Smile Like You Mean It

In the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix gets into a rather heated argument with Ginnifer Goodwin over how Cash can’t seem to be present at home with his family when he’s not touring. Phoenix, gaining momentum in his rage, chastises Goodwin for telling him how to act at home. The peak of his anger comes when he exhausts himself listing all of the expensive things he’s offered to Goodwin to please and comfort her, culminating in a final shout, “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!” 14 years later, as Phoenix sits on a Gotham City talk show in a sharp red suit and clown makeup wallowing in distress about the way the world is, it’s hard not to yell the same sentiment at him and the movie he’s doing this all for.

 

Batman fans should know right up front that despite the title, Joker has no appearances of DC Comics’ Caped Crusader. It does indeed take place in Gotham and Bruce Wayne is around, but he’s just a young boy hiding behind the wealth of his father, mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). But the story of Joker can be found far beneath the Wayne family wealth and within the dirty impoverished back alleys of Gotham. It’s there we find Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a clown for hire living with his mother (Frances Conroy) and struggling to become a stand-up comedian. The problem is that he has a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably until it becomes practically painful. It also doesn’t help that he’s quiet, socially awkward, spookily frail and not very funny. It’s even worse that he keeps getting knocked down (figuratively and literally) by the worst parts of the world around him and he’s starting to lose his mind. All he finds solace in is the clown makeup he hides behind, with the constant smile it affords finding humor in the darkest corners of Gotham. But is it humor, madness, or pure evil?

 

There are A LOT of problems with the idea of Joker before even getting to one reel of film. They vary from the nonexistent purpose of building an entire movie around a murderous quixotic supervillain to disassociating said movie with any prior depiction of the near 80-year-old character to telling the origin story of a character whose best quality is being shrouded in mystery. But all those points are moot, now that Joker is in theaters and there are new problems to talk about anyway. The question isn’t, “Why Joker was made,” because it’s a Warner Bros./DC property and the DCEU likes money over quality. The more specific question, “Why was THIS script picked for Joker?” However many reasons there were not to make a Joker movie, there was always the potential to do it right. No matter how many kids have his face plastered on their edgy Facebook posts or shirts or socks whatever else Hot Topic is selling, Joker is an evil man. He’s the comic-book personification of insanity, a man who not only sees no benefit in the human good but openly mocks it through horrifying cruelty. It’s one thing for him to openly point out the flaws in society, but the fact that he enjoys stoking its flame by drenching it with gasoline is what makes him a villain. Most movies with him involved have featured Batman (or his constituents) proving his theory wrong no matter how much damage he’s done. So if there’s no Batman, there has to be someone to remind the reader or the audience that Joker’s opinions and philosophy are flawed and wrong. In all of his madness, there has to be hope.

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There is no hope, no humanity and no purpose to Joker. Whatever meaningful punchline the source material could’ve brought about, director and co-writer Todd Phillips (The Hangover, War Dogs) has completely missed it in favor of a movie that only exists to reinstate the constant and at this point annoying fact that, yes, “we live in a society.” All 122 minutes of the movie adds up to nothing more than cinematic misery porn, dour for the sake of dour. It teases challenges of classism, the gluttony of the wealthy, misunderstanding of mental health and crime, but it never follows through. It’s just more dressing for the movie to justify Fleck’s actions in a half-assed way. It’s not outright endorsing Fleck’s actions, but it doesn’t offer a better solution or even and endgame for Fleck and those he inspires. It’s a riot for nothing and the reward is even less. Granted, Fleck’s story arc is riddled with events that would likely make anyone go insane and lash out at society. The movie gains a modicum of momentum when Fleck’s insanity is further revealed in the second hour, but it still manages to sabotage itself with its incomplete conclusion. Writing a story about society and human behavior without showing some form of decency is unrealistic, even for a movie based on a comic book character. And when the story by Phillips and Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) does reach its conclusion, there’s an overwhelming sense of, “So what?” The dialogue is first draft material without digging skin deep, especially when it wants Fleck to explain himself. All of the lived-in sets of late-70s urban America and understated cinematography and choice (if not occasionally inappropriate) pieces of 70s AOR rock and for what? A conclusion that loudly and proudly states, “The world is bad.” To quote the star, “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!”

 

Speaking of which, the fact that Phoenix took a break from his established track record of low-budget indie dramas to tackle such a high-profile role for a big project. Even though the story and script fails him, Phoenix does what he can with this version of the Joker. He’s leagues away from the Clown Prince of Crime, instead being an extreme example of a disenfranchised society gone wrong. He feels like an alternate version of his Freddie Quell from The Master, a man constantly on the verge of either crumbling into a mess of sadness or exploding with rage. Whereas Quell drowned himself in booze and women to block out the anger he feels at how little life had to offer him, Fleck can do nothing but widen his smile and take his anger out on others in spastic and shocking ways. Phoenix contorts his boney physique through scenes and makes laughter seem like the most painful experience imaginable, building his menace to its inevitable crescendo and reveling in the fact that no one can rationalize his madness. The script may do him a disservice, but dammit all if he doesn’t still manage to embody the Joker’s being.

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It’s almost enough to block out the fact that so much other talent is wasted here. The other top-billed star is Robert De Niro, now on the opposite side of The King of Comedy-coin playing a snarky talk show host who finds Fleck hilariously pathetic. While De Niro is set up to be the shred of humanity to hold against Joker when the two come face-to-face, but that’s also rendered moot knowing that De Niro’s character is part of the reason why Fleck goes mad. It’s another case of the script failing the performer, though De Niro feels like he’s on cruise control in his brief time. Conroy is merely another peg for the movie to knock down to get Fleck in the costume, while the likes of Zazie Beetz, Marc Maron and Brian Tyree Henry have little to no presence or impact on the story. Beetz’s presence is something of a swerve on the audience and another cog to Fleck’s insanity. With all of these actors wasted, Joker might’ve been better as a off-Broadway one-man show. It certainly would’ve fit the ego the movie has about itself.

 
So let’s ask Phoenix’s question again: what do you want from me? Movies can be a lot of things: entertaining, provocative, challenging, funny, unique, or inquisitive. Joker wants to be none of those things. Its misery turns to tedium, its social commentary is rehashed, its story is flawed, its message is pointless and most important of all, it’s just empty. Heartless, soulless and yet proud of itself so being both, Joker thinks it’s being bold when it’s really being petulant. It wants points for pointing out societal flaws and but can’t bring anything else to the table when its asked to show its own colors. Whatever impact it thinks it has is about as relevant as a rambling bum on the side of the road. Like Fleck himself, Joker keeps staring into the spotlight laughing at its work when it can’t look down to see nobody’s listening. And yet it keeps laughing for no damn reason. 

1.5/4

Tarantino’s Flawed Fairy Tale

Quentin Tarantino is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He’s been adamant in his plans to retire after making 10 films and he just released his ninth feature. He’s talked about his planned retirement so much that he’d likely be mocked if he backs out on it. But if he does step down, there’d certainly be a gaping hole in the world of filmmaking without one of its best and most popular auteurs. And as cool and unbothered as he might look on the outside, Tarantino seems to be feeling the weight of his impending retirement. When the end is near, one tends to think back to the beginning and how everything started. For Tarantino, he looked back on the things that influenced him to become such a devoted student to the art of cinema. Though it’s more than movies that made Tarantino who he is, it’s an entire era of pop culture.

 

Tarantino would’ve been a month shy of his sixth birthday in February 1969, but he’d certainly thrive in his vision of that era of Hollywood. TV shows featured plenty of shootouts and macho dialogue while Paul Revere & the Raiders blasts out of every Cadillac cruising down Hollywood Boulevard. Westerns were king on the small and big screens, Roman Polanski was a year removed from Rosemary’s Baby and cigarettes were as common as sundresses. In Tarantino’s mind, 1969 was the golden age of culture. But all things come to an end. Whether that be his run as a writer/director or the era of 60s entertainment, both things are central to the vibe of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Some things are at an end, like the careers of TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick’s stuck jumping from show to show playing the villain of the week and chugging margaritas to make the days easier. Cliff lives in a trailer behind a drive-in theater coasting through life and unphased by the changing times. The ragged duo lean on each other as they go through their own personal crises, but Rick in particular feels more worthless as the days go on and doesn’t know where his life is going.

