The Best Films of 2017

Everyone talks about how 2016 was the year that sanity and reason finally collapsed. 2017 existed to prove us wrong. There were literal Nazi protests that saw someone standing up against hate murdered, there is a “president” who is barely able to function as a human being and is so completely deranged that I found myself fearing a nuclear war for the first time in my life, there were the revelations that several people I once respected are not worthy of respect due to the way they treated people around them. Finally, there were the continuing losses of legendary figures in the film world. George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Harry Dean Stanton, Martin Landau, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Adam West, Mary Tyler Moore, Powers Boothe, Michael Parks, Johnathan Demme, John Hurt, Bill Paxton, Miguel Ferrer,  Roger Moore, Robert Osborne…these people made a tremendous impact on our culture that is not likely to be seen again.

Also, Hollywood still has not chosen which direction it will take at the crossroads it finds itself. Studios are becoming larger while streaming services, which are how most people view films, are becoming unnecessarily fractured. And instead of facing reality, everyone seems to be sticking their fingers in their ears. We have an FCC chairman with the IQ of celery who’s been advocating for an internet that resembles France before the revolution. We should be living in an exciting era, but too many shortsighted people with too much power claim to know what’s best for everyone else.

There was one good moment in my 2017 – films finally became more accessible.

In an era where practically everything you want to watch is available with a click of a button, some people are finally starting to understand that media needs to be more accessible to the general population. That’s why I’m a proud owner of a MoviePass, which exists to be a Netflix for theaters. It’s amazing – I pay one price and can go watch whatever films I wish in theaters.

This means that for the first time in a long time, I had to cut some movies from my top ten list. I really liked Lucky, Logan Lucky, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized they liked the necessary gravitas to be permanently enshrined as the best the year had to offer. I even found myself contemplating placing Atomic Blonde, my favorite action film of the year, on the my list of the best overall films. Sure, it has plot holes the size of Connecticut but I admired the skill behind it and was pleased that filmmakers are bothering to take risks with genre films.  I even considered placing Darren Aronofsky’s mother! on my list because it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen a filmmaker go for broke. Aronofsky had a vision that he wanted to tell in the way he told and was brave about that vision. It didn’t work from an emotional standpoint, but I’m still thinking about it at the end of the year. I wish more films could be as confident as mother!, even as they crash and burn.  

As a reminder, films I have not personally seen do not make the list. I unfortunately missed Get Out in theaters and have no reason to doubt that its rave reviews are well deserved. I intend to check it out as soon as possible. Additionally, like all rewards season movies, some things have not been released where I live, like Phantom Thread. I will hopefully be catching up on films I missed in time. But I still think that, no matter what I missed, I had enough films to make a very good list.

But before I begin my proper list, I wanted to give special mention to one particular item that shows how blurred media is becoming. More people depend on streaming services to watch things and, finally, there was one streaming service/channel that had some of the most exciting moments of 2017 for me.

HONORABLE MENTION

Twin Peaks: The Return (dir: David Lynch) – I can’t put Twin Peaks on my list because it’s a TV show at heart. It requires knowledge of the preceding chapters, is episodic, and (surprise) aired on TV.

But in the same way that the original Twin Peaks run changed TV forever, the new run also kick started a revolution and showed how much television has evolved.

Most auteurs have migrated to TV, from David Fincher to Martin Scorsese as the film industry grows unwilling to invest in risks. Lynch himself has not directed a film eleven years. TV has also become the uniting cultural force in our landscape. In my experience, people are far more likely to have an opinion on this year’s season of Stranger Things and Game of Thrones than Thor: Ragnarök.

Lynch’s Twin Peaks takes full advantage of that changing landscape. In 18 hours, he crams in enough story that will leave people thinking for years. And he did it without compromising his vision. There are entire episodes that have practically no dialogue, there are scenes of graphic violence that most show runners would never dare attempt, and there is enough of a pause to allow for Lynch’s bizarre sense of humor to shine through.

Also, Lynch shattered our expectations. Characters who come back are clouds of their former selves (Kyle MacLachlan spends most of his scenes repeating what everyone just said to him), major guest stars (like Michael Cera) appear for only a scene and then vanish, forgotten actors like Matthew Lillard are given a major presence that shows their range, and the show is not afraid to acknowledge the passage of time or pretend like the cast has to be young.

It’s an amazing show that should cause studios to worry. After all, if television is going to be this brave and accommodating to artists, then what’s the point of films?

Also, I was just glad to finally get a conclusion to the story of Dale Cooper. At least, I think we did.

Without further ado, here are my picks for the best films of 2017.

FIRST PLACE

Last year’s Moonlight reminded me of a what a film should be. I should enter a world that I normally wouldn’t see and live a life that is completely alien to me. Moonlight accomplished this task and just missed being my top pick because I felt it more appropriate to pick a bleaker film to represent that bleakness that was 2016.

But that message was not lost to me and I wanted to recognize a film that lets me live a new life. And this year’s top film did that. I was able to see the truly forgotten people of the world – people who try to put on a bright smile while they’re realize their lives have turned into an unrecognizable mess. This was emphasized by the fact that the main character was a child, who is largely oblivious to the petty crimes that her single mother commits just to keep their lives intact. It reminded me of Mark Twain’s writings, where the kids are often far wiser than the scheming adults who have long forgotten some important truths of the world. Only at the end do the kids realize how dark their world is, at which point the titular place seems like a cheap farce designed to hide the sadness of the world.

The Florida Project (dir: Sean Baker)

What really helped the film was the lack of professional actors in the cast. Yes, Willem Dafoe is present and deserves an Oscar for playing the motel manager that caters to poor people and their families. But the best thing about The Florida Project is its authentic feeling. All of the amateur actors give performances that rival their Oscar-winning counterparts, and I have a feeling that was only because they’ve lived similar lives where they have to make ends meet by prostituting themselves on Craigslist. Either way, the result is an incredible film that I won’t soon be forgetting.

SECOND PLACE

I struggled a bit with the placement of the next two films. I knew the nine remaining films I wanted to highlight, but I couldn’t decide what counted as “the best of the best.” So it really came down to a question of which films I’m most likely to see again. And then the choice became easy.

I’ve been a fan of this director’s work since 2004, when he moved from TV to film. He’s been consistently among the funniest filmmakers working today, but he also showcases a great talent for action and genre deconstruction. It takes a very smart person to take a Steve McQueen character and allow the audience to laugh at him while still admiring him. It also takes a smart person to cover so many different genres in one film and do them equally well.

