A Good Man Makes A War

If you listen closely throughout all the gunshots, torpedoes, bombings, and ocean waves crashing on the shores of the beach in Dunkirk, there’s one sound that’s a constant throughout the movie: a ticking clock. Whether there’s a moment where young British soldiers are staring out into the ocean wondering if they’ll ever make it home or when those same soldiers are desperately trying to escape a sinking ship, the seconds are ticking away in the background. What’s it counting down to? A victory? A loss? An attack? A death? It’s rare that something as simple as a tiny ticking sound is basically the centerpiece to a $150 million dollar war movie, then again it’s made by the same guy who used a spinning top as the “gotcha” moment of a summer blockbuster that made over $800 million.

 

That man is producer/writer/director/movie theater enthusiast Christopher Nolan, now on his 10th feature film after covering every possible major-movie genre from crime thriller to superhero action to intergalactic sci-fi philosophy. Since he’s not likely to ever try a screwball comedy or whimsical animation, the only thing left for him to do was a war movie. Thus we have Dunkirk, the story of how over 300,000 English soldiers made a desperate escape from the titular beaches in the north of France after being surrounded by German troops in 1940. Instead of rallying together for a last stand against the enemy, a group of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) do everything from using an injured soldier to weasel their way onto a medical ship to stealing an abandoned fishing boat just to find a way home. It’s not like their higher-ranking officers (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) have any better plans, almost certain the enemy will break through the remaining blockade and any moment. All the soldiers have left to rely on are a handful of Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) and civilian boats piloted by loyal citizens of England (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) to protect and save the soldiers.

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Christopher Nolan is, above all else, a technician. He prefers practical effects over CGI, he uses IMAX cameras to shoot on 70 millimeter film, he researches the physics of space and wants his sets to actually spin for scenes. He doesn’t want audiences to watch movies, he wants audience to be IN his movies while sitting in their seats and he’ll do as much as he can to make that happen. Dunkirk is no exception, it might actually be the most immersive movie Nolan has ever made. Right from the opening frame, Nolan puts the audience right behind the soldiers walking aimlessly through an abandoned small town seeing the enemy propaganda showering over them. Then guns go off, and Nolan makes you run with soldiers with proper use of handheld camerawork. But Nolan knows when to hold his camera for the audience to take in the same vision as the soldiers are: lines of soldiers standing in the sand waiting for a ride home or a bomb to be dropped from the sky. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) juggle handheld and standard camerawork effortlessly, using the handheld sparingly to let the audience inhabit the fear and anxiousness of the soldiers. But even with his stoic shots, Nolan doesn’t stick with the standard. The audience gets to hang off the side of a British Spitfire plane in the middle of a dogfight and the inside of a sinking rescue ship as the water is filling the lower deck with soldiers clammering over each other. He even puts the audience underwater, asking them whether or not a soldier should drown in the ocean or reemerge into an oil fire to be burned. No matter the scenario, Nolan wants the audience right in the line of fire, not to nauseate people but put them in the mindset of the characters.

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One of the key elements of Dunkirk is its atmosphere. No, Dunkirk is not a typical World War II rally cry movie. From the get-go, there’s the feeling of dread and hopelessness in the movie. It’s as if every character involved knows he’s going to die. It’s never actually said, though, as Nolan’s screenplay is very sparse with dialogue but the action does all the talking. It’s easy to call Dunkirk a bleak movie, but it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with muted colors or overtly dour music. Even with the imagery of men swimming aimlessly in the ocean or one soldier simply walking into the ocean in defeat, it simply adds to the tension of the movie. Not only is there that constant ticking in the background, but Hanz Zimmer’s score that builds a creeping sense of danger to each scene. Zimmer mostly goes for a slow burn, almost recreating the sounds of the metals in the bombed ships breaking with loud but low-pitched horns and haunting choir vocals in the background. And even though the colors of grey and dark blue are prominent throughout the movie, the colors don’t dilute the movie. On top of that is a strong use of natural sunlight and practical explosions to make the movie more realistic. Dunkirk prides itself on being as realistic as possible, not overly dark or reaching for heroic patriotism.

 

With a sparse script like this, one would think that acting and character are not essential qualities. While the movie is less about the acting and more about the action involved. The actors are more so vehicles for the audience to see the plot move forward. Granted, no one here is phoning it in. Whitehead, Barnard, and Styles are merely pawns, but the stress and fear on their faces is legitimate. What they deal is moral complications, abandoning their comrades or forcing their fellow soldiers to be the one to stick their head out into the line of fire. The rest of actors fill their roles in fine, no one’s looking for an Oscar but are merely bit players. The human element of the movie comes from Rylance and his two young passengers as three English citizens simply doing the right thing for their country. Even after they pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who survived a u-boat attack whose visible shock is reason enough to turn back, they go forward accepting the terrible circumstances. Rylance, always a man of softer emotions, brings the most humanity to the movie when it’s needed.

At 106 minutes, Dunkirk flies by like a bullet in a battle. Like the wounds of war, Dunkirk stays with you. It feels like an old school war movie made with the ambition of a true craftsman. People will debate where Christopher Nolan stands in the pantheon of modern filmmakers with his ties to blockbusters. Is he a true filmmaking auteur or just knows how to pick crowd-pleasing blockbusters? Is he the next Kubrick or the new Spielberg? He’s Nolan, a technician who sees the potential in applying artistic craftsmanship to the size and scope of blockbuster movies. The only franchise that Dunkirk is promoting is human history, and for someone to make that as exciting as Spider-Man and Wonder Woman is a true feat. Dunkirk and its different screening formats are examples of the power of film. Does that sound corny? Sure, but it’s nice to see and talk about a summer blockbuster made with the same hope for the medium of film that the Allies had that helped them win the war.

4/4

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Symphony of Action

It should be said that 2017 has done very well with its franchise blockbusters. This year has given us, among other things, a fierce but fond farewell to an angry mutant with claws, a giant monkey in the backdrop of Apocalypse Now, and resolved daddy issues set to Fleetwood Mac in space. Even when it gave moderately-impressive efforts to the world’s most famous female superhero and everyone’s favorite nerdy superhero (for the SIXTH TIME), it was still nice to see Hollywood dropping the ball less than last year. Amongst the cavalcade of characters that have thrived this year, who would’ve guessed one of them would be those damn dirty apes?

 

War for the Planet of the Apes is the third installment in the rebooted Apes franchise, seeing the world ravaged from a virus that has killed off most of the human population and made the primate species hyper-intelligent. With the human race beginning to reemerge, the ape population (or at least the one in the woods of Vancouver) is constantly fighting with a rogue military outfit looking to make the gun-toting tribe of primates extinct. Led by the stern but compassionate Caesar (Andy Serkis), the apes plan to leave the woods and find a new home for themselves away from the war with the humans. Unfortunately the military outfit and its conniving leader, known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), is planning a final assault on the apes. With the help of his ape comrade, a straggling ape (Steven Zahn), and a mute abandoned girl (Amiah Miller), Caesar races to The Colonel’s outpost to make a last stand for his kind.

 

While the rebooted trilogy started with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes under director Rupert Wyatt, the new Apes franchise thrived with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes under director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In). Reeves expanded the bleak universe of the Apes movies to be able to build the characters of the apes while also using exceptional motion-capture technology to showcase immersive action. On top of building a narrative comparing the behaviors of apes and humans (SPOILERS: we’re not that much better), he also managed to make a thrilling action movie. In War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves doubles down on the dour atmosphere and environment by setting most of the movie in the frozen, desolate Canadian border. He and co-writer Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, The Wolverine) make the focus entirely on the journey of Caesar from reluctant leader to vengeful father to true savior. The screenplay seems to put Caesar as a vessel for the audience more than a character, coldly judging the faults of the war while trying hard not to devolve into the primitive species the humans think of him and his kind. He sees his ape brethren mounted as war trophies, imprisoned and turned to slave labor, but Caesar tries desperately to hold onto his soul.  It truly feels like a fitting completion to his story arc (as no plans for future Apes movies are in the cards at the moment) as he battles the darkest of days. The detail in the building of this movie’s universe is first-rate with imagery that’s reminiscent of Westerns, war dramas, dystopian sci-fi, and hardened action.

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That doesn’t mean Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin (Midnight Express, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) turn the color down or sour the imagery, as there are some truly gorgeous shots of the first ape vs. human battle in the forests and the apes trekking through the snow that recalls the gorgeous aerial shots of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. War for the Planet feels very much like a sweeping war epic, a cross between Spartacus and The Thin Red Line with action scenes that let the audience see every possible element clearly. Whether it’s the apes riding horses in the snow, throwing spears, or simply lunging for attack, the audience see it set up with tension and executed with grace, plus Michael Giacchino’s grand score doesn’t hurt. It’s all the more surprising that the action is actually minimal for a nearly two-and-a-half hour summer action movie. Aside from the breathless opening assault in the forest and the explosive climax, most of the movie is moved along by the journey of Caesar’s redemption.