 

 

The same can be said for Tarantino and his new movie, sadly. For all the finesse and style that he expertly displays on screen, Once Upon a Time feels unfinished. It’s not so much missing a point but has one, yet doesn’t reach it in its lengthy two hours and 41 minutes. Rick and Cliff are men who are almost out of time, not getting as much as they wanted in the old days and being asked to change with the times. Tarantino has found himself in a similar situation: one of his chief financiers was publicly disgraced for atrocious behavior (that he apparently stood idly by while happening) and the actress who played one of his best characters called him out for being negligent with her safety on set. And that’s on top of the frequent debates people have about him regarding his treatment of female characters and usage of racial slurs in movies. So here he is, a legend in filmmaking facing the mortality of his career on the verge of leaving it all behind, using the things that inspired him to play out his own mid-life crisis. The set-up of Once Upon a Time was a near-perfect scenario for a fascinating, therapeutic experience of a man using his art to let go of his past hangups and set up the next (or even final) phase of his career. It was all right there…and he blew it.

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Instead, Once Upon a Time is Tarantino hugging his security blanket of throwback style, sexual eye candy and pulp to stay in his comfort zone. It’s as if Tarantino shut his eyes and plugged his ears to imagine a fantasy better than the reality facing him, like a child trying to avoid a lecture from his parents. And it’s not just speculation because the material is blatantly there for Tarantino to dig deeper, especially in Rick’s storyline. Played with an amusing Southern droll by DiCaprio, Rick scoffs at an offer to go to make movies in Italy that would have him to leave the town he fought so hard to get into (before doing it anyway and it rejuvenating his career). He has a conversation with an eight-year-old girl (a delightful Julia Butters) where he breaks down at the realization of his old age. He even shrugs off his most famous scenes of glorious hyper-violence despite having a flame-thrower as a beloved memento. Rick is definitely a stand-in for Tarantino himself and yet with all of this set-up, the writer/director gives little catharsis through Rick’s story and keeps using the style of ‘69 as a crutch. That’s not even mentioning the purpose of Cliff’s character. Cruising through L.A. as Rick’s driver/handyman/hype man, Cliff feels like the man Tarantino wishes he could be. Someone who gets by in life relying on nothing but charm and cultural knowledge. He needs nothing more than a dog and a television as companions in his life, living behind the constant projections of films. Aside from that, Cliff feels like an empty vessel the director wishes he could embody. More disappointing is that Pitt brings nothing unique to Cliff. We know Pitt can play this character effortlessly as he’s done it time and time again, so he just coasts through scenes. The movie itself is similar, like a sports car with no engine

 

Which is a shame because Once Upon a Time has plenty of high-grade mechanics to make it run smooth. For one, it’s got the most high-profile cast of his entire career ranging from Hollywood legends (Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell) to modern-day stars (DiCaprio, Pitt, Margot Robbie) to reliable supporting actors (Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Damian Lewis) to a plethora of young starlets (Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Maya Hawke, Harley Quinn Smith). But as with the themes of the movie, it’s a lot of ammunition that don’t leave the clips they’re in. There are a few standouts: Qualley makes for an alluring hippie dream girl that catches Cliff’s eye, while Fanning has an amusingly droll standoff with Pitt. Dern is in one scene, stuck in pajamas playing a cranky old man, and yet has more presence and impact than 90 percent of the supporting cast. That includes Robbie who, despite playing Sharon Tate months before she was infamously murdered, is useless in the final product and has little to no impact on the story proper. She represents the bright-eyed coming generation of Hollywood stars cut down by the darkest side of the flower generation. Too bad Tarantino takes that chance to do something with her story and jettisons it for a goofy, ultraviolet finale. It’s a wonder if Tate’s family was ever concerned about Sharon’s depiction here considering she’s nothing more than a spirit floating through Tarantino’s dream. 

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Again, this doesn’t take away from the craftsmanship Tarantino and his team put into the movie. The re-creation of Hollywood, from the cars to the clothes to the movie sets to the restaurants, is impeccable. His Hollywood is something truly lived in and detailed. The soundtrack is top-notch as well, maybe the best one of the man’s filmography with classics songs all following a consistent, breezy groove. That vibe is shared with the pacing of the movie, never rushed but never sluggish. It’s all laid out naturally without being forced on the audience. His pension for long takes of extended dialogue gets tiresome after a while, but mines a few gold nuggets here and there. All of those moments involve DiCaprio in one of the funniest performances he’s ever given. There’s of course the classic Leo charm that’s amazing never gotten stale in his near 30-year career, but the sense of Cliff having a mid-life crisis allows Leo to turn pathetic moments of emotional vulnerability into comedy gold. Even in the fake western show he’s acting in, DiCaprio remains compelling.

 

Now of course not all of Tarantino’s movies have had to make some kind of commentary on his status of life or the eras he depicts. He’s all about fantasy and the joys of fiction, that’s the entertainment of his films. But whether it’s because he blew a grand opportunity to do something self-reflexive or because there’s so much talent here given so little to do, Once Upon a Time ends up boring and hollow. It’s pretty on the outside but missing purpose. On the basis of sheer entertainment, all the atmosphere and style feels routine. As much as Tarantino has grown as a cultural craftsman, he’s starting to stagnate as a storyteller and covering his ass with style. His story is incomplete and missing a true punch to it, no matter how much he tries to distract audiences with a vibe. But let’s be optimistic. Let’s give one of the most unique storytellers of the last 25 years the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that if he’s bowing out after his next picture, he’ll send himself off with one of the best stories he’ll ever write. A man known for his shootouts and violence has to go out with a bang, right? He couldn’t have taken this and so many other experiences throughout his fame and learned nothing at the end of it all, right? He can’t stay in his deteriorating dreamland forever…….right?

2.5/4

Sommartime Sadness

Grief is obviously a touchy subject to tackle with the medium of film. In most cases, film is meant to be entertainment for people to take in. It doesn’t always have to be flashy action blockbusters or goofy comedies, but film can easily be structured with simple topics. Grief can be complex, deeply-rooted and sometimes inexplicable so that can’t always be solved with a structured film narrative. Not to say it could never be done as movies like Manchester by the Sea, Don’t Look Now and Jackie have tackled grief in different ways. One recent movie that tackled grief head-on was Ari Aster’s 2018 supernatural debut Hereditary, which focused on how dark emotions and impulses can be passed down and warped into something horrifying. Aster took an open wound of family tragedy and kept picking at it until the supernatural hell the movie’s family suffered was matched by the gut-wrenching emotional hell they brought on themselves. Hereditary portrayed grief as a winding, punishing labyrinth of madness that sunk its subjects deep. A little over a year has passed and Aster has tackled grief again in a longer, darker and somehow better film.

 

Midsommar follows Dani (Florence Pugh) stuck in a loveless relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor) and constantly second-guessing her worth to him. When she suffers a shocking family tragedy and becomes emotionally numb, Christian invites her to come along with him and his friends to a secluded commune in Sweden for a summer festival. Josh (William Jackson Harper) is fascinated by the festival’s ancient culture while Mark (Will Poulter) is fascinated by the amount of pretty girls in white dresses waiting to be deflowered. Dani, however, feels that something is off with the locals’ behavior and isn’t quite sure if she and the gang belong here. As the sun stays shining in the sky and the rituals become stranger, Dani and company’s true purpose at the festival becomes more obvious and more frightening.

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Those who thought the 127-minute runtime of Hereditary was lengthy should approach Midsommar with caution and patience for its own 147-minute runtime. Though 90 percent of the movie stays in the grassy, sundrenched field of the commune and there are plenty of long stretches of uncut silence, Midsommar mostly holds interest throughout its duration. Aster brought multiple tricks up his sleeve to hold an audience’s attention, ranging from warping images in the background of scenes to abrupt sound edits to the bits of creepy imagery scattered throughout the commune. The creepy setting of commune itself (shot in a secluded section of Hungary) mixed with the smiling but stoic nature of the villagers are both spooky enough to keep the audience waiting for the other shoe to drop and the sinister nature of the festival to come to light. There’s definitely bloodshed and horrific imagery in Midsommar but it’s also frequently beautiful thanks to the costume designs, set decoration, Pawel Pogorzelski’s gorgeous cinematography and the folksy score by The Haxan Cloak. There’s also Aster steady and fluid camerawork knowing when to use space to capture the scope of the village and when to hone in on the personal horror his characters face. 