Baby Driver (dir: Edgar Wright)

People are still obsessed with “coming of age” films, but I honestly think Baby Driver is the most emotionally honest one in a while. It plays like a fantasy that every young man has. Who doesn’t want to be the cool getaway driver, spending his days remixing music and seducing a beautiful diner waitress? But then the fantasy ends and we see the inevitable result and destruction such a life causes. Still, it’s a fantastic ride (that pun is completely intended) featuring some great performances and wonderful action scenes.

(On a side note, yes, I am not forgetting this is likely to be Kevin Spacey’s last major role. The film was released before the numerous scandals around him broke and I have no doubt he would not have been cast had Edgar Wright knew about his actions. Spacey is still a talented actor and plays his character well in the movie. It’s a shame he’s also a scumbag who has caused people a lot of pain.)

THIRD PLACE

For my final ranked pick, I thought about the experience that movies are supposed to provide. Most people still feel that pointing a camera at two people playing make-believe constitutes a film. Not many people take full advantage of the medium.

This film did. It put me in a time and place that I had never experienced before. And while most war epics are about understanding the conflict, this one focused on the civilians and soldiers who had no idea what was happening. They were fighting for their lives based on things far beyond their comprehending. The film makes you feel every moment of their tension and fear. Even at the moment of triumph, the film reminds you that these characters have a long way to go.

Dunkirk (dir: Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan has proven himself to be the most creative technical director working today. His effects and scenes are as grand and lofty as anything Steven Spielberg used to do. And they’re put to a great purpose. I was not just enjoying the technical aspects of the air battles. I understood what the stakes were and why I should care that these characters succeed. And all of this was done without showing a single Nazi soldier until the very end of the film. I hope that everyone got a chance to see this on IMAX. It’s an experience I won’t soon be forgetting.

THE REMAINING FILMS

The rest, as tradition dictates, are listed alphabetically

Blade Runner 2049 (dir: Denis Villeneuve) – This belated sequel to Blade Runner is far better than it has any right to be. It takes what could have been a disaster that sullied a classic and turns it into one of the greatest sequels ever made. The new Runner accomplishes this by taking the world of the original film and expanding upon it, showing how normal people would live their daily lives. Everything about this world has changed and we see how the people are reacting to a world that has become even worse in thirty years. And yes, the film brings back characters, but it’s a sequel that acknowledges what happened in the original and how eager they are to move on with their lives. It’s an equally fascinating world as its predecessor.

Detroit (dir: Kathryn Bigelow) – I’m genuinely surprised Detroit has not received more attention from critics. It’s a far better movie than Zero Dark Thirty that actually has a message that’s still (unfortunately) very relevant. Detroit is nominally about the 1967 race riots that gripped the Motor City, but focuses much of its run time on the Algiers Motel incident that saw police officers torturing suspects to extract a confession. It’s one of the tensest chamber dramas I’ve seen, helped by the amazing performances of the cast. I felt like I was in the motel right along with the characters and then realized that, unlike some of the people, I was able to walk out when it was all over. That is something that we as a society need to remember.

I, Tonya (dir: Craig Gillespe) – The Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan story was a touch before my time. I only learned about it from a Weird Al song. But her biopic makes me feel sympathetic for an unsympathetic figure. Tonya Harding was a woman who literally tried to destroy the competition – something that few people would celebrate. But the film doesn’t try to repaint her actions. An opening crawl reveals that the interviews the filmmakers conducted with her were contradictory at best. Rather, it shows the broken home she came from, filled with abusive romantic partners and an unfeeling mother who literally put a knife in her bicep. It makes me realize just why people became so interested in the story. And it still takes time to condemn all us voyeurs in the audience who built Harding to be an international sensation. It’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s touching.

Lady Bird (dir: Greta Gerwig) – This film was something we still don’t see enough of at the multiplex. I was happy to see a talented female director get a chance to tell a really personal story. Lady Bird is a story of a millennial’s youth. Like all teenagers, she thinks the world revolves around her and thinks that adults only exist to crush her dreams. I know I remember a time when I felt that wayBut while most “coming of age” films think that audiences need to learn that lesson, Lady Bird only offers us a glimpse into Lady Bird’s life. We learn that she’s frustrated and makes a lot of mistakes but, deep down, she’s slowly recognizing there’s a lot she needs to learn. It’s a more honest message than you’ll get in a lot of award bait, coming of age movies.

Raw (dir: Julia Ducournau) – Raw is the best feminist horror film since Ginger Snaps. It focuses on the…messiness…of coming of age films by following a new, vegetarian university student who develops an insatiable lust for meat after being forced to eat a rabbit kidney as part of a hazing ritual. And when I saw “meat,” I don’t just mean the animal variety. Raw, like all great horror films, has so many layers to unpack that it forces you to watch its graphic violence and gore. Those moments of someone eating a severed human finger aren’t just there for shock. They actually mean something about society’s expectations of women and the feelings that young people go through when they discover what their bodies can do.

The Shape of Water (dir: Guillermo del Toro) – I’ll admit I found the idea behind the film very weird when I saw it. It was about a human woman, rendered mute by a childhood injury, falling in love with a literal water monster. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized what del Toro was doing. The monster movies that del Toro loved in his youth were some of the most progressive films of their time. Women were allowed to be main characters and they at least acknowledged there were some people who didn’t conform to society’s expectations. The Shape of Water is a tribute to that feeling. The film is a buttoned-up 1960’s period piece that has a female protagonist and features gay and black characters who are depicted as the voice of reason. That shouldn’t sound rebellious or groundbreaking, but it’s still a message that we need to hear. Also, the film contains my favorite individual scene in any film this year, in which Fred Astaire is replaced by the Creature from the Black Lagoon. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir: Martin McDonagh) – Although this film does not explicitly mention social media, Three Billboards perfectly captures the level of discourse in our country. In order to get any attention to even the most horrible problems, you have to stand on a corner and constantly shout about how awful things are and how no one is doing anything to fix it. Then you have to wait for people to shout back about how your statement really inconveniences them and how it would be better if we just didn’t talk about problems at all. It’s a great satire wrapped up in a touching drama about a woman grieving the loss of her daughter. Frances McDormand also gives the best performance she has since Fargo. 

So thank you for these bright moments, 2017.

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Call Me By Your Name – The Most Problematic Movie of 2017

Every year, there is always one film that all the critics seem to love but doesn’t connect with me. Films like The Revenant, which won DiCaprio an Oscar but which I found to be all style and no substance.

This year, that film is Call Me By Your Name. It’s got a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the National Review Board named it one of the ten best films of 2017. Normally, I would simply roll my eyes, wonder why everyone is throwing raves at a film with the pacing of a geriatric trying to lose a footrace to a snail, and leave it at that.