 

It’s all motivated by character, which is all the more impressive considering those characters are made partly from computers. To the credit of the special effects team, the apes have never looked more real. Perhaps Reeves planned out so many close up shots of the apes for audience to applaud the team that detailed every inch of the digital apes down to their fur, highlighting legitimate emotions coming from the actors. The slightest shift of skin on the face of the apes looks all to real. Whether human or ape, the acting has a strong supporting cast. The motion-capture actors, including Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, and Michael Adamthwaite have great chemistry with each other and bring out genuine emotion with mere sign language. Even longtime clown Steve Zahn, playing a new monkey called Bad Ape, manages to bring the slightest touch of levity to the film (even if he overstays his welcome in the final act). Woody Harrelson brings the intensity as the villain with a chip on his shoulder. His dynamic with Caesar is less hero vs. villain and more cat-and-mouse, a hunter and his prey. Harrelson keeps his menace understated with a hint of passion, a man who truly believes he’s the second coming of the human race. But the heart and soul of this movie and the two proceeding it is Andy Serkis, fully-formed and more human than ever in his third turn as Caesar. This is not simply a role that Serkis is sliding into, but a life that he inhabits by picking up the weight of the previous two films and wearing it on his slouched sleeves. Caesar spends most of the movie looking haggard, beat-down, and on the brink of completely falling apart. But Caesar still lunges to the front lines and Serkis throws himself into every scene. It feels moot at this point to say that Serkis deserves a certain golden statue for his performance, but he should receive as many commendations as possible.

War for the Planet of the Apes is blockbuster movie-making done with a passion, more about character development than car crashes. Even with the extremely dour atmosphere, the movie has an incredibly powerful feeling with it. Matt Reeves has not made a summer blockbuster but more composed a symphony of action and emotion that syncs up when other movies have those elements clash. The entire Apes franchise has been so fascinating to watch evolve and mature into something with such prestige that if this is Caesar’s final curtain call, it’s hard not to applaud it.

3.5/4

Wright’s Killer Track

In the mind of Edgar Wright, music and movies go hand in hand. The British writer/director has become one of film’s culture most adored auteurs not only for his clever writing, creative comedic directing, and unabashed love for pop culture, but his incredible detail combining the action of scenes with the pumping energy of music. Everything from police paperwork to beating up an elderly zombie can be made special with the right music in Wright’s mind. So of course, an action movie about a getaway driver who only functions by listening to music constantly would be Wright’s passion project for the last 20 years. Most of the high points of his movies have been the musical montages that act as lively interludes to keep scenes going, like mini-music videos that cap off plot points. So why not make a nearly-two hour music video?

 

Baby Driver, Wright’s first feature in four years, takes place on the streets of Atlanta and opens with an excitable young man jamming out to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a suped-up Subaru. Don’t be fooled by the fresh-faced exuberance of Baby (Ansel Elgort), as he’s merely waiting for his crew to run out of the local bank with the loot and drive them through the streets at breakneck speed. His secret weapon: the tinnitus in his ears forces him to listen to music constantly to drown out any high-pitched ringing, but also makes him incredibly proficient at drifting between cop cars and maneuvering through traffic. This makes him the lucky charm of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a local crime boss Baby owes a major debt to. While he’s worked many jobs with Doc’s crew, ranging from the eternally romantic Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) to the hair-triggered nutjob Bats (Jamie Foxx), Baby finds something more when he falls in love with the angel-voiced waitress, Debora (Lily James). But just because Baby wants out of the game doesn’t mean Baby gets to walk away from the game.

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On a surface level, Baby Driver is a very simple story. It’s the classic crime story of the lone rogue who’s never been cool with a life of crime and just wants out. But just when he thinks he’s out, cue Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III. Usually Wright’s stories aren’t as straight-forward as they seem, there’s always something else going on in the background. Baby Driver is probably one of the more traditional stories of his career, no great plot twist or background commentary throwing the audience for a loop or defying expectations. But like other Wright movies, it’s more about the presentation than the product itself, and Baby Driver is certainly his most ambitious show to date. Somewhere between an inverted jukebox musical and a long-form music video, Baby Driver has nearly every scene perfectly synced-up with the eclectic soundtrack, which ranges from Beck to The Damned to Young MC. When the film rolls out its opening credits to Baby strutting down the street like Gene Kelly dancing to the title of Singin’ in the Rain, the street comes alive accentuating each little pip in Baby’s step. Wright’s editing duo of Jonathan Amos (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Paul Machliss (The World’s End) cut gunshots, car drifts, and even the mildest head tick to the beat of the drum. It’s a cute gimmick and impressive to see done at near-feature length, though it loses its luster near the end of the movie and it can become disorienting after a while.

 

But even without the gimmick, Baby Driver is still a damn good time. The action set pieces are fantastic thanks to their stripped-down nature. Mixing the cracking soundtrack with driving sequences not overly-cut while remaining fast-paced allows for continuous propulsion throughout the movie. At just under two hours, the movie flies by with almost zero filter distracting from the main story. That’s mostly in part to the great cast fully invested in the need for hammy action-talk and Wright’s typically funny dialogue. For this being Wright’s big American debut (Scott Pilgrim being technically Canadian), some of Hollywood’s best wanted in on the party and don’t disappoint. Jamie Foxx has never been such an impressive combination of menacing and funny before, leagues more impressive than his turn as Electro in the embarrassing Amazing Spider-Man 2. Kevin Spacey is a fine crime boss despite not leaving that much of an impression. The MVPs are the one-two punch of Jon Hamm and Lily James: the former as the smoldering henchman that brings the most charisma to the movie, and the latter being the sultry, 50s-era damsel that woos Baby. In fact, Hamm himself plays somewhat of a grizzly older James Dean wannabe. Oddly enough, the weakest member of the cast is the lead. Elgort certain has the energy and the young baby face (no pun intended), but his own moments of smoldering intensity seem like a joke that the movie isn’t in on. He’s also not bringing enough charisma to be fun to watch and looks like a pouting elementary school kid when he’s trying to be serious. Elgort is in an awkward position where’s he too old to be a cutesy teen heartthrob and yet still has the face of a Degrassi cast member. In his defense, he has some strong chemistry with James that culminates in a rather romantic scene where the two chat in a laundromat connected by Baby’s earbuds.

It’s tempting to call Baby Driver Edgar Wright’s worst film, and yet it’s all the more shocking that it’s still a great movie. While it may be missing Wright’s quick-witted British humor and wackier plot elements, it’s still another showcase for one of Hollywood’s best directors alive. The technical prowess and attention to detail that Wright exudes is on display now more than ever, it’s almost the central focus of the movie. It’s certainly a film that requires repeated viewings to repeat every detail for film fans, along with being a breath of fresh air for summer action audiences. Wright has officially arrived in America, and his future is as open as the road Baby and Debora dream for themselves.

3.5/4 

Acceptable Wonder

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Warner Bros. and DC finally have a good movie on their hands, but that doesn’t mean the movie (or their cinematic universe) is fixed.

Alright, I’ll admit it: Warner Bros. and DC are brilliant.

 

The partnering studio/comic-book company took on the nearly-impossible task of trying to keep up with Disney and Marvel Studios by creating their own superhero cinematic universe. Since its inception in 2013, they’ve had three false starts with Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. Taking out any discussion of being faithful comic book adaptations and whatnot, those three films stand out as unique failures for being bad on basic filmmaking levels, from unnecessary zoom-ins and collateral damage (Man of Steel), to constant shaky-cam and confused character development (Dawn of Justice), and then terrible editing with unfocused tone (Suicide Squad). Ignoring the childish war for validation between Marvel and DC fans, the bottom line was that these were poorly-made movies that lowered the expectations of fans with every new installment. So now the bar has been set so low, not worst case scenario but low enough, where an action-adventure movie made with the most basic expectations of filmmaking is practically a godsend.

 

Yes, Wonder Woman is a fine movie, occasionally even a damn good one, but the concern is that it’s because on top of its flaws (which are obvious and gaping), the movie has very basic technical elements to it. Basically, we should’ve been getting this quality of filmmaking for the past four years. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) gets everything off on the right foot with the gorgeous island of Themyscira inhabited by the fearless female warriors, the Amazons. The spunky oddball of the Amazons is Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), sheltered by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), but secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana wants to explore the outside world, which fortunately comes right to her shores when U.S. Army spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on Themyscira after evading German forces as the real world faces World War I. When Steve tells the Amazons about the horrors of the Great War and they turn him away, Diana grabs a sword, a shield, and a powerful lasso to sail away from her home and join Steve on the frontlines saving the world.