 

While that set-up is very similar to that of The Wicker Man, the mystery of the commune doesn’t overshadow Dani’s character development. Like Hereditary, Aster equally balances the half-supernatural, half-slasher horror with the drama of Dani’s mental state and how her personal trauma plays into the events at the commune. Dani’s grief keeps coming back into the plot and influences it more as the movie goes on. For all the blood spilled and the creeping death in the air, Aster’s focus is on Dani and what she gets out of this village.Whereas Hereditary sees a woman losing her family through grief, Midsommar sees a woman trying to find a family in the darkness and the light. It’s not worth getting mixed up in the ancient lore the commune follows as it merely brings Dani and company closer to their fates. Every character here doesn’t get the most precise form of poetic justice when they meet their fates and only the Mark character seems lost, more fit for a corny Friday the 13th sequel than something like this. As funny as the occasional bits of humor are, it does feel slightly out of place in Aster’s game of manipulation through grief. 

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It’s all anchored by Dani herself in an incredible performance by Pugh. She understands that grief is not a showy performance playing to the crowd in the back, instead it’s being an emotional void to keep from completely breaking down. Pugh goes through the ringer Aster lays out for her and never once loses focus of her own character’s story. It’s actually best exemplifies when she cries: she doesn’t flood her cheeks with tears but instead takes heaving breaths between every scream that she makes sure the movie can hear. She practically vomits her soul when Dani’s trauma comes back to light and it’s impossible to look away from her. Reynor also does a solid job taking the typical dopey male boyfriend stereotype and at least giving a bit more dimension. He’s a victim of the madness in Midsommar but at least he isn’t completely oblivious to it. Harper is playing a more subdued version of his character on The Good Place but thankfully he’s not overtly nerdy. As misplaced as the sex-hungry comic relief character is, Poulter somehow makes it work and gets some actual laughs.

 
Looking back, Hereditary now feels like the easier prologue to Aster’s main event. Midsommar is like a genius contradiction: it’s long yet flies by, it’s a beautiful stage to play out such dark themes, it’s eloquently composed in its layout of shocking material. Aster has somehow found a way to do something he had already done exceeding well before and do it better without the troupes of a horror movie. The story and character arcs are so intriguing that it doesn’t need the mysticism or supernatural elements that Hereditary had to stay engaged with it. Aster is now officially one of film’s most engrossing ringmasters, it’s a wonder how he’s going to top Midsommar or what he can do next. If someone can make harrowing grief so thoroughly entertaining, what else can be done with something else?

4/4

Monster Mash

Is the monster movie a lie? The title says it all, a movie with a monster in it. Therefore the monster should be the main character, the central focus and the best part about the movie. You put a big monster in a movie and the rest will write itself. So why is that not always true? As good as the monster can be in a monster movie, the human characters are still the ones who can up carrying the picture or dropping the ball. As iconic as the shark was in Jaws, the ones who make the movie memorable are distinct personalities of Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint. As monstrous as the worms of Tremors are, the people the audience has to pay attention to are the quirky hicks of Perfection, Nevada. Even in today’s monster movies like last year’s Rampage, the star of the movie is not the giant gorilla or the flying crocodile, The Rock is. The lesson of monster movies is that, despite the title, the human characters still have to be the most interesting part of a monster movie.

 

That lesson was unfortunately not taken to heart by Godzilla, the 2014 American remake of the omnipresent Japanese horror movie made 60 years prior. Gareth Edwards’s take on the giant dinosaur knew exactly how to make Godzilla’s return a big deal, teasing and tantalizing the monster’s presence by having him creep around the movie’s background for 90 percent of the film. When the monster finally did make his epic appearance, audiences around the world cheered in excitement and possibly relief considering the lack of Godzilla and the overwhelming presence of boring humans clogging up the rest of the movie. For all the justice Godzilla ‘14 did to its title character, it did a disservice to its audience by not giving them a real human connection to latch on to. It didn’t see the lie and it seems like Warner Bros. Pictures doesn’t see it either with their plans to double-down on monsters by shoving Godzilla and King Kong together next year. But how do we get there?

 

EVEN MORE MONSTERS! Godzilla: King of the Monsters is partly a sequel to Godzilla ‘14 but mostly an expansion of WB’s Monsterverse, where the studio digs through all of Godzilla lore to find more baddies for him to butt heads with until he meets the Eighth Wonder of the World (introduced in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island). Set years after Godzilla’s showdown in San Francisco in Godzilla ‘14, world leaders are growing impatient with the actions of Monarch, the secret organization monitoring the world for the big dinosaur. It turns out Godzilla’s arrival was not an isolated incident as more giant monsters (or “titans” as the movie dubs them) have been found around the world, lying dormant in the Earth waiting for something to bring them back. Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his Monarch comrades think humans can live in harmony with the titans while world leaders believe the titans should be killed. However, a former British military official (Charles Dance) believes the titans should roam free on the Earth to cleanse it of the deadly plague known as humanity. He kidnaps one of Monarch’s top scientists (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) to use Monarch technology to awaken the rest of the titans. Monarch recruits the scientist’s ex-husband (Kyle Chandler) to help track them down while also betting on one force to stop the mad titans: Godzilla himself.

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It’s sad to report that Godzilla: King of the Monsters has contracted a terrible case of Roland Emmerich-syndrome: too many characters, too many subplots and too little care to be afforded to it all. King of the Monsters has an incredibly-stacked cast and yet there’s no real sense of a main character. It starts with a mother and daughter on a quest of discovery, then the scientists of Monarch trying to defend Godzilla’s honor, then the absent husband/father shows up to help, then it goes back to Monarch and then the mother/daughter duo and it keeps pinballing between the seemingly endless character cavalcade. Even Godzilla himself, who does have more screen time here than in his last outing, feels like he only has a bit part in his own epic. King of the Monsters has another rare quality to it, in that its writing makes you want every single human character to shut up. The screenplay, written by director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Superman Returns) and Zach Shields (Krampus), has stupidity aplenty both in its exposition and dialogue. There are specs of comic relief that come off annoying and the “science” explaining how the monsters come to blows is blurted out at breakneck speed, most likely to avoid anyone picking up on how stupid it all sounds.

 

This leaves the cast with little to work with and all depending on how much investment they put into the script. Unfortunately, most of the people in King of the Monsters act like they’re here for a paycheck or a shot at relevance. Farmiga might be here as a favor to WB in between sequels to The Conjuring, which is fitting considering how she acts like her soul has been sucked out by a ghost. Chandler is the perfect everyman-looking actor to fit into such a crowded production and he does his duty of looking concerned in all the madness. Brown, for someone who has such a bubbly personality in real life, can’t seem to shake off the worry she puts on for Stranger Things and is merely here to be a token kid character. Even Dance, who should revel in playing a villain in a monster movie after his time on Game of Thrones, is nothing but an afterthought. Even after those stars, King of the Monsters still has a stocked cast that it either wastes or uses poorly. Bradley Whitford and Thomas Middleditch are the two comic relief characters who don’t say one funny thing in the movie while the likes of David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Ziyi Zhang are nothing but bit players. Only Watanabe brings any real emotional investment to the table and, rightly so, gets the best character arc of the whole movie.

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On a narrative and character base, King of the Monsters is an annoying and moronic experience. What saves it from being a disaster on the level of Emmerich’s own Godzilla movie in 1998 is the visual splendor. Though he sometimes moves the camera around like a 12-year-old on a sugar rush, director Dogherty knows the money shots are all during the fights between Godzilla and the monsters. There are some truly striking images in King of the Monsters both when the monsters are doing their respective intimidation poses and when they tussle. Each monster has his or her own signature color scheme Dogherty and cinematographer Lawrence Sher (The Hangover, Garden State) wash over the towering titans. The slighted-muted yellow makes Ghidorah look as unpredictable and frightening as the lighting he generates, while Rodan emerges from a volcano draped in molten red and orange. They mix together surprisingly well on-screen and when the titans clash with each other, there’s crisp and chaotic action for the audience to observe. The designs of said monsters are impressive and occasionally scary, from the demonic menace of the three-headed Ghidorah and the winged Rodan to the lush beauty of Mothra. Godzilla himself remains a wondrous site, terrifying up close with his sharp facial features but still adorable with his chubby body charging to fight monsters. It’s a great use of modern computer-generated design to make him a true monster while still having traces of the goofy suit worn by many in the original movies.