But when I saw the film, I realized there were aspects of it that I need to respond to – namely, how such a film like Name can win such reviews in a year that has been marked by a cultural reexamination of sex, sexuality, and the use of positions of power to seduce young, less powerful people.  Frankly, I found Call Me By Your Name creepy.

Call Me By Your Name is a gay romance film. The 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is seduced by a PhD student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) who is living with Elio’s family over the summer to help his professor father with his work.

The film wouldn’t be worthwhile even without the undertones I’m discussing. Somehow, it takes two and a half hours to tell this story, which includes every Merchant/Ivory stereotype imaginable. (James Ivory wrote the screenplay.) It’s obsessed with the nostalgia and all of the characters are the sort of people who embody the phrase “Starbuck liberal.” They live in a huge mansion despite never seemingly doing anything. (OK, yes, there are scenes of the professor looking over pictures of ancient statues for research and going to an archaeological dig, but his profession is treated as an afterthought.) There are long scenes of characters playing the piano and walking along a lake just to pass the time. And the editor seemed to feel that, if it was shot, then it deserves to be in the movie. One long shot shows Elio and Oliver are riding bikes and abandon them to walk. But the film keeps showing their forgotten bicycles as they retreat further along the path. I wanted to tell the camera man to stop being lazy and get over there. There are elements of the film that I liked. The soundtrack is good and the father’s final monologue is profoundly moving. But it didn’t end up meaning anything to me. Close your eyes and picture an Oscar bait drama. Call Me By Your Name is exactly that. The film means nothing but seems to imply enough to make people wonder if it’s meant to be profound. It’s the Chauncey Gardiner of movies.

But let’s address the main reason I am writing this – the relationship between Elio and Oliver. There have been some truly wonderful films about gay romance. Last year’s Moonlight comes to mind. Milk also had some great sex scenes that showcased the passion between the characters. Gods and Monsters is a fantastic film about an old man trying to recapture his youth by seducing a young gardener. The fact this old man happens to be the celebrated director of Frankenstein helps everyone realize how progressive some of those old monster movies were. Blue Is the Warmest Color is one of the greatest, most honest love stories I’ve ever seen.

I never felt such a connection in Elio and Oliver’s story. Mostly, I was concerned about Elio. He was clearly still wondering what exactly these feelings about Oliver meant and if he was truly ready to act on them. And Oliver spent the entire time mocking him for it. There’s a scene late in the film in which Elio masturbates into a peach. When Oliver finds it, he mocks Elio and goes in to take a bite of the peach. Elio begs him to stop, but Oliver continues to tease him with it.

This is not seduction. Elio is clearly embarrassed and Oliver wants to do nothing but take advantage of Elio’s naiveté. And it made me think of some of the recent headlines that have dominated our national conversation.

We live in a time when sexual assault cases are finally catching up to powerful people. Kevin Spacey forced an affair with several men (at least one of whom was under aged) and has gone from one of the most celebrated American actors to a pariah who is unlikely to find work for a long, long time. Harvey Weinstein helped produced some of the greatest films of the past 40 years, but the accusations against him have ruined his career in a matter of weeks.

Was it just because of the fact that they were, at best, inappropriately pressuring romantic partners? No, it’s because they were powerful people who used their positions of power to abuse people they did not view as equals. To them, their actions were about exerting that power over people who could do nothing to stop it. It was a game to them.

There are just so many scenes in which I felt Oliver was acting the same way. I talked about the peach scene above. There’s another scene in which an intoxicated Elio vomits in the street after a night out with Oliver, who treats it as entertainment. Oliver is also the one who ensures that Elio can see his naked body as he is changing to go swimming. To Oliver, Elio is a play thing. Yes, there are scenes in which Elio starts to be more assertive in his feelings. (He’s the one who kisses Oliver first.) But too many scenes took me out of the film and back into the reality we live in. Why should I feel charmed by this story when I’ve seen how it plays out in our world?

“Well, what about Dirty Dancing?” someone told me after I confessed my views. “That’s about a 17-year-old having a relationship with a much older person and it’s a classic.” That was a good point and I was willing to address it to them directly up until they told me to, quote, “fuck my double standard.”

But I’ll address it here. Yes, Baby is a teenager and is much younger than Johnny. But Dirty Dancing was not only told entirely from Baby’s point of view, it painted Baby as Johnny’s equal. Baby was a smart, confident young woman who initiates all of the romantic overtures with Johnny. Indeed, Johnny initially scoffs at the idea Baby can be his “dance partner,” and the film ends with her as Johnny’s equal in every way.

Call Me By Your Name doesn’t do that. The whole reason Elio seems to be attracted to Oliver is because Oliver is everything Elio is not – and more. The film paints Elio as an inexperienced skinny youth who has isolated himself from the ways of the world, while Oliver is a stereotypical “manly man” who is not only extroverted but constantly in control over everyone he meets. He looks far older than his character is supposed to be. (Oliver is 24, but Hammer is 30.) This is something the film goes to great lengths to acknowledge Elio’s inexperience and his adolescent looks. I never felt that Oliver and Elio were equals in the relationship, and the more I thought about it, the worse it got for me.

Call Me By Your Name may have worked in another year. But it comes across as incredibly tone-deaf to release such a film now. Some have already said that they disagree with me. Fine. To them, I ask they think about what the outcry would be if the film were told exactly as it was but Elio was a young woman. There would be pitchforks and torches outside the distributor’s offices.

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A Review of Blade Runner 2049

My biggest concern with Blade Runner 2049 is that the creators would use it as an opportunity to remake the first film with a bigger budget rather than delve deeper into the  fascinating world that the first film created. Think Tron: Legacy. That was a sequel to a beloved ’80s sci-fi classic that looked great but ultimately was a narrative mess that left me with far more questions than answers.

Blade Runner 2049 avoids this trap by doing what a great sequel should do – using the original as a springboard for new ideas. Yes, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is back but he’s not the protagonist of the film. 2049 also does not repeat the same things of what it means to be human as the first film. The new characters make that question almost irrelevant. Instead, the new Blade Runner asks the next logical question. What will it be like when humanity is replaced?

Before the release of the film, director Dennis Villeneuve kept a tight lid on the plot. It does help if you know as little as possible, but it’s also impossible to properly discuss the film without at least revealing some of the major plot points.

It’s thirty years after the events of the first Runner and Officer K (Ryan Gosling) has been tasked with hunting a replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), who works as a “protein farmer.” (This job involves harvesting grubs for people to eat.) K is obviously a replicant himself and is harassed by other LAPD officers for being a “skin job.” K manages to “retire” Sapper, but discovers a box buried under a dead tree on his property. The box contains the skeletal remains of a woman who died in childbirth – a woman who also turns out to be a replicant.

Take one guess as to who that is.