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Most of the credit for Wonder Woman goes to Jenkins and her production team for crafting the best looking film of the DC Extended Universe. Everything from the lost paradise of Themyscira to the barren war zone of Belgium looks gorgeous, thanks to Jenkins’s smooth flow of directing scenes and cinematographer Matthew Jensen’s (Chronicle, Game of Thrones) fluid combination of colors that don’t flood the scenes. Jenkins’s is also an impressive director of action, staging a great beach-front fight between the Amazons and German troops with a much more appropriate use of slow-motion and imagery worth of freeze-frames (see Antiope shooting three arrows at the same time…in mid-air). Same can be said for when Wonder Woman makes her grand debut in costume on the German frontlines, where Diana disrobes into the iconic costume and charges into battle blocking bullets. Unlike the previous DCEU films, Jenkins understands that action scenes should build upon themselves with elevating threats and seeing Wonder Woman go from blocking a barrage of bullets to hip-checking a German tank like she’s Malcolm Butler are well-earned displays of heroism. It’s a shame that action goes completely off the rails with the film’s overblown climax that harkens back to the Doomsday fight in Dawn of Justice too much.

 

Like the previous DCEU films, Wonder Woman’s major problem is its story. Written by Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg (who went on to write the screenplay), and WB/DC stalwart Zack Snyder, the origins of Wonder Woman is solid with her crafted by her mother and brought to life by Zeus. It’s a typical outcast-to-the-rescue story that’s slightly similar to that of Marvel’s Thor. In fact, Wonder Woman’s main story is an obvious mesh of two of Marvel’s earlier cinematic universe installments: the “mythical being adjusts to humans” elements of Thor and the “superhero faces the realism of human war” elements of Captain America: The First Avenger. Wonder Woman owes a lot of its plot elements to Steve Rogers, whether it be the shadow influence of an evil force on the war or the fate of certain characters at the film’s climax. It all seems a bit too familiar without adding anything new. For all the complaints people have that Marvel movies all looking and playing out the same, Wonder Woman feels an awful lot like a real solid Marvel movie.

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Even the title character has a thing or two in common with Marvel’s Asgardian god of thunder. But where Chris Hemsworth brought a sense of classic Hollywood charm to Thor, Gal Gadot brings a beating heart and emotional weight to the Amazonian princess. She starts off precocious and innocent as she enters the human world, but Gadot really shows how the horrors of war can impact those seeing it for the first time. Gadot really captures the moment where Wonder Woman goes from wholesome untouched metahuman to a true warrior who understands the gravity of war. It’s exactly what the DCEU needs: levity with a strong sense of what a hero sacrifices, and Gadot brings it. She’s got a great partner in Chris Pine, bringing his own classic-style Hollywood charm to Steve Trevor. Pine has always felt like a 50s-era actor that wound up getting big in the new millennium (sans his excellent performance in last year’s Hell or High Water), so he’s right at home being the charming American spy with his his coiffed hair and silver tongue.

 

The thing about all of the positive elements of Wonder Woman, i.e. developed characters, good action scenes, and structured filmmaking should’ve been in the DCEU films for the past four years. If anything, Wonder Woman deadlifts the bar for what the DCEU movies need to be. Patty Jenkins has come in to practically right the ship of the DCEU and her filmmaking standards should be seriously noted. Wonder Woman is not only a reminder of how superhero movies should be made but a platform to build new ideas for superhero movies in the future. Wonder Woman is wholly unoriginally and has big flaws, but its spirit and skill is something that should be (pardon the phrase) marveled.

3/4 stars

Stuck In Neutral

Let’s be honest: we’ve all been very generous to the Fast & Furious franchise. Six years ago with the release of Fast Five, the world saw that Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and the gang decided to shoot the moon and turn their dated racing movie franchise into Ocean’s Eleven for dude-bros. Inexplicably, the world decided to fall in love with Fast & Furious more than they ever had before, and Fast & Furious returned the favor by throwing caution (and logic) to the wind for the sake of action set pieces that would make physics professors pull their hair out. With that said, these movies are actually a lot of fun! It’s taking all of the seriousness forced into modern action movies and chucking it aside for more macho posturing and car chases. Audiences know it’s all stupid and pointless and as humane as a Lil Wayne music video, and yet the franchise has made over $3 billion and counting worldwide. Even with the tragic death of one of its main stars, Fast & Furious is practically bulletproof. So even if we’re on movie no. 8, The Fate of the Furious, can it even be fairly judged anymore?

 
Maybe not, but it doesn’t hurt to try! Episode eight of the Fast & Furious saga has a new hook: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), the chrome dome charisma vacuum with more emphasis on family than Stitch goes ROGUE! He screws over military badass Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to work with Cipher (Charlize Theron), a mysterious cyber terrorist who can hack into anything anywhere forever and ever. Cipher seems to be holding something over Dom’s head, causing him to reluctantly steal military tech. It’s up to Hobbs, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and former enemy Deckard (Jason Statham) to save Dom and stop Cipher from doing some form of taking over the world.

 
It’s important to note that Cipher’s plan is “some form” of taking over the world, since writer Chris Morgan (Furious 7, Wanted) didn’t bother to nail down what exactly Cipher’s point in the movie is. She gives vague exposition on wanting to hold world leaders accountable or something, but it’s entirely irrelevant to The Fate of the Furious. The movie, like all Fast & Furious movies before it, is all about action set pieces, exotic cars, glory shots of scantily-clad women, and close ups of the actors clenching their faces to look serious. The Fate of the Furious certainly hits all of those familiar beats, for better and for worse. Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) proves his competence with handling the vehicular madness that’s expected of this franchise, but the excitement seems to have worn off. It truly says something about these movies when dozens of “zombie cars” zooming through New York City and a submarine blasting through a sheet of ice isn’t as ridiculously fun as it sounds. It’s nothing bad, but it feels routine at this point. The only option they seems to have left is strapping a rocket to their Dodge Chargers and racing in space (and you know they’d do it). In all honesty, the best action scenes involve Johnson and Statham, with neither of them involving cars or any interaction with the rest of the main cast.


That’s a telling detail and a bit of strange irony to this production, since Johnson and Statham are the two best parts of the movie. Their charisma together and experience in physical action scenes make for great banter between the two and some impressive action scenes. Statham rarely gets to be this loose, so it’s nice to see his comic timing mixed with the infinite charisma of the actor formerly known as The Rock. It’s a big help that they’re in the movie, along with a returning Kurt Russell charming his way through his little screentime. The acting chops of the main Fate of the Furious cast are well-documented as limited, and that’s no different this time around. It seems like a mistake to make Dom the emotional focus of the movie, as Diesel has not made his career off of his dramatic chops. As demonstrated in his other franchise entry this year (xXx: Return of Xander Cage), Diesel thrives when he absorbs the charisma of other actors around him and works off of it. The problem here is that Diesel is riding solo for most of the movie’s 136 minute runtime, having to carry dramatic scenes practically on his own and mostly falling flat on his face. You’d think he’d have a little help from Oscar-winner Theron as the villain, but she must’ve gotten the memo of the limited acting requirement from this franchise and thought it’d be fine to phone in her performance. She speaks mostly in a whisper-tone and locks into staring contests with Diesel, clearly only cast in this movie so Vin could make out with the heroine of the other car-based action movie that beat his car-based action movie in the same year. Rodriguez handles the emotional moments a little bit better, but it requires minimum effort to pull off so it’s graded on a curve. The rest of the cast fill in their roles with little to no effort, and Gibson’s comedy relief getting more and more tiresome. Also, Hollywood needs to stop trying to make Scott Eastwood happen.

 
The Fate of the Furious has its moments and it remains fascinating to see how much money goes into the cinematic equivalent of shoving Hot Wheels into each other. But even on the grading curve of Fast & Furious movies, The Fate of the Furious feels very routine and somewhat uninspired. At least with Furious 7, there was the emotional weight of Paul Walker’s death and the inclusion of Statham to motivate the excitement of the movie. Here, attendance of this movie feels obligatory out of curiosity to see how this franchise is going to keep going. I honestly don’t know what else could be done at this point, but as long as Vin Diesel needs to be relevant, life will keep finding a way one quarter-mile at a time.

2.5/4 Stars

Apocalypse Kong

Have you ever heard someone try to excuse a bad movie by calling it a B-movie? Stuff like Snakes on a Plane, Drive Angry, and The Shallows are dollar-store blockbusters dropped into theaters hoping to scoot by on the cheesiness of their premise and/or the corniness of their execution. “Who cares if they’re poorly shot, motivated without interest, have bad acting, and terrible effects? It’s a B-movie!” What a terrible shaming of the wonders of B-movies. People like Roger Corman, Albert Pyun, David Prior, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus didn’t make B-movies as intentional trash, they put their heart and souls into movies with the tiniest of budgets because they loved movies and wanted to entertain audiences. Even something as legendary as Miami Connection was made with an ungodly love of film. Now, imagine if any of those guys were given $185 million and told to make King Kong relevant in 2017?