 

A miracle was likely required to make Godzilla: King of the Monsters a successful endeavor and while it has its highs, there’s still a hefty amount dragging it down. There’s no likable humans to root for and there’s too much blatant stupidity to ignore. That said, seeing the title characters captured on screen and clashing in 2019 is a sight to behold. Craftsmanship applied to the schlock of monster movies makes for great blockbuster entertainment and while King of the Monsters has a rocky dismount, it somehow barely sticks the landing. There’s still a question of how King Kong is going to fit into the universe King of the Monsters sets up, but at least there’s hope that marquee event could turn into a legitimate entertaining movie.

3/4

 

Shock to the System

 

The Dark Knight was a real double-edged sword for Warner Bros. and DC in the long run. Sure it gave maturity and legitimacy to movies about guys in capes and makeup while validating the dedication millions of people around the world had to what were essentially cartoon characters. But the success and praise it earned for being dark, gritty and more realistic somehow forced future superheroes at the cinema to wear those colors for nearly a decade. It took Superman, the bright and shiny symbol of hope and heroics, and drowned him in gray colors and murky morals in Man of Steel. It made the first-ever live-action teaming of the most famous superheroes of all time look contrived and stupid. It even took a wacky adventure of a rogues gallery of renegades and hacked it to death in the editing room. When it came time for course correction to follow its competition, things got even more embarrassing. It would take something monolithic to undo the damage done by The Dark Knight, like say……a 14-year-old in a 38-year-old man’s body doing the floss.

 

This may border on hyperbole, but Shazam! is the easily best thing WB and DC have produced since The Dark Knight for being the exact opposite of Batman and the Joker’s epic faceoff. To quote Mike Stoklasa (without the sarcasm), Shazam! is a film about family and the lack thereof afforded to young Billy Batson (Asher Angel). He skips out on countless foster families until his latest one features Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who walks with a crutch but bounces around with endless knowledge of DC’s superheroes. On a random day evading bullies, Billy is summoned by an ancient wizard to serve as “champion” of the universe. He says the wizard’s name and becomes Shazam (Zachary Levi), a beefed-up superhero with electricity powers and a stalled ability to fly. While he and Freddy try to figure out what it truly means to be a superhero (and try beer for the first time, obviously), Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) also gains a mysterious power and wants Shazam’s as well to help him strike fear in the hearts of others.

 

The best thing Shazam! has in its corner is a cast and crew who not only know what kind of movie they’re in, but are actually happy to be there. The orchestrator of it all is director David F. Sandberg, who stretched his legs with horror movies (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) and here gets to put his creativity out in full force. Sandberg throws in occasionally touches of his horror experience with menacing monsters and surprisingly-graphic violence for a PG-13 superhero movie (one scene in a boardroom deserves an R-rating alone), but shows some solid talent directing comedy too. He takes his experience timing jump scares and uses that to land successful physical comedy bits throughout the movie. Atop of the physical bits are some genuinely funny lines from the script by Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo), which emphasizes themes of family, outcasts, finding one’s self and the simple virtue of being a hero. If its violence and humor are adult, Shazam!’s message is on the level of an afterschool special. But the movie is self-aware enough to know not to be ashamed of it and see it merely as a base to throw in wacky shenanigans like wizards, magic and scary monsters. In fact, the whole movie feels like if the story of Superman was told from the perspective of a teenager and that’s the most charming thing about it. Even the fight scenes are essentially parodies of the mass destruction in Man of Steel.

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Jack Dylan Grazer, left, and Zachary Levi in “Shazam!”

Adding to the Superman comparison is Zachary Levi himself as Shazam. With his firm physique, coiffed hair and wide-eyed attitude, Levi looks like he’s cosplaying as George Reeves’s portrayal of Superman from the 1950s. But when Levi’s dorky, prepubescent personality come through Shazam as it did on his NBC comedy Chuck, it makes the character complete. Levi plays Shazam exactly the way the plot dictates: a kid who gets superpowers and doesn’t what the hell to do with them. He stop muggers and robbers as long as he can get a cute girl’s phone number or paid in the process. He’s sitcom Superman and it’s a breath of fresh air for the DC Extended Universe, fully embracing the corniness of caped crusaders without overstaying his welcome. He and Asher Angel are good parallels, though Angel handles more of the tender scenes of the movie admirably. Angel is equal parts smartass and sensitive soul, assisted by Jack Dylan Grazer’s fine work as a foul-mouthed comedic sidekick. The movie thrives frequently with its supporting characters, ranging from Billy’s doting foster father (Cooper Andrews) to his good-hearted foster sister (Faithe Herman). Even Mark Strong, stuck with a routine villain role, makes an imposing figure and has fleeting moments of comedy.

 
Despite being an obvious superhero story, Shazam! Is more of an outright comedy than anything else. It’s a miracle how it mostly avoids being lowbrow and stupid, wearing its heart on its sleeve and trying to entertain kids as well as adults (or man-children, specifically). Regardless of what brought this movie and its tone to life (most likely desperation and indifference on the part of its producers), Shazam! is a reminder of why superhero movies were made in the first place. It’s not reinventing the wheel but goes back to the drawing board to find the essence of comic book movies. Charm and a good heart go a lot farther than Granny’s Peach Tea and an explosion.

3.5/4

Top 25 Movies of 2018

I’m sure you’ve read enough intro paragraphs to plenty of other “Best Movies of the Year” lists and are DYING to read one more. Unfortunately I’ve been swamped the past couple of weeks and in all honesty, 2018 was a lot more hit-and-miss at the movies than 2017. There were big blockbuster hits and indie darlings to block out the big bombs and horrible misfires. 2018 was a helluva stew at the movies but thankfully there was some standout choices. Here’s 25 of them!

 

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25. Wildlife

Paul Dano has had a strong career in the film industry so far, giving standout performances in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and Love & Mercy. Instead of using his stocked resume to break into mainstream movie roles, he took his talents behind the camera and probably came out all the better. Based on the Richard Ford book of the same name, Wildlife tells the story of the working-class Brinson family in 1960 Montana. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets fired from his job and, out of desperation to provide for his family, decides to join local firefighters in their efforts to extinguish raging nearby forest fires. His wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) feels abandoned in a small town and seemingly goes through a midlife crises while her husband’s away. All of this goes on in front of their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who now seems to be the man of the house and unsure about the status of his family. Wildlife feels oddly present given it deals with a classic American family struggling to find a comfortable footing in the working world. Dano’s direction for restrained performances and cinematographer Diego Garcia’s mix of muted colors creates something like a faded portrait of the American dream. That grim display is also felt in the script by Dano and longtime partner Zoe Kazan, who take the scary feeling of missing out on life’s opportunities and put it through the eyes of young Joe, someone who would normally have yet to experience life but who faces it all rather suddenly. There are strong performances from both Oxenbould and Gyllenhaal, but Wildlife belongs to Mulligan’s performance as a lost damsel desperately trying to find her own identity. For someone known for his quiet acting performances, Dano makes a strong debut as a one researching the lost cause of old American morals.

 

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24. Searching

2014 saw the release of Unfriended, a twist on the slasher movie where the entire movie took place over Skype and a laptop screen. Though the final product was cheap and stupid, the gimmick was interesting enough to wonder what else could be done with it. Newcomer Aneesh Chaganty clearly saw potential in the gimmick and decided to use it for a thriller instead. Searching commits to its format as it also takes place entirely on laptop screens, this time though it’s the screens of suburban dad David (John Cho) and his daughter Margot (Michelle La), a straight-A student who goes missing on a random day. As David gets desperate to find his daughter, he digs through her laptop and realizes that she had shocking secrets to protect. Chaganty clearly studied how people use laptops and smartphones to connect with each other, showing how equally disconnected we all are when our lives are online. It was also wise for Sony Pictures to shell out the money needed for the movie to use actual websites like Google and Facebook, adding to how real the movie feels. Even if the audience is glued to computer screens for the whole movie, the script by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian holds attention with a gripping mystery story and Cho turns in a heartbreaking dramatic performance. There’s no telling what else could be done with the “laptop screen” subgenre that’s apparently forming, but at least we now have an example of it being done right.

