Friday, January 19, 2018

My 20 Most Anticipated Movies of 2018

It's fun to think about what's coming out and which movies I'm most interested in, then compare that at the end of the year to what I actually enjoyed.  Of my 20 Most Anticipated last year, 12 of them turned out to be Top 20 movies for me, so that's pretty cool. One of them (Hostiles) was pushed back to this year and another (Jumanji 2) I just haven't been able to schedule yet, so that leaves 6 that were disappointing in some way.

Of those, I've seen and was underwhelmed by three (The BeguiledThe Mummy, and Justice League) and thanks to trailers and reviews, completely lost interest in three others (Dark TowerFerdinand, and Pitch Perfect 3) before they hit theaters.

So here's what I'm most eager to see this year. As always, these aren't the movies that I'm predicting will be the best; just the ones that I most want to see. Tell me what you're looking forward to in the comments!

20. Tomb Raider



I'm a mark for treasure-hunter movies and have enjoyed even the Angelina Jolie movies on some level. The trailer for this one is visually impressive and Vikander is a talented actor, so I'm just hoping that the story is up to snuff.

19. Mary Magdalene



One of the most fascinating characters in the New Testament, even without the Dan Brown nonsense. It's about time someone made a movie about her.

18. Mary Poppins Returns



I enjoy the classic adaptation, but it's not holy ground and I'm glad to see that the rest of the book series will get some attention, too. Not that I've read the books. And these movies will see that I don't have to.

17. Mowgli



I don't really need a new Jungle Book adaptation, but I'm interested in almost anything Andy Serkis does. And it'll be interesting to see what he does to avoid comparisons with the Jon Favreau Disney remake.

16. Incredibles 2



I've cooled off on Brad Bird after Tomorrowland, but I've still loved 80% of his movies and am interested in what he's able to do with this. I'm especially curious how a new Incredibles movie compares to the modern landscape of superhero movies. The first one was released the same year as Spider-Man 2, when we were just starting to figure out that great superhero movies were possible. The bar has been raised a lot higher since then and I'm not 100% confident that Incredibles 2 can clear it.


Monday, January 15, 2018

My Top 10 Movies of 2017

10. War for the Planet of the Apes



This is the weakest of the new PotA trilogy, but the other two are so strong that War doesn't have to top them to be amazing. I love how the overarching story builds and explores the conflict between compassion and hate, with each entry looking at it from a different angle.

Rise sees compassion and hate mostly from the human point of view as different people have different feelings about the apes (and by metaphor, about anyone who's different from them). Dawn transfers the conflict to the apes as Caesar and Koba struggle with the proper response to humanity's abuse. But in War the conflict is within Caesar himself.

His ongoing battle with the human Colonel (Woody Harrelson) has led Caesar down a dark path and threatens the beliefs that he holds most dear. War handles this in a beautiful, emotional way and it's a great conclusion to what's easily my favorite science fiction trilogy of all time (at least until the current Star Wars trilogy is done... fingers crossed).

It's this low in the Top 10 only because of particular plot points that I don't care for, but that's about me, not the movie.

9. Wonder Woman



It's awesome. The first DCU movie that's about an actual super hero. I love that Wonder Woman goes on a character journey that is never about whether or not she's going act heroically. It's about her world view changing from simple and naive to complicated and mature. It shakes her to her core, and there's a Zac Snyder moment that made me worried about what she'd do, but she recovers quickly and gets back to the work of fighting evil. Just beautiful.

And I love that the movie is able to introduce her to the world as a fish-out-of-water without sacrificing her confidence. She's learning a new culture and there are funny moments that result, but she's never the butt of the joke.

I do want to point out one thing though that bugs me a little. Not about this movie as its own object, but what it reveals about the wider DC movie universe. In Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman has clearly been gone a long time. No one knows about her or remembers her. It's a major plot point that Batman figures out that she's not a brand new hero, but someone who was around a long time ago. And BvS implies that something happened when she was first here that sent her into hiding. She may or may not have fled back to Themyscira, but she certainly disappeared from the public eye. And that made me concerned - especially in the shadow of Man of Steel and BvS - that Wonder Woman was going to be another dark movie about how heroism is punished.