K is tasked with hunting down the child of the replicant, while the Wallace Corporation (which bought the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation) sends out a replicant assassin named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to find the child and bring it back to their headquarters alive. Along the way, K comes to believe he is the mysterious child and tries to find out just what happened to his mother and father.

I’ll start where the filmmakers want to start. When the first film was released, everyone loved the visual design but criticized the story. I know some people who will do the same here. The film is long, but I never felt bored and I cannot identify scenes that I would remove. Even the long driving sequences tell us a lot about this new world. For one, Blade Runner 2049 subtly builds on a future from the alternate timeline of the first film. There are references to Pan Am and the Soviet Union still being in existence in this future. We see advertisements everywhere but rarely see anyone purchase anything. We see humanity going through the same things that we’re fighting today, including the use of children in sweatshops. And there are throwaway jokes about a giant blackout that caused the erasure of most records. I laughed when I heard someone talking about how his mother still regrets losing all of his baby photos in the blackout, but then I realized that something very similar can happen to us. Those are the sort of moments that lesser films ignore. Yet those are what create the film’s world.

So Blade Runner 2049 looks great, but I already knew that would be the case before I purchased my ticket. What I cared about was the story behind those visuals. I was impressed that 2049 acknowledged what the existence of replicants meant to the world. It was something hinted at in the first film – the replicants were perfect beings that humanity was frightened of. Here, we see replicants living out domestic lives and blending into human society perfectly. There’s no discussion about who is a human and who is a replicant because it’s irrelevant. What matters more are character’s actions and how they build their own lives.

Considering the film is about childbirth, 2049 is much more sexually charged than the original. The most interesting subplot in the film involves the romance between K and his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). She’s a sort of Siri like hologram that lives in K’s flat and is excited when K brings home a new device that means she can travel with him. My personal favorite scene in the film has Joi hiring a “pleasure model” replicant so that she and K can finally consummate their relationship. It was a tender moment of devotion, but then I had to take a step back and realize that this was something that wasn’t happening to real people.

And the film anticipated my realization. K eventually sees an advertisement of a giant holographic Joi teasing him and potential other clients about how she can fulfill their desires. It gives K pause. Does Joi really “love” him? What is their relationship? What does it mean to have a product replace genuine humanity? It makes it more complicated because K himself isn’t human.

The film is also not obsessed with the actions of its predecessor. Harrison Ford doesn’t appear until well into the second act and by that time it’s clear that what’s happening is outside Deckard’s control. There are only two other characters from the original that make an appearance and there’s no reference to replicants being any sort of threat like they were in the first film. 2049 is looking to create its own impact.

So it focuses on the new characters. Ryan Gosling is great as K, a replicant who seems comfortable with the fact that he was designed solely to take orders from the police. (“I wasn’t aware that was an option,” K says after he’s asked if he wants to turn down an assignment.) Yet he also wants more in his existence and seems excited when he finds out he may be the most important being in this new future. I frequently forgot Gosling’s character was meant to be a replicant. He plays the noir cop trope perfectly. But, playing a trope involves a level of artificiality. K has the same desires that all of us have. He wants to matter in a world that treats everyone like a burden. Gosling makes the film work. He’s perfect as the fake human who still wants something more in life.

The only weakness the new Blade Runner has is in Jared Leto. As Wallace, he’s become the replacement for Tyrell and the character would, on its surface, is meant to parody the younger innovators who are challenging the status quo (like Mark Zuckerberg) but also have no control over their own creations (also like Zuckerberg). Leto, however, plays the character like some sort of bored god. He’s not a threatening villain or even an interesting character. He shows up occasionally to deliver his lines like he’s reciting monologues from Richard III in a high school classroom and somehow imply that he’s behind the whole conflict of the film. He just leaves me with more questions than answers. Why, exactly, does he want replicants to replace humans? Does he think that they’ll select him as their leader? What are his feelings about the modern world? He was the only element of the film that left me with more questions than answers. I’d also like to remind Jared Leto that acting does not mean blinding yourself with contact lenses. It means connecting your character with your audience. Still, his character didn’t ruin the film. Luv made a great antagonist in her own right.

Blade Runner 2049 is one of the biggest surprises of the year. It had every reason to crash and burn. But it’s not only a worthy sequel to the original classic, it’s every bit as good the original. Villenueve was not satisfied in recreating the same themes and tension that existed in the previous film. He updates the Blade Runner story so that it resonates even more with a world that is very close to living in the world of the first movie.  Now that we’ve decided we no longer care about real experiences and virtual experiences, we have to decide what our experiences mean. Blade Runner 2049 forces us to confront that new reality.

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A Review of mother!

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog, mostly because August has become a desolate wasteland for films. (Although you should absolutely see Detroit and Logan Lucky if you get a chance.) Luckily we’re slowly getting into Oscar season, which means studios have remembered they don’t have to release poor films just to please teenagers who spend their time at the movies contemplating the feasibility of getting to third base in the last row of the theater.

It’s this mentality that leads to films like mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film. I didn’t really understand what it was when I went into it. I know that it was marketed as a horror film with some vaguely religious overtones. I was expecting something like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.

It’s not. mother! is a simultaneously fascinating and frustrating film. Aronofsky was not interested in courting the main stream, despite his recognizable cast. The story may seem familiar but has been turned into something dark and ugly. It’s an uncompromising film in an age where everyone seems to be seeking compromise so as not to offend their own beliefs.

Maybe that’s why people have turned against it so much. But to dismiss mother! is a mistake. Arronofsky’s film is an intelligent allegory that time will treat kindly.

For the first act, I tried in vain to figure out what the film was “really” about. I was convinced that the film is like a code that requires you to “understand” it. It’s the idea that lead to the insipid Room 237 documentary. It starts with the titular Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) living in a giant mansion in the woods with Him (Javier Bardem). Like Antichrist, no characters are named. Their idyllic life is interrupted by an older couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer), who wander into their home and start questioning aspects of the couples life.

I can’t quite say what happens after that. There’s murder, pregnancy, mysterious images of death and decay, and a paranoia reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. But mother! is not interested in the standard narrative conventions. There’s never a moment where the film tries to explain itself or even identify if it’s a skewed point of view. “Is this all a bad dream?” an audience member behind me asked, about ten minutes before it ended. The film isn’t saying.

It’s easy to pick up on a few of the symbols. mother! is a Christian allegory, taking some of the ideas presented in the Bible to their logical conclusion. It starts with the Garden of Eden (the home) and Adam and Eve arriving, a tragedy involving their sons, the birth of Christ, the devotion of his followers, and the ultimate destruction that blind faith and fear causes in the Book of Revelation. It’s more difficult to relate to them on an emotional level. The film is very Kubrickian in that regard. It’s no interested in the emotional plight of its characters – not even Mother. It’s more interested in trying to convey its symbols to the audience. Yet I couldn’t figure them out at first. I spent my time wondering how many things that dying heart in the walls of the house could possibly be, wondering if I would get a payoff.