 

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23. Mission – Impossible: Fallout

There’s something equally hilarious and horrifying about the fact that Tom Cruise would rather hang off of a helicopter hundreds of feet in the air than admit wrongdoing in publicly supporting a creepy space cult. But Hollywood’s favorite running man still has clout and pulls in some grade-A talent to keep his career afloat, so why not bask in the glory of the most consistent blockbuster movie franchise today? Round six of the Tom Cruise stunt show features his eternal avatar Ethan Hunt and the IMF team (sans Jeremy Renner, probably busy training for Thanos) tracking down pieces of plutonium that could be used to activate nuclear bombs. Also along for the ride is returning Brit Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and fresh Yank August Walker (Henry Cavill and the moustache that killed Justice League) only adding to Hunt’s stresses of saving the world. Fallout represents the first time the Mission: Impossible franchise features a returning writer/director in Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher) and if the Oscar-winner passed the audition with flying colors through 2015’s Rogue Nation, he one-ups himself by making the most propulsive and impressive action movies since Mad Max: Fury Road. The way McQuarrie lines up so many action scenes in perfect sequence with each other is impressive, whether he throws Cruise out of a plane at 25,000 feet to get him to a bathroom fist fight or going from a motorcycle chase immediately to a car chase. As charming and likable as Cruise still remains as an action hero, the real stars of Fallout are McQuarrie and his incredible stunt team. You could say that “sky’s the limit” for the next installment of the M:I franchise but if Cruise goes any higher, he might as well be an astronaut.

 

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22. American Animals

Pete Shelley, lead singer of The Buzzcocks who passed away last year, once sang about the “very humdrum” world around him as he was “waiting for the phone to ring” not knowing that his life was passing him by. Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen must’ve been terrified by that song (among other things) so they decided to steal life for themselves. “Life” for them was a rare copy of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America in the library of Transylvania University, which they attempted to steal in 2004. Bart Layton’s movie adaptation of that heist zooms in on the lives of the four unassuming college students who pulled off this radical stunt. Layton knows these guys are true American idiots but at least their motivations of escaping the mundanity of modern life feels especially poignant. Not only does the movie have Layton’s sharp directing skills and quippy writing to fill out the background, but an added bonus of interviews with the actual thieves to throw reality back into the audience’s face. No matter how much of a hip fantasy the movie sets itself up to be, American Animals knows the best lesson is the one that actually happened.

 

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21. Black Panther

There’s a case to be made that Black Panther might’ve gotten overhyped. It’s become a gargantuan cultural moment that’s inspired millions of people, validated years of cultural appropriation and hopefully made Hollywood reevaluate how it sees the worth of blockbusters lead by black people. It’s towered almost every other pop culture movement of 2018 that it seems almost impervious to criticism. Black Panther is not a perfect movie by any means, but it’s still a damn good one. Ryan Coogler’s epic adaptation of the Marvel Comic sees Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascend to his destiny as King of Wakanda with the support of his smart sister (Letitia Wright), worldly love interest (Lupita Nyong’o) and stern soldier (Danai Gurira). On top of being unsure of his own abilities, T’Challa must hunt down a kooky arms dealer (Andy Serkis) and face a mysterious soldier (Michael B. Jordan) who looks to claim the throne for himself. Less a superhero movie and more like a modernization of Game of Thrones, Black Panther has a sweeping scale to it with fully-realized sets, costumes and action setpieces. All of that thankfully doesn’t drown out the magnetic performances on display ranging from goofy villainy (Serkis) to sprightly comedic (Wright). It’s when the movie puts the cold Jordan and the poised Boseman face-to-face with each other that the movie rises to greatness.

 

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20. Bad Times at the El Royale

So it seems the world has mostly canceled Quentin Tarantino this year and if that be the case, Hollywood could use a new master of stylish 70s throwback character dramas. Drew Goddard, come on down! After riffing on slashing films with The Cabin in the Woods, Goddard returns with a whodunit that has the gall to wait before telling us what the “it” actually is. The titular setting is an old motel on the border of California and Las Vegas in 1969. There’s a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (Jon Hamm) and a drifter (Dakota Johnson) who all check in while leaving most of their real baggage out of sight. Much like Tarantino, Goddard tells his story by pulling the audience in and out of his characters’ backstories. But where ol’ Q’s characters were all serving a story out front and center, Goddard uses his players as puzzle pieces and takes his time putting them all together. It’s a long sit but El Royale’s lush cinematography, swinging soundtrack and splatters of blood keep things moving and grooving. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Bridges fills out every dimension of his character, Erivo adds just the right touch of humanity and Chris Hemsworth swings by to make crazy cult leaders sexy again. Now the world waits with anticipation to see what genre Goddard plays with next.

 

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19. Avengers: Infinity War

It shouldn’t have worked: over 20 major characters played by distinct personalities interacting with each other in one cohesive story for two-and-a-half hours against a villain that’s been there for six years and yet stood mostly anonymous for all this time? Marvel Studios keeps raising the stakes for itself every time it puts the Avengers together and they just can’t stop winning big. Despite having the characters and tones of five different movies sharing the same set space, Avengers: Infinity War has one definitive star: Josh Brolin’s haunting, maniacal but somehow charming Thanos, who sees the only way of saving the universe from total destruction is half destruction. The wisest things writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did was not only keep most of the Avengers separate from each other but mix up the teams a bit. Who would’ve thought a moping Thor (Chris Hemsworth) could get his confidence back from Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel)? Or how about the festival of snark between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland)? And seeing Captain America (Chris Evans) lunge into battle with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is more patriotic than anything the Trump administration has done in the last two years. The action and effects remain jaw-dropping, but it’s seeing characters we’ve followed for the last decade stand together (and face defeat) that help hold off superhero movie fatigue just a little bit longer.

 

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18. The Old Man & the Gun

Robert Redford was, is and will always be awesome. Everything from his shaggy blonde hair to his relaxed and confident walk in every scene to his warm smirk to the comfort in his voice has made him an icon of American cinema for nearly 50 years. Whether he’s playing baseball, reporting on Watergate or even hunting down Captain America, Redford has shown himself time and time again as one of the most natural actors in movie history. So if The Old Man & the Gun is indeed his last movie before retirement, he picked almost the perfect project to hang his hat on. Written and directed by David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon), the movie tells the true story of 70-year-old Forrest Tucker (Redford) and his string of cross-country bank robberies in the late 70s/early 80s. With little more than a smile and the occasional fake moustache, Forrest manages to elude a determined cop (Casey Affleck) and woo a ranch owner (Sissy Spacek) as he contemplates whether or not he can actually settle down. Old Man suits pretty much everybody involved in the film in front and behind the camera. After compiling a filmography of 70s throwback dramas (even his Pete’s Dragon remake looked like it was filmed in 1977), Lowery has found his dream project by having the movie shot with an old-school graininess and low, lush colors. He keeps things moving at a cruising pace that allows the actors to soak in the atmosphere and relax in their characters. Spacek’s warm presence and the intrigue Affleck shows in the case provides a great case of Forrest being stuck between a rock and hard place, while brief appearances from Danny Glover and Tom Waits add a touch of levity. But this is Redford’s show and like a heroic lone ranger riding off into the sunset, he glides through scenes as the wild spirit of American ambition. Never slowing down and always on the run.

 

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17. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

It should be noted that there was once a real human being who likely believed in the same things as Paddington bear. His name was Fred Rogers and for over 30 years, he taught children the importance of love and caring. 15 years after the world lost Mr. Rogers, director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) reintroduces the beloved host to a world seemingly devoid of the heart his work kept beating. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a concise and informative documentary not just about the message but the methods of Mr. Rogers. Neville shows that Rogers was an academic who studied how children process life and how the changing culture influenced the way children learn. Mr. Rogers had to take the events of JFK’s assassination and Vietnam while the youth of America took in rock music and the rise of rap, but Rogers never hindered from his vision of kindness. The documentary doesn’t shy away from what the world is today but offers an alternative: be a neighbor.