Watching Wonder Woman, I can still see that movie in there. Diana goes through the ringer. And I can imagine a Snyder-influenced ending where she gives up her mission and just goes home for 100 years. I am so glad that the folks in charge decided not to do that and instead had Diana stick around to keep working, but it does create a large discontinuity with BvS. Making a movie about a hero is a great course correction for the series, but it is a course correction and not a flawless one.

The real thing keeping Wonder Woman out of my Top 5 though is the Ares battle. It's not bad, but I have a hard time with the transition from David Thewlis to full-on, battle-mode Ares. That whole fight is too much CG splashed across the screen. It doesn't ruin the movie in any way, but it's a weakness in an otherwise flawless production.

8. It



I've never read the book or seen the original mini-series adaptation, so I have nothing negative to say about restructuring this first film to be just from the kids' point of view. It was an awesome move and created a movie very much in the vein of Stranger Things and all the '80s kids-on-bicycles movies it's an homage to.

The kid actors are all great and the characters are mostly all great. There are one or two who could be superfluous, but I'm not complaining. None of my favorites were cheated of any characterization because of the others.

It's an entertainingly scary movie. Not completely terrifying, but chilling enough. And I like how the human monsters (bullies and certain parents) are just as nerve-wracking and horrifying as any of the supernatural ones. In the end, the strategy for defeating both kinds of monsters is the same and I love that, too. Can't wait for the sequel.

7. Table 19



I wanted to see this because I like Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, and Lisa Kudrow and the trailer looked pretty funny. I generally like wedding comedies because weddings are pretty funny anyway, but I wasn't prepared for how funny and touching Table 19 is.

It's the Breakfast Club of wedding movies. The concept is that at every wedding there's a table of misfits whom no one really expected to come or knows what to do with. Kendrick is the ex-girlfriend of the bride's brother. Robinson and Kudrow are a married couple who have a business relationship with the bride's father. There's also a former nanny, the solo teen-aged son of some family friends, and a disgraced cousin.

But where I expected a revenge comedy about these misfits' taking over the wedding, Table 19 is interested in the characters as people. It discusses why they all decided to come in the first place, forces them to confront their status as outcasts, and lets them bond in a really beautiful way.

6. Spider-Man: Homecoming



Amazing. Spectacular. The ultimate. Web of, even.

I'm not going to call it my favorite Spider-Man movie, because there's some apples-and-oranges going on, but it's exactly the Spider-Man movie that I needed right now. No origin story and not even any universe-building. In fact, it's the opposite of universe-building, because the whole point is to explain why Spider-Man needs his own special corner of the MCU. And I love that the explanation is built on the phrase, "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man." It makes sense, it's what the character needs, and it's exactly where I want to see him go.

Also, what a great, funny, diverse cast of supporting characters. And Michael Keaton is brilliant. Best movie interpretation of a Spider-Man villain so far. And I'm not forgetting about Doctor Octopus.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2



I liked it better than the first one. It's just as funny and visually interesting and the music is just as cool, but it has a more complex villain and some really great (and truly touching) development for Rocket, Yondu, and Nebula. Mantis is an awesome new character and my love for Dave Bautista is now fully stoked. Also, some excellent cameos that were genuine surprises.

4. The Last Jedi



The short version is that I love it. It's a Top Three Star Wars movie for me and I appreciate it more with each viewing. Five times as I'm writing this.

I'll give you the long version on an episode of Nerd Lunch next week, but feel free to discuss with me in the comments below if you want. This is a controversial one and I'm interested in talking it out.

3. A Cure for Wellness



Gore Verbinski's latest film is the best Hammer horror movie in 40 years. It's weird and gothic and so directly aimed at a particular audience that I understand why critics were largely down on it. But I'm fully in that intended audience.

It's about a young man (Dane DeHaan) who's sent by his company to retrieve their CEO from a Swiss wellness center that he's disappeared to. After being stonewalled by the spa's director (Jason Isaacs), DeHaan begins to suspect that something sinister is going on. Not just with his boss, but with all the patients and a young, not-quite-a-patient named Hannah (the impossibly awesomely named Mia Goth). I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you, but it gets strange and lurid while still holding together as a story. The weirdness isn't for its own sake; it's part of a mystery that makes sense, even though it's wild and imaginative.