 

It would’ve been glorious! And to Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment’s credit, they came damn close with Kong: Skull Island. The eighth movie made about the eighth wonder of the world (how convenient!) centers around two government agents (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) in 1973 post-Vietnam War looking to explore the titular island, a mysterious land in the South Pacific that any ship or plane that’s flown near it has disappeared. The two round up  a helicopter squadron (Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann), a war photographer (Brie Larson), and a former British Special Air Service Captain (Tom Hiddleston) to map out the island. Things go smoothly until the warm sunset of the island is interrupted by a 100 foot ape that swats down helicopters like flies. Now stuck on the island with little ammo and little options, including a sketchy longtime island dweller (John C. Reilly), the team must brave the unknown of the island.

 

Despite its massive budget and fully-stocked cast, Kong: Skull Island is without a doubt a B-movie, but a damn good one. The notion to have a King Kong movie set in the backdrop of the end of the Vietnam War is ludicrous, but to repeatedly lift the imagery of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Jurassic Park and mesh that with that backdrop is so ballsy it jumps from hilarious to borderline brilliant. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) is the latest indie director Hollywood plucked from obscurity to handle their franchises for cool creds on Film Twitter (see Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World or Gareth Edwards with Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story),  but Vogt-Roberts seems know exactly how to merge what studios want and what audiences love. He knows the main focus is pushing out this property and throwing action around him, so he and cinematographer Larry Fong (Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeSuper 8300) decide to put impressive effort into crafting the gorgeous Skull Island with sweeping wide shots of Vietnam and Hawaii and some rather impressive scenes involving bamboo forests and a skull-scattered crater. Not to mention the impressive creature designs of the monsters on the island, some of them blending into the environment for surprise appearances. When the big bad beasts do show up, its hard to get the smile off of one’s face. The merger of 70s post-Nam soldiers trying to shoot down Kong while Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” plays in the background is like a dream scenario you have when you’re stoned listening to old metal records, it’s fantastic. There’s a real sense of adventure from film geeks in Skull Island akin the original Jurassic Park, you’re enthralled by every new monster and set piece the movie throws out.

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Skull Island is a beautiful film, if only Vogt-Roberts made some more time to take in his movie. The pacing is the biggest problem of Skull Island, with almost every second of the movie rushed out to get to the next scene. There’s almost never any room for the scenes to breathe and the creatures of the film just pop up without any sense of danger or build-up. You have John C. Reilly giving a very ominous depiction of the “skull crawlers” expecting them to slither throughout the film until their big reveal at the climax. But then DURING the Reilly exposition, the monsters just show up in a cut scene without any hype or tension to them. Kong’s entrance is impressive as it’s shown in the trailer, but there’s that nagging wish that they could’ve built up his presence just a little bit more, like Peter Jackson did in his King Kong back in 2005. Perhaps it was a studio decision to keep the movie under two hours thinking audiences don’t have the attention span longer than that (unless they have capes and superpowers apparently), but the visuals and the monsters (not to mention the title character) really warrant something longer. Hell, I’d sit through an “extended edition” of Skull Island to stick around this world longer.

 

Perhaps that extended time could be used to flesh out some of these characters. You might’ve noticed I haven’t used any of the film characters’ names when detailing the plot, but that’s because it’s not needed. All of the characters are mostly one-note, not going any deeper than basic stereotypes. Hiddleston’s the charming British one, Larson is the pretty girl in a flattering tank top, Goodman’s the mad scientist, Hawkins is the nerd, Jackson is the stiff military man, Reilly is….well he’s crazy John C. Reilly. But the funny thing is, all of it actually helps the movie. It works because of the actors playing them bring enough charisma and are invested in the world around them that they become likeable. Tom Hiddleston’s cold charm makes him a surprisingly strong leading action man, Brie Larson could spin gold out of lint and does so here, Tony Kebbell and Jason Mitchell are fun to watch as supporting players. Though it’s a real shame to see Samuel L. Jackson back in his “shut up and give me my paycheck” mode of acting despite being given the “avenge my fallen comrades” story arc that propels most of the movie.

All of the faults of Skull Island seemingly fall the wayside if you understand exactly what the movie is: pure schlock with a pure blockbuster budget. But whereas Hollywood has done this before, Skull Island has an enthusiasm and spirit to it that makes the entertaining factors of the movie come front and center. The benefits of being a B-movie is that it can get away with crazy ideas that can be fully developed, almost makes one wish Hollywood would let their blockbusters be a little crazier and less mandated.

3/4 stars

Blaze of Glory

Pop quiz: how do you end a superhero? I’m not talking about killing a superhero, I mean taking a character the world knows and loves and simply saying “alright, show’s over”? How do you send off a figure with so much baggage and so many travels behind him? Regardless of what you come up with, it’s never going to be clean. Whether it’s having him disappear into the sunrise or having him quietly admit his faults with a slow dance, there’s no easy way to drop the curtains on a comic book hero at the movies. And if anyone is the antithesis of easy in the superhero movie universe, it’s most definitely Wolverine. Marvel’s brooding blitzkrieg of rage and self-loathing has been as fused with pop culture in the last two decades as the adamantium that coats his skeleton, so you can imagine that he’s not going away quietly. But just because we’re sad to see Wolverine go, that doesn’t mean he’s leaving unscathed.

Logan’s title star (Hugh Jackman) is now in the year 2029 as a grey-haired lumbering shell of his former self stuck near the border of Mexico driving around drunk prom teens and bridal showers. His claws ache, his healing is practically gone, and he’s only getting by with copious amounts of liquor. He’s also caring for Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who deteriorating mental state causes his telepathy to go haywire unless he’s heavily medicated and monitored by an albino mutant tracker (Stephen Merchant). But then Logan has an unwelcomed passenger; a young girl named Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) who doesn’t talk much but lets her claws speak for her. It turns out she has a lot in common with Logan, and he has to protect her from a secret organization looking to mass-produce mutant soldiers.

Props go to co-writer/director James Mangold (Walk the Line) for managing to successfully shift Logan from the samurai shuffle of Japan in 2013’s The Wolverine to the dirty, grim, sunsoaked American south of Logan. It would be easy to call Logan more of a Western than a traditional superhero movie, but that depends on your definition of a Western. Logan’s definition of a Western is much closer to the blood-dripping excess of Django Unchained than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. From the opening scene onward, every action scene hits like a sledgehammer to the chest with limbs severed, blood splattering walls, and Logan’s claws visibly piercing the heads of multiple bad guys. It’s glorious overkill, even if it loses some of its fun by the film’s climax and when Mangold has trouble having the camera keep up with the rapid choreography. Not to mention the god awful scenes when Professor X has seizures that causes everyone to become paralyzed and the cameraman to have a stroke. But even amongst the shakey cam are some truly gorgeous shots by cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator, X-Men: First Class) and Mangold does capture the emotionally hefty moments throughout. Once the movie slows down and gets to catch its breath, Mangold finally lets the audience see the wheezing, limping man that Logan is and how dire the situation is. That’s when the audience is reminded why this movie is a big deal.

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Unfortunately, the audience has to wait an hour to feel that purpose. Before then, they sit through a surprisingly rushed first half hour where the film’s setting is lazily set-up and characters are awkwardly introduced. The film also enjoys its R-rating with curse words abound and not just from Logan (a cussing Patrick Stewart is a wonderful Patrick Stewart, FYI), but doesn’t leave for any clever dialogue and instead some rushed exposition. The first hour of Logan has its moments and builds the interesting elements of a story, but it’s so rushed and forced that you just want the movie to take its time. It’s almost aimless, but the rest of the 137-minute movie finally starts to tell why Logan is in this predicament. This isn’t just another adventure Logan is reluctant to take on, this is Logan on the verge of death trying to find the tiniest reason to get up in the morning, let alone flex his claws. It’s such an emotional ramp up that you almost think the first half was for a completely different movie. In fact, it’s the comic book elements from the X-23 and Old Man Logan storyline that distract from the emotional core of the movie. You just wish that Logan would stay as far away from the comic books as possible and feel more like its own special salute to this character that Jackman put so much of his time and effort into.

 

Speaking of Jackman, some actors do superhero movies for a multitude of reasons (money, career revitalization, desperate ploys to relevancy). But Jackman has always cared about Wolverine, taking so much time out of his life to make Wolverine a true character more than a toy. And in Logan he takes a bow the way a true actor does, by leaving it all on the screen. Jackman aches and breaks in the role, showing more raw emotion in Wolverine than ever before. Equal parts pain and macho power, Jackman truly understands the development of Wolverine throughout these movies (timelines be damned) as someone who has no more guard left to put up. He truly sends his version of Logan off with proud salute to the character and the fans who’ve stuck by him.

