He Came Home…Again

Scenario: Two writers have a story about a mysterious monster that creeps on the innocent at night. They don’t say why the monster is lurking about or how it moves from the shadows like the quietest whisper, but its presence and attack strike fear into the hearts of audiences. The writers create the ultimate boogeyman and the chase after it is both terrifying and transfixing. It captures the imagination and nightmares of people all around the world becoming an icon of its time and times soon after.

And people wanted more.

So the writers wrote a bloated but necessary coda to the monster trying to kill its prey once and for all.

And people wanted more.

The writers didn’t want to write anymore, so some other writers tried to bring the monster back to lurk again.

And people wanted more.

So another group of writers had the monster follow a little girl.

And people wanted more.

So then there was a death cult.

And people wanted more.

So then there was Busta Rhymes.

And people wanted more.

So then there were obvious rednecks.

And the monster was still there, only lumbering rather than lurking and sulking rather than scaring. No matter what you add to the monster, it’s still the same monster doing the same old thing. Is it too much to ask for more?

 

Don’t be fooled by Halloween, the third reboot and the second remake of John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s original slasher classic. In fact, don’t even associate the word “original” with the new movie directed and co-written by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Eastbound & Down). Despite it eliminating every other Halloween sequel from canon and being a soft reboot/sequel of the 1978 original, this is still very much a Halloween sequel. Whatever potential there might have been from having two podcasters (Rhian Rees and Jefferson Hall) coming to Haddonfield adding to their pseudo-Serial fame by covering the Michael Myers murders is thrown out the window for the same plot as the first movie: the hulking Michael escapes custody and returns to his hometown to slice up civilians on Halloween night. Despite the now-grandmothered Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) using her trauma to become a hardened hunter badass wanting to put a bullet in Michael’s skull, the masked killer is mostly hunted by a random cop (Will Patton) and a psychiatrist (Haluk Bilginer). Sure Laurie’s paranoia led to her daughter (Judy Greer) cutting her out of her life and the life of her own daughter (Andi Matichak), but Michael doesn’t care since there’s teens making out and townspeople being unsuspecting so it’s time to start stabbing.

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There’s astonishment to be had when a remake is 15 minutes longer than the original and it still feels rushed. Through a combination of rudimentary dialogue, speedy delivery and choppy editing, Halloween feels incredibly routine and mechanical in its execution. It’s as if God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is shouting behind the camera to “GET ON WITH IT,” given how the movie rarely takes a break to set up tension or subtlety. Carpenter’s direction in the original movie made the audience pay attention and use dark shadows to find Michael in scenes, letting the viewers that saw Michael genuinely jump in their seats and those that didn’t see Michael freak out at the terror they don’t see. It’s like obeying and breaking the Jaws rule by both hiding the monster in the background but still showing him in clever ways. There’s only a handful of scenes where Green keeps Michael shrouded in the secrecy of the background to creep up on the audience. The rest of the time he has Michael strolling through the background damn-near waving at the audience to remind him that he’s in the movie. Green also rarely uses the power of silence in a horror movie as he can’t figure out when exactly to leave out the fine score composed by the Carpenters (John and son Cody) and Daniel A. Davies so he puts it in a bit too frequently. Green blessedly doesn’t over indulge in jump scares, something the original Halloween did but sparingly and with intelligence, and does have some genuine moments of spooky ambiance in certain scenes thanks to lighting and brief moments of silence. Sadly they’re too few and far between to leave an enjoyable impression.

 

Another element cutting the movie off at the legs is the script. Rehashed main story aside, the “new” elements that have hyped up the new Halloween feel like just that: hype that doesn’t hit. The true crime podcasters that open the movie trying to interview Michael in an admittedly creepy setting are merely just additions to Michael’s body count and don’t bring a different viewpoint to the story. Despite having three generations of female Strode women in this movie, Laurie’s daughter is a two-dimensional whiner that does little else but feel embarrassed for her mother or cry in concern. Laurie’s granddaughter is merely the typical high school teenager dealing with relationship drama and the odd fact that her granduncle might be a serial killer, as any high schooler does these days. Most disappointing of all is Laurie’s arc herself, switched from the victim in hiding in the first reboot Halloween: H20 to the avenging warrior lying in wait here. For all the talk of Laurie’s character change addressing trauma victims and how to turn that into strength, Halloween has no room to dive deeper into what her mental state did to her life after Michael was put away and what else makes up her personality. Laurie Strode is only defined by her extensive collection of rifles and her long granny hair. The lack of definition also applies to the movie’s antagonist. There’s no mystique or analysis left to waste on Michael Myers but all killers need to have some type of motivation. Even something as lame as Leprechaun had a reason for its tiny terror to attack people (a stupid reason, but a reason). Halloween 2018 merely sees Michael as pure evil, nothing more and nothing new. What else is he going to do? Hell and outer space are already occupied by another masked killer of teens anyway.

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The bigger shame than the characters not being given much else to work with is the solid cast wasted in this. Curtis looks like she wants to really explore this different take on Laurie Strode and she makes the little given to her work as a sadder, bitter Laurie trying to take charge of a terrible situation. Even with her more sullen demeanor, Curtis is as charming and likable as she was 40 years ago as a spunky babysitter. Patton has always been a reliable supporting actor and he brings his expected southern grit to the role despite also not being given much to do. Greer is wasted in another franchise property (that happens a lot) by being nothing but a worry-wart and Matichak is only used for something Michael to chase.

 
It’s fitting that the opening credits of Halloween features a smashed jack-o’-lantern re-assembling itself since the remake is trying to make the old and broken fresh again. Sadly the new Halloween is less fresh and more stale by recycling the same basic plot of the original movie (and most of its sequels) and leaving all of its new ideas underdeveloped. There’s specks of creativity peppered in here but it’s not enough to excuse the fact that we’ve seen this movie before, multiple times in fact. It’s barely scary, occasionally funny, sparingly creepy but all-around unsuccessful. How many times can audiences hear the same story and ask for it again? In the case of Michael Myers, apparently 10 times. That doesn’t mean it can keep a viewer from looking as tired and bored as Michael’s mask does.

2/4

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Bad Odds

There’s something of a contradiction when it comes to why Han Solo is such a memorable character. He doesn’t have the youthful dreamer sympathy that comes with Luke Skywalker, the spunky attitude of Princess Leia or the history of years-long strife and heartbreak of Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Han Solo is memorable because he’s supposed to be forgettable. He’s a nobody, a schmo, barely even worth mentioning as a nerf herder. Sure he’s charming, cocky and mostly-fearless, but he has no stake in the events of Star Wars. He’s just there, with nothing but the blaster on his hip and the charisma of Harrison Ford to make him one of the most famous characters in movie history. It’s not mystique or history that makes Han Solo cool, it’s just Han Solo.

 

I’m only pointing this out to remind people that Solo: A Star Wars Story had an uphill battle to endure before there was even a hint of who would be directing the movie. And even with all the drama that went down between Lucasfilm and Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writer/director team behind the 21 Jump Street movies and The Lego Movie who were originally slated to helm Solo before being replaced by groundbreaking visionary sci-fi icon…Ron Howard..this still didn’t make a good enough case for Solo to be made. It was understandable with Rogue One since the story of the Death Star plans being stolen could’ve been interesting (*Arrested Development voiceover* it wasn’t), but with Solo it feels like Lucasfilm are obviously cashing in on the nostalgia of the original Star Wars trilogy. Because despite the potential, telling the origins of a beloved character is a very fine line to walk and the odds of this being a successful endeavor were slim (not that Han would care, of course).

 

Anyway, about that movie: Solo follows everyone’s favorite smuggler in his younger years. Played by Alden Ehrenreich with more feathered hair and a vest with sleeves this time, Han starts as an orphan trying to escape the pickpocketing life with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Sadly fate separates them, but Han then lucks into meeting an angry wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and a shifty thief named Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Han and Chewie end up joining Beckett in his effort to steal some fuel for a testy gangster (Paul Bettany), but they employ the help of a smooth card shark named Lando (Donald Glover), his trusty droid sidekick (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and his spaceship: the Millenium Falcon.

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Solo has elements of different films rolled into its 135-minute runtime: an origin story, another prequel, a space western and a heist movie. Divvying the movie into specific sections is a bit challenging though, considering its pacing moves at breakneck speed with little time left to slow down and take in whatever mood certain scenes set up for the audience. Fortunately the movie doesn’t stop dead for callbacks to the original trilogy (which cut Rogue One off at the legs) and is mostly free of distracting fan service, staying with the events of its own plot and getting right to the action. It is very much its own story and yet it seems to want to get itself over with as quickly as possible. Which is a shame because, like Rogue One, the movie’s depiction of the dirtier bottom-feeders of the Star Wars universe is really interesting to see and shows the possibilities of expanding the cinematic universe of Star Wars. Even the two major action scenes, one being a train robbery and the other being a heist in an intergalactic mine, are well-staged and shot to flow smoothly by Howard. Solo works best when it’s not servicing the Star Wars brand, instead having its action scenes made with the styles of a western and a caper. When Solo is on point, it’s more reminiscent of Firefly and Ocean’s Eleven than a straight-up Star Wars movie.

 

The sets, spaceships, costumes and all-around design of Solo are impressive and immersive, if only the movie would pump its breaks every now and again to let the audience get more invested in the movie. For a movie over two hours long, Solo has an odd paradox of moving too fast and yet somehow feeling stretched out in its final half-hour. That accelerated pacing also doesn’t do much justice to the characters either, as many of the new ones are jettisoned from the movie by death and the established ones don’t have any further development. Which is a shame because there are some likable characters here, but most of them are done away with or don’t get to truly shine in the movie. The movie’s tightness also keeps alot of fun from seeping into its unnecessary drama. It made sense for Rogue One to be a grim and dramatic sense it was supposed to be akin to war movie, but the characters of Solo imply that this could be a looser, more fun adventure movie. Yet there are character deaths and grim moments that throw off any energy the movie gets going for itself. It’s another example of Star Wars thinking its more important than it actually is. The reason why Star Wars is so omnipresent and beloved is because it’s a fun sci-fi adventure with likable characters and a likable universe. So far these spinoff movies have gotten the latter part right but can’t nail down its characters right.

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Solo unfortunately bears the burden of being about characters, specifically one of the most famous in cinema history. That’s a lot of pressure on any actor, let alone relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. He was caught between a rock and a hard place: he could’ve either done a Harrison Ford impression and be called a glorified stand-in or approach Han from a completely different direction and be castrated by the fans for ruining their childhood hero. Ehrenreich has seemingly tried to do both, capturing Ford’s relaxed walk and constant bargaining like a used car salesman while also bringing his own idea of who Han Solo was as a younger man. He’s more chipper, better able to adapt to certain situations, much more optimistic than Ford’s droll pessimism, which is refreshing. But there’s just something missing about Ehrenreich’s performance that’s a bit hard to pinpoint: he doesn’t have a mean streak, he doesn’t have a strong presence and his charm can seem a bit annoying at points. It’s like Han is a blank slate waiting to be filled in, but there’s not enough of a base to his personality to warrant more adventures out of him.

 

Han Solo is actually one of the least interesting things about his own origin story, though he’s not alone. Emilia Clarke actually gets to show off a little more authority and charge, on top of being a gorgeous romantic lead straight out of a 1950s Hollywood classic. But her character Qi’ra is just another space for an actor to fill without anything to truly make her interesting, replaced with ties to the Star Wars expanded universe that bait for sequels. But the blankest of blank slates in the movie is Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos, a one-dimensional villain whose only definable feature are a bunch of scars on his face that flame-up whenever he gets angry (which is never explained). Bless Bettany for seemingly having fun in his brief scenes, but that doesn’t make up for his lack of threat. Fortunately the rest of the supporting cast is colorful and outstanding in certain scenes, despite how limited some of their screen times are. Woody Harrelson looks like he’s having the most fun in a long time spinning guns around and flexing long coats, while also being a believable father-figure for Han. Donald Glover, who’s arguably overtaken the movie in terms of must-see performances, slides into the shoes and cape of Lando Calrissian with the greatest of ease. While he doesn’t have the full-out confidence that Billy Dee Williams had, the simple act of Donald waving his fingers in the air has an air of swagger and smoothness to it. It also helps that he plays Lando as the straight man to the hijinks of Han and co. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton and Jon Favreau all make their marks as background players who sadly don’t get enough screen time to keep the fun going.

 
And that might be the biggest worry coming from Solo: Star Wars is starting to not be fun anymore. There was plenty of potential with Solo and some of it did make the final cut of the movie, but a combination of underdeveloped characters and rushed pacing to hide how underdeveloped the characters are make Solo feel intermittently fun but mostly hollow. It is an improvement from Rogue One in that there’s some levity and energy to Solo’s events and characters, but the movie miscalculates the need for it to be another “MOST BIGGEST MOVIE STORY IN YOUR LIFE HAIL STAR WARS” and not just a fun side quest. It’s the contradiction of Star Wars: we always want more, but what happens when the more we want is too much.

2.5/4

Wade Started A Joke

How do you tell the same joke again? It was funny the first time, got laughs out of everybody and was completely different from the jokes everyone else tells at the party. It feels good and you want to keep that feeling going, so the obvious answer would be to tell everyone that joke you know. But how? Do you make it longer? Weirder? How do you take something that was supposed to be a throwaway goof and repeat it to the same (or better) effect? What a tough question, especially for handsome do-gooder Ryan Reynolds to answer. He certainly had a great love and passion for Deadpool, the merc with a mouth that’s been throwing a bomb-laced pie in the face of comic book lore for nearly 30 years, but Reynolds probably didn’t expect his passion project to become a nearly-$800 million smash hit that turned the superhero-movie phenomenon on its head (mostly by being slightly different from the superhero movie formula, but still). So since Deadpool was a hit and Fox likes money (and another superhero franchise since Wolverine is dead and the rest of them are circling the drain), Reynolds had to back a sequel. He had to tell the same joke for a bigger crowd than last time who heard how good the joke was and wanted more. Heavy lies the crown of the Canadian snark king.

 

Deadpool 2, 11 minutes longer and over-$50 million more expensive than the last one, brings us back to the adventures of Wade Wilson (Reynolds) the deformed, deranged, self-healing assassin specializing in monologues and swordplay. He tries sucking up to the X-Men, or just Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), by trying to help an angry young mutant named Russell (Julian Dennison). Unfortunately Russell is being hunted by Cable (Josh Brolin), a mercenary from the future with a robotic arm, a huge gun and very little patience. But Deadpool, who often leaps before he looks, decides to form a crew and take Cable head-on.

 

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In typical sequel fashion, Deadpool 2 is a bigger and louder production than its predecessor. There are more characters, more set pieces, more action scenes, more jokes, more schtick. Fortunately, Deadpool 2 seems very self-aware of the pitfalls of being a sequel and avoids being overstuffed. Despite the plot not really kicking in until the 30-minute mark, the movie has good pacing and has enough snark to mock foreshadowing and plot resolutions before the audience does. Big credit goes to newly-crowned action movie heavyweight David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde), who shoots the bigger and more meticulously-staged action scenes with smoothe composition and even some nice bits of slow-motion. Even the comedy gags are well-directed and edited, making the 119-minute runtime mostly zoom by. Writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Reynolds himself pack the script with barrels of one-liners, fourth-wall breaks, in-jokes and sarcasm. Amazingly almost all of them land, though the best jokes in the movie are the sight gags with physical comedy that use the movie’s hard-R rating to the fullest.