2. Hidden Figures



Hidden Figures is as powerful as everyone says. It's simultaneously uplifting and frustrating in exactly the ways that it's trying to be.

What's cool though is that it's also frustrating in some surprising ways. In addition to stories of casual, systemic racism (which are always more powerful to me than the overt, aggressive kind), the movie makes a rather depressing statement about what spurs the white characters towards progress. Since NASA is literally about reaching for the stars and making scientific progress, I guess I expected the movie to depict social progress as some kind of natural result of that.

That's very much not the case though and the film spends quite a bit of time reminding us that the '60s space race was a product of the Cold War. Whatever justice the main characters experience by the end isn't a product of compassion, but fear. It takes the common enemy of the Soviets to motivate the establishment and help it see the value of its non-white allies. Progress is made and that's why Hidden Figures is an encouraging story, but I like that the movie complicates, rather than romanticizes what sparks that change.

1. Kong: Skull Island



I love the 2014 Godzilla, but I also understand the complaint that the monster's not in it enough. I completely disagree, but I understand it. That's definitely not a problem with Kong: Skull Island though.

This isn't the familiar Kong story, but that's for the best since that story is well defined by now. It was time for something new and this is it. The island and its inhabitants (human and monsters alike) are all cool and the film spends plenty of time on them. More importantly, it also spends plenty of time on the invading characters so that I absolutely cared what happened to them, too. Even when I disliked what someone was doing, I totally understood why they were doing it.

It's a great companion piece to Godzilla and I cannot wait for the eventual showdown between the two monsters.

Friday, January 12, 2018

14 Really Good Movies from 2017

24. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword



I like King Arthur stories, but I'm not a stickler about the way they're told (super evident in that my favorite Arthur movie is that one with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley). And since Guy Ritchie movies always have a high floor of enjoyability for me, I had a great time with this. It's not a great King Arthur story, but it's a really fun Guy Ritchie medieval action flick. If "Guy Ritchie medieval action flick" sounds cool to you, I recommend it.

I gotta say, though, that I'm glad plans for a whole Arthurian "universe" springing from this have apparently been cancelled. Nobody needed that and none of the characters here are worth multiple movies about.

23. The Fate of the Furious



As much as I'm a fiend for this series, F8 (as it should have been called) didn't even crack my 20 Most Anticipated Movies of the year. That was due to the hackneyed suggestion in the trailer that Dom goes rogue and betrays his team. Since there was 0% chance that his defection was real, I rebelled at the whole concept. And I wasn't crazy about the promise of Jason Statham's Han-killing character joining the family, either. I went into F8 with arms crossed and needing to be won over.

And it was rough-going for a lot of the movie. Charlize Theron is wasted as a super-serious and self-important hacker who growls the worst dialogue I've heard in a few years. "Did you ever think you'd betray your family the way you did today?" And even though I'm all for previous movies' tossing cars between skyscrapers and parachuting them out of airplanes, I found the complications around the New York car chase ridiculous and unbelievable, but not as fun as skyscraper jumping and automotive skydiving. And Statham's transition to the good guys' side was as clunky as I feared it would be.

But about the time that Helen Mirren showed up, I decided to just jump on board. She's awesome, her relationship to the other characters is awesome, the final chase across the ice lake is awesome (confusingly shot at times, but still awesome), and Jason Statham is the most awesome of all. Enough so that I forgive the movie for making him a good guy, even if I don't completely forgive him for murdering one of my favorite characters. There's a devastating missed opportunity when he doesn't dive out of the airplane with a baby in pursuit of Theron, but oh well. This isn't one of the best Fast/Furious movies, but it's good enough and I ended up having a really great time.

22. Justice League



I was skeptical, but hopeful. I hated 50% of Man of Steel and probably 90% of Batman v Superman, but Wonder Woman was such a drastic course correction that I was encouraged that Warner Bros had finally learned its lesson. Not that Wonder Woman was a flawless reroute. And I didn't expect Justice League to be either. Seeds were planted in BvS that were clearly intended to grow into dark trees, so these sequels were going to have to ignore or retcon those in order to lighten the mood. I'll probably have more to say about that when I get to talking about Wonder Woman.