So why was it only when I stopped trying to figure it out did it work for me if mother! didn’t have an emotional core and was uninterested in allowing the audience to keep up? Because then I realized that the film didn’t have just one meaning and, no matter what, I was admiring the skill behind it. mother! was completely unpredictable and what it left up to the imagination was just as intriguing as the images it created. For example, we never get a chance to read Him’s poetry for ourselves. But everyone who does is left in an emotional frenzy. Mother is reduced to tears and can only repeat that “it’s beautiful” after she reads his final draft. So what does it say? The fact mother! doesn’t reveal his poetry is part of the point.

People criticized Eyes Wide Shut when it was released, but no one recognized how it created a world from the ground up that was only familiar enough to be completely disturbing. mother! works the same way. It’s party scenes feel familiar, like parties you’ve been to or even hosted. But as things become more out of control (fans begin ripping pieces of the wall off the house “just to prove they were there”), the film feels more like a nightmare that many people have had, where you recognize where you are but everything looks wrong. mother!’s subversion of expectations is what makes it so memorable and so horrific.

The weakest spot in the film for me is Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. The reason a movie like Black Swan worked was because of Natalie Portman’s performance. She served as a gateway into the world of Swan and I felt as confused and scared as she was. I never felt that with Mother. This film doesn’t have the same goals as Swan, but I was still left wanting more from Lawrence. She’s been sleepwalker through roles lately and I don’t know why. Lawrence maintains an emotional distance throughout the film that makes it difficult to relate to her and thus even more difficult to understand Mother’s plight. I usually don’t blame actors but I have a feeling a reason the film was made was thanks to Lawrence’s influence. Why bother if you don’t have passion in your performance?

But then is hard for me to complain about a lack of humanity in any actor when the characters they play may not even be human. And I found it very easy to relate to her demeanor as she ordered strangers not to sit on an unfinished sink at a party, and try to sneak away from the invading guests as they become more violent. It was enough for what the film needed, if not enough to get Lawrence any award recognition.

mother! is a film that requires an awful lot of patience. More patience that most people are probably going to be able to muster. But there is a pay off and mother! contains some of the most haunting images in modern horror. I understand why some people will dismiss it outright, but I can only admire its ambition and the lasting effect it left on me. Aronofsky’s got something here that I don’t fully understand. But I still admire it.

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A Review of Dunkirk

There are two possible Christopher Nolan films. In his great films (Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception) Nolan starts with a central idea and allows everything to build from it. In his not so great films (Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises) Nolan piles as much as he can into the film to hide the fact that he doesn’t have a core to build from. Sometimes it’s still enjoyable due to the characters (like Rises) but I still leave the film missing something.

Dunkirk had the potential to fall into either category. It’s a very complicated narrative with some thin characters. But it’s also built on a great attention to detail that really captivated me. Despite knowing nothing about the characters, I still felt a deep connection with them.

Dunkirk is about the evacuation of Dunkirk. (Shocking, I know.) The film is separated into three separate stories – land, air, and sea. On land, soldiers try to evacuate France as the Nazis close in. In the air, members of the Royal Air Force try to protect the Navy ships full of soldiers from Dunkirk. On the sea, civilian sailboats sail to Dunkirk to support the Royal Navy as they ferry soldiers back after Germany destroys many naval ships.

What’s amazing is how Nolan wanted to create a spectacle on film. Dunkirk is the most amazing looking and amazing sounding film I’ve seen in a while. I don’t care how much you have to pay for a ticket. You owe it to yourself to see Dunkirk on the biggest screen you can.

It’s not just about the amazing visuals. It’s about the sense that you’re actually in Dunkirk with the troops, or that you’re on a ship that’s being torpedoed. There’s no sense of the larger battle. We never see a single German soldier nor do we get a sense of why Dunkirk is so strategically important.

Unfortunately, this leads to some bad characterization. I cannot name a single character from the film without checking IMDB nor can I identify a stand out performance. Everyone is never onscreen long enough for them to stand up for me. The point, I guess, is that each of these individuals were only in the background of the later conflict. This isn’t a film about intimacy. And the actors never challenge themselves in playing these characters. It’s reminiscent of old war epics from the 1950s. That sounds like a compliment, but think of how many performances from The Longest Day stand out to you.

Even though the acting is a tad wooden, it works for the film. The characters are running on base emotion – confusion, desperation, and anger. Unlike Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, no one bothers to philosophize about the war. That’s a conversation that’s worked for many films. But it wouldn’t work for Dunkirk. This tone works for this film because I get a greater emotional connection with the characters.

My personal favorite story was the “sea,” which saw boat owner Mr. Dawson traveling with his son and another boy to Dunkirk to rescue the troops. They find a sailor who survived a German attack. It’s a microcosm of every war film, with conflicting interests causing tragedy. And the actors were playing archetypes. Dawson was committed to duty while the soldier was in shock over seeing his friends die. 

I also enjoyed a scene on “land” in which a bunch of soldiers trying to escape in a shipwrecked boat are threatened by Germans using the boat for target practice and piercing the hull. It’s a tense scene out of a horror film, as the soldier try to remain calm as stray bullets threaten them. We see the bullet holes form on the side of the ship and hear the silence in the score. (There practically is no score, except for a ticking stop watch that permeates through every scene.) 

That last scene shows the intimacy in Dunkirk. It’s a simple scene shot in a grand way that really made me feel like I was there. Nolan is a director that still cares about the craft. He can take seemingly flimsy material and turn it into something incredible. 

Dunkirk is an experience that few films are willing to try anymore. It’s not about the characters. To paraphrase Casablanca, their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. It’s about our sharing their experience. Dunkirk is one of the most effective war films to come along in quite some time.

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A Review of Atomic Blonde

The John Wick franchise has received a lot of critical praise. Most viewers see it as a return to the great, choreographed action films of the past. I’ve heard people talk about how it ranks with Die Hard.

I was not among the biggest fans of Wick. I enjoyed the technical skill but I didn’t feel engaged with any of the characters. Over the top action films can go in two different directions. They can be self-aware and use their elaborate scenes of violence for comedy. (See the underrated Shoot em Up) or the action underscores the internal conflict in the main characters. They are not shooting people to look cool, but to distract themselves from an internal struggle that’s much worse. (See John Woo’s classic The Killer.)