 

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16. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The most disappointing thing about last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was that it’s about Peter Parker. As good of a character he is, we’ve seen him in six movies over 16 years and three different origin stories. Spider-Man has splintered off into many different incarnations in comic books that the potential for fresh material at the movies is limitless. Live action movies can only go so far with Marvel’s web-slinger…but what could animation do? Sony Pictures Animation rolled the dice on a whacko story from Phil Lord (The Lego Movie) and got something truly spectacular. Of course there’s one Spider-Man in Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an inner-city teenage brainiac and graffiti artist who bops to Chance the Rapper and treks rooftops in Air Jordans. Then one day, there’s another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) who moves a little slower and seems a bit jaded about saving the world. And then there’s Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) wearing a white hoodie and a chopped blonde haircut. And then another, and another, and another Spider-Man entering Miles’s world. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a ginormous breath of fresh air not only for the superhero genre but for animation itself. It’s the most literal example of a comic-book movie as the animation has a uniquely vibrant and poppy art style, almost chopped-up in different layers allowing elements to leap off the screen. That same format applies to each of the six new Spider-Man characters in the movie as they all come with their own style from cold noir to Looney Tunes-esque 2D. Spider-Verse was clearly made with love for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation along with the idea that no matter how long a character has been around, there’s always room for more.

 

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15. Sorry to Bother You

Don’t be fooled by the title of writer/director Boots Riley’s debut feature, he’s not sorry in any way shape or form for making one of the most intense and crazy movies of the year. Tackling capitalism, racism, unionization and representation, Riley has done the cinematic equivalent of throwing a cherry bomb into a company board meeting and it’s as exactly as entertaining as the thought of seeing a bunch of stiff company men simultaneously screaming their heads off. Sorry to Bother You follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he attempts to get him and his rebellious girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) out if his uncle’s garage by joining a telemarketing firm. It’s not until he uses his “white voice” with customers that he starts to make big money and grab the attention of company bigwigs, including a drugged-out millionaire (Armie Hammer) with big plans for the future. Riley clearly has a keen eye given how well he maps out color palettes, directs actors and sets up comedic bits. Even when the movie gets weird and goes off the rails (in a rather jaw-dropping way), Riley still squeezes out something compelling and impossible to look away from. More impressive is how Riley’s style doesn’t block out the substance of the movie’s message. It’s a lot to take in and Riley has no room for subtlety, but his creativity flows out of him so freely and with such clarity that it would be rude to tell him to stop. That would also require his cast to rein things in and it’s definitely illegal to tell Stanfield and Thompson, two of the best actors who had the biggest year of their careers, to stop being this good. So yes Mr. Riley, keep calling and the rest of us will be happy to listen.

 

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14. Paddington 2

Everyone in the world is so mean in 2018. We’re calling each other cucks and libtards daring one another to kill themselves while sinking further into perpetual misery. But in this darkest of timelines, it’s good to know there’s someone fighting the good fight of kindness and decency. So what if it’s a three-foot-tall talking bear in a raincoat and hat? It’s not like we’re getting it from anywhere else in the real world. Undoubtedly the feel-good movie of the year, Paddington 2 follows the adventures of the titular peruvian bear (Ben Whishaw) living in London with the Brown family. He looks to get a pop-up book for his dear aunt when a broke stage actor (Hugh Grant) steals it and frames him. Paddington tries politeness and kindness to survive his prison sentence and the stare of an angry cook (Brendan Gleeson). There’s no room for cynicism or hatred in Paddington’s world as director Paul King fills the screen with warm colors and endless whimsy. It also has no desire to pander to the lowbrow standards of modern kids movies as it features classic bits of physical comedy and impressively-intricate setpieces. The entire cast is more than game for the saccharine silliness, Gleeson and Grant in particular who seem to revel in cartoonish scenery chewing. Paddington’s mantra is, “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right,” and the movie’s commitment to that is so sincere and strongly executed that it skips past being a corny elementary school lesson to being almost a prayer for change in the next year.

 

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13. BlacKkKlansman

In August 2017, the world was horrified to watch James Fields Jr. run his car through a crowd protesting white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. One of the darkest moments in modern American history has been something that people have either circled back to as a cause for action or have tried hard to forget as a means to ignore the very real rise of white nationalism in America. But someone who did not forget about it was Spike Lee, who decided to remind the world that the threat of racism and bigotry in America has always been bubbling underneath. Lee, one of America’s most talented and vocal critics of society, told the story of Detective Ron Stallworth in October 1978. The first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department took on a bold assignment when he posed as a white man over the phone and used a white officer to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Lee’s dramatization of those events is well aware of the historical shame America wears for housing such monstrous bigots and instead shows Stallworth (a stellar John David Washington) stuck between his duty to the law in serving justice and his pride as a black man in wanting to make the Klan look like the fools that they are. BlacKkKlansman is both a bracing history lesson in a time when it’s needed the most and another of Lee’s stylish character studies. The movie is dead serious about its lessons but also has the lovable splashes of Spike’s directorial style. Then the movie throws one final gut punch during its coda that flashes back to all of the events that led up to and followed the Charlottesville incident, showing that there’s still a fight to be made against bigotry 40 years later.

 

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12. A Quiet Place

Jump scares are one of the worst troupes in Hollywood movies today. They offer little substance to a film, are often used as an easy out for a lack of creativity and cheapen any sense of tension. They’re used so frequently in so many movies that it makes jumpscares more frightening than any killer monster. So imagine my surprise when I see that one of the best movies of 2018 is so strong because of its well-executed jump scares. And it’s from Jim Halpert, of all people! A Quiet Place is not John Krasinski’s first turn in the director’s chair, but it’s certainly the first that gave him a challenge. The game: make a tension-filled monster movie backed by a heartfelt family drama. The gimmick: the monsters have hyper-sensitive hearing, requiring as little dialogue and even sound as possible. In a tight 90 minutes, Krasinski lays out a pressure-layden haunted house ride that knows just when to hold the hostage with its sound design. Since the script is rather minimal, the movie has to rely on the “show, don’t tell” rule and expertly follows it. Krasinski is clearly as annoyed by horror movie cliches as most people so he sands everything down to the bare essentials with the growl of the monsters and the creaking of the sets keeping audiences at the edge of their seat. It’s rare to see such technical precision for a monster movie and should certainly earn Krasinki more opportunities as a director.

 

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11. The Miseducation of Cameron Post

It’s a damn shame what people do onto others in the name of an invisible bearded man in the clouds who grants wishes. How is it that human beings have made such grand technological achievements and championed capital industry but still punish people for their sexual preference? The Miseducation of Cameron Post wants you to ask this question because the people who suffering have been asking for years and still have few answers. Based on Emily Danforth’s novel, the movie’s title character is a 1993 high schooler (Chloe Grace Moretz) who is caught making out with a girl on prom night. Her guardian then takes her to a gay conversion therapy camp run by a soft-spoken but imposing doctor (Jennifer Ehle) and her unassuming brother (John Gallagher Jr.). The duo run Cameron through prayer circles, confessions and private moments of why her feelings are wrong. Cameron knows the camp is akin to prison but remains unsure of how to define herself. With the help of two fellow “disciples” (Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck), Cameron looks for clarity in her life. Despite the dark subject matter there are moments of true beauty in Cameron Post thanks to Ashley Connor’s gorgeous cinematography capturing warm fall colors on the ground and in the sky. There is a soft reserve to how the movie addresses the cruelty of gay conversion therapy but it doesn’t shy away from the method’s cruelty. Co-writer and director Desiree Akhavan shines by showing the bruises of these “disciples” are found under the skin and swallowing the teens whole. Whether their feelings are blocked by grinning denial (Gallagher Jr. in a career-best turn) or sneaky pot-fueled rebellion (Lane and Goodluck), Akhavan shows how the silence these kids display screams loud with no one to hear them. The voice leading the message is Moretz with her first great dramatic performance, equal parts innocent in her eyes but powerful in her resilience. No matter how painful the events of this movie is, there is comfort knowing that the number of filmmakers giving victims a voice is growing.