Justice League did a nice job of it though. Steppenwolf is a boring villain, but his plan at least made sense, as did the heroes' response to it. And I was surprised to like all the heroes. I'm an easy mark for Wonder Woman and Aquaman, but Flash was a pleasant, funny surprise and I really liked his and Cyborg's character arcs. I went into this ready to hate emo Cyborg, but he grew out of that. In fact, all the heroes had to make compromises so that community became a major theme of the film. They even figured out how to make an inspirational Superman. It's not a great movie, but the series is finally headed in a direction that I'm interested in and that's a pretty big accomplishment.

21. How to Be a Latin Lover



How to Be a Latin Lover is about a selfish gold-digger (Eugenio Derbez) who gets dumped for a younger man (Michael Cera). While he's looking for his next wife, he moves in with his sister (Salma Hayek) and her young son (Raphael Alejandrois) and learns the value of family. The movie doesn't move far from the usual formula for this type of story, but it's very funny and the three leads are all super charming.

The rest of the cast is great, too. Rob Lowe plays a fellow gold-digger, Linda Lavin is his insanely wealthy wife, Kristen Bell is a frozen yogurt manager who gives Derbez a job, Raquel Welch is his intended next victim, and Rob Corddry is her extremely protective chauffeur. If you have any fondness (or even just patience) for this kind of story, Latin Lover is a charming one.

20. The LEGO Batman Movie



I expected too much. I loved how funny and touching The LEGO Movie was and thought that this would be more of that, just with a ton of Batman references. The trailer promised a story about Batman's realizing that he needs other people, which I thought would allow for some interesting comparisons with Justice League.

And while it is very funny and I'll enjoy revisiting it and picking up references that I missed the first time around, it doesn't have the emotional punch that I hoped for. The emphasis on family is nice, but Will Arnett's Batman is still pretty inscrutable, so the lesson he learns feels very surface.

Don't get me wrong, I laughed a lot and had a great time. But I expected this would be at least a Top 15 movie, if not a Top 10.

19. Atomic Blonde



Atomic Blonde is a great spy story with a super cool agent. I like that it's set in the Cold War and I love the heavy use of '80s New Wave music. I even like how the song choices fit with what's going on onscreen ('Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry," for instance, when two characters are trying not to be overheard), but I understand how that might be annoyingly on-the-nose for some.

The plot is complicated, with a lot of double- and triple-crossing to keep track of, but while I was often kept guessing, I was never confused. And it all tracked for me in the end. Looking back after all the reveals have been made, I have some questions about why certain characters did what they did, but I'm not calling that a flaw until I've been able to see it again with the knowledge of what everyone's up to.

The selling point is the action sequences. There are a few big fights and they're all staged differently and even have different tones from each other. One is a brutal, very prolonged fight in a stairwell, for example, while another in a posh hotel is slow motion and operatic.

18. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets



I was a little nervous about Valerian. The trailers looked fantastic and I like the two leads quite a bit, but I'm never sure what I'm going to get from Luc Besson. That's especially true when he's only producing, but he also directed Lucy and I hated that movie. I was getting a similar vibe about Valerian that I did about Jupiter Ascending, another attempt at a bold space opera by unpredictable (in the sense that I can't predict whether I'm going to like any given film of theirs) filmmakers. I enjoy Jupiter Ascending, but it wasn't as cool or cohesive as I'd hoped it would be. And I was concerned that I'd feel the same way about Valerian.

I didn't love it, but I like it quite a bit and it works a lot better than Jupiter Ascending. People seem to be divided on Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as the leads, but I love both those guys. DeHaan was an effective Harry Osborne in Amazing Spider-Man 2 and another of his movies made my Top 10 this year. I hear the complaints that he's channeling '90s Keanu Reeves and I'm not going to say that it's not true. What I do push back on is that this is a bad thing for a big, fun adventure movie. I'm not as familiar with Delevingne's work, but she brings a lot of personality to Laureline and totally works for me as the soul of the film.

