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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A Review of Alien: Covenant

Earlier this year, people were posting a list on their Facebook pages about their film preferences. They were asked to identify their favorite dramas, action films, “bad movies,” and the like. One of the categories was “favorite franchise.” I nearly put the Alien franchise, but then I realized how inconsistent it has been since 1992. The films had done nothing new or exciting. The aliens were no longer shocking and the filmmakers had nothing to say. Between Resurrection, the two Alien vs Predator movies, and Prometheus, I was tired of the chest bursting and the phallic skulls.

Everyone had decided that we need to copy Aliens, which was a mistake. Yes, Aliens is a fine action film with some great characters (except Newt) but it’s also not what an Alien is supposed to be about. Alien is about hopelessness and fear. It’s about how anyone can be a victim and that the hero is more determined by circumstances than anything else. That’s why I like Alien 3. It had flaws but it still didn’t pretend like everyone was going to make it out alive. It also took time to hold a mirror up to society and point out how many people’s values and the institutions they depend on will ultimately betray them. The first film was about how corporations view blue-collar workers, the third was about religion and how it cannot be counted on to save or even redeem sinners.

The other films are about nothing except people being eaten by giant monsters. The exception was Prometheus, which tried to comment…why scientists shouldn’t do dumb things? Prometheus was ultimately a very confused movie that depended on the characters doing things that made no logical sense. The android David was the worst. He seemingly became the villain because he lost a bet and was obligated to. It wasn’t even a proper Alien film, playing coy with H.R. Giger inspired images and the Engineers to pretend like it was part of a different franchise.

Still, I liked Alien: Covenant when it was announced because I knew Ridley Scott was going to be honest with this film. He wouldn’t tease us with Alien imagery and then decide that, no, he didn’t want to make an Alien film after all. Alien: Covenant would not be able to get away with fooling anyone. Good or bad, it would be an Alien film. The only question that was left was, “will this be good?”

Thankfully, yes. Alien: Covenant isn’t perfect but it’s by far one of the best sequels to the original film.

One of the best things about Covenant is that it’s not dependent on the established Alien cannon. It works perfectly as its own separate film and does not depend on repeating the same tricks that the original films had. The film’s plot is similar to Prometheus. A crew on their way to a new planet to start a colony (the colonists are all in suspended animation) find an uncharted planet that may be habitable to human life. Only the android Walter (Michael Fassbender) is awake to maintain the ship. Due to an emergency, the crew awakens and the captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to go visit it despite the objections from his first mate Daniels (Katherine Waterston). On the planet they discover David (also Fassbender) the android from Prometheus who is the same model as Walter. He’s has been stranded on the planet for ten years and has used that time to study mysterious alien creatures that are now threatening the crew.

This could be the plot to any ambitious science fiction movie. What makes this one an Alien film was that filmmakers realized audiences need to care about the characters again. The crew is all spouses, so when certain people start dying, the characters feel the loss. It also has more ideas than a simple monster movie. The first scene in the film is a discussion about the quest for God. The xenomorphs in this film explore the same things the Frankenstein monster did. Just because creatures can create the perfect organism doesn’t mean they should. The Xenomorphs are not just bug-eyed monsters anymore.

The film does have some connections to Prometheus, which are problematic at times. I was not interested in exploring those characters after that dull entry. But fortunately, Covenant uses the opportunity to address Prometheus’ shortcomings. For one, David finally works in this film. You’ll remember that one of my biggest complaints about Prometheus was the fact that David had no motivation. He switched from good to evil at the plot’s convenience. This film explores more about David’s motivations. He was an artificial being who was disappointed with his creator’s concept of God and the fact that the Engineers were the ones who had introduced life to Earth. He feels he’s in a position to do better with the xenomorphs. David was finally a character and not just a way to keep the plot moving forward. With Covenant, David becomes one of the most fascinating characters in the Alien franchise.

But every film has some issues and I don’t want to overlook the ones in Covenant. For one, the plot once again depends on characters doing stupid things. It’s not as blatant as in Prometheus and the plot does try to explain the crew’s inexperience with the situation they’re in. Still, would it kill them to wear helmets on a new planet? The captain is also incredibly gullible, especially with David. He sees David communicate with an alien and knows that he is doing experiments with them. But instead of destroying them, he somehow allows David to show him how deep his relationship with the aliens go, putting everyone in danger? I also guessed the big twist at the end. I can’t say that it wasn’t emotionally effective and presents a great set up for the next Alien film. It was only too obvious.

Alien: Covenant was the first Alien film in a long time that gave me hope about the future of the franchise. There are clearly new ideas that Ridley Scott wants to explore with the xenomorphs. Covenant is a film that offers glimmers of hope against a dark, hopeless backdrop. It’s what an Alien film is meant to be.