 

While Deadpool 2 is an improvement from its predecessor in the technical department, it can’t quite stick the landing of being a great movie entirely. Mostly because the movie starts running on fumes after its action centerpiece where Deadpool tries to rescue to Russell from a convoy. While it has a strong start in how it uses the X-Force, specifically a sly Zazie Beetz as Domino, it feels like the movie ran out of money near its end with some distractingly cheap-looking CGI and a 10-minute lull where the movie just stops. Much like the first movie, there’s a desire for Deadpool 2 to keep upping the ante and go balls to the wall with its action and violence in keeping with the spirit of the comic. It’s nice that Leitch would want to slow down and build the movie back up to its climax, but that’s when the movie becomes typical again and loses the manic spirit that makes Deadpool so fun to watch. The spirit of Deadpool 2 seems to be “whatever,” but more of a feeling of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks and less gleeful anarchy. Maybe it’s because of the budget or studio mandate or Reynolds himself, but Deadpool on the big screen always seems grounded by desperately wanting laughs more than it wants blood. And that’s fine because the movie is pretty funny, but it feels like there’s another half to the movie’s promise it keeps forgetting to make good on.

 

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But the movie is committed to its comedy base and to its credit, its got some funny people backing the lines. Reynolds has always seemed like a born movie star with his charming good looks backed up by his ace timing and investment in scenes. Once again hidden in a red suit and slathered in makeup, Reynolds breaks through it all with sheer charisma and attitude that never loses steam. Even if his movie can’t be great, Reynolds bounces and zips through every scene like Bugs Bunny with swords and not a single sign of exhaustion in his voice. His supporting cast is along for the ride too, with Hildebrand’s droll shtick always useful, Kapicic’s thick-headed optimism makes a great foil for Deadpool and Dennison (who proved his comedic chops last year in Hunt for the Wilderpeople) has no problem being a tough brat and takes getting punched in the face multiple times like a champ. Beetz also gets a star-making performance here, going toe-to-toe with Reynolds’s sarcasm and having a strong screen presence on her own. Surprisingly the weakest link in the movie is Brolin, only three weeks removed from playing one of the best villains in superhero movie history (and that didn’t even require using his real face!). Brolin is still intimidating as hell with his giant gun and cold glare, but it feels like he was just written in as a roadblock for Deadpool to throw punches at and doesn’t get much development. His Cable is essentially if John Conor had the same abilities as The Terminator, which is funny considered the future that the movie shows he traveled from looks exactly like the one ruled by the machines in the Terminator franchise.

 
Do I still wish Deadpool was just a one-off goof that inspired more outlandish comic-book movies instead of just becoming a new franchise? Of course, but that doesn’t sully the fact that Deadpool 2 is a lot of fun. It moves fast, it gets laughs and still has enough wit to be considered “different” from the typical superhero movie fair. It’s questionable as to how much longer Reynolds and his team can keep this joke funny, especially in the age where superhero fatigue is looming more and more. For now, let’s all just take comfort in the fact that Deadpool is still funny, Ryan Reynolds acting career is doing fine and David Leitch is still making action movies cool again. It’s the little details that keep the joke funny.

3/4

 

 

 

Last Call

Even before Anthony and Joe Russo ran their first reel, Avengers: Infinity War had a lot of problems. Not only did the movie have to adapt one of the most mystical and visually-striking comic series in the Marvel canon, not only did it have to bring together all of the popular superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe into one coherent and enjoyable narrative, not only did it have to payoff a seemingly-random post credit scene from six years ago with a giant purple alien wanting to slide into death’s DMs….but they had to tell people that it was going to be two movies. Due to the size and scale of the source material, not to mention cutting up screen time between over 20 main characters, the Russo brothers had to split the grand finale of the MCU’s first decade between two movies (with the next installment out next year). That would be enough of a challenge, but then Marvel Studios had to go ahead and tell everyone about it. So that’s the biggest rub: with everyone knowing that Infinity War is only Part 1 and that whatever happens is only the first half of the whole story, how do they give any weight or meaning to anything that happens in the movie?

 

In a word: Thanos. The intergalactic, purple-faced, multi-chinned, wannabe-god first introduced at the tail-end of The Avengers finally makes his presence known in the 19th feature film in the decade of dominance held by Marvel Studios. And six years later with endless teases, boy howdy does he make his presence known. Motion-captured and voiced by Josh Brolin, Thanos finds himself burdened with glorious purpose: to balance the entire universe by wiping out half of its inhabitants from existence. He plans to use his mighty Infinity Gauntlet and the six Infinity Stones to power his “mercy,” as he describes. He already has the purple Power Stone and now looks to collect the rest from a cavalcade of caped crusaders: the blue Space Stone from Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the green Time Stone from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong), the yellow Mind Stone from Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the red Reality Stone and the mysterious Soul Stone. Thanos’s malicious intent garners the attention of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Captain America (Chris Evans) and his team of exiled Avengers, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the city of Wakanda, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the Guardians of the Galaxy, especially Thanos’s jaded adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan).

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Since Marvel was at least smart enough not to further damage the movie’s merit by putting a Part 1 at the end of the title, Infinity War’s greatest challenge is merely standing on its own two feet. A great control in this experiment is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, a pointless first installment in a two-part finale that mostly spins its wheels to get to the actual conclusion of the story. Thankfully, Infinity War is a solid standalone installment in the MCU that gives its audience an enjoyable and high-stakes adventure before saving its sequel-baiting for the final moments. Kudos to the Russo brothers for giving such a stacked cast of characters all something to do and a purpose for being in the movie outside of fan service. For such a huge movie with basically three climactic action scenes going on at the same time, the Russos shoot the blendings of CG and live-action surprisingly well without too much shaky cam and with a focus that doesn’t jerk the audience between perspectives. The movie’s art direction and production design also take full advantage of the movie’s cosmic settings in outer space and on Thanos’s spaceships, merging the universes of Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy with Marvel’s Earthbound heroes. And even with all the cosmic lasers and monsters, many of the fight scenes here are surprisingly well-choreographed fistfights (seriously, Thanos looks like Manny Pacquiao in his prime going toe-to-toe against the Hulk). All of these elements make the 149-minute runtime fly by and don’t make the movie seem bloated or overdone.

 

Despite this movie’s advertising billing Infinity War as an epic event, it seems like the movie can’t commit to that promise. A problem with some of the recent Marvel movies is a stubbornness to let go of the laughs with certain emotional scenes being cut off by a quick or lame one-liner (see Thor: Ragnarok for example). Infinity War has that same problem, as many of the first-time interactions between the likes of Doctor Strange and Spider-Man or Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy are used for jokes that can pull the audience right out of the movie. On top of that, the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote all three Captain America movies) can’t find the right pacing rhythm. The movie rarely takes time to slow down and have its characters recognize the weight of the scenario. It’s mostly just show up, suit up and throw hands, which leaves little room for great character development. The likes of Iron Man, Gamora, Star Lord and Thor get the best of the writing character-wise and while everyone else has a presence in the movie, they end up as bit players in the background when all is said and done.

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But with all the big names and big guns on display, Infinity War does have one essential main character: Thanos. His characterization and impact to the story could’ve broke the movie down before it even started but right from the get-go, as he walks across the corpses of fallen enemies, he stands as one of the MCU’s finest villains, let alone one of the finest comic-book movie villains. He’s incredibly imposing in his presence, Brolin’s deep growl matched with his lines is a good combination of intelligence and evil, and the movie doesn’t overstate how righteous he thinks he is. Thanos believes he is doing the universe a favor by committing genocide, but he’s not cackling like the Joker when he takes an entire planet and shoots it at Iron Man (a wonderful visual, by the way). Thanos is the best character in this movie, and it’s easy to see how much Brolin enjoys the subtleties of playing him. He may be in a motion-capture suit (also impressively done) but Brolin clearly envisioned the universe around him in all the green screen and really liked every second of being in it.

 

Not every member of the Avengers gets character development here, but it seems like the movie gives time to right ones. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora in particular play a pivotal role, being Thanos’s adopted daughter and all. She seems to give Thanos the most cause to reflect on his actions and Saldana gets very emotionally invested in it. Same with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor who, without spoiling anything, takes a great deal of loss in the movie and it’s clear his brutish armor is starting to rust away. Downey Jr., the flagship star of the MCU, also has great emotional weight on Tony Stark being that he took a great bulk of trauma from his first encounter with Thanos six years ago. It’s understandable as to why he’s more stressed and emphasizing the threat of the movie than his typical joking self. On the flip side of that, Chris Pratt can’t seem to turn off the goofy Han Solo-esque schtick and get into the events of the movie. Tom Hollland’s aggressively teenaged Spider-Man also does not belong in the events of Infinity War, while Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier, who’s been such a focal point of the MCU for the past four years, merely seems like an afterthought addition to the cast. There’s plenty of faceless monsters for the Avengers to fight, but not enough screen time for them to establish their investment in the movie.

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So for a studio-mandated, contextually-required first half of grand finale, there’s a great sense of relief knowing that Avengers: Infinity War is as good as it is. There’s a lot of moving parts and some of them stall, but the essential pieces keep the motor running smoothly. It’s action-packed and more grim than the previous installments, never boring or overbearing. A superhero orchestra playing the right notes for an entertaining night out. The biggest problem though is that it is obviously a “Part 1,” leaving whatever risks it takes stuck with an asterisk on it needing to be solved in the next movie. That next installment will prove whether or not the entire journey was worth the investment or not but if it’s the latter, at least we got one good ride out of it.

3/4

Top 30 Movies of 2017

I know I know, a little late to the party. But with the Oscars just around the corner, what better time to say what movies from last year were the best of the best. Because who knows better: the Academy or a 20-something journalist with snark and sarcasm to boot? So in honor of my lateness and about how great the year 2017 was for movies, I figure I’d expand my annual list to 30 movies. Because again, 2017 was a damn good year at the cinema. We had blockbusters made with some genuine creativity and imagination both with their special effects and writing, paired with the continuously-improving independent film scene. It felt like 2017 was when creators were fully in-charge of their projects instead of the feel of studio interference in a lot of 2016’s worse movies. So in the vein of celebration and the prizes of all movie prizes just days away, here are my top 30 movies of 2017.

 

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  1. Ingrid Goes West

It’s actually amazing that’s taken so long for someone to make a satire comedy about the dark side of being Instagram famous. Co-writer and director Matt Spicer’s slightly grim and side-splitting comedy stars Aubrey Plaza finally breaking out of her own droll gaze as a mentally unstable woman who falls in love with the life of an L.A. Instagram star (Elizabeth Olsen, hilariously bitchy) and does everything possible to become her friend. Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith use cringe comedy merely as a front to display the deeply-troubled effects of obsessions with likes and follow sprees. It’s led by Plaza in a truly star-making performance that a strong blend of comic, dramatic and impossible to look away from.

 

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  1. Call Me By Your Name

In 2015, director Luca Guadagnino used sexual tension and rock-and-roll to play a four-way cat and mouse game in the bright but kooky A Bigger Splash. This year, he decided to cut the BS and present one of the most tender and heartfelt romances in 2017 cinema. Based on the 2007 novel, it follows a summer romance in Northern Italy, 1983 between 17-year-old introvert Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the laid-back visiting student (Armie Hammer) of his archaeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg). The two, both womanizers in their own rights, find common ground in their intelligence and freewheeling behavior that morphs into something more. Of course it’s beautifully shot (props to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom) and soundtracked by some glittering 80s new wave (and Sufjan Stevens, always a pleasure). What makes it pop is the booming chemistry between the two leads, equally shy of the unknown between them yet infatuated with each other. It’s the quiet but forceful debut of one actor (Chalamet) and the resurgence of talent for the other (Hammer).

 

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  1. Baby Driver

It’s not fair to call Baby Driver Edgar Wright’s worst movie, because 1. It’s not a bad movie in any way, shape or form and 2. Edgar Wright has yet to make a bad movie. So let’s call the writer/director’s longtime passion project his “least-best” movie before going into what makes it still good. While its core is a run-of-the-mill “criminal tries to get out of the game” story following a baby-faced getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who meets his dream girl (Lily James) and tries to shake off a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) and his band of baddies (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González). But Wright, being the obsessive perfectionist/lovable movie geek he is, sets nearly every bit of action and driving to a rocking soundtrack turning the movie into something of an action musical. On top of the flawless action scenes is some of the year’s best supporting turns from Hamm, Foxx and James. But this is Wright’s show, and very few are as good a ringmaster as he.

 

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  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Look, nobody needed another Spider-Man reboot. It’s actually quite amazing how everyone isn’t sick of Marvel’s geeky wallcrawler and his great responsibility and whatnot. But since Marvel (and Disney) likes money and Sony Pictures are desperate for a hit, the two studios pooled their resources and now we have the sixth Spider-Man movie in 15 years. Wisely skipping the origin story, our new Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is a high school science geek in Queens who stops bike robberies and helps old ladies cross streets while trying to be taken seriously by stand-in father figure Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). He gets his chance when he tries to stop The Vulture (Michael Keaton) from stealing and selling alien weaponry on the black market. What Homecoming has in its corner is its full acceptance of being a screwball comedy that happens to have Spider-Man in it. Not only does Holland capture the geekiness and good heart of Peter Parker better than his predecessor (sorry Andrew), but he’s got a grounded yet charismatic adversary in Keaton’s Vulture. Seriously, we need Michael Keaton in more of our blockbusters.

 

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  1. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Yup, the children’s cartoon with potty humor that we all read when we were in elementary school is one of the best movies of the year. Sue me. What makes the cinematic debut of Dav Pilkey’s bald and misguided superhero (Ed Helms) created by two childhood buddies (Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch) so memorable is its understanding of what makes cartoon comedy work so well. Because Captain Underpants is such a silly premise to begin with, it opens up possibilities for more creative forms of comedy. Want to do a random live-action scene with sock puppets? Sure! How about an unbroken bit where Captain Underpants snaps back-and-forth into his alter ego at a breakneck pace? Absolutely! Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek, The Muppets) understands that there is an art to being silly, and Captain Underpants has enough warm color and expertly-crafted antics that it could sit in the MoMA.

 

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  1. Mudbound

We can never leave the past behind. No matter how far America has come in terms of equality and civil rights, we must be reminded that there are still smudges in this country’s star-spangled history. One the year’s most striking reminders came from writer/director Dee Rees’s stirring and grim Netflix period drama about two World War II soldiers (Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund) who return home to Mississippi to face their own personal wars. One (Hedlund) has a drinking problem and can’t seem to measure up to the expectations of his seething racist father (Jonathan Banks) and farmer brother (Jason Clarke) with a unfulfilled wife (Carey Mulligan). The other (Mitchell) sees his mother (Mary J. Blige) and father (Rob Morgan) working for a white family still feeling the racial injustice of the south despite him being a war hero. Rees pulls no punches when presenting the cruelty of the southern white man, yet also finds the small ties that bind the different characters in the grim mud of the Mississippi farmland. She also has one of the best casts of the year working overtime with Mitchell, Mulligan and Blige lifting the movie up with their hearts on their sleeves.