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He also leaves some room for his supporting players. Patrick Stewart is great as always, with a fouler mouth and somehow a kinder soul to Logan. Stewart also says that he’s done with the Xavier character, so it’s nice that he gets to bring a little more aged agitation to the role before he exits stage left. And then there’s Dafne Keen, mostly mute throughout the movie but uses her cold but curious stares (and some expressive eyebrows, by the way) to speak volumes. She’s a good mirror for Logan’s character and gives him the reason for his explosive catharsis, along with being very capable of handling animalistic rage (when her claws come out, she becomes the star). It’s a shame that Stephen Merchant gets wasted here, as someone who could’ve brought some great dark comedy to the movie.

Despite the presence of a cocky Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl, Narcos) with a gold tooth and robot hand and a slithering Richard E. Grant (Dracula, Corpse Bride) as a sinister experimental doctor, there doesn’t seem to be an intimidating antagonist in the movie. Both characters are more plot motivators to get to Logan’s last stand. There’s no threat in Logan and very little sense of heightened tension. The movie’s action goes 150 mph from the get-go that you wish it was spaced out a little bit more to add more heft and awe to the impressive but, by the end of the movie, routine climax. As much as I enjoy someone’s head getting blown off, it really hits home if its sudden or cleverly built-up. To bring up Django Unchained again, that movie’s shootouts work so well because Tarantino spaces them out so far between each other to build anticipation for it. It’s great that Logan goes all out with its action and when you first see it, it’s absolutely sublime, but there’s a reason you save your special attack on Super Smash Bros. for the last life.

Maybe this is my fault, maybe I succumbed to internet hype machine and expected Logan to be a perfect movie. Or maybe I misread the reviews and the fan hype: Logan is a perfect WOLVERINE movie, but that does not mean it’s a perfect movie, period. Logan is an absolute trainwreck, a speeding, flaming, bloody bullet that’s crash landing is as worthwhile as all the bodies it went through to get there. It goes too fast sometimes, its punches get numbing after a while, and its manic energy is sometimes too much to properly capture. But it’s impossible not to salute Logan for diving head-first into absolute carnage and going all-out with the violence and the gloom. No matter the scars or damage there is to the final product, you take Logan as it is: one last hurrah from one of the most iconic movie characters of the last two decades and the man so utterly committed to that character. Mr. Jackman, we salute you and you blood-soaked knuckles.

3/4 stars

The Power of Peele

2017 is turning out to be weird year. We have a crooked real estate tycoon with our nuclear launch codes, Katy Perry going from lesbian teases to pseudo-woke club pop, and in the film world, we now have TWO M. Night Shyamalans. Now while the original M. Night used his movie in 2017 to make a two-hour pitch for an Unbreakable sequel, the new M. Night has used the horror/suspense genre as a platform to comment on the inherent and ever-present racism in modern America. But then again, uncomfortably and cleverly confronting racism is nothing new to the new M. Night, better known as Jordan Peele.

 

The Emmy-award winning co-creator/co-writer/co-star of Key and Peele takes his first big solo step into the movie business with Get Out, his directorial debut and first as the sole writer of a screenplay (following last year’s Keanu). It follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a black photographer going on a road trip with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to meet her parents. When they get to the secluded suburbs, Chris meets the too-friendly surgeon dad (Bradley Whitford), the too-inquisitive psychologist mom (Catherine Keener), the too-creepy sports brother (Caleb Landry Jones), and the far too-polite servants (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel). He then meets the family friends, all-white of course, who can’t stop reminding Chris that he’s black (the old former golfer tells him how much he loves a certain popular black golfer, the fashion designer lets him know that black is “cool” again, etc.). Even when Chris finds another party guest of his color (Lakeith Stanfield), his rather prissy clothing and demeanor is very off. But thanks to a tip from his friend from home (LilRel Howery), the truth is more horrifying than he ever imagined.

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The M. Night comparisons are valid because as both a writer and director, Peele has very similar approaches to playing out scenes. He wants you to feel uncomfortable right from frame one, but he’s great at pacing and building up suspense for when the rug gets pulled out from under Chris. He utilizes tight-shots of faces so the audience feels Chris’ the crippling shock and the fear in his eyes. He’s also very patient behind the camera, taking time to carefully build scenes and roll out the tensions like he’s knocking down a line of dominoes. He may have sadly succumbed to a jump scare or two (these days, who hasn’t?), but the violence he brings to the climax is pretty satisfying without overdoing it. Peele’s story and dialogue also remains sharp, clearly expressing modern racism as polite pandering and envy. Rose’s family and friends are envious of Chris’ body type, his intelligence, his eye for culture, if only they behaved like them they could all get along. Peele’s idea is more of a nightmarish version of cultural assimilation and it propels the first half of the film’s 103-minute run-time. Even when the movie shifts from the racial satire to a full-on survival horror movie, it still runs at a solid pace. Sadly, Peele suffers from a much-maligned Shyamalan trait of the underwhelming finale. There’s no god-awful all-in twist that sinks the whole boat, but Peele just seems to end on a whimper rather than a bang. Still, unlike Split, the journey was involving enough to excuse a slightly disappointing ending.

 

Peele also gets a cast willing and able to roll with his wild ride. Daniel Kaluuya makes for a fine lead actor, charming his way through the tension and fully fleshing out the character of Chris. He uses the emotionally-heavy background of Chris provided by Peele’s writing to make him feel lived-in. Bonus points for him holding his own with a rather sinister Catherine Keener and the eternally nerdy Bradley Whitford. Get Out thrives with its smaller parts, including the always-reliable Lakeith Stanfield, LilRel Howery as the comedic relief, and even Stephen Root pops in to spout some ominous dialogue that works for the atmosphere. Even Allison Williams, the ever-spunky narcissist of Girls, really leaves a lasting impression in her all white jumpsuit and a hunting rifle.

What makes Get Out so impressive is how the two kinds of movies (racially-charged satire and suspenseful horror) that Peele is going for really gel together. It’s not one movie awkwardly shoved into another, they both meet each other halfway. If he can hold onto (or better yet, expand) on his writing talent subject and experiment more the next time he’s behind the camera, he could really cement himself as eye-catching filmmaker. The lesson he could learn from M. Night Shyamalan is a valid one and something all filmmakers should take to heart: it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. If the story laid out is worth sticking with, it makes the ending all the more satisfying. Jordan Peele is on a new journey, and Get Out is him blazing a trail to success on his terms. Don’t be scared by Get Out’s title, stick with Peele.

3.5/4 stars

Shyamalan Gives Up

M. Night Shyamalan is a frustrating filmmaker. Part of it is because out of the 11 films he’s directed in 25 years, only two of them could be categorized as “good” and the rest have been bafflingly bad. But the other reason is that, truth be told, M. Night is actually an interesting director. His visual style builds atmosphere at a steady pace and creates mystery without the slightest hint of it being forced. He’s a unique filmmaker, but a godawful screenwriter. Not only does he keep writing the same stiff and overlong dialogue in all of his movies, but his stories only have two functions: ridiculous concepts that never works at all (Lady in the Water, The Visit, After Earth) or interesting ideas with poor execution (The Happening, The Village, Signs, The Last Airbender). It really is sad to see a director with obvious talent be muddled by a bad script, and it’s even worse when it’s the same guy. Since he’s moved away from big budget studio projects and into the arms of low-budget horror guru Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Production, one would think he would have a little less pressure on him and more elbow room to focus on a more well-crafted story…….Nope.

 

Split follows three girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) kidnapped and held captive in an underground bunker. Their captor? Dennis (James McAvoy), an imposing neat freak claiming the girls are meant for something greater. There’s also Patricia (James McAvoy) a composed homely housewife, Hedwig (James McAvoy) a mischievous nine-year-old, and 20 other individuals inhabiting the body of Kevin (James McAvoy) with multiple personality disorder. The girls await the arrival of the 24th personality, an entity called “The Beast” that will use the girl as fodder for feasting unless they find some way to escape.

 

For those keeping track, Split falls into the latter category of “interesting idea with poor execution.” Shyamalan, again the sole writer of the script and story, does his magic of building a creepy and mysterious atmosphere throughout the movie, never trying to over explain the film’s antagonist and keeping his others as simple as possible. He knows the focus of the movie is the mystery and keeping the audience guessing. The problem is, the mystery itself is rather tedious and doesn’t go into anything deeper than mommy issues. Even when “The Beast” makes his appearance, it’s nothing more than McAvoy doing an angry ape impression with some CGI veins added on to make him look scary. Shyamalan doesn’t have the time to make him more compelling or interesting. Any interest in Kevin comes from the detail McAvoy puts into his performance, not the writing itself.

 

That said, Shyamalan’s directing is the best its been since The Village. Thanks to some help from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows), Shyamalan’s directing emphasizes the gripping terror of not only being held prisoner, but being taken for a reason that is borderline madness. The way he shoots the underground bunker is also helpful, showing how claustrophobic and hopeless the area of the cold concrete floors and the faded gray and brown walls surrounding our heroines. Shyamalan sees the setting more like purgatory or waiting on Death Row. His typical use of actor close-ups are also effective here, adding to the unease of the situation and waiting for the tension to boil over. Shyamalan never goes for gratuitous violence for shock value, but he builds Kevin to be a ticking time bomb that, before the disappointing reveal of “The Beast,” keeps the audience on the edge of their seat.