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A Review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy because it came out of left field. Everyone thought that this film about comic book characters no one recognized would horribly bomb. Disney seemingly made it as a contractual obligation, handing it to the guy that wrote 2002’s Scooby Doo and ensuring that the most recognizable cast members would only be in the film voicing a tree and a raccoon.

The film was still successful because everyone involved wasn’t constrained by Disney. The film’s third act was a retread of the Avengers’ third act, but it featured more exciting characters and created a living, breathing world for the audience to get lost in.

That lack of constraint in the first film is why I was worried about a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel. No one expected the first film to accomplish anything so the filmmakers were given free rein. Now that the suits at Marvel and Disney know the property is a hit, I knew they would try to micromanage the thing in order to “recapture the magic” that was only there in the first place because the filmmakers were left alone.

Luckily, the cast is having such a good time that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is still immensely enjoyable. And the film still did what the first one did – creates a new, intriguing world that the audience is invited to get lost in. Still, I’m not entirely sold because I don’t quite understand what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is doing. A good sequel is supposed to use the original film as a starting point to help us explore new aspects of the characters and try new things with the previously established formula. Superhero films like The Dark Knight, X2, and Hellboy 2 all recognized this. But Guardians of the Galaxy 2 doesn’t do that throughout the run time. It doesn’t ruin the first film and still has some amazing scenes, but I got the sense that no one really wanted to do a sequel. It felt like an obligation rather than an exciting new chapter.

The film starts out fantastically. The Guardians, now an actual superhero team as opposed to a collection of motley fools, work as mercenaries. They’re hired to defend some sacred cosmic batteries from a Cthulu like monster. But the credits sequence barely shows this battle. It shows Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dancing after he hooks up the sound system to play Star Lord’s (Chris Pratt) old cassette.

From there we get reintroduced to the rest of the Guardians, including the hulking, dim-witted Drax (Dave Bautista), bounty hunter Gamora (Zoe Salanda), and the wily Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), who steals the very thing they were hired to protect. This actually does a good job of kicking off the main plot, which involves the orphaned Star Lord discovering his long-lost father Ego (Kurt Russell), who despite being a seemingly benevolent alien god may not be all he seems. (As an aside, Star Lord is obsessed with the Earth culture of his youth but doesn’t realize that Snake Plissken is his father?)

This journey takes the Guardians to many new places and to encounters with face old and new. The effects in this film are beautiful. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the few Marvel movies that introduces me to a new world. I particularly enjoyed the lush paradise Ego created for himself. It’s a gorgeous depiction of paradise that’s constantly surprising us. (Especially when we see the full planet from space.) The new characters, like the psychic Mantis (Pom Klementieff). She’s presented as the foil of Drax – a woman who knows all about emotion but nothing about the galaxy. She’s given some of the best lines as she tries to communicate what she can only feel.

I also like the world the film builds and the new ways it explores the characters. People have paid a lot of attention to Yondu (Michael Rooker) and how he’s developed in this film. Not only does he get the best action scene of the film (where he uses his arrow to take down an entire army), the filmmakers build on his character from the first film. Explaining it all would spoil the ending, but Yondu is not the stereotypical villain he was in the first film.

The theme of the film is pure kiddie matinee material – you don’t have to search for your family when you’re around people who support you. But I do feel the film earns it and it leads to an emotionally satisfying ending. Comics have often relied on the most basic themes to attract a wide audience. Guardians of the Galaxy works because it’s not heavy-handed with its preaching and because I cared about most of the characters.

But at the same time, fatigue is starting to kick in for me. Some of the characters have been flanderized to the point of annoyance. Drax is particularly annoying – constantly saying the wrong thing for a cheap laugh.  Groot is barely in the film and Nebula changes from a villain to a hero with the snap of someone’s fingers. The worst is Gamora. She’s treated like an obligatory love interest, which does her character a disservice. I want the strong, confident woman from the first film back – the one who was not afraid to tell Star Lord “no.” Most ensemble pieces are not able to sustain my interest for every character. I walk away liking some but wishing they had not devoted so much time to others. One of the few exceptions to this was the first Guardians film. I could not imagine it without the entire team. This time around, the film suffers from an excess of useless characters.

I still like the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise but I haven’t had any of my concerns about future sequels addressed. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 feels like a good distraction. It has some of the best action scenes of the year and I still love the characters. It’s a ton of fun and, compared to the rest of the increasingly bloated and unwieldy “Marvel Universe,” Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the most enjoyable series they have. But maybe that’s also the problem for me. I’m worried that the second Guardians is making the same mistakes other Marvel films are – namely, useless characters. They’re seemingly only successful when the suits aren’t holding the writer’s hand and insisting they shoehorn in unnecessary scenes and characters to “maximize the appeal.” I want Guardians remain as loose and rebellious as possible, and I don’t know if Vol 2 shows that it will be in the future.

Oh, and finally, the post-credit scenes are nothing more than silly in-jokes than actual scenes. There’s one amusing little moment with a teenage Groot, but don’t feel like these are credits you need to sit through.