I agree with the criticism that there isn't a lot of romantic heat between the two leads. That's the film's biggest weakness. There's a big chunk of backstory missing in which Valerian has supposedly turned from a Bond-level womanizer to being ready to settle down in a committed relationship with his current work partner. The movie tells me that this is true and eventually convinces me that Valerian at least believes it to be true, but I never see it or feel it myself. And since I don't quite believe it, I wonder why Laureline does. That's the only thing that keeps me from full-heartedly loving the film, though. The rest is awesome.

It's gorgeous and every scene change brings new ideas and things I've never seen before. It may be the only time that I've ever watched a movie in 2D (always my preference) and thought that I should go back and watch it again in 3D. I wanted to immerse myself in the world even more.

The movie is also funny and exciting and I love how it's about overcoming fear and selfishness with love and compassion. As I watch it more, I expect that my problems with the central romance will become less important. I may not care whether Valerian and Laureline smooch, but I'm fully on board with their work relationship. They make a great team and I want more of them.

17. Murder on the Orient Express



A gorgeous, well-acted film. I would love it more if I wasn't so familiar with the plot that there aren't any big surprises, but that couldn't be helped. And it's not like I'd want them to have changed the solution to the mystery anyway.

Branagh does add some things to the story. Mostly in terms of Poirot's motivations, but also some other details and even an Easter Egg or two for Agatha Christie fans. I was never bored or felt like I'd seen it all before and I'm thrilled that there's already a sequel planned. I could go for a Miss Marple cameo in that to spin off into her own series of movies. An Agatha Christie cinematic universe is something that I wholeheartedly support.

16. John Wick: Chapter 2



The first John Wick was in my Top 20 of its year, so I was eager for another one. The sequel didn't disappoint. More great action and more of that bizarre society of assassins that was such a highlight the first time around.

I love the "Chapter 2" concept as well. Chapter 1 was a complete story, but Chapter 2 uses and expands on the events of the previous movie to launch into a new direction. It opens up the world and lays groundwork for future chapters, which is exactly what I want in a sequel.

15. Logan



I feel kind of bad for putting Logan this low on my list, because I want to applaud it for trying something so different with the superhero genre. But I have mixed feelings about the movie and  having seen it a couple of times now I'm still not fully in love with it.

It's got fantastic performances all around, especially by Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and newcomer Dafne Keen. I love Logan and Xavier's relationship and Keen's Laura is as kickass as she is heartbreaking.

But I don't feel as emotionally connected to any of it as I want to. The first time I watched it, I wondered if the distance was because it's set in the future and has that "What If...?" aspect to it. I hoped that whatever barrier I erected because the story "doesn't count" was something that I would eventually get past in repeat viewings. And I did like it more the second time. The alternate future thing didn't bother me at all. But something's still missing.

I think my problem is that everyone keeps trying to make Logan feel fatherly towards Laura. I love the story of his having given up on most of the world and learning to connect with this little girl, but there's an extra layer of pathos that the film keeps trying to spread on by insisting that Logan and Laura are biologically family. The thing is that when they meet, Logan is not her father in any way that actually makes that word meaningful. She was given his DNA without his permission.

This isn't to excuse his initial attitude about her. He's a jerk and his overcoming that is the best thing about the movie. But I also don't believe that he owes her anything specifically because of their genetic connection. His responsibility to her is general and I get frustrated when I feel like the film is trying to force it to be more.

Back on the positive side though: I paid closer attention to the Shane quotes and themes the second time. I've been itching to watch Shane for a while anyway, but now I'm interested in seeing if a better acquaintance with it will affect future viewings of Logan. The line, "There aren't any more guns in the valley" is especially powerful.

14. Get Out



Not the horror movie that I expected, but a powerful, provocative thriller that perfectly balances its tension, humor, and message. I'm not sure that characters' actions early in the film make complete sense once everything is revealed, but it's so strong at everything else that I don't really care. And what an ending.

13. Blade Runner 2049



Denis Villeneuve's sequel doesn't equal Ridley Scott's original in terms of art direction and the score, but does it ever excel in terms of story. I love the multiple layers of symbolism and characterization and the way that mystery leads to mystery. There's clearly room for a sequel at the end, but I also felt like I got a complete story and an excellent. thought-provoking one at that. Dan, Ron, and I talked at length about it on N3rd World, so listen to that for more thoughts. It's a wonderful, complex movie that's worth discussing.

12. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales



Opinions on this movie have been largely negative, so I want to preface my thoughts with a reminder that I'm a hardcore fan of pirates in general and this series in particular. I didn't care much for On Stranger Tides, but I sincerely love the initial trilogyincluding At World's End.

Having said that, I also love Dead Men Tell No Tales. It's silly and it doesn't explain everything, but those are both things that I love about the series. It fixes a problem I had with Stranger Tides, which was trying to make the story about Jack Sparrow. The initial trilogy was all about Elizabeth and Will, with Sparrow thrown in for flavor. Dead Men returns to their story through their son and it totally works for me. Powerfully, in fact. I don't know if there was sea mist in our theater or something, but I definitely felt moisture on my face by the end.

The new character Carina's being pretty awesome was an added bonus. She's no Elizabeth Swann, but I like her and would love to see where her story goes. Which sums up my feelings for the whole series at this point. After Stranger Tides, I hoped that a fifth movie could put the series back on track and that's what's happened as far as I'm concerned. The future of the series is up in the air, but my finger bones are crossed for it.

11. Thor: Ragnarok



I was so encouraged that Taika Waititi was directing this movie. Thor's my favorite Marvel movie superhero and Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a Top 3 movie for me last year. I knew he'd bring a lot of humor, but also heart to the film.

And it is funny. Almost to a fault, because it doesn't feel like it belongs in the same series as Thor and Dark World. It leans into the comedy more heavily than I wanted and I think that's what's keeping it out of my Top 10. But I do like the jokes and the movie also brings in a supremely threatening villain and a massive shake-up to the series' status quo. Both of those things are pretty great.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

10 Movies I Liked Just Fine from 2017

34. The Little Hours



This should have been really funny. It's some of my favorite comic actors in a farce about a medieval convent. There's Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, John C Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Nick Offerman, and even Paul Reiser whom I didn't get enough of in Stranger Things 2.

And there are some good moments, but the whole thing was shot improv style and it really could have used a script. As it is, the humor relies way too much on the idea that its funny when nuns swear and take drugs and have sex. I mean, that is funny, but the film leans way too heavily on it when actual jokes would have been better.

Fred Armisen steals the show and nudges it up into this list instead of the Didn't Like category.

33. Kingsman: The Golden Circle



The Kingsman sequel pretty much repeated my experience with the first one. It's a great idea with some super fun characters and set pieces, but Matthew Vaughn always takes the joke (or the violence) two or three steps beyond where I want it to go.

That said, I'm impressed that Hanna Alström's character from the first movie is not only still around, but a major part of the new film. Her return was a nice surprise and added some emotional depth that I didn't expect. But there are some other characters from the first movie that I was extremely disappointed to see dropped and not all of the new characters had enough to do either. It's a strong mixture of fun and disappointment.

32. The Mummy



This one would have been disappointing had the extremely negative reviews not lowered my expectations. But it was still frustrating considering the hopes I had for the Tom Cruise-starring launch of the new Universal Monsters series.

I have no problems with old dudes in action movies, but the script clearly thinks that Cruise is at least 20 years younger than he is. And contradictory to Universal's marketing claims, it's not actually scary. It's an adventure story that has more in common with the 1999 Mummy than the 1932 one.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing and I had a good enough time with it. It's not the strong start to the Dark Universe (hate that name) that I wanted, but it's a harmless, mostly engaging summer flick.

31. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter



I'm generally a fan of the Resident Evil series, thanks mostly to the first couple of entries. Resident Evil was as good as I feel like I should expect from a movie based on a that kind of video game and its sequel was even better. As the series progressed, it got increasingly wacky, but mostly enjoyably so. The only one I really don't care for is Retribution (the next to the last), which is everything that I don't want in a movie based on this kind of video game. But I always enjoyed the cliffhanger endings and watching writer/director Paul WS Anderson struggle to resolve them; almost as much as I looked forward to his finishing the series and completing the story.

I wish that The Final Chapter was a stronger ending than it is, but it circled back around to previous entries in a fun way and didn't completely fall apart. A whackadoo ending to a whackadoo series and that's good enough for me.