 

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  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It actually helps to like Star Wars but not be super invested in the mythos and cult of George Lucas’s over 40-year-old space opera This way when super-fans tear themselves apart over the eighth installment in the franchise, rioting in movie theaters when their midnight viewing is only slightly delayed then whining online after seeing the movie become “BAAAAD,” you can just sit back and shrug your shoulders enjoying the first legitimately interesting and different Star Wars movie since the original trilogy. Whether it’s focusing on Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, never better) and his disillusionment with the Force against the hopes of Rey (Daisy Ridley, getting better), the evolution of conflicted villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, still the best) or the scrappy heroics of Resistance crew Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Rose (a beaming Kelly Marie Tran), writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) decides to let the past crutches of Star Wars die and shoot the characters in a new direction. Unlike the last risky Star Wars movie (The Phantom Menace *shivers*), The Last Jedi rolls the dice by making its villain deeper, turning the beloved imagine of Luke Skywalker into a heartbroken shell of himself, and showing how failure and loss is just as important in Star Wars as hope and heroism. And that’s all after witnessing the best-looking Star Wars movie to date. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s hard not to applaud a Star Wars movie that doesn’t rely on nostalgia and fan service to garner interest.

 

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  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I’ve always thought of writer/director Martin McDonagh as “classy Tarantino,” meaning a guy who doesn’t mind making movies laced with profanities, violence and darker subject matter but stages it like a grown-up character study instead of through the lens of 1970s pop culture. For his third feature film, McDonaugh decided to take some pages out of the Coen brothers’ playbook: small-town crime mystery, emotionally-damaged characters, Frances McDormand, etc. The longtime-Coen muse stars as a mother demanding answers for her daughter’s murder, so determined that she erects the titular ads calling out the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) and his dim-witted deputy (Sam Rockwell). While not as classically-tragic as his debut In Bruges but certainly more adult and grounded than his follow-up Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards is a modern American story of people struggling to let go of the little things they had to keep them going through the day. Though it has some well-earned moments of hilarity (points to McDormand and Rockwell with solo charisma and great chemistry together), it’s a grim tale of small-town anguish over injustice, literal and personal.

 

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  1. I, Tonya

It’s rare that America looks back fondly or sympathetically on its subjects of tabloid fixation and overexposure. That said, Tonya Harding deserves an apology from everyone in the country who wrote the blonde former figure skating champion off as crazy white trash. I, Tonya pleads the case that Ms. Harding, who was publicly shamed for being tied into an attack against fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, was merely a victim of a brutal upbringing, a rushed romance with an abuser and the American people’s obsession with people more miserable than they are. Lead by Margot Robbie in the title role, which certifies her as a damn good actress, I, Tonya follows Harding from an upbringing with a monstrously-pushy mother (Allison Janney, equal parts hilarious and horrifying) to her tumultuous marriage with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, showing himself more than the ratty wig of the Winter Soldier) and how her obsession with perfection and victory against the skating world that looked down on her led to her downfall. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) orchestrates a biopic that’s like if Martin Scorsese remade Ice Castles: raw, raunchy and rarely taking its foot off the gas. But when he zooms in on his title character and how she handled becoming a princess to a pariah, it becomes some damning evidence against America’s love of a villain in the spotlight (how times have changed, eh?).

 

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  1. War for the Planet of the Apes

In a world where audiences flock to movies about capes and spandex, it’s truly shocking to find one of the most heroic movie characters of the year is a computer-generated talking ape. Matt Reeves second (and final) turn directing the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise manages to be an epic and entertaining summer blockbuster while also being the darkest and most heartfelt of the new trilogy. After the battle of San Francisco in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar the ape (Andy Serkis) leads his tribe into the woods to avoid the attacks of an anti-ape military battalion and its ruthless commander (Woody Harrelson). But when Caesar and tribe suffer heavy losses, Caesar treks through the snow for a final assault against the battalion. What makes War such a striking summer blockbuster is how reserved it is and focused more on the duality between its hero and villain than explosions.  Between the impressive set pieces and action scenes is the almighty Andy Serkis as Caesar carrying the emotional burden of being a lone avenger for his struggling ape brethren even as he starts to lose faith. It’s true acting, all while wearing a gray onesie with dots on his face.

 

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  1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Behind all of his love for snarky comedy, gross monsters and 70s/80s pop-rock, writer/director James Gunn does have a soft spot for family drama and togetherness. He takes outsiders, rejects, abandoned children and total assholes and brings them together because even if they don’t like each other, they’re all they’ve got. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is arguably the most emotional movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, focusing on the daddy issues of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the dissenting rebels of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (a very impressive Michael Rooker) and the torn sisters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). What makes Vol. 2 one of the most outstanding comic book movies of the new decade (maybe of all time) aside from the gorgeous visual effects, creative set design, great soundtrack and the lovable cast is the heart that Gunn writes into his characters. Gunn, the sole writer on this endeavor, impressively juggles the right amount of development for all the characters while putting on a colorful and wacky sci-fi/action spectacle. He sees the Guardians as equal parts children and parents to each other, petulant about where they stand on the team but always there to help the other up after getting thrown around by a giant space monster. The Guardians may never get along, but who else would put up with their baggage. All of this while a vibrant imagination runs wild, fantastic entertainment.

 

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  1. T2 Trainspotting

A sequel to a beloved cultural time capsule 21 years too late? Yes, the very idea of T2 Trainspotting is off-putting. So surprise surprise that original director Danny Boyle got the gang back together again for another darkly comic romp through cultural dissention and drug-addled mischief. Clean and well-adjusted Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to the dirty slums of Edinburgh for the first time since he stole money from his friends after a drug deal. He runs into his old pals Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), no better off than where he left them but sparking something inspirational in Renton. That is, if he doesn’t get killed by former-buddy/recent-jailbird Begbie (Robert Carlyle). T2 doesn’t harbor on the nostalgia of the Britpop days. Instead, it manages to further develop its main characters in a believable way. It makes total sense that all four of the youthful, reckless leads turned into bitter, disappointing shells of their former selves. No matter how much they try to relive their substance-addled days of old, Boyle and writer John Hodge (from Irvine Welsh’s sequel novel, no less) keep the dark cloud of reality all over their heads. As Renton says, “Choose life….we thought it was amusing at the time.” How time flies.

 

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  1. Colossal

I guess Hollywood has run out of ways to make movies about the dangers of substance abuse outside of say, a Lifetime original movie with high school kids discovering booze for the first time. So why not hide an abuse drama inside of a giant monster movie? Colossal’s trojan horse plot is the sighting of a giant monster that starts randomly appearing and disappearing in Seoul with no explanation why. The lone Greek hiding in the plot is Gloria (Anne Hathaway), an alcoholic that’s been dumped by her boyfriend and forced to move home. After reconnecting with an old friend (Jason Sudeikis) and indulging in heavy drinking, she wakes up the next morning to find her drunken demeanor is eerily similar to that of the monster. Despite the mystery of how Gloria and the monster are connected being the selling point of the movie, it’s actually the least interesting part of Colossal. Instead, Nacho Vigalondo’s character study is less zany than it could’ve been and instead focuses on the negatives of Gloria’s dependency. It hangs on the performance of Hathaway and Sudeikis: the former being more believably human and interesting on screen than she has in a long time, and the later providing a shockingly effective dramatic turn.

 

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  1. The Lost City of Z

In 1980, writer/director Michael Cimino released his highly-anticipated follow up to The Deer Hunter known as Heaven’s Gate. It was long, it was epic, it was ambitious, and it bombed like mad with critics and audiences. But what if Heaven’s Gate was a smash success and Cimino was so made in Hollywood that his next movie could’ve been even more grand and epic? We’ll never know, but it would probably look a lot like this stunning adaptation of David Grann’s book. It’s the true story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, reminding everyone how capable a movie star he is), a British explorer in the early 1900s looking for something greater in life. With the help of Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Percy finds evidence of an ancient civilization undiscovered in the jungle and becomes obsessed with finding the lost land. Writer/director James Gray (The Immigrant) has made a classic adventure story, putting his actors deep in the green jungle instead of a green screen set. He sees the humdrum ordinary life as a grim wasteland of lost potential. It’s when he’s in the jungle, with the imposing trees and rushing water, that he sees the vibrant excitement of life. It’s as if Gray is making a meta-commentary on the CG-heavy modern blockbusters and how it’s more interesting to see a historical epic that’s as real as the history it’s based off of.

 

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  1. Logan Lucky

As far as car-based heist movies go, Steven Soderbergh beat Edgar Wright by a country mile in 2017. The stylish yet reclusive director came out of retirement from filmmaking for this loose and zany caper about the Logan brothers of West Virginia: single dad Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and veteran/amputee Clyde (Adam Driver), who are fed up with their misfortunes and decide to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. But since they’re just two men who’ve never done wrong in their life before, the brothers decide to employ the help of incarcerated bomb expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) to pull off the job. It would be easy to dismiss Logan Lucky as “white trash Ocean’s Eleven,” but that would be ignoring the genuine comedy Logan Lucky has to offer. It brings the typical Soderbergh craft to filmmaking: hi-resolution video making for more realistic cinematography, David Holmes’s swinging score, sharp camerawork and a tightly-woven supporting cast (Katie Holmes, Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane). Logan Lucky’s ace in the hole is a more relaxed vibe throughout and a more down-to-earth story than previous Soderbergh productions. Usually fascinated with only the fanciest of fancy people (Ocean’s trilogy, Side Effects, Magic Mike) or the very obscure (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience), Logan Lucky is Soderbergh in touch with the world around him and being surprisingly sympathetic to it.

 

 

  1. Super Dark Times

Many people have been complementing this year’s remake of It for its comradery between the young kid characters being relatable and believable in the face of a suspense/horror movie. I, an intellectual, point instead to this delightfully cool suspense thriller crossed with a coming-of-age story. Set in a sleepy New York suburb in 1996, it follows high school buddies Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) riding their bikes around town while talking about banging chicks in high school (teenage masculinity, everyone). One day, the boys are playing around with a samurai sword (as you do) and a gruesome accident occurs. In the midst of dealing with their feelings for a cute classmate (Elizabeth Cappuccino), the boys grapple with crushing guilt and the haunting suspicion of who will find out. Super Dark Times is another offspring of the atmospheric indie-thriller subgenre manifested by 2014’s It Follows: luminescent cinematography, themes of sexual frustration mixed with a mystery, John Carpenter-esque synthesizer score and well-executed tension and gore. It’s all the more impressive that Super Dark Times is made by a first-time director (Kevin Phillips) and writers (Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski), clear film fans who understand what makes thrillers work. Tender and haunting in its quiet moments while knowing how to build and break tension, it’s a shame this movie won’t be the VHS hidden gem it wants to be. Guess it’ll have to settle with being one of the best indie thrillers of the 2010s.

 

 

  1. Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig has always seemed destined for bigger things. She’s a feisty and fiercely funny presence on screen on top of being a talented writer for modern-day situations and relationships (see Frances Ha and Mistress America). And since she found herself unsure for mainstream Hollywood movies (see the 2011 remake of Arthur…actually, don’t), she must’ve figured she’d be better suited blossoming in indie world behind a writer’s desk and a movie camera. Lady Bird’s title character (Saoirse Ronan in fiery rebel red hair) is a smart but snooty high schooler trying to break out of suburban Sacramento and go to a culturally-woke college. She’s in a working-class house with a stubborn mom (Laurie Metcalf), a spunky best friend (Beanie Feldstein), a straight-laced boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), a douchey crush (Timothée Chalamet) and a big helping of self-doubt. Gerwig, the sole writer and director, says that Lady Bird is only semi-autobiographical. She could’ve fooled the audience, as the film’s characters, environment and emotions feel very lived-in. Gerwig is a proud child of the new millennium (2002 specifically), putting Lady Bird in the awkward scenarios of modern love and faking friendship with the cool kids. The heart of Lady Bird is in the mother-daughter bond, two bright souls constantly clashing but always finding solace in each other. It’s a true family story executed by Ronan and Metcalf’s incredible chemistry with each other, along with Ronan’s obvious solo star power carrying each scene. The real star of Lady Bird is of course Gerwig, seemingly trying to push the cliched teen comedy into a more grounded, relatable territory.

 

  1. Novitiate

Growing up in a Catholic family, I’ve always wondered about the life of a devout Catholic. How does one devote his or her mind, body and soul to such a strict lifestyle and a idea that isn’t tangible? Writer/director Margaret Betts, in her first feature film, doesn’t paint a picture in the black and white worn by the nuns that are the subject of Novitiate, and that’s what’s so fascinating about it. Set in sheltered convent in 1960s, there are two focuses of Novitiate: a long-time devout nun (Melissa Leo, as intimidating as Darth Vader despite speaking mostly whispers) whose extremely traditional ways are challenged by the issuance of Vatican II, and a teenage novice (Margaret Qualley, a delicate flower who speaks volumes with little dialogue) trying to become a nun herself after only finding solace in the light of the Lord. It’s a personality crisis for both lead characters and the easy route would be for the two to find solace in one another. Betts takes a different approach, effortlessly balancing two different stories of people questioning their faith. Despite the beautiful set design and cinematography straight out of a Sofia Coppola movie, Betts is not afraid to show moments of heartbreaking brutality endured by the younger nuns in the movie. And even when their emotions ache after being stripped of their dignity in front of Leo’s character (repeatedly, mind you) they have to crawl (literally) back to their place in line and keep their heads down in the name of something they cannot see or feel. Novitiate doesn’t attack the Catholic religion, but more observes it with a keen eye and simply lays out its events for the audience to take in on their own accord. Betts is clearly a talent behind the camera and the writing desk, but it’s hard to ignore her actors on camera. Leo is an absolute force onscreen, equal parts antagonist and soul of the movie being a victim of changing ways as much as she is a soldier of the old. Qualley also evolves into a full-fledged movie star in her soft and thoughtful performance. Novitiate is a quiet movie, but one that sticks in the back of your mind and picks away at you.

 

  1. Atomic Blonde

2017 has been a great year for women, especially ones that punch people in the face: Wonder Woman, Valkyrie, Gamora, Wolverine’s clone daughter, Rose McGowan, etc. But of all the ladies who kicked ass this year, no one did it better than one Charlize Theron in the neon-bright but brutal Atomic Blonde. Fittingly directed by one of John Wick’s co-directors (and helmer of the upcoming Deadpool sequel) David Leitch, the movie’s title character is undercover MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) who is charged with recovering a list of double agents from the cold of Berlin on the eve of its wall collapsing in 1989. Aided by a shady British operative (James McAvoy, in full sleaze mode) and a mysterious French photographer (Sofia Boutella), Lorraine tries punching and kicking her way out of Berlin unsure of who’s her friend and who’s her enemy. It would be easy to call Atomic Blonde “girl John Wick,” but Blonde is more of a spy thriller than a straight-up action movie with a classic plot of double-crossing and espionage. Think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy remade by the guys who did The Raid 2. As stylish as vibrant this movie can be (everything from the costumes to the music to lighting is 80s glory), Blonde also has a knack for brutality as every bruise and blood stain Theron takes is proudly displayed for the audience. It’s an action movie that knows how good its action is, so it makes the audience feel every closed-fist and bullet put in the front of the camera. The audience also feels the powerful presence of Charlize Theron, who finally gets a well-deserved action lead role after AEon Flux bricked 12 years ago. And Theron reveals in the role, gliding through scenes in her white trench coat and platinum blonde hair while shooting people in the face and repelling off building with George Michael playing in the background.