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A Review of Ghost in the Shell

Everyone who has seen the remake of Ghost in the Shell seems to be saying the same thing. It’s a beautiful film that is sadly lacking in any humanity.

I was skeptical of that feedback as I walked into the theater. That’s almost identical to what people said about Blade Runner in 1982. How can anyone talk about a lack of humanity in a film when the primary point of the film is to explore what it means to really be human?

The point of the original film was how Major, a woman who’s mind had been implanted into a robot’s body, wasn’t sure what her existence meant any more. Major wasn’t even sure if she had ever been human and that her memories are fake. Such a character is not going to be warm or easy to embrace.

So, the reviews made Ghost in the Shell  sound like the movie it needed to be.

I saw it myself and came away (mostly) impressed. This is one of the most gorgeous film’s I’ve ever seen. I cannot express how amazing the special effects in this film. From the shots of the neoTokyo skyline to the images of the robotic human faces, Ghost in the Shell builds the first world since Dark City I wanted to get lost in.

The plot does not follow the first film. Ghost in the Shell explores the conspiracy around a man named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who is killing the doctors that helped build the first robot with a human brain, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson). Major finds out that Kuze contains secrets about who she was before her mind was inserted into her new body, which leads her to declare a war against her creators at Hanka Electronics.

Ghost in the Shell is also a wonderful throwback to the classic cyberpunk stories of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s not so much a remake of the 1995 animated film as it is an homage to it and stories like it. The film fetishizes Japanese culture, from the giant holograms of Japanese characters everywhere to the casting of Takeshi Kitano (who gets the best scene in the movie). But Ghost in the Shell also made me wonder why cyberpunk died out. In an age where everyone has access to a supercomputer in their pocket, the idea of people being augmented and upgraded doesn’t seem like science fiction. One character, Batou (Pilou Asbaek) loses his eyes in an explosion and replaces them with rather freaky camera lenses. There is also a scene (copied from the first film) in which a character being interrogated by the police realizes that his memories are a lie and his beloved child doesn’t exist. I always enjoyed those stories when I was younger and cyberpunk was fresh. In an age when the internet was still a new thing, at what point did we all start becoming faceless entities. Twenty years and several billion YouTube comments later, I still don’t have an answer.

I also liked Scarlett Johansson for the most part. She’s stiff and emotionless as Major, but there’s a very deep pain beneath the surface. One great scene in the film has Major buy time with a prostitute just so she can describe what it feels like when Major touches her. It’s a moment when Johansson explores both her “human” and robotic nature.

But it’s also Johansson who exposes the biggest flaws in the movie. To explain, I’ll go back to Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece had a lot to say about humanity, memory, and identity. But it didn’t directly say anything. We as an audience had to learn it through watching the replicants and listening to their speeches. Rachel’s tears as she realizes Deckard can recite her “memories” to her spoke volumes to the audience.

Ghost in the Shell doesn’t have any moments like that. It replaces those with moments where we’re told about how Major feels cut off from the world. She tells a doctor repairing her that “You have no idea how alone that makes me feel” upon being told that soon, everyone will be like her.

That is not a good way to explore any theme you want to present. It’s also not good storytelling. Major is, at times, so emotionally distant that her actions become impossible to predict. She seems to have no problems killing other human beings or being used as a weapon by Hanka and Section 9 despite the fact this is supposed to be her central conflict.

It makes the action scenes more gratuitous. Why should I applaud scenes of Major shooting everyone when the film has told me that she’s supposed to be very conflicted about the fact she’s been reprogrammed to be a killing machine? And the film doesn’t end with Major having a profound revelation. She goes right back to doing what she was at the start of the film.

This is a woman who had found out her existence was a lie, but did practically nothing with this information. Major even shrugs off the fact that Hanka destroyed her identity. Some audiences were horrified by the casting of Scarlett Johansson, claiming it was whitewashing. The film tried to incorporate this into its plot, especially in the scene where Major meets her birth mother. But there’s no payoff to it after Major decides to basically stay the way she is.

Ghost in the Shell is a gorgeous movie that’s a little too obvious. But it’s still not bad. I enjoyed watching it and have a desire to see it again just to see the city again. It’s a very immersive film, but I don’t believe it rewards audiences who want to get lost in it. Imagine a gorgeous, complex maze that contains nothing but a single piece of rotten fruit in the center. That’s a little worse than Ghost in the Shell is, but you have some idea of what viewing it is like.

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A Review of The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Movie was one of my favorite films of 2014. I enjoyed how it was written like a film written by an eight year old playing with Legos in his basement. It was energetic and hilarious. Even if the plot was a lift from Joseph Campbell, it never felt pedantic. And it appealed to adults without relying on double entendres.

Now comes The Lego Batman film, a movie I looked forward to. Will Arnett’s portrayal of The Dark Knight in The Lego Movie was a standout. If Batman really existed, surely he would be the selfish braggart that was seen in that movie. And the Batman mythology is already known enough to create the pop culture gags that The Lego Movie depended on.