30. xXx: Return of Xander Cage



I was a huge fan of xXx when it came out. The Bond series was struggling (Die Another Day came out the same year) and Xander Cage was different enough from my favorite spy that I could embrace his ridiculousness without resenting that he wasn't more grounded. I fell so hard for the character that I never saw State of the Union, even though I like Ice Cube just fine. Which is all to say that I was ready and eager for the Return of Xander Cage.

Unfortunately, when I rewatched xXx to get ready for this, it hadn't aged well. Since it came out, Matt Damon (Bourne Identity came out the same year as Die Another Day and xXx; what a weird year for spy movies) and Daniel Craig have redefined what I'm looking for in spy heroes. Xander's hyper-masculinity didn't cut it anymore.

I was feeling the same way about the first half of Return of Xander as every single character gushed about either wanting to work or sleep with (or both) The Legendary Xander Cage™. But once the movie dropped that and settled into a cool team of extreme spies on a cool mission, I got into it and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

It's a shame that Toni Collette doesn't have any more to do than just look really serious the whole movie, though, because she's an awesome actor. But the rest of the characters are fun and I especially enjoyed the competition between Vin Diesel and Donnie Yen.

29. Beauty and the Beast



Between this and Last Jedi, I'm not sure which is the most divisive movie of the year. I have friends who raved about this and others who hate it with white hot passion.

I'm solidly in the middle. It's completely unnecessary in that what little it adds to the cartoon is inconsequential backstory to answer questions that no one was asking. But it's still fun to see live-action interpretations of these characters; especially the household items. And I'm never going to complain about seeing Luke Evans strut around being comically manly.

28. Alien: Covenant



As a sequel to Prometheus, it's an improvement. The characters still do stupid things for the sake of the plot, but the story is more clear this time and it's just generally more exciting and scary.

But as a prequel to Alien, I question its right to exist. It answers questions that I've been curious about, but I'm not sure that I actually wanted the answers to. Or maybe it's answering them in a way that I'm not satisfied with. I had a good time with it and would put it third in a ranking of the whole series (I'm still in the camp that doesn't forgive Alien 3), but that's a low bar and it's certainly not a return to greatness.

27. My Cousin Rachel



To talk about this, I'm going to have to spoil it, so be warned. If you're interested in seeing it, skip my commentary. If you like historical drama, gothic stories, or just Rachel Weisz, even though I didn't love it, it's worth checking out.

My Cousin Rachel is a gothic romance based on a book by Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn). And it's additionally intriguing because it's gender-swapped, with a naive male in the lead and a woman who's oppressing him. Maybe.

The problem is that the film (and the book, as I understand) leaves some question about whether the title character is actually manipulating the lead or if it's all in his head. I'm generally cool with ambiguity, but My Cousin Rachel (at least the film version) springs it on you at the end like it's a plot twist. The fun of a movie like this is realizing before the hero does that he's being manipulated, so there was never any question in my mind that possibly he wasn't. If the film was bold enough to say at the end that it was all in the hero's head, that would be pleasantly shocking. But simply putting a question mark on it wasn't enough.

Otherwise, though, great performances and I love the gloomy Cornwall setting.

26. The Hero



I haven't full processed this one yet. I just watched it at the end of the year and I've still got the Netflix disc at home so that I can watch it again with commentary. My initial reaction is that it's extremely well acted and lovingly shot, but that all of that is making a mediocre story seem better than it is.

Sam Elliott is one of my favorite actors and it's rare that he gets to play the lead. In fact, I'm not sure if I've ever seen him do it. He is amazing in this and not just because of his voice and mustache. There's one particular scene where I'm pretty sure my jaw literally dropped.

The problem is that he's playing a character I feel like I've seen many many times before: the dying, absent father looking for some absolution before he goes. The movie puts a pretty great twist on this by also calling into question his career choices and making him think about what he might do differently if he gets a second chance. But I'm not sure that's enough.

Really gonna have to try this one more time.

25. Snatched



I enjoyed Trainwreck enough that I was interested in more from Amy Schumer. And I thought it would be nice to check in with Goldie Hawn as well.

Snatched has some plot setup that gets in the way of the jokes for a while, but once the movie gets rolling it's super funny. And it is indeed great to see Hawn back in action. The surprise of the movie was Ike Barinholtz as Schumer's brother, but all of the supporting cast have big, funny moments.