 

  1. Coco

Depending on who you talk to, it’s hard to pinpoint when specifically Pixar Animation Studios started on a downward slope. It might’ve been in 2011 with the unnecessary Cars 2, the admirable but incomplete Brave in 2012 or the good-looking misfire of The Good Dinosaur in 2015. On top of that, competition from Warner Bros. Animation and Laika as caused Disney’s animation brain trust to start sweating creatively (not financially of course, because Disney always makes money). So Disney decided to stop making movies about inanimate objects and go back to making human stories…ok, they’re mostly dead humans, but still. Coco follows the journey of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy dreaming of being a world famous musician against his family’s ban on even the tiniest musical note. Following the words of his late hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Miguel looks to enter a talent show on the eve of Day of the Dead and tries borrowing his hero’s famed guitar from his tomb, inadvertently winding up the spirit world. Teamed with a fast-talking con man (Gael Garcia Bernal), Miguel looks to meet his hero and find some way to get home. Co-directed by Pixar mainstay Lee Unkrich (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3), Coco follows the Pixar formula of lost kids on their own finding the importance of family and all the usual schmaltz. What Coco has in its corner is a beautifully-designed and imaginative world inspired by Mexican culture that’s worth getting invested in. The animation is always stellar in Pixar movies, but Coco takes great advantage of the brighter and more vibrant colors to make the movie pop. With some gorgeous Spanish guitar music soundtracking the film and wonderfully lively voice acting talent, the story of what parts of our family history we hold onto actually packs more of an emotional punch.

 

  1. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Noah Baumbach loves dysfunctional people, especially when they’re blood relatives. The writer/director thrives on trying to give narcissistic creative-types the chance to redeem themselves as decent human beings and showing them repeatedly fall on their faces. His characters might be stuck in some form of eternal misery, but Baumbach always manages to find partners for them to gravitate to. When he writes about messed-up families (most famously in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale), it’s even sadder, funnier and more heartfelt to watch how hard these people who’ve grown up with each other still try desperately to connect with one another. His latest feature is another family affair: Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is the soft-spoken, self-centered, curmudgeon artist living out his golden years in New York City. He has three grown-up kids: mustached Danny (Adam Sandler) dealing with his only daughter (Grace Van Patten) going off the college and being mostly a failure, suit-wearing Matthew (Ben Stiller) who lives in Los Angeles and is annoyed by his father’s snobbery towards financially successful people like himself, and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who is so mousey and unassuming that she’s practically invisible. Baumbach, not one for the typical movie plot, simply lets the movie play out as interactions between the Meyerowitz family. What makes The Meyerowitz Stories one of the most accessible and emotionally-impactful movies of Baumbach’s career is how grounded his characters are this time around. Harold and his children touch on many different aspects of troubled family life: abandonment, failure, overachieving, lack of acknowledgment and just miscommunication. All three of Harold’s kids are so different from each other and the only common ground they have is the different ways their father annoys them, so they’re all they got. Of course it’s told in Baumbach’s typically funny way of talking over each other and cringe comedy, but it’s more about togetherness than before. It’s all played out with the best cast Baumbach’s had in his entire career: Hoffman is an entertaining grump while still having his intelligent and soothing voice, while Marvel is the secret MVP with her droll delivery and deeper character development. The real stars here are Sandler and Stiller, more reserved and emotionally-bare than ever before. Well beyond their capacities to handle the mainstream slapstick that got them rich, it’s nice to see these two comedy heavyweights handle such rich characters and make it seem so natural.

 

  1. The Florida Project

Kids always manage to find happiness in anything. Even in the worst of times in broken homes and little money, young children have a limitless imagination. It’s like they have a sixth sense that has them see the world as this strange alien planet just waiting to be explored. Writer/director Sean Baker took audience into that world one more time, with the very-adult reminder that it’s never a truly happy ending. The Florida Project follows the summer adventures of six-year-old Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) and her twenty-something mom Halley (older but still-newcomer Bria Vinaite). Moonee and Halley live in a run-down motel just outside of Disney World with faded purple walls, broken air-conditioning and people who stay longer than the motel’s owner (Willem Dafoe) would like. Through all the obvious signs that she should be in a more stable household, Moonee manages to find little bright spots in her home of faded failure. With some gorgeous cinematography and the real set pieces of abandoned housing complexes and endless weeds from the wet and hot weather, Baker captures a snapshot of a modern-day American white trash and frames it like some kind of paradise lost. It’s obvious how desolate and faded Moonee’s stomping grounds are, but her enthusiasm and imagination makes each setting more than meets the eye. Baker doesn’t let Moonee off entirely, as Halley’s attitude and obvious incapability to make a stable living for her and her daughter becomes more apparent as the movie goes on. Baker slowly builds up to reality crashing down on Moonee, but it’s so subtle that the movie’s heartbreaking end comes practically out of nowhere and hits harder. Until then, The Florida Project is a borderline documentary about the forgotten kids of the early-2000s ringtone rap generation left behind to struggle. For the feature debut of a kid and a girl who Baker found on Instagram, Prince and Vinaite are extremely compelling and natural in their blissful ignorance of the world around them. Even Dafoe’s crazy eyes are restrained for a more tender and human performance, one of the best of his career.

 

  1. The Shape of Water

At some age, we were told that we’re not allowed to believe in fairy tales and monsters anymore. Guillermo del Toro didn’t get that talking to when he was younger, and cinema has been all the better because of it. Whether he’s working with a miniscule budget (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) or given carte blanche by a major studio to spend money and run wild (Blade II, Hellboy, Pacific Rim), del Toro is a proud believer in the magic of movies and a wizard in concocting mystical myths for grown-ups. With his 10th movie, del Toro has seemingly made the most tender and innocent project of his career centered around the wonders of monsters, blood and sex. It’s 1962 in a small American town and mute, timid Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as janitors in a secret underground military base overseen by a shifty army Colonel (Michael Shannon) without knowing why. It turns out the base is hiding a human-size amphibious creature that forms a bond with Elisa. So much so that she conspires with her artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and an undercover Russian agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) to break the creature from its prison. Of course these elements of monster movies and dark thrillers in The Shape of Water, but del Toro throws in his affiliation for classic foreign films as well. Everything from exceptionally crafted 1960s set design to Alexandre Desplat’s French romantic score to the emphasis on mood through the lime green color scheme feels uniquely European while also tipping a cap to classic Hollywood. At its core, The Shape of Water is an old-school love story: two lonely misfits finding each other and showing each other how much one means to the other. All of those elements in the melting pot and del Toro stirs it like a master chef, officially claiming his title as a master genre filmmaker. Even in a scene between a skinny Creature From the Black Lagoon and a mute woman that seems so weird on paper, del Toro uses everything in his power to create this sweeping feeling of passion and romance. Despite his technical tools ever present, del Toro further proves his talent as an actor’s director by allowing Shannon to be the off-kilter type of imposing that his anger and face expresses. His muse, aside from the creature (played by del Toro favorite Doug Jones), is Hawkins in a stunning performance that doesn’t even need words to be the heart of movie. The tender way she moves through scenes and interacts with the creature is inspired and can inspire others to believe in the power of movies again.

 

  1. Free Fire

No matter how intricate, delicate, subtle and quiet all the best movies of the year are, nothing makes for a good time at the movies like a good ol’ fashion shootout. All the more impressive when that shootout manages to take place over the majority of a 90-minute movie and continuously be interesting. Seemingly a cross between Scorsese swagger and Tarantino’s taste for cussing and bullets, Free Fire is set in Boston (where everyone handles things calmly and with friendly language) where a group of arms dealers gather together for a deal. Things go south, insults are thrown around and bullets fly. It’s a premise simple as toast, and co-writer/director Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Kill List) knows to keep the movie that way. While movies like John Wick and Atomic Blonde have turned gunfights into expertly-choreographed shootout symphonies, Wheatley prefers something more realistic. Free Fire’s shootouts are sloppy, frantic, dirty and more importantly, unpredictable. It heightens the anticipation of where the bullets are going to fly and nothing about the movie’s plot is predictable or certain. When the movie’s brisk 91 minutes conclude, there’s both satisfaction and desire to see more. It probably comes from the stacked cast (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Noah Taylor) having fun with each other slapping each other and rolling around in the dirt. Free Fire is basically the little movie that could, something that probably have a higher profile in the 1970s but serves as a reminder of the simpler pleasures of action movies in the bloated 2017.

 

  1. Good Time

New York City has always been a popular place for filmmakers to make movies about crime. The towering skyscrapers are always the focal point for so many that it’s fascinating to zoom in on the dirty alleyways and see civilization try to call over itself and pick up the scraps left over by the rich. Every decade provides a classic NYC crime movie: the 70s had Mean Streets, the 80s had The Pope of Greenwich Village, the 90s had New Jack City and the 2000s had 25th Hour. As for the 2010s, there would be a strong case for 2014’s A Most Violent Year holding the title for best NYC crime film. But that’s the classy version, how about something as grimy and hectic as a back alley in Queens? Good Time follows two brothers: Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie, who co-directed the movie), who rob a local bank but Nick gets caught by the police and sent to jail. Connie, concerned for his mentally-challenged brother, races through seedy scenarios in the city to try to come up with bail money and ends up falling deeper and deeper into a hole of failure as the night goes on. It’s fitting that Good Time’s plot revolves around brothers, considering it’s directed by Benny and Josh Safdie (who also co-wrote the script). It also revolves around chaos and tension. The Safdie brothers shoot the movie mostly with handheld camerawork and close-up shots, making the experience fast and unstable. It’s a dizzying experience, but never boring in the slightest. There’s a near-constant feeling of uneasiness in Good Time, like this flaming bullet train is set to go off the rails at any second. The throbbing, pulsating, electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never and the bright neon lights that flood every other scene help emphasize the constant dread hanging over the movie. And the way Robert Pattinson, fully removed from the weight of Twilight, sprints through the movie and claws desperately at any form of saving grace is enthralling to see. Good Time is a crime movie for the modern-day common man, sweating out the day in baggy clothes and psychedelic drugs trying to outrun their failures.

 

  1. Dunkirk

It’s amazing how Christopher Nolan has reached so far out to what can be done with blockbuster event movies that doing a World War II movie is the tamest thing he could’ve thought to do next. Think about it: he’s messed with memories, cops, dreams, space and superheroes in his near 20-year directing career. So why wouldn’t he take a genre so tried-and-true like the war movie and flip it on its head? The subject of Dunkirk is the 1940 evacuation of 300,000 English army soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France after German soldiers have overwhelmed the surrounding area. What Nolan brings to the table is the use of different sets of perspectives of the evacuation: one from a group of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) trying to get off the beach in any way possible, one from a team of Spitfire plane pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) trying to clear the air for a rescue, a duo of commanding officers (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) frantically trying to organize options to get their boys home and a group of English civilians (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) joining hundreds of other local boaters to trek the ocean and help rescue the soldiers. Of all the major set pieces and action scenes in Dunkirk, the most important thing in the movie is a tiny sound buried deep in the movie: a ticking clock. Not to say that Hans Zimmer’s score isn’t also equally important and one of the most impressive of his career, but the ticking that pops up every now and again after a bomb drops, bullets spray on the shores or the cold sea water of the English Channel get closer and closer to filling their lungs of the soldiers. Dunkirk is not the typical war movie: it’s a test of morals in the absolute worst case scenario. How much of one man’s soul is he willing to sacrifice to stay alive? Nolan, often criticized for missing a human element in his movies, challenges the typical valor and honor in military heroism in a spectacular action thriller that stays remarkably grounded in realism. Not only does Nolan make one of the most realistic movies of his career, but he reminds major movie studios how to make an old genre fresh again.

 

  1. Logan

Has the Golden Age of superhero movies finally turned to gluttony? The Marvel Cinematic Universe shows no sign of stopping with three movies a year, Warner Bros. and DC Comics are trying (poorly, but trying) to keep with the times, and even 20th Century Fox ended up surrendering to the House of Mouse just to save face. The phrase “superhero fatigue” is being thrown around more and more lately, as critics and audiences are starting to see too much of the same every time a caped crusader walks across a movie screen. So how does the superhero movie stay relevant? It needs to do something few superhero movies ever do: say goodbye. Logan is the swan-song of everyone’s favorite hairy Canadian with metal claws and anger issues, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). It’s the near-future of an Earth where mutants are practically an endangered species and the famed X-Men are either dead or scattered somewhere unknown. Wolverine, simple referred to as the title character, is an old limo driver sulking along the Mexican border scrapping for cash and caring for an extremely senile Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Logan’s got pus coming from his knuckles, his claws come out slower and his reasons for living are practically nonexistent. Until he meets a small girl (newcomer Dafne Keen) with claws in her body, rage in her eyes and gun-touting enemies on her tail. Logan and the Professor then trek north to get the girl to safety despite both men clearly being on the last legs of their lives. One of the most amazing things about Logan is that there isn’t really an antagonist. The movie is a splicing of a road movie and a western with R-rated ultraviolence and superpowers thrown into the batch, no one’s heading for an ultimate showdown or trying to take over the world. Co-writer/director James Mangold thrives being back in the old school American grit he once shot in Cop Land, Walk the Line and his original western masterpiece, 3:10 to Yuma. The yellow sun beats down on the grey hair and open wounds of our heroes while the open range of the midwest makes for some gorgeous backdrops for blood-soaked fight scenes that are some of the best in action movie history, let alone superhero movie history.  Logan is also a character study of a man who after years of thriving on the attribute of being able to self-heal has to finally look mortality right in the face. Logan’s fate isn’t toned down or skirted aside, you know that this is the last ride for Marvel’s mad animal. What makes it so incredibly satisfying is how it stays focused on giving Logan a satisfying arc to go out on and how much it throws so much gloom and reality at Logan himself that it makes him the most human he’s ever been. There’s a lot of emotional baggage that comes with Logan, and it’s ever so fortunate that the cast understands that. Stewart is having a blast playing a more bitter Xavier that cusses like a sailor and newcomer Keen is practically mute for the whole movie but leaves a damn good impression with her face and mannerisms. But it’s Jackman giving a career-best performance that carries the movie, seeing the fatal flaw in Logan’s anger and showing how broken the iconic character really is. When Logan’ final shot graces the screen, it’s the biggest emotional gut-punch to probably ever run through a comic-book movie. And for a genre that’s been in a gluttonous phase for the last 15 years, that’s saying something.

 

  1. It Comes at Night

One of the most popular movies of 2017 was an adaptation of Stephen King’s It. For me, It represented all of the major problems of modern-day major-studio horror movies: cheap jump-scares, little tension, unimposing monster and not enough genuine scares that stuck with me after the movie was over. The big horror movies don’t seem to trust their audience enough to let things build in the background and feel the dread of silence, which is why it’s better to look deeper into the indie movie scene to find truly scary horror movies. 2016 had The Witch and 2017, thankfully, had It Comes at Night. It follows Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) living isolated in the woods after an unknown plague hits the Earth and impacts the popularity. They family lives to strict living guidelines and try to find some form of harmony until Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife (Riley Keough) and younger son (Griffin Robert Faulkner) is found in the woods looking for a place to stay. Despite going against everything Paul sees as a form of security, his family lets Will stay in the home. But as the fear of the unknown creeps into the house, Paul and Will’s paranoia starts getting the better of them in the worst way possible. This is only the second feature for writer/director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) and, much like The Witch’s writer/director Robert Eggers, Shults proves himself as a true pro. He knows that the least important part of the movie is the actual monster (in this case the unknown plague) but what the emotions and character that the monster brings out. He hangs the unknown over the head of the characters and the audience, keeping the hair-trigger tension high throughout its 91 minutes. The gloomy cinematography also highlights the brief color flares of fire and blood that practically jump through the screen. And what makes those brief moments of chaos so gripping is how Shults shoots the movie with a steady arm and patience to keep the viewer guessing as to what is or isn’t lurking in the shadows. The darkness and the silence used together are such strong monsters in horror movies because it never tells you what it is. You don’t get to know it, you just get lost in it.