But something feels off about The Lego Batman Movie. It’s still funny and includes a lot of in-jokes that only Batman fans would get. (Did anyone else notice the Blight cameo or the Batman Beyond costume in the Batcave?) But the script doesn’t feel like it was written by a child playing with Legos. It plays like an adult who is imagining that he or she is a child playing with Legos. The film is ultimately about how it’s important to have friends and only teamwork will save the day. That sounds like something that’s better learned on Sesame Street. Again, The Lego Movie was childish, but it had earned the right to be. The Lego Batman Movie never earns that right.

The plot is the Batman plot. The Joker is up to something, Batman tries to stop him, finds he can’t do it alone, so must rely on help from his Bat-family. In this film, Batman wants to get rid of the Joker by banishing him to the Phantom Zone, while the Joker wants to recruit some of the biggest villains (like Voldemort and the Daleks, labeled as “British robots” in the movie) from there to prove he is truly Batman’s greatest enemy.

I enjoyed how many Batman Easter eggs were scattered throughout the film. The Lego Batman Movie is sure to remind the audience of Batman’s grittier films – and then points out how ridiculous some of those gritty moments are.Batman, if he existed in real life, would not be the tortured soul that exists in the Christopher Nolan movies. He would be the narcissistic man who exists in the Lego universe. He wouldn’t live in the dark, but in the camera flash as he’s mocking the garish criminals he fights. He wouldn’t love Gotham, he’d barely take notice of it as he admires himself in the mirror.

Batman would not have lasted 78 years if he’d been consistently portrayed this way. But for a ninety minute satire, it’s perfect. I was concerned this film would be an overexposure of the character. The Lego Movie was right to only feature Batman in small doses. Yet Will Arnett and the filmmakers find the perfect balance between funny and grating. One scene I really enjoyed was the scene in which Batman visits an orphanage and makes sure to bring along a cannon to fire t-shirts at the orphans.

Bateman’s supporting characters also work well in this spoof. I liked Zach Galifinakis’ lovesick Joker, who only wants Batman to hate him more than anyone else. Michael Cera is an amusing Dick Grayson. Far removed from the child acrobat of the comics, this Grayson is a hopeless nerd who views the Batcave as a comic convention vendor hall. Ralph Fiennes is a great Alfred Pennyworth who fills the “father role” in a way live action Alfreds have not. And Barbara Gordon…well she’s a reprise of Lucy from The Lego Movie. It still works because Barbara tries so hard to be the voice of reason in the comics like she is here.

So far, it sounds like the perfect Batman riff with some great casting. So what’s the problem?

The Lego Batman Movie doesn’t capture the same tone that The Lego Movie did. That film had a very childish and dumb plot. But it worked because it felt like the sort of plot that a child would create while playing with his toys.

The Lego Batman Movie feels like the sort of cartoon pitched at eight year old children. Ultimately the film is about the importance of friendship and how Batman can’t save the day by himself. To be fair, several famous comics have addressed that theme. (Check out Bruce Wayne: Murderer for an example.) But it’s not a lot of fun seeing it done here. I felt like I was being talked down to throughout the film.

This is also bad because the film is full of gags that are not likely to appeal to children. All of the jokes about the shark repellent and references to the Joker on a parade float “while Prince songs play” are going to go over the heads of children. So why insult the adult audience with such prof themes after doing so much to ensure your film appeals to them?

I don’t hate The Lego Batman Movie. As a Spaceballs-esque spoof of the Batman mythology, I can imagine a far worse film. The creators of the film love the character while also recognizing the cracks in Batman’s armor. But it’s too childish and doesn’t have the same sense of fun The Lego Movie had. As a result, instead of being the joy The Lego Movie was, it feels more like a cartoon cable series that wouldn’t have much crossover appeal.

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A Review of Star Wars: Rogue One

It’s hard to review something like Star Wars: Rogue One. On the one hand, I know how bad this franchise can get and I should be thankful that Rogue One doesn’t fall to those depths.

On the other hand, I know how good the franchise can be and know what mistakes it needs to avoid. Above all, a Star Wars film needs to tell a story that is going to engage its audience. Star Wars has always been about using the basics of storytelling and making them seem just as exciting as an ancient culture hearing The Odyssey for the first time.

I’m not convinced Rogue One tells such a story. We already know how the Rebel Alliance ended up with the Death Star plans. And the film can’t possibly have drama. We all know how it will end – the rebels will succeed and get the plans no matter what they face.

Still, I don’t want to dismiss Rogue One completely. As a spectacle, it has some fantastic moments. But is it necessary?