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It’s nice to see actors motivated in a Shyamalan movie. McAvoy is a revelation, jumping between the personalities set before him as he remains an intimidating enigma throughout the movie. Even as Hedwig, awkwardly dancing to dubstep music, is scary to watch as you wonder when this unstable maniac is going to snap. His three captives are all fine actors, especially Taylor-Joy (after a fantastic debut in last year’s The Witch) as the final girl in the show. There’s genuine fear in all of their eyes and they don’t over exaggerate the fact that they’re playing teenage girls.

 

The movie mostly coasts in its near-two hour runtime, nothing great but nothing really bad, just something mildly interesting. But then there’s the film’s end credit scene, because even M. Night Shyamalan movies need end credit scene nowadays. The film ends with customers in a diner watching a news reporter about Kevin (referred to as “The Horde”) being on the loose. One of the patrons mentions that she hasn’t heard anything this crazy in nearly 15 years, when some guy in a wheelchair was arrested for committing a serious of crimes. When she can’t remember the name of the guy, the camera pans across the diner countertop and a voice is heard answering the question.

 

“Mr. Glass”

 

Yup, that would be Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Shyamalan’s other great movie, 2000’s Unbreakable. And who is the one who answered this lone diner patron’s question? None other than David Dunn (Bruce Willis) the invincible protagonist of that very same movie, leading to a set-up to the long-desired sequel to Shyamalan’s twist on superhero movies. So, in summation, Split’s entire existence was meant as a pitch for an Unbreakable sequel, a two-hour equivalent to a Marvel post-credits scene that sets up the next movie.

 

To me, this was infuriating. To sit through two hours of buildup, suspense, and character development only so Shyamalan could pitch a sequel to one of his most beloved films. If this is the case and Kevin will be the supposed antagonist to the Unbreakable sequel, he could’ve been easily explained in this supposed sequel instead of wasting the audience’s time in an entire other movie. The more egregious thing about it is that because Kevin’s character isn’t entirely interesting when his origins are finally revealed, he could’ve been explained much better or more succinctly in the Unbreakable sequel instead of wasting time introducing these three girls where two of them won’t be seen again and the survivor not really doing anything to damage or have impact on Kevin.

It’s an insulting cop out for an underwhelming movie, meant to negate whatever flaws Split has and make the audience think the movie is memorable simply for the twist. Sure, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and even Shyamalan’s bad movies are memorable for their twists, but the former two movies are memorable for their characters, the directing, the story, and the journey it takes audiences. Even something like The Happening is hilariously misled enough throughout its runtime to be watchable.

 

Not only does Split itself have an underwhelming ending in general, but the end credits scene feels like a middle finger from Shyamalan telling us that he’d rather crawl back and soil the memory of one of his best movies than attempt to make another original movie. It’s cheap, desperate, and rather sad for a filmmaker that remains one of Hollywood’s few interesting filmmakers. Maybe if Shyamalan took the time to create a more satisfying conclusion or a more interesting lead character, the end of Split would be more tolerable. It’s a simple lesson that applies to film: it’s the journey, not the destination.

1.5 out of 4 stars

Top Twenty Movies of 2016

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Like most years, the best movies of 2016 were the ones that didn’t have toy deals, product tie-ins, or “Extended Editions.” In fact, I’d go so far to say that 2016 may be one of the worst years for blockbuster studio movies (Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, Ghostbusters, X-Men: Apocalypse, Warcraft) Fortunately, that means the rest of the world of movies was filled with interesting ideas, compelling characters, and unique filmmaking. We went everywhere from ancient Japan to 1970s Los Angeles, followed bankrupt cowboys and the First Lady of the United States, and faced a demonic goat and the equally scary dream of trying to make it as an actress. 2016 may have been a bit of a wash, but that made my top 20 picks all the more precious. In the words of the patron saint Wade W. Wilson, “Let’s count ‘em down.”

20. Moonlight

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Barry Jenkins doesn’t see life as a whole, more as moments that make us who we are. He boils that down with neon-lit artistic beauty in his three-act feature about a young black man living through struggle and a crisis of identity in Miami. Jenkins mixes art house cinematography and atmosphere with acting worthy of prime stage work. Leading that work is a prime cast including Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, and Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes playing the lead in three separate eras. Ambition meets reality and it’s never as it seems.

 

19. Eye in the Sky

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Drone warfare is one of the toughest questions to answer in modern warfare, but who would’ve thought its ethics would make for such great drama? Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine….no, seriously) plays out three scenarios surrounding a drone strike: one in an underground military base where a military officer (the immortal Helen Mirren) wants to drop the bomb, her supervising officer (the late great Alan Rickman) wants to wait to see who else could be in the blast, and the drone pilot (the still great Aaron Paul) doesn’t even want to pull the trigger. It’s a game of chicken with an international incident on the line, but Hood and writer Guy Hibbert let the actors play with the questions brilliantly. War is hell, even if it’s behind a computer screen.

 

18. Don’t Think Twice

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Yeah there are laughs, but a career in comedy can be borderline miserable. Take it from Mike Birbiglia, who starred, wrote, and directed the story of an improv comedy troupe in New York City with their theater on the verge of closing and their future prospects on the verge of evaporating. Rounded out by ace comic talent like Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, and Chris Gethard, Don’t Think Twice finds the meaning of friendship and finding yourself when your dreams don’t exactly work out. Life is improv, just go with the scenes you’re given.

 

17. Sing Street

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Writer/director John Carney goes three-for-three with musical movies after Once and Begin Again with this droll, yet incredibly bright teen comedy about a shy teen (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who forms a synth rock band with his fellow nerdy schoolmates to impress a girl (Lucy Boynton). First off, very relatable (speaking from experience). Second, Carney captures the environment of grey, working-class Dublin in the 1980s along with the beautiful melancholy that the new wave sound of that era inspired amongst his characters. Even the film’s original songs are poppy earworms.

 

16. Zootopia

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Even if Pixar could only gives us a light farce of a sequel this year, Disney’s individual animation department still managed to turn out some quality entertainment while making billions of dollars (as is Disney’s business model). From the team behind the likes of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph comes the story of spunky bunny police officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) taking a bite out of the metropolis of Zootopia. She relies on the wit of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist as sly as a fox (because HE IS A FOX, GET IT? COMEDY!) to solve mysterious disappearances around the city. Zippy, gorgeous, and cute as a button (or a bunny? MORE COMEDY!), Zootopia is one of those great kid’s movies that has enough face value jokes up front for the young ones in the audience and little bits of hidden humor on repeat viewings (beep that Breaking Bad reference in the climax and thank me later). The detail in the animation of the world of Zootopia itself is another crowning achievement for Disney, proving that the right people don’t just have dollar signs on the brain (*cough*).

 

15. 10 Cloverfield Lane

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Oh J.J. Abrams, you sneaky little man. A mere month after he helmed the return of Star Wars, he pulled back Bad Robot Production’s curtain to reveal this spin-off of the 2008 found-footage/sci-fi hit Cloverfield made in secret. The biggest surprise of it all? It totally works! Abrams is only a producer on this project (as he was with the first Cloverfield), but director Dan Trachtenberg is no slouch by creating shivering tension and suspense in the underground bunker where three strangers try to survive throughout an alien invasion (or are they?). It’s a small film with solid twists and characters maneuvering through the mind games played by the sparse space around them, despite a rather weak climax. We also learned to never underestimate a terrifying John Goodman.

 

14. Captain America: Civil War

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Is it flawed? Incredibly. Does it contribute to the sameness of current Marvel movies? Absolutely. Do the stakes matter even in the slightest? Hell no. But Hollywood’s biggest breakup between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) had so much action, humor, character, and heart that it’s still the best superhero movie of the year. Directed with frenetic pacing but thorough focus on character by the Russo brothers (Captain America: The Winter Solider), the governments of the world aren’t so keen on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes anymore and force them to become regulated. It splits The Avengers (sans Thor and Hulk because “reasons”) in half, with Iron Man wanting to rein in the gang but Cap still untrusting of modern politics as he tries to clear the name of ol’ buddy Bucky/The Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan). What makes Civil War so enjoyable, aside  from some of the best action scenes Marvel has put out to date (with one in particular), is the further development of the established people (not the heroes in the suits) we’ve come to know. Even if the reason Cap and Tony fight is motivated by Tony being an irrational moron, the emotion behind the fists they throw is felt through the screen. Also, Black Panther…..ALL of Black Panther.

