film. Gamora and Nebula’s arc is a total waste of time, the Drax and Mantis relationship is cute but inconsequential, and though the Rocket/Yondu thread features one of the film’s few set pieces, the conflicts they face act mainly as a shameless setup for the already-announced third installment. Worse yet, the film ultimately tries to insert Yondu into Star-Lord’s storyline for emotional impact, but because the characters spend such a vast majority of the film apart, this falls totally flat.

The only upside to the script’s inert structure is that it gives Gunn an excuse to focus even more intently on the freewheeling humor that made the first film feel so alive. There are moments in Vol. 2 that blow its predecessor out of the water in terms of comedy, such as an extended gag in which Star-Lord tries to find tape in the midst of battle and another round of unexpected ’80s pop culture references. Unfortunately, here too the movie is strained by the expectations that come with its heritage. Gunn tries to double, triple, quadruple the jokes, and the emphasis should be on tries, both because he doesn’t always succeed and because he is trying really, really hard.

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Comedy is extremely subjective, no doubt, but there are some jokes I can’t imagine anyone over the age of 14 would find funny (such as Rocket’s relentless, gratuitous insults) and there are others that are, quite objectively, not even jokes. I might have run out of fingers trying to keep count of how many punchlines consist of Drax simply giving a hearty laugh. Groot’s constant puppy dog eyes are also constantly played for laughs: When Shrek‘s Puss and Boots used the same tactic, the humor came from the fact that he was actually a smooth-talking Spanish lothario character using his cuteness for gain. Here, the whole joke is simply that Baby Groot is adorable. It’s true, but it’s not funny.

Another area of overcompensation is in the special effects. There are grander vistas, bigger explosions and a larger death count, but it all falls victim to inconsistent special effects. Disney continues to excel at creating lifelike CGI characters, with Rocket’s fur animations and Groot’s expressiveness being a noticeable step-up. The detail on spaceships and weaponry is equally impressive. On the other hand, the colorful vistas, especially Ego’s Eden-like home world, are extremely unconvincing, with shockingly poor green screen effects that recall the artificiality of some of Disney’s most subpar recent works like Maleficent and Tomorrowland. Compared to something like The Jungle Book, it never feels like the characters and the space exist on the same plane.

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Everything culminates in a particularly loud, weightless and incoherent climax, uninspired even by Marvel standards. Even if the emotional content hadn’t been particularly underwhelming throughout, it’d be drowned out by all shouting, flashing lights, and debris. When this predictable final battle finally comes to an end, there’s a hasty scramble to end on a touching note. The problem is that up until this point the attitude of the characters and the film as a whole is that nothing really matters and life is disposable, but the audience is suddenly asked to care very earnestly about someone. This feels both unearned and tone deaf.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 tries painfully hard to not just live up to expectations, but to blow them out of the water. The result is a strained affair in almost every regard, from the character dynamics to the effects to the comedy. Quantity takes very clear precedence over quality to the detriment of both. There are good things about the film – the performances are still charming across the board, and the soundtrack is perhaps even better than the first. Still, this movie drops the ball where it really counts, ending up as a poster child for the type of well-intentioned but poorly-executed blockbuster sequels that the Guardians of the Galaxy themselves would likely mock relentlessly.

Score: 2 out of 5

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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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