 

10. Boy Erased

Kids want to make their parents proud and return the love given to them all their lives by the ones who brought them into the world. But what would one rather have: the love of a parent or the love of one’s self? That’s the question asked in Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s gripping adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir detailing his time in a gay conversion program. Edgerton’s film follows teenager Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), high school star athlete and proud son of local preacher’s couple Marshall and Nancy (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman). He reveals to his parents that he had a gay experience and is unsure of his feelings about it, causing his parents (especially his father) to panic and send him to conversion therapy. Jared endures the emotional abuse of the program’s condescending leader (Edgerton) and debates how far he’s willing to sacrifice his soul for the love of his family. Whereas The Miseducation of Cameron Post showed signs of beauty in its look, Boy Erased is a more grim and bleak-looking film. It’s on-purpose too as Edgerton’s movie takes a harder look at a more tragic story about identity. Boy Erased’s depiction of gay conversion is also more aggressive, with Edgerton’s program leader interrogating the “participants” about why they chose to have homosexual thoughts and why they chose to hurt the ones they love. It’s emphasizes the cruel and unusual punishment these programs put people through, but the center of the story is Jared’s rough journey to coming out and still wanting his family’s love all the same. Edgerton is a fine director but he also shows himself to be a impressive writer by highlighting the emotional core of Conley’s story. Along Edgerton’s own imposing presence on screen, the movie is stacked with A+ actors. Kidman fills out the role of the conflicted but loving mother well while Crowe gives his best dramatic performance in over a decade as a man caught between the morals of his religion and the love for his son. Hedges has been proving himself as one of Hollywood’s great young talents for the last two years and Boy Erased showcases his talent better than ever before. He’s a quiet actor who says more with his silence than with dialogue. The pain in his face is something that echoes long after the credits roll.

 

9. Beast

“Love is blindness, I don’t want to see.” While it’s the chorus for a U2 album cut, it could also apply to Michael Pearce’s haunting romantic thriller. Set in a calm but complacent English island community, Beast tells the story of love at first sight between Moll (Jessie Buckley) and Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Moll lives with her creepily overbearing family while stuck in a rut giving bus tours to visitors. Then she meets Pascal on a random day at the beach as he lurks in the reeds holding a hunting rifle. They fool around and he sweeps her off her feet. Then bodies start piling up and Pascal is the prime suspect. Is Moll falling for a serial killer? Does she even want to know? Beast is at times erotic, suspenseful, mysterious and classic. Similar to Gone Girl four years earlier, Beast is a sleazy grocery store romance novel done with class and style. Pearce juggles tones and moods like a craftsman letting scenes effortlessly flow into each other like a river stream pouring over rocks. There are moments of sizzling romance in the movie (credit Buckley and Flynn’s volcanic sexual chemistry for that) mixed with elements of psychological horror. It’s also just a great, gripping mystery that makes the audience second guess everything at least twice. Considering how much movie audiences love sexual drama, it’s baffling how Beast went under so many people’s radars. Hopefully it becomes a sleeper hit on streaming services when it arrives. Beast feels both meticulous in its planning and yet effortless in its execution.

 

8. Hereditary

As great as writer/director Ari Aster’s feature-length debut film is, you may never ever want to watch it again. Point blank, Hereditary is one of the most grim and depressing films of this, the last and maybe every prior decade when film existed. It’s indeed a horror movie, but it deserves the full extension of “horrifying.” On the surface, Hereditary is a family drama with a stressed-out mom (Toni Collette), passive dad (Gabriel Byrne), burnout son (Alex Wolff) and awkward daughter (Milly Shapiro). But weird things start to happen when grandma dies and some supernatural family secrets come to light, driving the family into madness and perhaps something even more sinister. Aster’s film wants you to be as uncomfortable as possible watching Hereditary. The pacing doesn’t so much move slow as it does eek and crawl along while it drags its fingernails across the floor. Aster also loves flat, immobile shots that lets his creepy dialogue play out. As dark and cringe-inducing Aster’s story and dialogue may be, there’s an irresistible magnitude about it as you wonder how dark he’s willing to go (SPOILER: very very dark). Hereditary does get very grotesque once its supernatural elements come into play, but the biggest compliment to the movie is that it almost doesn’t need any ghosts to be scary. The raw, unflinching grief it emits comes through thanks to the commitment of the actors. It’s a wonder what process Collette put herself through to reach the hopelessness of her character and the insanity she has to play out. She nails it of course, as does Aster in making a horror movie that damn near redefines the entire genre.

 

7. Eighth Grade

Comedian Bo Burnham thrives on awkwardness. Whether he’s sitting behind a piano asking why nobody else likes soda at parties or using Auto-Tune to whine about first-world problems, Burnham’s worldviews come from a place of introvertedness and confusion about the constantly mutating social norms for teenagers. And despite being 28, he seems to have kept paying attention about what young people are into the older he gets. That’s the only explicable reason he managed to capture a snapshot of shy adolescence in the 2010s. Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) on her last week of the titular school grade. She’s an amateur YouTuber looking to impart wisdom on kids her age, a facade for her own insecurities at school. She’s awkward in conversation with kids her age, closed-off when her dorky dad (Josh Hamilton) tries to connect with her and addicted to her smartphone screen. Burnham puts Kayla through a fair share of cringey awkwardness throughout the movie, but it’s not entirely for comedic purposes. Kayla’s efforts to socialize and break out of her shell are natural efforts of anyone trying to make friends. Eighth Grade is as critical of teen social standards as it is sympathetic to the introverts of the world. Burnham also wisely shows the crippling fear Kayla has when she tries to break out of comfort zone, as if Kayla is on the verge of suffocating. She makes efforts to make friends with the cool kids but never lashes out at them. Burnham doesn’t take Kayla’s insecurities to the extreme for the sake of the movie. It’s a grounded and surprisingly realistic look into the struggle of connecting with each other in the 21st century. The two key ingredients are Burnham’s detailed script and how Fisher taps into it with her performance. This is a girl who has lived this movie before a camera even rolled.

 

6. Isle of Dogs

It’s getting harder to notice when Wes Anderson actually evolves. The man has a style that’s so beyond the realm of typical filmmaking, with layers of detail precision on top of each other, that to notice changes and improvements between his movies in the last decade would require some antique magnifying glass he’d probably put in the background of his next movie. In the case of Isle of Dogs, his second stop-motion animation feature, the biggest improvement is actually the most outstanding feature of the movie: a big beating heart. Set in a dystopian future where Japan deals with a viral outbreak amongst its dog population by exiling them to an island filled with garbage, a pack of island dogs come across a young boy who crash-landed on the island searching for his own dog. The dogs (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban), lead by a mean former stray (Bryan Cranston), guide the boy through the remnants of the island and discover what humans and dogs lost in the confusion. While admittedly Isle of Dogs doesn’t have the freshness of Anderson’s previous animated adventure, Fantastic Mr. Fox, it does have a better embrace of the concept’s silliness without losing the emotional core. Anderson is still playing with his personal toys in a fine-tuned sandbox, his production designers and art direction team have outdone themselves with the scope of the island and Megasaki City, not to mention the impeccable touches to the designs of the dogs themselves. Even the drum-heavy score by Alexandre Desplat adds to the distinct atmosphere. But even under all of the style is the heartwarming story of two lost boys trying to find their way home through each other. It might be the most accessible movie Anderson has ever made without sacrificing his own integrity. Keep climbing, Wes!

 

5. Unsane

Boy we really didn’t see the Steven Soderbergh comeback coming, did we? After putting a hold on his movie-directing retirement with last year’s goofy caper Logan Lucky, Soderbergh decided to go the complete opposite direction for his next feature: a tight, tense psychological thriller shot entirely with iPhone cameras. For a man with such a wide-ranging resume, it’s actually amazing that he’s tackled both versions of a filmmaker’s comeback. Grounded in both simplicity and mystery, Unsane follows Sawyer (Claire Foy) and the struggle of being a followed woman. Sawyer has been stalked by a former work client so incessantly that she had to relocate, but she still feels like she’s in danger. She goes to a medical institute in hopes of joining a support group but ends up involuntarily committed. Sawyer claims she’s not crazy, but seeing her stalker somehow present at the institute makes her second guess her own sanity. While the iPhone camera shooting style might seem like a gimmick at first, it actually elevates the atmosphere and tension of the movie. Unsane is intense and unnerving, practically breathing down the neck of the audience the entire time, and part of that is because the camera is either still in the corner of a set playing out uninterrupted drama or in the face of its characters. The way Soderbergh sets up, lights and shoots the scenes of Unsane is this ugly neon shade that seems like everything is about to explode. The same could be said for Foy in her best film performance to date in her balance of quiet emotional confliction and frantic energy. Unsane is unnerving in all the best ways. When it stands still, you anxiously wait for it to strike like a killer tiger. When it’s unleashed and tries to terrify you, it shakes you to the core.