 

  1. Blade Runner 2049

It’s fair to say that Denis Villeneuve is one of the hardest-working men in show business. The French-Canadian writer/director has made one of the best movies of the year since 2013, ranging from an abstract mystery (Enemy) to a crime thriller (Sicario) to an inquisitive sci-fi story (Arrival). With each movie being a step up in scale and ambition, there was a sense that Villeneuve was building to something bigger. Villeneuve was about to make something that would truly solidify him as one of the great directors working today. And sure enough he did. How good is his 2017 project? So good that it doesn’t even require mentioning that this is a sequel to one of the most influential and beloved sci-fi films ever made. Villeneuve’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 technological detective drama still sees the future the same: bleak, overcrowded and yet without any sign of radiant life. It’s 2049 and replicants are still the somber slaves of humanity. Those who try to escape are hunted down by the blade runners, one of whom (Ryan Gosling) uncovers a mystery about the potential of replicants. When the pretentious CEO (Jared Leto) of a replicant-making company wants to keep things quiet, the new blade runner sets out to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) for some more answers. While the movie’s 164-minute runtime might seem intimidating, take comfort in knowing that the world Villeneuve and his production designers built is so absorbing that somehow the movie just flies by. The combination of practical sets and CGI backgrounds are so spot-on that it’s hard to tell where the solid stuff stops and the green screen begins. Making it all pop is the gorgeous cinematography by the almighty Roger Deakins, sinking the movie deep into greys, blues, oranges and yellows that are sunk into the background of the movie instead of flooding in front of the actors. Blade Runner 2049 is the potential of today’s hundred-million dollar movie standard fully-realized, a movie that uses its budget not to overindulge on one element but flesh-out everything to make it a complete presentation. It’s the blockbuster movie format made by craftsmen, the bridge between the art house students and popcorn movie audiences. Despite what its box-office returns say, Blade Runner 2049 is a monumental achievement for movies and proof that even when he constructs one of the most awe-inspiring visual experiences, Villeneuve manages to maneuver through it all and focus on the human elements of any movie (even when they’re about fake humans).

 

  1. Get Out

When the first trailer for writer Jordan Peele’s directorial debut first hit the internet in October of 2016, it took a second for a few things to sink in. 1. That this was a real movie, and 2. That seemingly no one else had ever made this movie before. Sure it’s basically Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner spun as a horror movie, but how had no one thought of doing that until 2017? Though the best time to make this kind of movie was 2017, a time when racism was (and still is) thoroughly back in public conversation and smaller films often make more interesting choices than the blockbusters do. But this was all speculation even before the movie came out, so the world waited to see if anything it set out to do. So let’s list all of the things Get Out has done since its release nearly a year ago:

  1. One of the most critically-praised horror movies of all time
  2. $252 million at the global box office from a $4.5 million budget
  3. Four Oscar nominations
  4. Unironic meme status
  5. Successful horror movie unreliant on jump scares or found footage
  6. Genre film that is socially and culturally relevant without using dated references or humor

ALL OF THAT, from a very basic premise: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is going with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her family. They don’t know that Chris is black, but it’s ok because mom (Catherine Keener) employs two black housekeepers and dad (Bradley Whitford) really wishes Obama got elected for a third term. Everyone’s friendly to Chris….a little too friendly. And that’s all the audience needs to go with the movie. It doesn’t smack you in the face with its symbolism or commentary, turning what could be obvious into some strong cringe comedy. Even with that dark comedy going on at the forefront, Peele is carefully setting up the hard left turn the movie makes into a genuinely terrifying survival story. Peele is working on a very basic level in both genre and filmmaking style, yet his amazingly-tight script and story elevate the material into something revelatory. It goes without saying that his cast is also reveling in the material they get and dead-serious about what it’s trying to get across. The tears and fear in Kaluuya’s eyes grab hold of your soul and make you feel like his attackers could turn right into the camera and hold the entire audience hostage in the sunken place. And on top of playing the typical horror-movie protagonist perfectly, Kaluuya has a deeper character going on that he never leaves behind even as he frantically tries to escape. Even if Get Out didn’t achieve the global success it did and earn its many Oscar nominations, it would still stand out as one of the most outstanding genre exercises in recent memory. It’s also a friendly reminder that even in something as tired and unoriginal as the horror genre is, creativity can still shine through.

Step Into the Spotlight

Blasted internet hype machine.

 

Ok, so the world has been building up the buzz for Black Panther ever since Chadwick Boseman stepped onto the screen in Captain America: Civil War two years ago (admittedly, I was one of them). I’d go so far as to say Black Panther was the best part of Civil War: great actor owning the role, exciting superhero debut and strong story arc. With the announcement of his own movie, the wheels started turning in the internet buzz contraption. And it’s amazing to see everyone get so excited for this, especially since people are slowly starting to not care about Marvel movies anymore (don’t deny it, it’s happening). So yes, writer/director Ryan Coogler getting his first real shot at breaking into big-budget Hollywood movie-making, Boseman assuredly getting the role that will make him as a bonafide star, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya and Angela Bassett in the same movie (and a MARVEL movie no less!) and a superhero protagonist that isn’t a cocky milquetoast smiling guy are all the reasons to get excited for this event. But notice how I said the “event” of the movie and not the actual movie itself.

 

Speaking of the movie: is this the best Marvel production to date? Nope. Is it the best superhero movie made so far? Not really. Is it a good movie? Oh yeah, most definitely.

 

Boseman returns as T’Challa, prince of the isolated but technologically-advanced civilization of Wakanda. After his father was killed in Civil War, T’Challa inherits the throne and the responsibilities of protecting his people from the corrupted evils of the outside world. He also occasionally dons a black bulletproof suit and hops around the world to stop evil and protect the secret of his home as the Black Panther. His mother (Bassett), sister (Letitia Wright) and military commander (Gurira) all support his belief in the traditions of Wakanda, but his ex girlfriend (Nyong’o) and fellow tribe leader (Kaluuya) want the world to know the truth about Wakanda and how it can help others in need. Conflicted over how to represent his people and still grieving over the loss of his father, T’Challa then faces Erik Killmonger (Jordan), an ex-military stud turned gun-for-hire who has a dark secret that could undo T’Challa’s legacy.

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I’m surely not the one to discuss the accuracy of the movie’s representation of culture, though judging from the glowing response by critics and audiences it’s safe to say there aren’t too many complaints. So let’s stick with the movie: it’s good. Damn good, in fact. Despite the stocked cast, the star of this movie is undoubtedly Ryan Coogler and his journey from indie darling (Fruitvale Station) to box-office upstart (Creed) to bonafide Hollywood director coming full circle. Coogler knows exactly what he’s doing both as a director and a writer. He and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story) clearly understood they had to make another origins/introductory superhero movie and, stripped to its core, Black Panther follows that formula. What Coogler and Cole focus on and excel at in the final product are the details: the conflict inside of T’Challa, the debate over if Wakanda can save the world or be tainted by it, the questioning of loyalty and tradition and how to synchronize all that into another Marvel property. All of that works and is present throughout the movie, only taking a backseat into occasional misfires of comedic one-liners thrown in to keep the movie from being entirely serious.

 

That leaves Coogler’s directing talent, which is also solid if not leaving a lot to be desired. Maybe the size and scale of Black Panther, certainly the biggest movie Coogler has ever done, was a bit too much for Coogler to completely handle. Some of the early fight scenes in the movie are shot with too much shaky-cam, poor lighting and close-up shots, further leading to some choppy editing. There’s the sense that Coogler is as hyped about making the movie as he knows the audience will be, so he kept wanting to shoot the movie at the same brisk but fair pace the 134-minute final product is. But again, Coogler knows what he’s doing for most of the movie. He holds on his actors to let their chemistry with each other shine through or their presence alone hold scenes. And his action direction gets better as the movie goes on, especially in the grand climactic battle between the tribes of Wakanda. He also knows how to lead a movie team and create an awe-inspiring setting. Wakanda is one of the if not THE most striking and engrossing settings not just in a Marvel movie but in any kind of fantasy/action/adventure movie in a long time. The set designs, both practical and computer-generated, feel like they were made from the ground up and boom with color. Same goes for the costumes, hair and makeup that look as fantastical and unique as anything out of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. And Coogler pulls everything together and lays it out just enough to make the audience want more but not distract from the main story.

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Especially not his fantastic cast. Boseman is OFFICIALLY a made man in Hollywood as he proves he can command a movie in the lead role. Stern but not stiff, focused but not overdoing it and compelling even when he’s victim to a “WHAT ARE THOOOOOSE” joke, Boseman is actually invested in the story and characters while also having the time of his life playing with swords and shields and wearing the Black Panther suit. He’s not distracted by the comic-book origins of the movie and seems legitimately passionate about this story of family and tradition. He’s not alone there as everyone from Kaluuya to Gurira to Andy Serkis to Wright to Winston Duke as a fellow tribe leader are all great in their own ways. Gurira, continuing her streak of ass-kicking lioness following The Walking Dead, is having an absolute blast with this big budget production swinging around a spear while Wright is arguably the most energetic and bubbly member of the cast. Jordan is a legitimately interesting character that just so happens to be a villain. If you thought Vulture was sympathetic in Spider-Man: Homecoming, you will be very conflicted over who to root for between his Killmonger and Boseman’s T’Challa. For all the challenges and questions that the audience could lob at Wakanda’s logic, Killmonger has them motivating his actions. Jordan is shakey with the character at first, but the more he builds his malice the more compelling he becomes.
So as an event, Black Panther is a monumental moment in culture that deserves every positive hashtag and packed screening it’s getting. Like Get Out and Coco did last year, hopefully Black Panther tells Hollywood that people are desperately wanting the next age of blockbusters to come forward and it doesn’t involve your average white male with little stubble and a crooked smile. With all of that said, all Black Panther had to be was a good movie and it is. It doesn’t match the incredible hype that’s been building, but how could it? No matter the context, this is still most definitely a Marvel product. It tries its hardest to make you forget that (sans the annoying end credits scene), but it is still a licensed item in the Disney/Marvel buffet and it follows that formula. But like I said, it’s about the detail that a strong creative mind like Coogler but into it. And for that, he and his team have earned their cultural zeitgeist.

3.5/4

The Truth About News

The newspaper business. People know about the first word but often forget about the difficulty of the second word. The newspaper does its damndest to deliver the important news of the world to the general public, but it still needs business to pay its hard-working reporters and circulate to newsstands. News needs to sell papers just as much as it needs to be informative, not as a means of capitalism but sustainability. Of course there’s the concern of certain news stories being too shocking or revealing that it might scare people away, especially people with money. Imagine having a story so shocking that it could literally unravel over 30 years of trust and prestige built by the American government, and said government is practically holding a newspaper hostage until every other newspapers promises to betray their duty and not report news. Which word does one protect: the newspaper or the business?

 

This is the debacle of The Post, a poignant and powerful look at the tug of war between a newsman and a businesswoman. The former is Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), editor of The Washington Post who is tired of the Post playing second fiddle to everyone from The New York Times and The Washington Daily News with better stories than his reporters offer. The latter is Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher of The Post who jumped into job after the paper’s previous publisher, Katharine’s husband Phil, committed suicide in 1963. It’s now 1971 and Kay is about the take the company public on Wall Street to ease financial worries when longtime friend and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) tells her one night that the Times is going to run an “unflattering” story about him the following morning. The story is the infamous leaking of the Pentagon Papers: 7,000 pages of classified government secrets detailing how the Vietnam War was a lost cause but America would rather send men to their deaths in Army helmets than admit defeat. Bradlee is pissed that the Times got the scoop and wants his reporters to find the pages for follow-up coverage, while Graham is struggling to make her voice heard in boardrooms full of stuffy businessmen determining what’s best for business. Bradlee’s reporters (Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, David Cross) are getting closer to finding the papers and pulling back the curtain of the White House even more, but Graham and Bradlee butt heads over if the Post can handle being on President Nixon’s hit list if they publish more stories.

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There are two obvious comparisons to be made with The Post: 1976’s All the President’s Men detailing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting of the Watergate scandal, and 2015’s Spotlight about the Boston Globe’s crack team of investigators revealing years of sexual abuse by priests of the Catholic Church. Those two movies focused more on the reporting side of journalism, the muckrakers who spent months on end chasing dead-end leads and chipping away at the facts to find what the world needed to know. While The Post does highlight the tireless effort of reporters Ben Bagdikian, Meg Greenfield and Howard Simons, it’s more about the chains that profitability holds on newspapers. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s tight script expertly balances the obvious need to report the truth and the equally-obvious fear of the government effectively shutting-down the Post after ordering the Times to stop publishing stories about the papers. Also unlike Spotlight and President’s Men, The Post is a much flashier version of the story courtesy of director Steven Spielberg. While The Post is no blockbuster spectacle, Spielberg’s love of background spotlights and the faded color palette typical of serious Spielberg movies from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) are ever present. Whereas the filmmaking of President’s Men and Spotlight were more grounded, The Post is a glossy Hollywood production. Fortunately, Spielberg is well-aware of the material he’s working with and leaves most of his eccentricities at the door. The filmmaking doesn’t distract the audience from the story being told and the drama isn’t blown out of proportion, it’s presented for the audience to feel the weight of the story.

 

Further making The Post an event is the presence of Meryl Streep. Ever since her speech at last year’s Golden Globe awards calling out Donald Trump and announcing her support of protecting journalist, practically all eyes have been on the acting legend and her performance in the movie. Now we can breathe sighs of relief because Streep is in top form here, fully embodying the dual-persona Kay Graham had to take on at the time. In front of the Post’s board members, Graham was patient and unphased by the subtle sexism of her male colleagues. Even if she’s talked over in conversation or talked down to, she keeps a brave face and is able to establish her own presence in every room she walks into. Privately, she’s still a touch unsure of herself as a publisher in the middle of the Pentagon Papers controversy with friends in the Nixon camp (especially McNamara in a heated confrontation). She knows publishing stories about the papers is the right thing to do, but she’s pressured into fearing for how Washington elites might feel about the Post adding to the damage of the Nixon administration, lessening the worth of the paper and her family legacy (her father bought the Post in 1933). Graham is the underdog of the story and Streep plays her without a hint of asking for sympathy.

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The rest of the cast basically revolves around Streep, but that doesn’t mean they slack off. Tom Hanks, America’s dad in Hollywood, is a fine choice for the Bostonian grump of Ben Bradlee. It’s actually fitting for smiling everyman Hanks to spend his golden years playing hardened bossmen cracking wise while national history is going on in the background. Even more impressive is the supporting cast: Bruce Greenwood, an expert supporting actor who’s played everyone from John F. Kennedy to a captain of the Starship Enterprise, is incredibly compelling as a man simply stuck in the middle of the worst possible situation a high-ranking government official could be. Despite him actively trying to close the leaking of his own handiwork (McNamara commissioned the Pentagon Papers), he’s not a villain but more of a victim of the incompetence of past presidencies fully-experiencing an unprecedented situation. For the rest of the cast, it seems as if Spielberg has spent the last decade watching every great TV show and picking out who made the best impressions in the smallest amount of screentime, hence solid performances from Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods.