One of the best things about The Force Awakens was the new characters it introduced. Rogue One relies on even fewer existing characters in the franchise. We’re introduced to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) has been recruited by the Galactic Empire to held construct “the ultimate weapon.” Jyn escapes as a child and is raised by Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker), an extremist rebel who thinks politics won’t be enough to dethrone Emperor Palpatine and his second in command Darth Vader. Fifteen years after her father is kidnapped, Jyn meets with Rebel Intelliegnce officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to find her father and steal the plans for the space station he was designing.

What I liked about these scenes and characters is that it showed life in The Empire. In the original film, we were mostly told about how evil Palpatine was and were never shown how daily life was affected by the presence of Stormtroopers everywhere. There are some great scenes of storm troopers demanding identification papers and scenes of skirmishes between the troopers and the rebels in the middle of crowded marketplaces. It’s obvious director Gareth Edwards studied The Battle of Algiers. I really enjoyed Jyn’s character arc. Her reasons for rebelling were clear and I wanted her to succeed in her quest.

But at the same time, I had a difficult time following who each character was and how they related to each other. Saw Gerrera was criminally underused. He’s meant to be a veteran of the clone wars and a sort of figure that is spoken of in hushed tones. But we don’t see him doing anything in the film and his philosophy is never explained. If the idea was that the Star Wars universe needed to be expanded, then Saw Gerrera represented a great opportunity to explore the Rebellion and how fractured the world was.

That never happened. I wouldn’t say it was because Rogue One wasn’t interested the more complex aspects of good vs evil in our world. I would say it’s only interested in getting to the start of A New Hope. 

There’s so much potential wasted in the first two acts. We see Saw Gerrera torture someone to get information, setting up the conflict between his tactics and those who want to give politics a chance. But the film promptly forgets he does it and we never explore Saw Gerrera’s character again. We see Darth Vader at the height of the Empire as he threatens underlings and (in the best scene of the film) kills rebel soldiers. It’s fun, but we don’t learn anything about Vader we didn’t already know. We’re introduced to a would-be Jedi named Chirrut Imwe, who both connects the film to the samurai epics that inspired George Lucas and builds on the mythology of The Force. But the filmmakers don’t explore him or any potential connection with the Jedi Order.

There are so many potential doors open, but they get shut almost immediately so the film can get to the first trilogy.

Yet by the time we get to the third act, which directly leads to the opening of the original trilogy, Rogue One is exhilarating. During the last forty minutes, Rogue One takes on the tone of a classic war film like The Dirty Dozen or The Longest Day. We finally see what the “war” in Star Wars really meant. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Imwe walks through gunfire while chanting about The Force to ensure the mission succeeds.

Of course, I had to remind myself that I knew what would happen. Rogue One (the group that agrees to fetch the plans after the rebel leaders refuse to grant them permission) will succeed no matter what happens. There is drama in seeing which characters will survive the battle and I was emotionally invested when a character didn’t make it. But it was all for nought because I knew how the movie would end. It’s like watching a race when I already know who is go be to win. What they were thinking as they crossed the finish line may be intersstkng, but it doesn’t add any drama to the outcome.

I’m not sure why Rogue One exists. There are good elements here to ensure Star Wars fans will like it. But it doesn’t feel like the bright future The Force Awakens announced for the franchise. It felt like a cash in that doesn’t forward a narrative but exists to sell toys. I know Star Wars has always been a commercial enterprise, but the best films in the franchise will survive for generations because they put narrative first. Rogue One isn’t lazy, but it doesn’t escape the trap that almost all prequels are stuck in.

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The Best Films of 2016

2016 was a bad year for a lot of people and they wanted a way to escape it.

I won’t get into all the reasons why. I can’t speak for everyone and we still only have a limited space. But what frustrates me the most is that, as of yet, Hollywood has yet to catch up with the public mood and provide them a good escape. They’re still relying on the same tricks they were eight years ago, and what are “sure bets” to studios have become the stalest films imaginable.

Look at Independence Day: Resurgence. It was an artistic bomb but was still hyped as this “can’t miss experience,” even though people knew better. That’s why premieres of shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are drawing millions of viewers while studios are watching theater attendance shrink. People are aware of every trick studios are willing to throw at them while TV and streaming is becoming more adventurous and able to respond to what people want.

Yet some people don’t want adventure. Take a look at the reaction to Ghostbusters. I didn’t see it, but for months all I heard was about how Hollywood was “forcing” social change by using an all female cast. I personally thought it was a good idea to branch out and use some of the funniest people in mainstream comedy to revive a dead franchise. But no one was complaining about how the trailers went out of their way to present the same scenes from the original film and were not showing anyone anything new. That was more troubling to me.

I’ve said that the theater experience needs a massive overhaul. Spending $11 to watch a single movie is no longer practical when people can spend the same amount each month to access an entire library from the comfort of their home. I have a feeling that, eventually, all  films will bypass theaters entirely. Indeed, some of the films I highlighted on my list were released exclusively to streaming services.