 

4. Roma

2018 had a curious double event: two Oscar-winning writer/directors return with their first movie in five years. The first of the pair is Alfonso Cuarón, who took audiences for a roll in space with the mega-hit Gravity. Cuarón could’ve gone anywhere he wanted with his next project, but he decided to go home. Loosely based on his own upbringing, Cuarón’s Roma centers around a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City going through life. Seen through the eyes of the family’s maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), she and the family deal with marital troubles, societal shifts and growing up together. Shot in black and white, Cuarón’s vision is one of blunt scope as he lets the audience take in the wide shots of the family home or the sprawling mansion they celebrate the holidays in. You almost feel bad that the movie isn’t in color given all the wide scenery Cuarón captures. It’s a borderline documentary in how realized the sets are and how real the actors portray their characters. There are equal doses of grown-up reality and childlike whimsy, as if the movie is a child maturing before the audience’s eyes. Seeing the bustling and overcrowded locations in Mexico and how everyone finds ways to get by on their own highlights the story’s focus on family. Cleo, embodied in every degree by Aparicio, is both a fly on the wall to middle-class struggle and a look inside of the lives of the working-class. As hard as things may get for the family and Cleo herself, sadness is never a long-term option. And that seems to be Cuarón’s point: things may look as bleak as can be but you can always come home to family.

 

3. The Favourite

The career of Yorgos Lanthimos has been mostly fascinating but also a bit frustrating. The Greek writer/director clearly has a strong grip on making left-field dramas that challenge movie norms. The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer are like if Stanley Kubrick looked at the droll lives of modern society and took them to shocking extremes. With those concepts come tones, characters and executions that can seem too strange to fully enjoy. So much so that one wishes Lanthimos would drop the weirdness and take his technique to a more straight-forward story. Be relieved at The Favourite, which looks on the surface like an episode of Downton Abbey beefed up to be a soap opera. It’s the early 18th century and England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is more like a bored child than a bold leader the country needs while at war with France. At the Queen’s side is longtime friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who is as ruthless as a monarch but remains the Queen’s closest companion. Then Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up looking for work, nudging up against the Queen herself. Lady Sarah feels threatened, Abigail feels empowered, and the Queen snickers to herself watching people fight for her affection. One of the best things about The Favourite is that Lanthimos has no writing credit, keeping his tendency for weird and rather depressing subject matter out of the movie’s stew. Instead, the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara plays out a story of friendship, love, betrayal and power. It gives equal weight to development of all three leads: one with no love but great power (the Queen), one with neither love nor true power (Lady Sarah) and one with great love but no power (Abigail). Lanthimos lays out the three pieces in the immaculate Hatfield House estate and moves them around, against and occasionally on top of each other like a three-way chess game. Free of writing duties, the director focuses entirely on orchestrating the synthesis of gorgeous costumes, crisp natural light and a surprising amount of fish-eye lenses to let the audience soak in the driven cattiness between the leads. Despite being in constrictive corsets, all three actors revel at swiping their claws at each other. Colman has effortlessly jumped between dramas (Broadchurch, The Night Manager) and comedies (Doctor Who, Hot Fuzz) throughout her career so it’s fitting that she balances both in The Favourite for the best performance of her career. Weisz is downright sinister in her poise, line delivery and even just the way she holds her head up. Stone may seem like the hero of the movie at first, but she takes her time in turning as rotten as the wig worn by Nicholas Hoult (also giving a career-best performance). The Favourite should allow those hoping that Lanthimos’s talent was not dependent on his weird story twists a sigh of relief knowing that he’s the real deal in delivering his first true masterpiece.

 

2. Annihilation

For the last two years or so, the world has been asking for more female representation in Hollywood movies. No more token love interests or ditzy blondes, the people want smart and strong women to be the stars of movies that treat them like real people instead of stereotypes. So why did a movie in 2018 about five intelligent women using science and logic to investigate an alien invasion get beat at the box-office by a movie where James Corden voices a cartoon rabbit? It’s still a wonder why the world let Annihilation pass by as it stands as both a successful statement in the hopes of better female representation in films and one of the best science-fiction films of the decade. Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, Annihilation follows a biologist (Natalie Portman), two scientists (Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez) and a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) brought together to enter “The Shimmer.” After a meteor crash lands in a remote U.S. coastal area, an electromagnetic bubble forms and grows throughout the land creating “The Shimmer.” All military teams sent into “The Shimmer” end up never returning, except for the biologist’s husband (Oscar Isaac) who seems….different. Annihilation makes writer/director Alex Garland two for two in the director’s chair as he builds on the promise of 2015’s Ex Machina on a larger canvas. There is in fact actual “shimmer” coming from the movie as cinematography Rob Hardy lets in the right amount of light to the jungle setting of the movie to let everything around the protagonists glow like crystal. Coupled with the set and creature designs all give an otherworldly illusion that Garland uses as a psychological test for his characters. There’s beauty in “The Shimmer,” but it’s lays a seed that grows something horrifying overtime. There’s also great beauty in Annihilation, but Garland shows himself an expert in building tension and even terror as the characters trek further into the unknown and into their own fears. Even the score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury starts as smooth plucks of acoustic guitar before flooding scenes with haunting synthesizers. It’s a deep, dark rabbit hole that Garland’s cast is more than game for. Every member of the quintet gets a moment to be swallowed whole by the movie’s nightmare, but Portman has room to showcase her bubbly personality with the deep emotional trauma of her character. Annihilation swallows you whole and leaves jaws on the floor. It’s not the easiest pill to take but it’s a ride that reminds you that science-fiction can be more than lasers and spaceships.

 

1. Widows

No disrespect to Alfonso Cuarón, but the winner of the “Oscar-winner returning after five years” competition is undoubtedly Steve McQueen. The British writer/director showcased shining beauty and unflinching brutality in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. That balance is the key to McQueen’s success, an ability to effortlessly capture moments of tenderness and compassion one minute before taking a stranglehold of the audience through tension and violence. Put simply, McQueen makes movies about struggle and his latest offering was no exception in covering the strife of women raising families, women left alone by men, women abused by men, women intimidated by men and most importantly, women underestimated by men. At face value, Widows is an expertly executed heist movie where three widowed women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) team-up with a determined single working mother (Cynthia Erivo) to finish a robbery laid out by their husbands who were double-crossed and gunned-down by police. But the script by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) saw what was deeper inside Lynda La Plante’s novel: one woman making a stand for her husband’s memory, one refusing to fail for her kids, one fed up with being the accessory to a man and one trying to lessen the struggle for her family. McQueen and Flynn add more to Widows, ranging from political corruption in contemporary Chicago between two inner-city thugs (Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya) and a father-son dynasty (Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell) to police brutality. There are a lot of threads in the tapestry of Widows, but McQueen and Flynn manage to weave it all together in near-perfect sequence. It all lays out through the setting of Chicago filled with characters that feel like real people with grounded, working-class struggles. It’s a well-rounded depiction of modern American life that McQueen doesn’t try to glamorize or dress-up. Every bruise, threat, punch and gunshot is heard and felt thanks to some sharp sound editing and McQueen’s fluid camerawork. The biggest charm of the movie is how stacked the cast and crew are who’ve come together for such a stripped-down production, Widows feels like a movie Martin Scorsese or William Friedkin would’ve made at their peaks in the 1970s as a lost American classic. Credit also goes to the best ensemble cast of the year. Erivo continues her transition from Tony-award-winning theater actor to breakout movie star as she holds a strong screen presence on her own and with her castmates, while Henry and Kaluuya especially are imposing antagonists. Debicki also adds to her growing resume playing a battered woman saving herself as much as she is saving her colleagues. It’s rewarding to see Rodriguez, known for popcorn action vehicles like The Fast & the Furious franchise, get a deeper role for her to embrace and embody. But of course there’s Davis, undoubtedly one of the best actors alive today, turning in a balanced and heartbreaking performance. She’s got bruises and pain on her own that nearly shatters her to pieces, but she’ll never let it show if it means not taking what belongs to her and her team. It’s strength that busts through the screen and is impossible to dismiss as fake. Same goes for Widows as it stands alone as something present and timeless at the same time.

 

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

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