Wick tried to have it both ways. The revenge plot was dumb and was meant to be a flimsy excuse for the action sequences. This could have still worked if Wick embraced the absurd aspects of its premise. But Wick takes itself far too seriously. The best scenes weren’t even the action scenes, but the scenes of Wick talking to the concierge of the secret assassin’s hotel, making requests for room service. The action scenes were far too quick and never built up.

Atomic Blonde, by Wick co-director David Leitch, improves on its predecessor. First, the action scenes are much better. They’re allowed to build and allowed to continue as long as they need to. And I actually cared about the characters involved in the shooting.

The entire film is told as a debriefing by MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron). She’s a very dissatisfied agent who wonders what’s going to happen to her. The film’s main actions take place roughly a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall and Lorraine is already trying to imagine a life after the Cold War. She drinks straight vodka and is constantly turning up with new bruises. She’s working with Percival (James McAvoy), a station agent in East Berlin who dresses like an English punk rocker. Neither of them are what they seem.

Theron is a great as a grizzled secret agent. She’s not a superhero that is always in command of a fight. She’s very vulnerable and constantly in pain. She’s required  to present a tough exterior, which is why she blows off people in her life. But much like Craig’s Bond, she’s chugging liquor in order to live with the things she’s done. Theron’s performance is about an internal struggle with everything she has to do.

The film also has a lot of something I thought John Wick was lacking – style. The film is made to look like an eighties synthpop music video occasionally interrupted by spray paint interstitials. It helps set the mood of the film as a fantasy rather than an a realistic portrayal of spy work – which helps explain the plot twists. John Wick threw neon everywhere to suggest something stylistic, while Atomic Blonde actually created a new action movie world.

Now, I cannot explain the plot. It has something to do with smuggling an East German refugee with knowledge of a list of deep cover agents across the Berlin Wall. But there are double and triple crosses between practically all of the characters. We’re never told exactly why the agent needs to be smuggled out against East Berlin when a physical copy of the list exists. We’re also introduced to numerous characters (including a man who hangs out on the roof of an East German movie theater) that the film promptly forgets. And the person telling this story may not be entirely reliable. This storytelling technique has been used to great effect in other films, but here it tested my patience.

But the action scenes work despite the confusion I felt at times. Atomic Blonde makes you feel for the characters and hope they succeed. The entire film can be summarized with the staircase fight scene. Lorraine tries to fight multiple assassins to protect Spyglass, the East German refugee. She’s outnumbered and there’s a chance she’ll be killed, but she presses on. The film pulls no punches, making the audience feel every blow and stab the assassins give to Lorraine. That’s how I felt watching the film. Not like I was being stabbed, but as though I couldn’t understand what was happening yet understood the stakes.

I enjoyed Atomic Blonde. Yes, I understand that it’s ridiculous. But to me that was part of the charm. I at least cared enough about the characters to care about the action scenes. Atomic Blonde is among the best pure action films to come out in some time.

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A Review of War for the Planet of the Apes

I really enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It took the first film as a starting point and focused on the apes actually creating a society from scratch. It wasn’t another mindless action film, but a film about “people” trying to figure out how they belong in a rapidly changing world.

Dawn worked because it wasn’t reliant on the first film. War leaves me conflicted. I still like it a lot. But should I praise it for giving me more of something I like or condemn it for not taking as many risks as its predecessor?

I’ll go with the former option. War does everything Dawn did correctly. There are also many nods to the original series. This new Apes has ended one of the best modern blockbuster trilogies. 

In the years since Dawn, Caesar and the apes have been at war with a group of humans. One, known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is becoming particularly vicious in his attacks. One of them kills Caesar’s wife and son. He sends his tribe to find a new home while he and a small group go to the Colonel’s compound. There they find the Colonel has captured his tribe and is using them to build a wall so he can continue fighting a civil war with what remains of the U.S. army.

Let’s start with Andy Serkis’ Caesar. Serkis has officially replaced Lon Chaney as the Man of 1000 Faces. He puts just as much effort into his mo-cap roles as Daniel Day Lewis does in his dramas. Caesar was bound to be impossible to play across an entire trilogy, going from a convincing ape to a convincing man.

Serkis in War plays Caesar as an ape doing his best to convince himself he’s something more. The film plants seeds of an epic myth that will be told by the ape society for centuries. Caesar seems keenly aware of this and wants to live up to that expectation. It would be challenging for an actor to play a character, much less one who has to do it as an animal. 

Besides Caesar, most of the apes still communicate in sign language. Think about the challenge. These actors have to convey complex emotions as creatures that can’t talk and that lives part of their lives unable to feel what they currently feel. 

I mention all of this because I don’t believe the acting in the Apes trilogy has been recognized enough. It’s a challenge to make these characters relatable and empathetic and to make poo tossing the ultimate symbol of rebellion. Yet the actors in War do it perfectly. 

What’s especially fascinating is how none of the films explain what’s happening to human civilization. I have no idea what really remains of society. There’s still an army, but no one seems to know who they’re serving. It makes the people left scared not just for their lives, but for their futures. Remember the first Apes film, when people couldn’t talk and functioned like wild animals? This film shows they may be well on their way to that fate. (One young girl even picks up a vanity key chain that reads “Nova.”) It makes for a complex villain in the Colonel. He’s not sadistic, but responding and imprisoning apes becauses he’s scared. 

Finally, the actual war scene is engaging. It’s not a battle between the apes and the humans. The apes are only caught in the middle as the humans fight. It’s in sync with the other films in the franchise. Apes were never meant to be man’s enemy. We were our own enemy who “blew it up.” And it’s exciting to watch Caesar dodge missiles as he tries to ensure his tribe’s survival. I was emotionally invested in Caesar and wanted him to prevail. 

Yes, I liked War. It’s perfect from a technical standpoint and kept me engaged the entire time. But I felt the film was reusing a lot of elements from Dawn. Caesar’s character arc is the same. He has to choose between his tribe and his own desires, often at times when he can’t see the consequences his decisions are having. It worked in Dawn because the villainous Koba was there as a foil to Caesar, but there’s no foil here. It was also odd seeing the apes back as the oppressed class. That had already been done in Rise. Using the apes as slave labor to build a wall sure does resonate in today’s climate and I was emotionally invested in their plight. But it also was something I’d seen before. 

So I’m not as enthusiastic about War as I was for Dawn. This approach was the safest the film could take. It’s the equivalent of going to a restaurant and re-ordering your favorite dish. It’s still enjoyable but the only reason that it became your favorite was because it surprised you when you first tried it. That surprise is gone. It’s not really anyone’s fault and I’m glad that I still enjoyed the experience. But can you imagine if War took a few more chances?

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A Review of Baby Driver

Most directors don’t pay attention to the past very much. Those that do make borrowing from the past their entire shtick. They want to be congratulated for remembering an obscure crime film from 1978.