 

13. Green Room

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Jeremy Saulnier wants to make you uncomfortable. He will pull you to the edge of your seat in fear and anticipation, then pull the trigger and let everything bleed. Tension is Saulnier’s game, and he leveled up this year with Green Room. The set up is tense enough: a punk rock band gets a gig playing at a skinhead club in the woods of Oregon and, after playing a real crowd-pleasing opening number, see a dead body and become trapped in the  club’s green room. To avoid alerting the cops, the club’s owner (Patrick Stewart) orders his staffers to flush out the band, dead or alive. Once the band is trapped, the movie becomes a ticking time bomb as audience waits for the gruesome bursts of violence that propel the movie forward. But Saulnier sets up an unnerving atmosphere and lets that build as much suspense as the fight scenes do. It’s claustrophobic and filled with dread, but impossible to look away from. It’s also led by a solid young cast including Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, and the late great Anton Yelchin.

 

12. 20th Century Women

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It’s an odd thing to wonder about what truly made us who we are when we’re growing up: was it our parents? the times? the culture? Writer/director Mike Mills has already explored the impact his father left on him in 2010’s Beginners. This year he showed the impact his mother had on his life with 20th Century Women, with the ever-wonderful Annette Bening playing mother Mills. Not really of course, more a fictionalized version of his mother and his teenage years in 1979 Santa Barbara. Bening plays a chain-smoking, free spirited mother looking to connect with her teenaged son, enlisting the help of housemates and friends to make an impact on her son. Mills uses his typical flourishes of building character with flashbacks and flashes forward in time. He also writes great characters for actors to work with, with the likes of Bening, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and especially Greta Gerwig.

 

11. A Bigger Splash

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First off, if this still of Ralph Fiennes dancing to “Emotional Rescue” doesn’t immediately sell you on this movie, be ashamed that you’re missing the best dance sequence of the year. However, don’t be fooled by the whimsy of Fiennes’ swaying of the hips: Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) pulls a great bait-and-switch with this erotic love game between a rock superstar (Tilda Swinton), her photographer lover (Matthias Schoenaerts), her former  manager/former lover (Fiennes), and his daughter (Dakota Johnson). On top of some gorgeous cinematography of the Italian islands by Yorick Le Saux, the four leads play off of each other with their raw sexual chemistry. Fiennes unbeatable charisma and Johnson’s steaming sexuality (somehow lost in Fifty Shades of Grey) brings the movie to boiling temperatures of atmosphere. And then there’s Swinton who, even as she’s mute throughout the movie, remains one of the best actors alive.

 

Top Ten, ENGAGE!

10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

From Taika Waititi, the man who made vampires funny again (2014’s What We Do in the Shadows) and will hopefully make Thor compelling again (2017’s Thor: Ragnarok), comes this silly and heartfelt adventure story in the mountains of New Zealand (without a single hobbit to be found). Waititi’s script brings out the best in the veteran Sam Neill as the grouchy father-figure to newcomer Julian Dennison’s plucky kid “gangsta” just looking for a home. The camera work and occasional left-field humor recall Wes Anderson, but Waititi’s own brand of droll comedy, sweeping direction and easily-observable love of filmmaking cement him as a man of his own talent. Don’t you hurt him, Marvel!

 

9. The Edge of Seventeen

It’s seems impossible for Hollywood movies to properly depict today’s American teenagers. Sometimes it can be done well (Moonlight) and other times it can be done disastrously (Yoga Hosers). The one that did it best, however, is Kelly Fremon Craig’s hilarious dark comedy about a suburban high schooler dealing with nearly everything in the world going against her. That may sound like another episode of Degrassi, but Craig’s writing is full of sharp digs that recall peak Woody Allen and a feature actors that don’t oversell their roles or rely on modern references to seem current. On top of that, Craig has a stellar lead in Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld delivering one of the best performances of the year. Her comic timing and dramatic heft she brings is stellar and hopefully reminds Ms. Steinfeld to hold off on pulling a Jennifer Lopez and trading in a promising acting career to be a middling pop star.

 

8. Una

It’s a damn shame that no one else got to see this brilliant and risque adaptation of David Harrower’s acclaimed play Blackbird since no studio has picked it up for distribution yet. On the other hand, it’s not hard to see why studios are hesitant to put press behind a movie about young love with an older man. But Una, the play’s film adaptation with a screenplay by Harrower himself, doesn’t use its taboo subject matter for cheap drama. Instead, its story is on the aftermath as the title character, now a young woman (the excellent Rooney Mara), tracks down her first true love, an older man with a new name and new life (the equally excellent Ben Mendelsohn). From there, the movie plays out as it would onstage, with two actors going toe-to-toe laying out their emotions and seeing who cracks first. On top of that, director Benedict Andrews slowly dishes out the truth about what happened with the look of a gorgeous bad dream before cutting back to the cold harsh reality the two leads share. It shows that just having controversial subject matter for a movie is merely a springboard, but building on it makes it something impossible to look away from.

 

7. Manchester by the Sea

Whenever I tell people that Manchester by the Sea is one of the best movies of the year (because it is), I have to follow it with a warning: “This movie is a bummer.” Mind you, that’s not a detriment to Kenneth Lonergan’s new film about a sullen, closed-off handyman (Casey Affleck) who’s brother (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies, leaving a son (Lucas Hedges) without a father and a brother even more aimless and lost than he once was. It’s hard to explain what exactly makes Lonergan’s film so outstanding because it’s for such simple reasons. The acting is so human and lived-in that the film feels like a well-made documentary. There’s nothing far-fetched or even a hint of forced Hollywood melodrama in the story. It’s not about dramatic expression of hard emotion, but the crippling fear of vulnerability after tragedy. Lonergan lets his cast do the heavy lifting, and most of it lies on Affleck’s very capable shoulders. He’s always been a very quiet actor lost in most movies, but this may be the role that finally fits his type of acting. He’s stellar, perhaps the best performances of his career, along with the likes of Chandler, Hedges, and a brief role by Michelle Williams. It’s not the happiest film of the year, but it feels pretty damn real.

 

6. Jackie

Biopic syndrome is a very real thing in Hollywood. No matter who is profiled, it’s easy to map out the origins, the rise to prominence, the second act fall from grace, and the finale of redemption. No matter how interesting the subject or how good the actor portraying the subject, most biopics are very similar. But there are always exceptions to the rule, like Pablo Larraín’s stirring depiction of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy before, during, and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Thanks to some gorgeous cinematography from Stéphane Fontaine, sweeping shots of JFK’s funeral procession and close ups of Jackie tearfully wiping her husband’s blood off of her face help paint the shimmering dream of her life in the White House and the faded nightmare she experienced as she was forced to leave. The likes of John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup fill out an exceptional supporting cast that make Jackie consistently question the situation surrounding her. But it’s the fearless, fragile, and feisty lead performance by Natalie Portman that’s worth the price of admission. Portman juggles the many sides of Jackie that one wouldn’t expect: the fiercely protective torch-bearer of the Kennedy legacy, the jaded public figure cursing the American public for her JFK’s death, the broken debutante questioning if all the glamorous dresses in her closet was ever worth a damn, and the heartbroken wife who’s lost the love of her life. It’s as multifaceted as a Dungeons and Dragons dice, but Portman pulls it off beautifully. She’s currently on the verge of welcoming her second child, but don’t be surprised if she welcomes another Oscar to her brood as well.

 

5. Kubo and the Two Strings

If you claim to be a big fan of animated movies and have yet to see anything made by Laika Studios, you’re a liar and should be ashamed. The stop-motion animation wizards at Laika have created three films since 2009 (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) and all three have given Disney and Pixar a reason to sweat (well at least their creative team, their financial department are too busy lounging in their chairs made of dollars). Now on film four, Laika have made their most expansive world, exciting action, and heartfelt story to date…and yet The Secret Life of Pets made over $800 million, shameful. Anywho, Kubo and the Two Strings takes audiences to ancient Japan where the title character, a one-eyed young boy with magic paper and a three-stringed guitar, must traverse the lands and find three magical items to fight his grandfather, Raiden the moon god (Ralph Fiennes) and his evil twin daughters (Rooney Mara). Fortunately, Kubo is accompanied by a stern fighting monkey (Charlize Theron) and a giant beetle samurai warrior (Matthew McConaughey). Laika’s excellent handling of stop-motion animation merges extremely well with the Japanese style and art direction of the film’s story. The tiniest details are given proper attention making each set piece almost a living element to the film, breathing and moving with the characters themselves. Mix that with a gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli and some great vocal talent by the A-list cast (especially McConaughey in one of his funniest performances to date) and you’ve got something beyond a kid’s adventure: a sweeping, beautiful journey for the whole family without one obnoxious product tie-in (take that, Sing).