 
If it weren’t for the political and cultural context, The Post would probably not be as big of an event as it currently stands. It would be a simple reminder that Steven Spielberg remains untouchable as one of the greatest film directors in film history, he knows how to pick his actors and said actors bring their A-game on screen. But now, it is a much-needed reminder of the delicacy newspapers take in informing the American public. There is a crushing pressure to find the sources needed for a story and frivolous work that goes into researching and crafting a story. But even after a story is done and a newspaper is ready to go out, there is still that final moral dilemma of “is this story right,” meaning right in terms of accuracy and right for the readers. In the era of #fakenews, The Post is a reminder how no matter what (or who) the circumstance is, journalists know when to cut the crap and make the country eat its vegetables. It’s meant to show how the effort of listening and taking a stand against lying can be the start of something more, something greater. The best example of this is The Post’s ending scenes: The first being a recorded phone call with President Nixon sounding stressed from the Post’s further investigation of the papers, and the second being a security guard investigating a break-in at the Watergate Complex, the kickstart of the Watergate scandal.

3.5/4

Top 25 Albums of 2017

Boy oh boy, what a year it’s been. 2017 has basically been the dour, elongated sigh after the shock of 2016. That sour demeanor has been felt in the music industry as well, as many of the most popular and acclaimed albums have been made by heartbroken singers, angry rappers and anxious youths trying to take action. Despite the low-key attitude of the last 365 days, there are always some outstanding pieces of music to dive into. Since I ashamedly missed out on doing a list last year, I decided to bump up my list and highlight 25 albums that stood out and helped make 2017….tolerable.

 

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25. Washed Out – Mister Mellow

There’s always been the sense that Ernest Weatherly Greene Jr., better known as Washed Out, was building towards something. Potential was there right from the start of his breakthrough single “Feel It All Around,” with its luscious synthesizers and hazy vocal melodies. Since then, he’s kept building on that potential and expanding his chillwave sound. With Mister Mellow, he finally gets his chance to organize and craft all the colorful sounds in his head on wax. He may start off overwhelmed and frantic on “Burn Out Blues” before finding his warm and soaring groove on “Hard To Say Goodbye” and even partying with his demons on the manic “Instant Calm” and the two-step of “Get Lost.” No matter how many synths and drum beats hit on the dance floor, Washed Out always finds the melody in the madness.

 

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24. JMSN – Whatever Makes U Happy

Simplicity is underrated in today’s music industry, and no genre uses simplicity better than neo soul. Case in point: the fifth studio album of one Christian Berishaj, better known as JMSN. The Michigan singer/multi-instrumentalist is a man who understands that songs of love, lust and the vices we abuse to feel something similar to the former two (see “Drinkin’”) are best presented with minimal excess and a spotlight on the voice telling the story. Backed by pitch-perfect snare drum kicks, acoustic guitar and choir-like background harmonies, JMSN makes sure that his bluesy, achy vocals don’t sound the tiniest bit fake on the heartbreaker “Love Ain’t Enough” to the spooky cowboy jam “Slide.” The album cover, with JMSN posing legs crossed and face stern, speaks for itself: He’ll do whatever you ask of him, so what do you want besides what’s real?

 

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23. Rex Orange County – Apricot Princess

One of the many surprises on Tyler, the Creator’s new album Flower Boy was the adolescent droll of Rex Orange County, a 19-year-old South London resident that best showcases young love and awkwardness probably because he still can’t legally drink in the U.S. That doesn’t stop him from sounding love drunk on his debut LP, which sounds like if Beck ever made an album of midnight lounge music after getting his first kiss. The title track effortless fades from string-backed piano ballad to a swinging conga groove about a boy who wants nothing more than to hold his dream girl’s hand. At the end of the 40 minutes of lo-fi piano pop, Rex throws his heart on the table and promises his girl that throughout all of his self-loathing, he just wants to know that she’ll be there. It’s his sincerity in the vocal delivery that sells him as a legitimate hopeless teenage romantic.

 

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22. Liam Gallagher – As You Were

Hey look, it’s the best Oasis album in over 20 years! Haha, I’m totally the first person to make that joke! But seriously, the younger (and more irritable) brother Gallagher finally drops the overblown stadium rock of Beady Eye and gives the world what he was born to make: an attitude-laced British rock record. The bluesy swagger of “Wall Of Glass” is so great and Liam so effortlessly struts his nasty vocals it’s amazing he didn’t lead with his right after brother Noel went AWOL. Liam may be a bit older now and his singing is certainly an acquired taste, it’s hard not to hear the passion and effort he puts into pulling off heartfelt ballads like “For What it’s Worth.” Liam finally gets his own solo spotlight, all he had to do was take it for himself.

 

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21. White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band 

Imagine if The New Pornographers decided that they wanted to sound like KISS in their glorious, 1970s heyday. Sound weird but kinda awesome, right? You’re in luck, because Louisville’s own White Reaper are here to make rock great again. The quartet’s second album is 32 minutes of unabashed pop rock that everyone from Jack Black to Richard Linklater wishes they could jam out to. The guitars riffs are razor sharp while the background synthesizers glisten, and the vocals from frontman Tony Esposito are so grimy and growling that even Iggy Pop would offer him a cough drop. “Judy French” is the best Cheap Trick song in 30 years with its chugging riffs and scorching guitar solo, while “Crystal Pistol” is so party-ready that Motley Crue are probably pissed they didn’t write it first. Every single track here belongs in a treasured teen comedy in any decade, inspiring youthful spirit to run free. The kicker? None of it sounds dated, with production that’s crisp but not overblown. White Reaper sound awesome on a record, but the energy and sonics on this probably sound way better in a bar three beers in with fists pumping in the air.

 

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20. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Who Built the Moon?

Sorry Liam, age before beauty. The eldest brother Gallagher and his collection of psychedelic, scissor-using musicians have seemingly made good on their promise of mixing soaring stadium ballads with epic rock anthems. Credit goes to producer David Holmes, who gives Noel and the Birds a huge sonic tapestry to paint their heartfelt anthems. “Keep On Reaching” sounds like an energetic gospel anthem with its background choir and heavy organ, while “She Taught Me How To Fly” sounds like peak New Order with its driving bass line and electronic flourishes. Whereas brother Liam seems firmly trapped in the era of his heroes that never made it past 1969, Noel has seemingly taken all of the lovable things about rock’s classic era and updated its sound where it can exist in 2017 without seeming dated.

 

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19. Beck – Colors

Beck may be in his late-40s, but that doesn’t mean he still can’t cut loose. On album 13, generation x’s favorite “Loser” plays the brightest and most energetic songs of his entire career. A tight 11 tracks without a single lull, Beck indulges in hand-claps, synthesizers, vocoders and a boosted production. Even with his past awkwardness with pop music, “I’m So Free,” “Up All Night” and “Dreams” embrace sunny guitar rock and dance pop into a unique blend of radio-ready alt rock. And for those pining for classic Beck, “Wow” is the man in freaky funk-rap form over a warped beat. While most of his contemporaries have either burned out or faded away, Beck keeps finding new ways to reinvent and reinvigorate himself for the music landscape he finds himself in.

 

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18. Miguel – War & Leisure

Miguel could’ve sat back in 2017 knowing “Quick to dead the bull like a matador” was the coolest line in any song this year. But he decided to complement “Sky Walker” with another stellar slice of thumping R&B. Miguel takes elements from his last studio album, the rock-tinged Wildheart, and mixes it with electronic funk and soul. The guitar is actually the most prominent instrument heard in the background of War & Leisure, played with reggae scratches on “Banana Clip,” plucked on the Latin-infused slow jam “Wolf,” or strummed like disco king Niles Rodgers on “Caramelo Duro.” Also like his previous hallmark album Kaleidoscope Dream, warped electronic effects fuel each song with a drug-filled haze. But of course the star is Miguel himself, managing to be both a classic R&B vocalist with range and someone who can easily insert himself into the modern urban music landscape of trap-R&B (“Sky Walker”). He uses his vocals to build the sexual tension in “Harem” to its climax (probably a literal climax in his case) and can actually sing rap bars on par with J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar on “Come Through and Chill.” Prince may be gone, but his aura is being honored with pride by Miguel.

 

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17. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

Look, the only person who wanted and needed another LCD Soundsystem record is James Murphy. He jumped the gun at his band’s peak and, in a petty form of panic, decided to call it quits. It was brief, but beautiful to have LCD Soundsystem around. Six years later, they’re back and things are not so beautiful in the world anymore. Don’t worry though, Murphy is not ignorant about the world around him. Everything about American Dream is meant to be dark, haunting, borderline depressing with low-droning synthesizers, scratching guitars, and Murphy’s vocals that range from awkward squeaks to ghoulish low notes. Murphy doesn’t trust the “other voices” in his head and surrounding him, he knows he’s too old and too frazzled to “change yr mind” and can’t stop asking his former business partner “how do you sleep?” And through all this sadness and misery, there’s still plenty to dance to. “tonite” is arguably the more robotic sequel to “Losing My Edge” with its European discotheque dance beat, while “call the police” is that rare indie rock stadium anthem that Murphy always pulls out of his ass every now and then. We didn’t need LCD Soundsystem back, but that doesn’t mean we don’t mind checking up on them every once in awhile.

 

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16. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music

Every single rapper’s mantra may be “money cash hoes” and it might get boring to hear on all their songs after a while. But nobody in the rap game makes flexing sound so fun and wear it so good like the artist formerly known as Tity Boi. After dropping SIX mixtapes in the four years since his last studio album, 2 Chainz returns as a champion of the underground who still rolls like a king. It doesn’t matter what beat he’s given, from the guitar-backed slow burn of “Saturday Night” and “It’s a Vibe” to Codeine-laced southern trap of “Blue Cheese,” “4 AM” and “Good Drank.” Chainz steps up and drops bars like a wizard of words that’s part goofy, part brilliant (“You know what they say/Me and my safe, got a friendship,” “My side chick got pregnant by her main dude and I’m offended/I called, she ain’t pick up, I text her back, b***h you stingy”). It’s a miracle that a blockbuster album 16 tracks long this stacked with rap elites (Drake, Nicki Minaj, Migos, Travis Scott, Gucci Mane) is so thoroughly entertaining. And it’s all because of the effortless vibe 2 Chainz brings on bar none his finest album to date.

 

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15. Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold

The second he stepped onstage with Foo Fighters at Wembley Stadium nearly 10 years ago, Dave Grohl ran all the way to the center of the 115 yard grounds just to get the entire crowd hyped for rock and roll. What made anyone think he and his band of bearded badasses could sit still for five minutes, let alone a “hiatus?” On album no. 9, the Foos sound more rejuvenated and loose than ever before. Under the loud and crisp production of Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Adele, Sia), the Foos get to make music for intergalactic death races (“La Dee Da”) and jump from a harmonious country ballad to fist-pumping prog rock on the same damn song (“Dirty Water”). Unlike 2014’s Sonic Highways, where the band tried shoving different genres into their unique unity, you can hear each member entwined with each other on Concrete and Gold. Pat Smear’s guitar sneaks up on “Arrows” to a quiet roar, while Taylor Hawkins gets to collapse the mountains with his drums on “The Sky is a Neighborhood” and Nate Mendel’s fuzzed-out bass leads the charge on “La Dee Da.” Concrete and Gold is being able to see the engine roar in an awesome muscle car: when you see the parts work together, it makes you admire the machine all the more.

 

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14. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom

2017 has been a great year for female rappers, arguably the best year they’ve ever had. Cardi B became one of the biggest stars in music out of nowhere, Nicki Minaj reinstated her clout without dropping an album, and underground artists like cupcaKKe started getting buzz. But the one who made an impact on 2017 with a compelling, cohesive work was 34-year-old Rapsody. The North Carolina wordsmith dropped her second studio album without any use of social media savviness or sex appeal. She needs neither, as her delivery and flow is as cocky and nasty as the typical gangster rapper. On “Power,” featuring a solid guest verse from Kendrick Lamar, Rapsody rides 9th Wonder’s heavy beat to drop bars about the things that make others powerful and how they can be easily exploited (“I know my blackness powerful and they don’t like that/I know some n***as sold theirs, sit back and watch ’em tap dance”). Even with her tough attitude and clear desire to step up to the big names of rap, she’d rather have respect and connection with her peers on “Nobody” (“It’s all Hip Hop, you can’t divide what ain’t different/Don’t like all underground music, I don’t hate all music that isn’t/I was just making it clap to Wacka Flacka last Christmas, Clap!/Clap for a n***a wit her rappin’ a**”). If there was ever someone to further legitimize the rise of the female rapper, Rapsody could definitely be the one to break down the door.

 

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13. Queens of the Stone Age – Villains

What a weird year it’s been when Josh Homme makes a better dance-rock record than the co-founder of DFA Records. Though Mr. Homme and his scuzz rock scalliwags might’ve cheated a bit by having super producer Mark Ronson (Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars) turn the knobs on Queens of the Stone Age’s seventh album. It’s odd to say that a Queens of the Stone Age album “swings,” but Villains has a greater focus on groovy guitar licks and funky bass lines instead of pummeling riffs and constant propulsion. Even when they put the pedal-to-the-metal on “Head Like a Haunted House,” there’s still a swinging dance groove built into the punky headbanging brought by the speeding riffs and the rolling drums. No matter how druggy and pummeling QOTSA have sounded in the past, Homme has always had a sneering sexual swagger in his vocal delivery, like the worst possible sleazebag your daughter could bring home from the bar. Villains finally gives him the music best suited for his singing, from the mutated reggae of “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” as Homme keeps searching for self-destruction (“I chase the gates and drift ad nauseam/Driven by feelings I cannot hide”). And then there’s “The Way You Used To Do,” which manages to have the same groove as Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual” and yet sound like the sexiest thing QOTSA has ever done because of the guitar-bass interplay and Homme’s moaning vocals (“When I first met her she was seventeen/Seventeen/Jump like an arsonist to a perfect match/Burned alive”). In the words of the late great Bon Scott, lock up your daughter and lock up your wife: Queens of the Stone Age are horny again.

 

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12. Hey Violet – From the Outside

Are there any more great pop bands in music? I mean bands that explicitly write and perform catchy pop songs as a band with real instruments and actual personality, not whatever Maroon 5 have been cruising on for the last five years. Maybe because pop has been so lifeless and droll in recent years that it needs a little youthful spunk to make it fun again. Enter Hey Violet, a collection of Hot Topic models that can actually write songs and play instruments pretty well. Their debut album is chock full of sugary-sweet pop-rock that mix pop-punk energy with funk, electronic, alternative, and youthful exuberance. Sometimes all of that in one song, like the bouncy ex-girlfriend anthem “Hoodie” or the ballsy kiss-off “Fuqboi.” Hey Violet seems well-versed in the flavors of music taste, jumping from stadium anthem “Break My Heart” to the sinful funk of “Brand New Moves” then even to the spooky romance of “Like Lovers Do.” From the Outside replaces a flowing atmosphere with outstanding personality from each member in each song. Casey Moreta’s guitar and Nia Lovelis’s guitar and drum attack power through “This Is Me Breaking Up With You” and “Unholy,” while Miranda Miller cooks up some great electronics on “Where Have You Been (All My Night)” and “My Consequence.” But the cherry on  top is frontwoman Rena Lovelis, who pulls off the attitude of brat, seductress, introvert and intellectual compared to others her age. While “Guys My Age” might seem like dubstep dribble, but Rena’s confident vocal performance creates an aura of its own. These are the future leaders of our pop music, party on.