It’s wonderful to have a filmmaker acknowledge the things he loved in his youth while trying to create something new to engage the next generation. That’s what Baby Driver is. Something for director Edgar Wright to share his passions with an audience.

Everything about Baby Driver is an homage to new Hollywood gangster films. Everything in this film may be a reference to something else. But that’s not the point. The point is that it feels like something new. Edgar Wright didn’t just copy movies like The Long Good Friday or The Driver. He used those as a starting point to craft something new.

Let’s start with the titular character. Baby (we don’t learn his real name until the very end) is a parody of the Melville “Samorai” character. He barely speaks, he’s obsessed with old technology, he lives a modest lifestyle with his adoptive father, and he’s constantly listening to music to drown out his tinnitus. He looks like any twenty something you would find in a large city while you’re shaking your head and wondering how he’ll amount to anything.

Baby’s been recruited to a be a getaway driver by Doc (Kevin Spacey) who puts together quick thefts. Baby is forced to go along with it because he owes Doc a lot of money for stealing one of his cars. But Baby is more interested in recording conversations and making electronic music from them. He doesn’t have dreams of something more, exactly. He just wants to get away from everything.

He may get his wish with Debora (Lily James), a diner waitress who takes a liking to him. But Doc hires a new crew member, Bats (Jamie Foxx), who suspects Baby doesn’t have his heart in the job. Buddy (Jon Hamm), a longtime…buddy of Baby, is also growing more distant from him.

What follows are the usual Heat inspired shootouts. But that’s not the main point of the film. The point is how Wright uses this familiar material to entice the audience. It would be impossible to identify every reference the film makes, mostly because it’s something that feels natural for the characters. They’re not talking like Hollywood gangsters for the sake of talking like Hollywood gangsters. They want to fit in.

One scene has Doc outlining his latest heist with a map. We don’t hear him talk, though. We only hear Baby’s music as he nods along. Only after Bats confronts Baby for his inattentiveness do we hear the plan. Baby recites it back with a bored tone as Doc shrugs. Normally this would be a pivotal scene in a heist movie. Wright’s technique isn’t even new. But Baby’s detachment from the scene says a lot about the tone of the film. It’s not pleased with itself but still feels like the smartest thing in the room.

Parody has long been a lost art. Most think that making something similar to another popular thing is enough to count as a joke. But that’s just a reminder of something that once happened. Even Airplane! knew that it had to be something that used familiarity as a starting point rather than an end. Baby Driver is obsessed with reminding us of things that happened in the past, but it’s used as a commentary on Baby’s world. I don’t know anyone who makes physical cassettes anymore or even people who literally hide cash under the floor. Baby does as an escape from his world. He wants to reconnect to the time his mother was still alive and singing to him.

The Atlanta setting also works for the film. Normally I’m on Truffaut’s side when it comes to films made in Atlanta, “A person can’t watch a film made in their house, because they’ll spend all their time looking at the wallpaper.” But Atlanta brings a level of strangeness yet familiarity. I don’t know why Baby would select to be a driver for Goodfellas (an Italian restaurant down the street from Georgia Tech). Even for people who live in the city, it’s an odd choice. One scene late in the film has Baby running through the Peachtree Center mall food court as police chase him, yelling about the shootout. It’s a nice bit of trivia for residents, but the focus is on Baby’s desperate running.

I also liked Lily James. She’s probably the weakest character in the film, but James plays the “dream girl” perfectly. Baby notices her when she starts singing his name in the diner. She’s a symbol for him – a sort of Freudian reminder of his young mother. And I did care about her and Baby and was shocked when Bats went into the diner and started threatening her. And I also wanted to know if they would have a happy ending.

But the best part of the film was Foxx’s Bats. He lives up to his name as a rambling lunatic and the perfect foil to Baby. Foxx doesn’t care about anything except the now. Whereas Baby wants to blend in the background, Bats wants to be the center of attention. His statements are stupid, (“He’s a loony, just like his tunes,” he says to describe Baby) but is nevertheless intimidating. Foxx’s performance blends all of his roles together, from his earlier comedic ones to his serious work.

Baby Driver is an excellent, subtle parody. It becomes funnier if you know a lot about the conventions of the genre but still works as a highly effective action film in its own right. Edgar Wright is a very talented director whose talent becomes more apparent as he adds to his filmography. Baby Driver is something fewer and fewer films have these days – a reward for audience who know how to pay attention.

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A Review of Wonder Woman

I’m at a loss.

There’s a part of me that wants to be happy Wonder Woman exists at all and has been critically and commercially successful. This may come as an enormous shock to people, but female comic book characters have never been treated well. While Batman and Superman have been used to make dreck, they are still given chances to make an impact on our culture. Even the most obscure male comic characters get multiple adaptations. Steel, despite only existing so DC could pretend that they actually killed Superman in the early ’90s, got a Hollywood movie. Spawn got a movie and an HBO animated show. The Punisher has gotten three movies and is about to get a Netflix show. Never mind the fact that of those movies have been trash.

Female superheroes are barely given a chance. Even when a movie like Catwoman gets made, no one cares to make it good. They focus more on the voyeuristic elements of her skimpy costume and their psychology is never explored. Yet when people get offended and walk away, the studio heads will claim there is no market for female superhero movies and perpetuate the cycle.

So here comes Wonder Woman, a film about a character that has inspired generations of feminists. She should have headlined several movie franchises by now, but was never given a chance. This was an important moment to a lot of fans and it’s good that they’re not being let down.

To those people who are taking their daughters dressed up in Wonder Woman’s iconic costume – enjoy! This film would have been unthinkable even a decade ago and I am glad that you are going to have a good time.

But what about to the jaded cynics like me? Is Wonder Woman a film that breaks in increasingly rigid mold of comic book films? Is it the next example of a great superhero movie?

Sadly, no.

The film falls back on too many superhero film clichés. We HAVE to have a big villain showdown, we have to spend too much time on Wonder Woman’s origin, we have to get an entire act of exposition, and we don’t get enough time with some of the great side characters. Why do we have to shove this film back into the mold?

What makes this more odd is that, for an entire act, the film is as great as many claim. Diana, Princess of Themyscira, has been raised on an island literally populated with Amazons. Everyone there is thousands of years old, and Diana is their last child. In 1918, Diana believes her moment to defeat Ares, The God of War has come after an American spy accidentally crashes a stolen German plane near her home. This man, Steve (Chris Pine) talks to her about a war that has lasted for years and killed millions fighting in trenches.

It can only be the work of Ares, Diana decides. So off she goes to London with Steve so they can stop the German general Ludendorff (Danny Houston) who is humiliated seeing his country about to sign the Treaty of Versailles. He’s working on developing a gas with Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) that would dissolve gas masks.