 

4. The Nice Guys

The world has had a lot of disappointments in the action film genre this year. The combined power of Batman and Superman turned out into a dud, X-Men fighting Apocalypse was a snoozefest, the first live action Joker in eight years was straight-up embarrassing, even Jason Bourne gave us all a headache. And yet Shane Black made a brand new movie this year and BARELY ANYONE SAW IT! IT WAS RIGHT THERE YOU GUYS!!!! Mr. Black’s latest film (his first since 2013’s surprisingly good Iron Man 3) takes place in 1977 Los Angeles and follows brutish enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) on his search for a missing girl. He soon joins boozy private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling), and the pair embark on shenanigans riddled with bullets, boobs, and secrecy. Very few in Hollywood today do action movies as good as Shane Black, specifically it’s his understanding of when and how often to do action scenes. Instead of desperate ploys to hold the audience’s attention, Black cruises at his own pace and lets his acute sense of style and atmosphere entertain viewers. He expertly paces out the gunplay and pulpy elements of the movie, with even the most casual dialogue better than any exposition in other movies. Speaking of his characters, Black scored two actors on their absolute A-game: Crowe is the growling straight man with excellent comic timing and the real soul of the film, but Gosling steals the show. The man known for his sullen intensity and the occasional meme, Gosling gives the funniest performance of his career (maybe of the year, as well) as he makes “bumbling” look like the coolest thing to do in a movie. Even when he’s been chasing tail that turns out to be a double-cross, he holds his stupidity by still thinking he has a shot at getting laid. It’s like if Van Wilder was in Lethal Weapon, brilliant!

 

3. La La Land

Speaking of brilliant things with Ryan Gosling in them, hurray for movie musicals! And no, writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) is not talking about the modern era of movie musicals like Les Misérables, Chicago, and Sweeney Todd. Instead, Chazelle crafted a love letter to the likes of Singing’ in the Rain, A Star is Born, and other films of the golden age of movie musicals. While it would be easy to just make a highlight reel of classic moments from that era, Chazelle had the good sense to put a story in there and make the brightest film in grim dumpster fire of 2016. La La Land follows two down-on-their-luck dreamers: jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) desperate to open his own hip club, and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) who’s only gotten as close to Hollywood as the coffee shop on a studio lot will let her. The two meet, exchange witty banter, and of course fall in love. They inspire each other to give one last big run at their dreams and face the adversity that follows. Now the pessimistic cynic inside my soul could easily label this as another installment of “White People Problems: Part 75” and scoff at a movie so sweet and sunny that it could give cavities. But it’s impossible not to applaud the care and craftsmanship Chazelle puts into the production. After the small, contained burst of madness that was Whiplash, it’s astonishing to see Chazelle execute such a big production with the same precision as a veteran director (mind you, La La Land is only Chazelle’s third feature film). The sweeping musical numbers (like the Planetarium scene) are shot with such focus and buoyancy that it feels like a group of intelligent robots organized the sequence to perfection, but there’s still a sense of warmth that could only come from a human behind the camera. Justin Hurwitz also returns to provide the film’s score, consisting of a solid combination of quiet jazz numbers shared between the two leads and the big ensemble numbers. But then there’s the heart of the movie, brought by its star-crossed lovers. Gosling is a natural with song and dance numbers while still being a handsome Woody Allen-wannabe obsessed with the passion with jazz. It took the charisma of Gosling to make Sebastian more than just your average jazz hipster. But there is one star of this movie, and she’s Emma Stone. Someone who’s proven that she’s a jack of all trades with drama, comedy, and music, this was the role tailor-made for Stone’s talents and she owns every scene she’s in. Her effortless comedic banter and chemistry with Gosling, her solid singing voice, and the heartbreak in her struggle to make in Hollywood (something she’s certainly no stranger to) is so natural. Stone’s been a major Hollywood star for a while now, but La La Land is surely the one to send her star power into supernova. The same should apply to Chazelle, a true craftsman proving himself to be one of Hollywood’s next great talents.

 

2. Hell or High Water

Throw all the glitz and glamour you want in a movie, but I’m a man of simple tastes. An old-fashioned, stripped-down drama with believable human characters is something that feels rare in movies today and really shouldn’t. Which is why when something like it comes along, seemingly out of nowhere, it’s such a welcome relief and not a stretch to call a new American classic. David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water feels like a long-lost American classic from the late 60s/early 70s, a crime drama mixed with Western elements and character drama worthy of a great stage play. Dirty, sobering, and especially timely, it’s amazing how the movie feels like such a gem in 2016. It’s a story of brothers, by blood and by occupation. The blood brothers are ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) and somber divorcee Toby (Chris Pine), who try to save their family farm in West Texas by robbing banks of their petty cash and speeding off into the dusty sunset. The brothers by occupation are two Texas Rangers, one on the verge of retirement (Jeff Bridges) and the other his longtime partner (Gil Birmingham), who are on the trail of the robbers and hope to get one last big bust before they part ways. Mackenzie manages to make Hell or High Water both very singular and yet something that fits right in with 2016. Even with the escapism of film, Mackenzie puts audiences right back into terrible 2016 Americana with endless dried out farms, broken homes, and jobless cowboys feeling abandoned by the world around them. It’s such a vivid depiction of the desolate range that was once promised to be prosperous. On top of that, Mackenzie also knows how to pace the action between the character development. The robberies are quick bursts of kinetic action, building up to the climax that rivals Michael Mann’s Heat robbery. Adding to that expert direction is an engrossing story and tight dialogue by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), who also crafted the four fantastic lead characters that are also performed by four actors all giving peak performances. Birmingham and Foster are the weaker of the leads, but they still give great performances. Foster provides his typical quiet intensity with a bit more heart to add to the brother aspect, while Birmingham acts as a fitting foil for Bridges character. Speaking of Bridges, this is his finest performance since the last time he did a western (that would be 2010’s True Grit). Bridges has been one of the most heartfelt and human actors of his generation, and Hell or High Water gives him the right character and enough room to let him relax into his character and make him immediately interesting. But then there’s Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine, giving the finest performance of his career. To see him play a character so mature, burnt out, and yet intimidating and compelling is almost shocking to see. Hopefully it opens new doors for the actor once his Star Trek role turns over or before his career goes as south as the original Kirk. I hope that Hell or High Water doesn’t get lost in the sea of other big films to come out, or perhaps it’ll be a hidden treasure future generations will discover in bargain bins. Regardless, seeing the movie will show how undeniably lasting it feels. Something old, something new, and something to be seen again.

 

And now…..

 

1. The Witch

 

Horror movies are a dime a dozen, you get one diamond for every 10 or 20 duds. But what makes movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, The Exorcist, The Shining and others more memorable than the likes of The Conjuring, Ouija, As Above So Below, Paranormal Activity, Unfriended, Hostel and other forgettable marks in the horror genre? In today’s market, especially with the rise of found footage films, horror movies seem to rely on their jump scares, the brief moments of sudden bursts of sound and surprise imagery to count as scares. While it lets audiences jump in their seats to break up monotony, it doesn’t leave a lasting impression after the movie’s over. Horror films are less about quick moments of spooks and more about terrifying imagery that stays on screen, not too long to lose impact but not too short to be missed. Something that stays on just long enough to stick with audience and haunt their nightmares for weeks, months, or a lifetime. Not many films do that anymore, fortunately one did this year, and everyone who ever wants to make a horror movie (or any movie) should’ve taken notes. In his first feature film no less, writer/director Robert Eggers presented The Witch, “A New England Folktale” that acts as both everything a filmmaker needs to make something compelling and one of the best horror films of all time. Eggers’ film takes place in 17th century New England when a Puritan family is exiled from their village and they are forced to live in the outlier woods with nothing but their farming and their faith to hold on to. One day, their infant is taken into the woods by something unseen, unheard, and unthinkable. The family becomes closer in need of salvation, but the darkness keeps creeping in and all of their prayers aren’t helping. Eggers is a master of not only creating atmosphere but building it into a fuller form. It’s emphasized in a visual work throughout the film: at night, the family’s farmhouse is lit by candles that form a type of box around the family. As the film goes on, the box of light gets smaller and smaller, practically crushing the family as the nights go by and the more they lose understanding of the situation. That’s Eggers game, a time bomb whose fuse is getting smaller and smaller with the victims quickly running out of options. He starts with gloom and keeps building to full-on gothic doom, using lighting and sparse sound design (plus the score by Mark Korven) to build a believably hopeless situation. Despite the title, Eggers even plays with the idea of there even being a witch at the start, having the family use their religion as a security blanket and questioning if this is a part of some type of God-driven insanity. In fact, The Witch herself is such a minor part of the film, with the center of it being the true horror of family values and the madness of religion. It’s all played out without shaky cameras, jump scares, cheap special effects, or excessive gore. The imagery is legitimately unsettling and stays on screen just long enough to last and linger in the mind. The icing on the cake is the exceptional performances by Kate Dickie as the unstable mother and Anya Taylor-Joy as the daughter bearing the most of the psychological torture. The Witch stands for everything that is right in moviemaking: patience, craft, and actual innovation in film.