 

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11. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights 

On the cover of Julien Baker’s second studio album is an explosion, or better yet a release of dark colors spewing out of something small. It’s pretty easy to assume that said release is coming from the pint-sized Memphis native’s heart and soul through all 42 minutes of this quiet slice of heartbreak. Even though Baker is the star of this album, both her aching vocals and her echoing guitar, she’d rather not have you see her fragile and alone. She doesn’t know the depths of her own loneliness (“I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone/Is it real or a dream, which is worse?”), the difficulties others have with a private fight (“I know that you don’t understand/’Cause you don’t believe what you don’t see/When you watch me throwing punches at the devil/It just looks like I’m fighting with me”) and how the only one she has to conquer is herself (“Am I a masochist/Screaming televangelist/Clutching my crucifix/Of white noise and static”). Baker thrives on the combination of her music grim yet glistening atmosphere, her believable vocal performance that puts other whispering indie rock singers to shame, and just the blunt honesty of her lyrics. Turn Out the Lights is more of a concise diary entry than an album with Baker trying to mend all of her wounds in one sitting and feeling the weight of it all. But that doesn’t mean she still won’t try (“And damn it, we are gonna figure something out/If it takes me all night to make it hurt less”).

 

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10. Remo Drive – Greatest Hits

Emo rock gets a bad rap that feels (mostly) unfair. The idea of a bunch of kids from a small town swinging their guitars around while screaming into their microphones about the joys of middle America lost on them seems totally justified. Perhaps its only when these bands become more successful and start believing their hype is when it gets to the ridiculous levels of say, personalized eyeliner, that emo music loses its value or believability. So you’d better get to know Remo Drive fast before someone offers them a deal to soundtrack the next movie adaptation of a John Green book. The Minnesota trio’s debut album excels in a combination of melody and blunt force trauma that would earn salutes from Nirvana and The Promise Ring alike. It’s impressive to hear the strong wall of sound from the simplicities of a low-tuned bass and fuzzed-out guitars, not to mention Erik Paulson’s aching growl on vocals. Greatest Hits is an excellent snapshot of the working-class guitar band stuck in the midst of cynicism, rebellion, arrogance and self-loathing. The danceable drum beat and propulsive guitars of “Eat S**t” are a joy to behold even when the band talks about the struggles of friends growing up while Paulson is “stuck in the habits I formed when I was fifteen.” Even when Remo Drive try to be snarky to upper class girlfriends on “Art School,” their humor comes at their own expense (“Art school/Colored hair/Too cool/For me but that’s fair”). But Remo Drive are about feeling, like the true sentiment of “Yer Killin’ Me” (“You make me want to start rolling/Fat a** blunts ’til I start choking/Anything that’s bad for me”). Even with hands in their pockets and their heads staring at the floor, who said emo couldn’t be fun?

 

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9. Rina Sawayama – RINA

If you’re like me, you enjoy listening to turn of the century bubblegum pop with its automated acoustic guitar, skittering blips of electronics and start-stop vocal delivery. You also know that you’re ashamed to be listening to nearly 20-year-old albums by *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears unironically while clamoring to have the sound be old enough to be retro and cool again. If this applies to you, say hello to Rina Sawayama and her debut EP. The 27-year-old Japanese born, London raised singer is a connoisseur of both Total Request Live-era pop and modern-day indie dance music. Like a well-aged wine, RINA is awash with the tastes of olden days: “Ordinary Superstar” is a classic slice of 80s pop rock with its chugging guitar riff and bright synthesizers, “Take Me As I Am” is a perfect splice of Britney’s “Overprotected” and her curly-haired ex’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and “Tunnel Vision” is a lovely duet with Shamir that harkens back to peak-Toni Braxton. As a singer, Sawayama follows the teen-pop singing style of moderately-high pitched aching and inflecting syllables in the hopes to have a more memorable chorus. But while the Jive Records family sang about boys and girls and trouble with said boys and girls, Sawayama instead sings about the trials and tribulations of single life in the social media age. “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” is where the EP closes and is also its highlight, a bittersweet dance jam about making friends through the screens of her laptop and phone (“I am connected/I am the girl you want to watch…Came here on my own/Party on my phone/Came here on my own/But I start to feel alone”). What with TRL back on the air and Britney and Backstreet officially deemed legacy acts, why can’t Rina lead the charge for the 90s nostalgia?

 

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8. Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog 

It’s almost fitting that 27-year-old Mac DeMarco has an appearance that makes him look like someone’s dad who’s about to paint a neighbor’s house, since he has more maturity and heart than his cigarettes and duck-bill hats would suggest. His third album, This Old Dog, is his softest and most tender album to date, about a man with his hands in his pockets trying to have a hand in a world he doesn’t recognize. While known as a guitar virtuoso, DeMarco’s kooky slide guitar is replaced with soft pluckings of an acoustic guitar while quiet organs and low drums fill the background. While it still has hints of the stoner vibe heard in his previous album, This Old Dog sounds more restrained and focused on getting DeMarco’s experience across to the listener. The star of This Old Dog is not DeMarco the musician, but DeMarco the man contemplating what the years have done to him (“For he can’t be me/Look how old and cold and tired/And lonely he’s become”). Regardless of the loneliness, age, and time that has passed DeMarco, he remains a chain-smoking soft-spoken optimist (“Don’t feel like all the time you put in went to waste/The way your heart was beating all those days/And suddenly it beats another pace”). This Old Dog confirms that DeMarco has more to him than goofball charm: he’s a legitimate songwriter and storyteller, especially when he gets personal. While the next step will be seeing if he can break out of his own musical bubble, at least he still knows how to be a human being.

 

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7. Jay-Z – 4:44

Humility is not a word commonly associated with one Sean Carter. Even when he tries to rap about his first-world problems, it’s hard to sympathize with him when he’s rapping on a golden throne. But after being emasculated by his own wife for cheating on her on one of the most critically acclaimed albums of last year, Jay-Z decided it was time to really look at himself in the mirror and address his faults. The result is the most minimal album of Hov’s entire career: 10 songs at 37 minutes long with one producer (No I.D.) and plenty of room for Jay to question his worth and the world around him. Right from the get go, it’s obvious that Jay is not in the best mental state (“Kill Jay Z, they’ll never love you/You’ll never be enough, let’s just keep it real, Jay Z”). He’s thinking about how the suit-wearing industry buffs he signs deals with are no different from the conniving murderous drug dealers he once knew on the streets (“Caught Their Eyes”), and how “The Story of O.J.” taught him that being truly successful as a black American is success you can pass down to generations instead of blowing it all on finer things (or a court case). But Jay is also looking inward to his own personal faults, like his inability to admit his mistakes for the sake of family (“You egged Solange on/Knowin’ all along, all you had to say you was wrong”) or how his youthful pride hurt someone who truly loved him (“Said, ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine’/That was my proposal for us to go steady/That was your 21st birthday/You mature faster than me, I wasn’t ready”). It’s on 4:44 that Jay-Z is heard not only using his poise as the most famous rapper on the planet for use outside of hubris for once, but as a rapper willing to admit how human he is. And in a way, that’s actually the boldest move any rapper can make. No matter how many bars Migos or Lil Uzi Vert dropped about their stacks or cars or women they sleep with, none of them can compete with the ballsy move of rapping about how he cried over sleeping with another woman.

 

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6. Thundercat – Drunk

Ever get so hammered on beer and good booze that you start thinking about how the little things in your life are actually so much more important? Ever think those conversations are so deep and profound that they could actually be interesting enough for mass consumption? Well you’re too late, because Thundercat beat you to it. The big man with the big bass dropped a 23-track opus about the hazy thoughts in his head all set to exceptionally-crafted lo-fi funk. What makes Drunk stand out as being more than a fun funk novelty is the way Thundercat and co-producers Sounwave and Flying Lotus stick with its spacey and quite-beautiful atmosphere throughout the album. While Thundercat’s bass is the prominent instrument throughout the album (as it should be on the smooth grooves of “Tokyo” and the freestyle freakout of “Uh Uh”), the boom-bap drums of “Jethro” or the futuristic synths of “Jameel’s Space Ride” that help keep the album on such a sonic high. Thundercat also proves himself a damn good lyricist, managing to turn inner wonderings of what life would be like as a cat (“Everything the light touches/It’s where I will roam/My roar would be so powerful/I would scare off everything”) into a heartfelt slow jam. And then there’s “Friend Zone” a hilarious bop about all the things Thundercat would rather do than being shut down by his crush (“Because I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway, hey/I’m all about my Johnny Cage/If you’re not bringing tacos I suggest you start to walk away/B***h don’t kill my vibe”). Outside of his name and choice instrument, Drunk is a wonderful testament to Thundercat’s unique personality.

 

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5. Paramore – After Laughter

Paramore is dead, LONG LIVE PARAMORE! It’s been a little over five years since Franklin, Tennessee’s favorite band were waving the flag of emo rock they used to carry with “Misery Business,” “Crushcrushcrush” and their megahit “Decode.” Not that it’s stopped them from becoming one of America’s biggest rock bands, switching to a more explorative outfit with their 2013 self-titled album that mixed fist-pumping alt-rock (“Fast In My Car,” “Now,” “Anklebiters”) to genuine pop-rock (“Ain’t It Fun,” “Still Into You”). If Paramore was the band throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck, their fifth album is the band’s next phase fully-formed. Again co-produced with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who first worked with the band on Paramore, After Laughter is 12 tracks tight with bright, bouncy, jangly alt-rock with only one track breaking the four-minute mark. Hints of The Strokes, The 1975 and Vampire Weekend are heard throughout the album thanks to the production highlighting the individual instrumentation of the album. Returning drummer Zac Farro brings a heft of energy with his rolling bass drum lines on “Grudges,” “Pool” and “Idle Worship,” while Meldal-Johnson’s electronic flourishes on the keyboards and synthesizers turn “Fake Happy,” “Forgiveness” and “Fake Happy.” The MVP of After Laughter is guitarist/co-producer Taylor York, leaving his own stamp on each song with super-catchy riffs both strummed (“Caught in the Middle,” “Rose-Colored Boy”) and plucked (“Hard Times,” “Told You So”). And despite changing her hair from a fiery orange to an atomic blonde, frontwoman Hayley Williams remains one of rock’s most captivating lyricists and singers. It’s refreshing to hear her flex her vocal range from the quirky yelps on “Hard Times” and “Idle Worship” to the soft harmonies on “Forgiveness.” But Williams is exceptional when the lights go down and gets the spotlight to herself, and the album’s centerpiece is the acoustic ballad “26.” With York’s soft plucking and a lovely string arrangement in the background, Williams coos about depression hanging over her head like a rain cloud and trying her damndest to hold onto hope. Corny? Sure, but Williams and co. sell it with simplicity and the earnestness of the performance. What makes After Laughter all the more revelatory is how involved the band sounds in this process. This isn’t a career move for longevity’s sake, this is a band evolving together into a sharper, spunkier machine. Warped Tour might be gone, but Paramore is forever.

 

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4. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Every now and then, some up-and-coming rapper makes enough of an impression on impact to be referred to as the new “best rapper alive.” Sometimes it lasts, sometimes it doesn’t. Point is, being called the “best rapper alive” is merely a buzzword to put in articles and on t-shirts. Yet ever since his breakthrough in 2012, Kendrick Lamar has made a helluva case to to be called the best rapper alive and have it actually mean something. DAMN. is not only Lamar’s third consecutive release since 2015, but it also serves as a warped and more-aggressive follow-up to his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. Nearly everything about DAMN., from its song titles in all caps to the darker musical production, is meant to highlight a man crashing into modern times confused and confrontational at the same time. A repeated line on DAMN. is “nobody prayin’ for me,” showing Kung Fu Kenny trying to find who in the rap game and the real world he can truly confide in now that’s fully exposed in the mainstream. “FEEL.” is a heightened and more focused slice of Kendrick’s paranoia through a low-fi rap beat and Kendrick growing more bothered by the second (“Feel like my thought of compromise is jaded/Feel like you wanna scrutinize how I made it/Feel like I ain’t feelin’ you all/Feel like removin’ myself, no feelings involved”). As he did on To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick is also bothered by his celebrity and how he should properly use his influence on the frantic “XXX” (“He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?….To the spiritual, my spirit do know better, but I told him/”I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:/If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”). He’s still proud of his street origins and has no problem calling out Fox News for using his people and neighborhood to frame agendas on “DNA,” and has no problem with brag rap on “HUMBLE.” The bottom line of DAMN. is that even at his most focused and most emotionally woke, the best rapper alive is well-aware of the dangers of being called the best rapper alive. He doesn’t want your titles, only your attention.

 

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3. SZA – Ctrl

For the last 20 years, the music industry has been trying to successful and continuously splice R&B and hip-hop. There have been success stories: Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, The Roots, Beyonce, Drake and Frank Ocean. But the problem with this synthesis is that it hasn’t been consistent: D’Angelo took 14 years to make another album, we’re STILL waiting on that next Lauryn Hill album, Drake’s synthesis is mostly hit and miss, and Frank Ocean wants to be as mysterious with his album releases as D’Angelo and Lauryn. Even Rihanna, one of the most successful artists of the new millenium, bounces between pop and rap and R&B like a pinball between the machine’s flappers. The thing that makes a successful R&B/hip-hop combination is consistency, and no one has made a more full-formed idea of how the two genres could live in harmony together than New Jersey’s Solána Rowe. Making her astonishing studio album debut as SZA on CTRL for Top Dawg Entertainment (Kung Fu Kenny has taste, eh?), Ms. Rowe’s intent and personality is one of the most immediately fascinating and likable in a long time. Her singing is a near-flawless combination of rap god bravado and seductive soul as she both begs for true intimacy and brushes off any flakey behavior. She’s so brazen, she even admits to cheating on her boyfriend as a reason for leaving said boyfriend on the FIRST DAMN TRACK. From there, SZA does everything from mock thirsty womanizers (“Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?/Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?”), using Forrest Gump as a metaphor for the value of waiting for sex (“Y’know, Jenny almost gave it all up for him/Never even pushed for the p***y”) to being open about how the wandering eye of men hurts her (“Beep beep, why are you lookin’ around, you lonely?/I feel you comin’ down like honey/Do do you even know I’m alive?”). SZA’s lyrics are merely the perfect icing on the cake, as the base is full of hazy future-soul music mixed with trap drums and low-synthesizers. SZA is game for all of it though as her voice rides effortlessly on any beat placed in front of her. She has the flow of a rapper on par with the albums guest stars (Travis Scott, Kendrick, Isaiah Rashad) and yet the singing performance of someone not overstaying her welcome yet still retains a strong presence. Not only is CTRL the best debut album and best R&B album of the year, it presents the best new personality for the modern music scene to have blossom in it. SZA fits perfectly in 2017, but imagine what she could do in the next five years?

 

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2. The xx – I See You

Picture this: you’re at a house party. It’s crowded, loud and you came by yourself. You rub elbows with everyone there and laugh with friends, but you’re mostly likely going home alone. Then there’s someone across the room standing alone with a red solo cup in hand. You want to talk to her, she might want to talk to you. Neither of you know, but that glance across the room makes you want to do something. And even if there’s loud party music playing for the room, the two of you are probably hearing The xx’s third studio album in your heads. A darker, more gothic experience than the trio’s previous outings, I See You also sounds like The xx’s first complete album. Aside from the two dance tracks “Dangerous” and lead single “On Hold,” which stand perfectly well on their own and in the album, I See You is full of deeply intimate and romantic lovelorn anthems. “Dangerous” sets the tone with its low-thumping, propulsive drum beat, followed by the double-dose of gothic, skeletal romance of “Say Something Loving” and “Lips.” The classic xx sound appears on “A Violent Noise” and “Performance” with the lightly-plucked guitar strings and the delicate voices of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. I See You also showcases new sonic clarity in the production of Jamie xx as he puts Croft and Sim’s vocal performances front and center and lets the music merely act as color for the stories their lyrics say. The xx’s message is that much of love is a “Performance” (“I do it all so/You won’t see me hurting/When my heart it breaks”) and no matter how much it can seem “Dangerous” (“There are voices ringing over/They keep saying, ‘Danger, danger’/I can’t make them take you under”), the little moments of love are worth the major drawbacks. On “Brave For You,” featuring one of Croft’s finest vocal performances, there is a sense of so much struggle and strife in knowing about someone and what their faults could be. But something keeps her going (“There are things I wish I didn’t know/I try my best to let them go”).