What theaters need to be is a way to emphasize community spirit. As I said at the start, 2016 was a bad year for a lot of people and we’ve had to rely on each other for comfort. I have a feeling that over the next, say, four years or so we’re going to need a lot more of that comfort. Perhaps the solution is to leave theaters to the special events and send movies to Netflix. The best thing I saw in a theater this year wasn’t a movie, but a broadcast of the Frankenstein play directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. It was an experience I felt would not have had the same experience had it been broadcast on PBS. I felt like I was in London watching the play on opening night.

I want more of that. The whole purpose of films is to give me an experience I cannot get any other way. Forcing me to pay $4 extra for 3D glasses is not the experience I’m looking for. But I also realize that this cannot be something I do on my own. I need to be able to share it with my friends. That is something Netflix cannot replace.

I do think we’re going to have some more interesting experiences in the coming years. Artists are going to be more empowered and eager to share their messages to the world, and I think the studios are going to be more willing to finance them. Once again, artists will take the role of the underdog – something that they need in order to be relevant.

Maybe there’s hope.

But before I focus too much on the future, let’s look at the immediate past. As usual, I have picked my top three and then listed the rest alphabetically. Also, there were some films I missed in theaters (like Swiss Army Man and Manchester By the Sea) that I haven’t highlighted here. I will hopefully catch up with them in them in the future. For now, I think every film on this list is something people need to seek out.

FIRST PLACE

Last year, my pick went to Mad Max: Fury Road. This year, no blockbuster that I saw seemed to fit the bill. Nothing coming out during the summer was as adventurous or as exciting as the adventures of Max and Furiosa.

But the strange thing is that there was an independent film that was just as thrilling as Fury Road. It also stuck out in my mind as I started seeing the villains of the film appearing on the news every night. They were fighting to preserve their way of life without seeing the ugliness they were living. The youth that challenged them were confident that their side was right, but became more frightened as the villains sought to destroy them and come closer to winning.

Sound familiar? That premise summarizes 2016.

Green Room (dir: Jeremy Saulnier)

Green Room is tense and spellbinding. It’s hideously violent, but never gratuitous. And the villains are some of the best I’ve seen in a while. They are sadistic and we avoid all of the mustache twirling that comes with Neo Nazi villains. It’s almost easy to see how they feel they’re as victimized as they people they’re tormenting and killing. The film doesn’t defend their actions, but it’s a mood and an idea that few filmmakers want to use. I’m still thinking about Green Room months after I saw it and realizing how it seemed to be the biggest warning against what was already happening in the poverty-stricken areas we as a society have chosen to ignore.

SECOND PLACE

I saw Green Room very early in the year and it took a while for something to make a similar impact on me. I had to think about the basics. Why do I like films? What can they do that nothing else can?

Then I saw this film. It transported me into someone else’s life – a life I will never really understand. This film gave me a chance to try. Yes, it’s pacing is slow, but the emotional impact it makes is more significant than any Marvel superhero movie I’ve seen.

Moonlight (dir: Barry Jenkins)

Moonlight demonstrates that less is sometimes more. The entire third act consists of two people talking at a restaurant and most of the film looks like it could have been shot on an iPhone and uploaded to YouTube. Moonlight feels like a documentary, which helped me understand the characters in a way a conventional film would not. Usually, Hollywood feels artificial and I’m aware that they people I’m watching will go home to their expensive homes in their expensive cars and berate people who didn’t fetch them their coffee quick enough. Moonlight’s amateur feel is far more authentic than, say, The Help. It creates a profound emotional impact and demonstrates that, for certain people, trying to figure out who they really are can still seem like an act of rebellion.

THIRD PLACE

I had a real tough time coming up with a third place entry. I could think of several films I wanted to highlight, but I couldn’t declare that one was better than the other.

Then I remembered that art needs to be a way for audiences to escape from their reality. And our reality is getting bleaker by the day. In 2016 and beyond, the biggest thing I’m looking for is hope that the future may not be so dark. This film gave me that hope. It’s also what I wish studios would make more of – something that doesn’t insult my intelligence but also doesn’t alienate audiences. This film is like finding water in a desert.

Arrival (dir: Denis Villeneuve)

Arrival is a film with an independent mentality that could only be made through a studio with deep pockets. It’s smart and looks glossy, but at the same time doesn’t depend on action sequences or quick editing to keep people distracted. It must have seemed like a risky gamble, where most of the film is dedicated not to special effects but to linguists trying to decode an alien language. But it’s also a very hopeful film that reminds me no matter how scared people are, we’re still capable of creating a bright future. Arrival is the sort of science fiction film I was worried Hollywood had forgotten how to make.

THE REST

13th (dir: Ava DuVernay)

13th is a Netflix documentary that reminds us of one thing – the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not make slavery entirely illegal. People who are incarcerated can still be made slaves. The documentary shows just how big this loophole is and how many lives it’s affected. It’s brave in how it humanizes people who society at large would still rather forget – or demonize. 13th also contains the best individual scene of any film I saw this year. It’s a scene that reminds us what happens if we ignore our past and cannot come to terms with everything we’ve done. What was a warning is now something far more urgent.