This is the set up for a great, classic adventure film, and Wonder Woman delivers that in spades. There are great scenes of Wonder Woman storming into battle after the menfolk show themselves too scared out of their minds. The “crossing no man’s land” scene in particular is one that will go down in history as one of the all time great action scenes. But it’s not just the big action moments. Diana and Steve have great chemistry as Diana learns about our world – and how silly it seems compared to hers. The film’s funniest moment has Diana talking about how we should be proud of our achievements – when it comes to making ice cream.

The filmmakers respect Diana Prince. Gal Gadot gives the performance everything she has. Diana is strong, confident, and not anyone’s accessory. The film doesn’t fall for the temptation to focus on her sexuality or her looks. The only person with a nude scene is Pine, and when Diana sees him, she’s more bemused and disappointed than aroused. (“Are you an average member of your species?” she asks, eyebrows arched like a scientist looking into a microscope.) She’s so confident about her worldview that, when she arrives in London, her ideas sound sane while everyone else sounds foolish. One moment has Diana trying on “human” clothes. She tears through a dress as she tries to kick, asking how she’s supposed to fight in these outfits. As she looks around, the other women in the shop look back at her with an understanding. There’s never a moment where Diana is not in control of the scene.

While the second act of the film is fantastic, the first and third are really bad. The first act takes entirely on Themyscira as we focus on Diana’s childhood and her “destiny.” It’s told entirely in exposition and seems to hit all the Joseph Campbell-esque check boxes. Is Wonder Woman some sort of “chosen one?” Check. Are we introduced to “Chekov’s sword?” Check. Does her mother not want her “trained” in the way of the Amazons? Check? Is she trained anyway to fulfill her destiny? Check. Does she eventually discover a huge world beyond her tiny home? Check.

I shouldn’t be able to describe a film with a check list.

And then we get to the final “boss fight.” I will not mention names, but the next paragraph contains spoilers.

The entire film is about Wonder Woman’s search for Ares, and thinks she’s found him in General Ludendorff. Doing so will end the war. But after she kills him, no one stops fighting and the world is still in danger.

This is a pivotal moment for Wonder Woman. Are her beliefs wrong? Can she still save the world? How can she fight Ares when Ares is just an abstract concept that lives in everyone? Had the film continued with this line of questioning, it would have been a fantastic finale as Diana realizes there’s something in humankind she has to fight.

But no, it turns out Ares was another guy who had not been portrayed as evil or conniving in any way. We get the same sort of big CGI fight that had me looking for a Playstation 4 controller. There were no emotional stakes because we’d not been introduced to Ares before now.

Normally I would be more forgiving of all of this. But Wonder Woman comes at a time when we are not only saturated with superhero movies, but at a time when people are turning against them they stand out. Last year’s Batman V Superman would have been inconceivably popular, but was met with a shrug at best. People recognize the tropes that superhero movies keep using and are realizing how tired they are. Wonder Woman does nothing to address those tropes. There has to be an origin story and a third act “final battle” no matter how much those things harm the film’s themes.

What disappoints me the most is that I know how important this film is to a lot of people. This really did feel like an important monument for a generation of young women. For it to fall back on the superhero film mold felt like a cheat. I wanted a Wonder Woman who did what she’s been doing in comics for more than 75 years – smashing down boundaries. Having Diana Prince in what could be almost any superhero movie felt like a cheat.

So, I guess I have to split the difference. I am glad Wonder Woman exists and that the people involved care. But I also don’t understand those who, relieved just to see a woman superhero done well, are declaring this among the best comic book movies since the Dark Knight trilogy. It’s not. It’s a movie that’s held back by the superhero tropes it seemingly has to follow. There are some amazing scenes, the action is great, and the second act is a lot of fun. But I can’t get as enthusiastic about it as some other fans are.

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Special Report – A Review of The Thing in the Woods

Editor’s Note: Full disclosure: Matthew W Quinn asked that I review his latest book, The Thing in the Woods, as a favor. I still intend to give the book a fair review.

All artists take inspiration from what they loved as kids. The Thing in the Woods carries on this tradition. Author Matt Quinn pulls from his surroundings, from his love of supernatural horror to his youth in suburban Georgia.

But The Thing in the Woods isn’t just a nostalgia romp latching onto the Stranger Things bandwagon. It has a lot to say about 2017 and the “flyover country” that lead to our current situation. It’s thematically similar to Green Room, where a young man finds himself confronted with people he couldn’t believe existed in his own backyard.

The young protagonist in The Thing in the Woods, James, is a high school aged Best Buy employee who has moved out of Buckhead, the wealthiest district in Atlanta. While trying to beat some local kids at ATV racing, he stumbles upon a Lovecraftian creature who lives in the woods. James also discovers the strange cult lead by local restaurant owner Phillip Davidson that provides human sacrifices to this monster and, after he is blamed for a murder the monster causes, tries to prove his innocence.

The book has the plotting of a Goosebumps book. That’s not an insult. While the work is juvenile, it captures a similar spirit of youth R.L. Stine did. One character is said to be glad that the monster “doesn’t have to worry about heart disease” after eating a fat victim. There are scenes of secret meetings in the school yard and, of course, scenes of James trying to impress his crush Amber. And yes, the plot involves James getting grounded, which felt just as ominous to me now as those words did when I was younger. It’s familiar, but it felt appropriate for the material.

Horror is only scary when it feels like it’s something that can happen to you. I’ve never been scared by supernatural creatures. To me, it makes the situation to fantastical and separates it from the reality I live in. So the familiarity I felt with the material isn’t a detriment. Rather, it made me relate to the character’s plight.

Still, I wondered why the monster (which had apparently been worshiped by first nations people before “the white man came”) needed to be included at all. The cult itself was frightening enough. It recalls KKK meetings in the ’30s (particularly how the congregants refer to each other as “brother”) and it’s still something that’s happening today. The cult is made of up the sort of white supremacists that haunt the back woods of the internet today. They were scary to me because I’ve seen people who could very well be doing this.

The actual monster didn’t carry the same weight. But it did help set up a deeper mythology and mystery to the work. I at least wanted to know more about it and how Phillip used it to control people. But at least The Thing in the Woods provided memorable moments. It’s also a surprisingly quick read, perfect for this time of year. And the finally is a real page action-packed page turner.

The Thing in the Woods is an adolescent Southern Gothic novel by way of Clive Barker. It’s not just about creatures in the night. It’s about the sort of people who would use them to their advantage, and that’s what resonated far more than the tentacles and sharp teeth. That’s a message that seems especially poignant today.

You can check out The Thing in the Woods here.

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