 

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1. Lorde – Melodrama

It was near-impossible to count out Lorde. The New Zealand indie-pop singer/songwriter had too much mystique in her presence and yet such boldface honesty about modern culture with her breakout song “Royals” that it was hard to believe she could end up a one hit wonder. What would she do next? How would a teenager hit with such immediate exposure adjust to it all? How would her music evolve? What else does she have to say? We may never know her immediate agenda after “Royals” hit big, because life had different plans to make her truly come out of her shell. After a breakup with her longtime boyfriend, Lorde is isolated in the spotlight with the world waiting for her reaction. The result is both volatile and gorgeous, intimate yet boosted to be heard in stadiums, sad at the start but incredibly satisfying. So it’s Lorde, but fully-formed. It fits that the cover for Melodrama, her long-awaited sophomore album, is a painting of her in her bed possibly longing for the night to end as the album is a very intimate affair. She’s lashing out at her ex seeing other people (“I know about what you did and I wanna scream the truth/She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar”), trying to make new friends with unstable people (“Don’t know you super well/But I think that you might be the same as me”), but is as messy and confused as any 21-year-old. From the massive sound of Melodrama (co-produced by Jack Antonoff), Lorde’s one night at a party looking for some kind of relief from her heartbreak might be the most revelatory night of her life. “Green Light” opens the album with an incredible punch of piano and bass drums, “Homemade Dynamite” is swamped with dropped-down drums and synthesizers, “Supercut” sounds like classic 80s new wave boosted for the EDM scene and “Perfect Places” is the album’s closing rebellious anthem. But like all great performers, it’s when Lorde has a song entirely to herself that she truly brings magic. And the album’s centerpiece and arguably the most captivating moment in pop music this year is “Liability,” a stunning piano ballad where reality comes crashing down on her (“The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy/’Til all of the tricks don’t work anymore/And then they are bored of me”). If that’s what she once was, Lorde is now the pop star of the future: down-to-earth in her experience yet forever hovering above us all in her musical landscape.

Tommy Betrays Tommy

Before going to see The Disaster Artist or before diving into the crazy journey of The Room and its creator Tommy Wiseau, you need to know one thing right off the bat: Tommy Wiseau is a failure. The writer/director/producer/star of one of the worst movies ever made should only be praised out of sheer irony, because he is bad at all possible elements that would make him successful in Hollywood. The Room is incredibly entertaining because of how perplexingly awful it is, it’s like a Lifetime Original Movie with the entire cast on valium. So matter how much other people talk about Wiseau with appreciation and sympathy in their voices, or how Wiseau’s weird aura is somehow charming to see, just remember that everything Wiseau does is a failure and the fact that he is worthy of a sympathetic award season biopic is unfathomable. And the fact that The Disaster Artist doesn’t want to truly put Wiseau’s feet to the fire keeps it from being a truly great movie.

 

The Disaster Artist is based on the book of the same name co-written by The Room’s co-star Greg Sestero. The movie chronicles young Greg (Dave Franco) in his journey to become an actor with high hopes but weak inspiration (he says the movie that changed everything for him was Home Alone). He’s nervous in front of crowds and has trouble remembering lines, dimming his chances of truly making it. Then he meets Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) wearing a pirate’s jacket and three different belts at the same time, grinding his groin on a community theater stage reciting A Streetcar Named Desire. To others it’s ludicrous, but to Greg it’s fearless, and Tommy finally befriends someone who believes in his madcap ambition. They move to Hollywood together but struggle to get their big break. Then, in an act of defiance, Tommy decides he’s going to make his own movie. So what if he’s never written a screenplay before? Or directed a film before? Or acted professionally? It’s all about the human spirit, along with the seemingly endless well of money Tommy has to finance the project he calls The Room. But the more the movie is made, the more everyone involved (including Greg) sees Tommy’s incompetence and truly odd behavior.

 

Despite its biographical base, The Disaster Artist is a comedy through and through. The structure of the film is a rags to riches story, a classic underdog tale that shows the success of a guy everyone counted out. But because said guy is such a fascinatingly strange personality is what makes The Disaster Artist such a farce. Without any prior knowledge of him, Tommy Wiseau looks and acts like a character Mike Myers made up when he was on Saturday Night Live and every possible reason why this movie works relies on James Franco’s dead-on performance as Wiseau. Everything from his voice, his accent, his body language and his mere presence is miraculous and hilarious, much like Wiseau himself. Even when the movie becomes a bit predictable, it’s Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau that’s carries the movie and is flatout one of the best acting performances of the year. On the polar opposite spectrum is brother Dave, who looks and acts nothing like Greg Sestero. Not only does Dave not have Greg’s height or facial structure, but he doesn’t even seem like he’s trying to mimic his character. It’s merely Dave Franco with a wavy blonde wig and occasionally a beard, no effort or difference from any other movie he’s in. It’s one of the most blatant examples of Hollywood nepotism ever and the Franco brothers being the stars of this movie leaves no room for any of the supporting cast (Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Paul Scheer) to make an impact.

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Directed by James Franco as well, The Disaster Artist shot like a fly-on-the-wall documentary with mostly handheld camera work and very little artistic flourish. The purpose being that Franco wants you to be on the journey with Tommy and Greg since you and your friends probably have so many questions about it. Sadly, the making of The Room and the motivation behind it remain a mystery created by Wiseau’s incompetence. Aside from the comedic timing of Franco’s performance as Wiseau, the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars) seems very pedestrian and doesn’t go any deeper than the basic mystique of Wiseau. It might be forgivable considering the movie is based on Sestero’s account, but that should’ve been a springboard to something deeper or at the very least more outlandish. Because of the lack of visual ingenuity or deeper dive into the source material, The Disaster Artist only feels as interesting or memorable as something like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

 

But the real thing that cuts the movie out from its legs is the ending (SPOILER ALERT). The movie’s climax is the premiere of The Room, where dozens of cast, crew, and pedestrians fill a local theater to see this interesting new movie. Right from the start, everyone in the audience can see it’s bad. Actors sink in their chairs, the crew is baffled, and the rest of the audience is damn-near repulsed. Then everyone starts laughing at the absurdity they’re watching onscreen while Wiseau sheds a single tear realizing everyone is mocking his vision. He leaves the theater is shame until Greg convinces him that the laughter is sincere, meaning The Room has successfully done what it was meant to do: to entertain. Tommy then comes back into the theater running down the aisles to cheers and high-fives, thanking everyone for liking his “comedy film.”

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*ahem* NO.

 

First off, it’s different from what happened at the actual premiere. Secondly, it actually betrays everything that made The Room popular and iconic. The Room did earn cheers and applause at screenings, but not right away. It played late at night on little-seen TV channels and small-town indie theaters, film festivals and got around by word of mouth. The Room is one of the most fitting descriptions of a “cult classic” in movie history, and for some reason The Disaster Artist either doesn’t understand that or chooses to ignore it. Instead, it gives Wiseau the corny Hollywood ending Wiseau has always wanted for his career. Hurray for him, but it makes this weird and unpredictable story end on a safe and boring note. It would’ve been much more interesting to see how Sestero and Wiseau went on with their lives after The Room failed and how they came to grips with not only accepting being attached to one of the worst movies ever made but embracing it wholeheartedly. That’s what people like about Wiseau and Sestero: they get the joke and are just appreciative that people get some sort of joy of it. If anything, the cult success of The Room and its stars’ acceptance is a true form of humility. The ending of The Disaster Artist is practically rewarding someone for their unhinged abuse of power to please a madman.

 
To be clear, The Disaster Artist is not a bad movie. Far from it, as it’s chock full of legitimate laughs and behind-the-scene details on one of the greatest cinematic question marks. But even the career highlight performance of James Franco as Tommy Wiseau can’t block out how The Disaster Artist ends like a propaganda piece for Wiseau. It could’ve told the full-on truth about The Room’s success and that would be a more fitting tribute for him, but instead pacifies the near 15-year campaign for Wiseau and his creation to be taken seriously and given its true victory. So much like Wiseau himself, The Disaster Artist is a failure.

2.5/4

Injustice For All

Ever since Man of Steel came out four years ago to mixed reviews, fans of the DC Extended Universe have been steadfast in defending the films of the Superfriends. A common defense used by these devotees, especially when comparing them to the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been that the big-screen adaptations of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and co. are “dark,” “gritty,” “mature” and the most commonly used of all, “real.” They see the MCU movies made for little kids to sell toys at the Disney Store (which they’re not wrong on that part) while the DCEU is for grown-ups with smart, deep and complex storylines about what would happen if superheroes lived in the real world.

 

Now with Justice League, the grand superhero team-up of DC Comics that finally hits theaters this weekend, I hope to see those same DCEU fans out in droves to see it. And I hope to see them on social media defying the “biased” critics who’ve called their movies “poorly-made” or “convoluted” or “depressing” or just plain “awful.” Those fans who’ve insulted or talked-down to those who even have a moderate distaste for the DCEU, protested negative reviews or who’ve straight-up bullied those that have seemingly missed the point of these complex masterpieces of filmmaking. I can’t wait to see how do a complete 180-turn and vehemently defend one of the most saccharine, safe, glossy and goofy pieces of schlock trash I’ve ever seen. Sorry boys and girls, holding your capes close and your comic books closer, but Justice League sucks……hard.

 

After the traumatic events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, specifically the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), the world hangs it head in gloom. But Batman (Ben Affleck) still fears a greater danger on the horizon, so he and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) trek the world looking for more superheroes to recruit. They find the skittish introvert Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the cocky dude-bro Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the sullen Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher). This team’s assemblance is perfect timing, as the ancient intergalactic conqueror Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) arrives on Earth to collect three Mother Boxes that, if combined, could destroy the Earth.

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It really is stunning how terrified Warner Bros. and DC are of Disney and Marvel Studios. They set such high expectations for Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice and when those became two of the most divisive blockbusters of the new millennium and not meeting the financial hopes the studios had in mind, they had no problem showing how desperate they were to be liked. The studio was deeply committed to the grim visual aesthetic of director Zack Snyder but after his takes on Superman and Batman didn’t rake in a billion dollars each, it had no problem putting Snyder on a leash. Justice League shows that WB and DC are so terrified of losing money and merchandise to the Marvel mega conglomerate that they gave up on the “dark gritty realism” of Snyder’s vision and told him to shut up and make a movie with the intelligence and imagination of a G.I. Joe cartoon.

 

Like Dawn of Justice, Justice League doesn’t look or feel like a Zack Snyder movie at all. Say what you will about his style, but it’s significant and unique: he builds dramatic heft through his eye for visuals, loves him some slow-motion effects, and shoots his leads with the bravado of the Greek Gods. Here, he doesn’t give his movie any room to breathe between scenes or build any sense of dramatic weight. Characters just show up in scenes without any grand form of reveal or presentation, no thanks to the choppy and disorienting editing. It’s as if the movie thinks that The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman already had their own solo movies before Justice League so there’s no need to give them any kind of heroic debut despite it being the ACTUAL CINEMATIC DEBUT of all three characters. It’s quite clear this movie was edited down from a longer runtime, seemingly out of fear of losing the audience’s attention or the fact that the movie wants to get itself over with as soon as possible. The visual style transition, compared to the previous DCEU films, is also jarring. Whereas the previous films had the characters blend in with the muted colors and grey backdrop, here the color tones on the characters are amplified to a bright glow, making them stick out from the mostly green-screened backgrounds all the more.

 

It’s a sudden and forced whiplash in both filmmaking and story structure. Oscar-winner Chris Terrio (Argo) is once again stuck with trying to juggle the introductions of multiple new characters, their interactions with each other, establishing them as individuals, creating a cohesive plot and making our lead superheros likable. While in Dawn of Justice he was stuck with David S. Goyer’s grim and convoluted structure, the studio mandate for a lighter tone and brisker pace needed for Justice League scored rewrites by none other than Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Firefly). While Whedon subbed in behind the director’s chair for reshoots after Snyder stepped down for a family emergency, the former Marvel man’s fingerprints are all over the script. There are more quips and jokes this time around and spread to all characters, making this feel much more like an action comedy than a hefty action epic. Though much like recent Marvel films Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok, the movie’s desperate need to get belly laughs from the audience undercut many dramatic moments. And fun is in higher demand this time around, as the movie’s story is horribly paced without any smooth flow or transition. While I understand most of today’s iPhone generation have the attention span of gnats and can rarely stand a movie longer than two hours, Justice League needs two-and-a-half hours to set all of its dominoes up properly. Instead, the movie’s plot twists, character development, action and emotion whiz by without any time to hit home.

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If it feels like there’s more to talk about on the technical side of things than on the performance side, that’s the right feeling to have when it comes to the cast. Ben Affleck, arguably the leader of the pack, is moseying along to pick up the rest of the cast and give little speeches here and there about the importance of hope and impending doom and such. He was the lone bright spot in Dawn of Justice as the older, war-torn Batman, but there’s just not enough here for him to sink his teeth into. Gal Gadot, who fully blossomed into her shield and sword earlier this year, is a much stronger presence as Wonder Woman and the only one who has a complete and important character. Ezra Miller is borderline annoying as The Flash, a petulant wimp who gets the occasional funny line and a rather-rushed “zero to hero” character arc. While spazzy comedy is something entwined with The Flash’s character, Miller has less charisma and more childish energy that doesn’t build a strong screen presence. Newcomer Ray Fisher is still very green as he doesn’t bring much charisma or screen presence either, despite being a partially-crucial part of the plot. Steppenwolf is by far one of the weakest villains in superhero movie history with bored motivation, unspecified abilities and bland fight scenes with the heroes. Surprisingly, the ace of the bunch is the once-Dothraki lord Jason Momoa as the macho King of Atlantis. While it’s questionable as to how faithful his portrayal of Aquaman is to the comics, he oozes the charisma of a classic adventure hero in his ambivalence to the doom around him. While the other heroes are trying to be loose and funny, his quips and coolness is the most believable.

 
But through all the quips, the impressive hero costumes and the chaos of the climactic final battle, Justice League is desperate to be liked with nothing tangible to grab onto. It’s boring, bland, rushed, stupid and devoid of any sense of great cinematic skill or fun. While it doesn’t induce as much anger as Dawn of Justice or annoyance as Suicide Squad, Justice League is one of the most disposable action blockbusters ever made. And that might be its biggest sin: this is the first-ever live-action movie team-up of the DC Comics superheroes. This should be a sweeping epic with dramatic weight and inspiring moments instead of a cold and calculated exercise in Marvel-envy. It feels like WB and DC see movie fans as whiny children they need to pacify instead of sticking with their own formula. They’d rather try to make a Marvel movie than follow through with what makes their movies unique and just make efforts to improve. So after four years of championing some of the most divisive and hated comic book movies in some of the worst ways, I have to ask: don’t you want more?

0/4