Everybody Wants Some!! (dir: Richard Linklater)

I’m surprised how quickly people have forgotten this film. It seemed like it would attract the right audience – a spiritual follow-up to Dazed and Confused by the director that’s made the best film of the decade so far. Yet no one seems to be talking about it any more. That’s a shame, because Everybody Wants Some!! is really fun. It’s a film that perfectly captures the spirit of youth where the characters think they know everything but are still eager to try out what they don’t know. It’s not a copy of Dazed. The characters are slightly older and wiser, but still naive enough to get into mischief. In much the same way Dazed and Confused reminds me of certain high school friends, Everybody Wants Some!! reminds me of some people I met my first day of college. And as that time retreats further into the distance, films like Everybody Wants Some!! grow in my eyes.

La La Land (dir: Damien Chazelle)

La La Land doesn’t know a Hollywood cliche it doesn’t like. This would normally spell doom, but the film makes every plot point seem fresh and engaging. Hollywood has always had a great love affair with itself, and in the wrong hands the story of a struggling artist looking to make it big in Los Angeles is about as exciting and original as a taupe wall. But La La Land is smart enough to seamlessly incorporate the storytelling techniques of the past into the story of two characters I cared about. The musical sequences recall the great musicals of the past when musicals were a way for Hollywood to showcase everything it could do. It’s got a great soundtrack, too.

The Lobster (dir: Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Lobster is one of the most original dystopian films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a love story, but it subverts many of the Hollywood conventions. In items like The Hunger Games, love is used as a means to an end and the society is so poorly defined that it has no hope of succeeding. The Lobster ends with two people finding happiness in a world that would deny it, which is victory enough for them as they don’t know how to properly rebel. That attitude seems far more realistic and is a comforting reminder that people can still win no matter what happens. It’s also hysterically funny.

The Nice Guys (dir: Shane Black)

I can’t believe everyone has already forgotten about Shane Black’s The Nice Guys. It’s a wonderful daffy noir that showcases Shane Black’s strength as a writer. Black is a man who knows exactly what makes noirs work and how to keep its characters engaging. Even child actress Angourie Rice is engaging and organic thanks to Black’s ability to establish her character as something besides an annoying extension of an adult protagonist. I could not begin to describe the plot nor how the titular “nice guys” are able to defeat the not so nice guys. But when The Nice Guys is playing it’s such an engaging affair that I found myself embracing the film’s many charms.

Nocturnal Animals (dir: Tom Ford)

Nocturnal Animals would work as a tense thriller. The scene in which Texas yokels abduct Tony Sheffield’s family is more tense and riveting than almost every modern thriller. But Nocturnal Animals also works well because of its own French Lieutenant’s Woman style exploration of how art and real life blend. Sheffield’s story is born from a dark place, and what scares Susan Morrow isn’t that story but that it demonstrates she was wrong about her ex-husband. Nocturnal Animals works on so many levels that it’s impossible to see only once.

The Witch (dir: Robert Eggers)

There’s something that modern horror doesn’t seem to understand. Simple jump scares are enough to make people, well, jump. But they’re not enough to really disturb anyone or give anyone a lasting impression that their existence is not what it seems. The Witch understands this – or at least knows enough to understand what would scare the characters. The film is not so much an exploration of witchcraft as it is an exploration of adult fears. Lost children, illness, and the failure of religion to provide comfort in times of grief are how The Witch gets under and audiences skin. And its all done with convincing 17th century vernacular, which simultaneously sounds completely alien yet completely familiar.

 

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A Review of Moonlight

The best thing films do is give audience an emotional experience they would never get in their own lives.

I’ve been fortunate to not live in the areas where Moonlight’s protagonist Chiron grew up. I certainly wouldn’t understand Chiron’s experiences. Moonlight and director Barry Jenkins made Chiron’s life seemfamiliar to me. It also made me realize that, no matter what our backgrounds are, we’re all searching for the same thing.

Moonlight is told in a Kubrickian three act structure with different actors playing the same characters at different stages of their lives. When we first meet Chiron, he is a child called Little and is played by Alex Hibbert. Little barely speaks and the only thing he fears more than bullies is his crack addicted mother Paula (Naomi Harris). The only people who seem to care about him are Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monae). Juan finds Little hiding in a crack house from bullies and takes him under his wing. One of the most emotionally devastating moments in this emotionally devastating film sees Juan confront Paula over her drug use – only for Little to later ask Juan if he’s a dealer. Juan can barely hold back tears as he answers in the affirmative.

Moonlight still would be one of the best films of the year had it followed the story of Little for its entire run time. In this era when more people seem to be turning away from urban slums as a relic of a bygone era, these scenes reminded me that there are still people living these lives. It was also told in a way that made Little’s story seem real to everyone in the audience. The cinematography throughout the film, at times, seems to have been inspired by GoPro videos. It makes the film look like a documentary, which makes the emotional impact much stronger.

What’s most amazing is that the people society has abandoned in our reality are still determined to do good. Juan recognizes the damage he’s inflicting on his community and views Little as a way to atone. But Little is just as much a victim of Juan as anyone else who’s become addicted to the drugs he sells. Juan, despite his desire be a father to Little, is ultimately going to cause damage to the people he knows. I hope Ali is nominated for an Oscar – his tortured performance of a man doing wrong when he wants to do right fits the bill.

The first act also sets up the new story Little’s adolescence. The second act, titled “Chiron,” deals with Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as he comes to terms with some of the questions he had as a child. Chiron is still being relentlessly bullies and his mother has become a more desperate drug addict, badgering her son for money. Chiron also realizes that he is gay as he experiments on the beach with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).

That sexual experimentation scene is one of the standout scenes of Moonlight. In an age where gay marriage is legal, Moonlight reminds audiences that there are still large segments of our culture that finds this wrong. Chiron is unable to process his actions, and feels a need to apologize after it’s done. Chiron is also the target of vicious bullying by people who merely suspect that Chiron is gay.

The third act is reminiscent of Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, as Chiron becomes “Black” (and now played by Trevante Rhodes) and lives the same sort of life Juan did. He reconnects with Kevin (Andre Holland), and they have dinner at the Miami restaurant Kevin works at together. They talk about how neither of them expected to end up where they are and how they both have deep regrets over their lives.

This last act is glacially paced. We’re watching two people talk in real time. But I can’t imagine a way that the story could change. I cared about the characters and wanted to see how they would react to each other. I also understood why they arrived at the emotional point that they did. Compare these two to, say, watching Tony Stark and Steve Rogers fight for the bazillionth time and you’ll see what’s missing from most big budgeted tent poles these days. I had a reason to care about Chiron and Kevin.

Moonlight is one of the most satisfying films of 2016. It’s a wonderful emotional journey that I could not have another way. Some may dislike how slow the film is, but I don’t think that’s the filmmakers fault.  I wish that more films were as engaging as Moonlight. And director Barry Jenkins shows how easy it can be. All you need are characters that can draw you into their world.

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A Review of Arrival

Arrival is basically what I wished Interstellar was.

I was disappointed in Christopher Nolan’s space opera because I didn’t feel like it was really interested in exploring the themes that it introduced. Yes, the power of love is certainly a wonderful human emotion that has been the impetus for some legendary work, but does it mean a whole lot when we’re exploring the concept of the infinite universe?

Arrival gives me what I would actually be interested in if aliens came to earth – an examination of the impact on humanity. But it doesn’t sacrifice the human feelings that Nolan was obsessed with. Instead, it blends them into the larger goal of learning how to communicate with intelligent life from another galaxy.

Most people know that Arrival is about aliens coming to earth. Most don’t realize that the film focuses on Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who is, of all things, a linguist. She is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) and assisted by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help translate the aliens’ language. Meanwhile, Louise is teased with memories of her child that passed away. This tragedy inspires Louise in her communication with the aliens, even when other countries like China view the aliens as a threat rather than a beacon of hope.

 What impressed me the most about Arrival was the fact that, despite the presence of the military and aliens, it never devolved into an action film. That sounds like a weird compliment, but it’s something that makes Arrival unique. The trend is to treat aliens as bug-eyed monsters who exist to put humanity in danger. They will be killed in an explosion that means nothing because we know nothing about the aliens or really care about the humans. Compare it to that stupid Independence Day sequel and you’ll see what I mean.

Arrival treats the existence of aliens like the global changing event it would be. People are scared of them but fascinated with them. They want to know why they came and what it means for humanity. 

Adams’ performance encapsulates all of humanity’s fears and excitement. She is nervous when she goes into the craft for the first time (the ship only opens during certain times of the day and only for a limited amount of time) but is fascinated to watch the aliens communicate. Their language is also wonderfully original, which makes the film’s themes of overcoming the language barrier that much more pronounced. The best scenes of the film feature Adams and slowly unlocking their language. 

The film does explain why the aliens came to earth and, in that grand sci-fi tradition, it’s not for what you would expect. Some people have already complained about the “twist” at the end. It won’t be original to science fiction fans, but the film doesn’t treat it as a new idea. What matters is that the film naturally builds up to the revelation of why the aliens came to Earth. I didn’t feel cheated by it, nor did I feel like the film was talking down to its audience. If anything, it was treating them with some intelligence and respect.

Arrival does something that is increasingly rare in a blockbuster. It has a brain in its skull and gave me a sense of wonder about the world. We live in a time now that puts fear and anxiety above knowledge and wonder. Arrival gives me hope that this phase of humanity shall pass and maybe there is a bright future ahead.

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