Monday, January 08, 2018

5 Movies I Didn't Like from 2017

Today, we start counting down all the 2017 movies I watched from worst to best. Here's the bottom of the barrel.

39. Going In Style



I had low expectations, but wanted to see it anyway. I especially like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Ann-Margret. I also dig heist movies and I'm generally patient with movies about aging and friendship. And then it's directed by Zach Braff, who still gets a lot of goodwill from me for Scrubs (and I liked Garden State just fine, too).

That's a lot of faint praise, but even without high hopes, I wound up disappointed. There are better heist movies, better movies with these actors, and better movies about these themes. Nothing about it is extraordinary in any way.

38. Baywatch



I love The Rock and Zac Efron enough that I really wanted to see them in a movie together, in spite of the horrible reviews this got. I did find parts funny, but noticed that they all involved Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. He's the MVP of the film and I laughed out loud every time he got to do or say something. I'm eager to see him in Aquaman now (he's gonna play Black Mantis).

The rest of the movie is just silly. It's main joke is how ridiculous the TV show's premise was and it keeps hammering away at that hoping that it'll eventually make someone laugh. Ditto the barfing and penis humor.

37. Literally, Right Before Aaron



This got my attention, because what an awesome cast. In addition to Justin Long, Cobie Smulders, and John Cho, there are also cameos by Lea Thompson, Dana Delany, Peter Gallagher, Charlyne Yi (one of my favorite actors on House), and Luis Guzmán.

The film is about Adam's (Long) agreeing to attend the wedding of his ex-girlfriend, Allison (Smulders), whom he dated for eight years. Aaron is the groom's name, so Adam is the boyfriend "literally, right before" him. On the positive side, the movie does a great job of capturing the bittersweetness of remembering good times with a former love. Adam spends a lot of time wallowing in it and I could relate to that.

Unfortunately, Adam himself is a thoroughly dislikable person and while I could empathize with his heartbreak, I never sympathized with him or wanted him and Allison to get back together. I don't know what's harder to swallow: that the movie doesn't care to explain what made her finally dump him after eight years, or that she stuck with him for that long to begin with.

36. The Circle



I'm going to spoil some things, but you shouldn't watch The Circle, so feel free to keep reading. This movie is so disappointing.

I love the cast and the concept is intriguing, but The Circle does a lousy job of making whatever point it's trying to communicate. There's one good scene that raises worthwhile questions about a) the relationship between truth and transparency, and b) the tension between those things and privacy. But I don't know what the rest of the movie is about.

It's not the thriller that Marketing wanted you to think it is. Mae (Emma Watson) is never in any physical danger and the only stakes are that if she leaves her job then she also loses the awesome health insurance that's finally getting her dad (Bill Paxton) some help with his MS. That's okay, though. It's enough that the movie puts her in an interesting quandary. Should she stay with an employer that has a ridiculous lack of boundaries when it comes to employees' personal lives (and apparently no HR department at all)? The movie could have explored that more fully and I wouldn't have missed the lack of fights and chases. But it's not really about that, either.

I can't tell if Mae is ever skeptical about the Circle's participation policies. I assumed that she was and that her "yeah, yeah, no problem" attitude towards them was simply an attempt not to make waves in her cool, new job. But she never really puts up a fight; not even when senior employee Ty Kalden (John Boyega) decides to entrust her with some concerning information. And after that she's just one bad evening and a pep talk from Tom Hanks away from completely buying what the Circle is selling.

She says some truly stupid things in that section, too. She calls watching videos of other people's experiences "a basic human right," for instance. And says that it's selfish not to post experiences online for everyone to see. She hasn't just swallowed Eamon Bailey's (Tom Hanks) Kool-Aid; she's swallowed the pitcher itself and the entire soft drink aisle. I kept expecting that at some point she would reveal that she was faking it and was really working with Kalden the whole time, but that moment never came.

There's of course a confrontation between Mae and Bailey by the end, but there are two huge problems with it. First, the movie never reveals what it is exactly that Bailey is doing wrong. He's full of terrible, harmful ideas, but there's no explicit indication that he's actually planning to use his collected data for evil purposes. The potential is certainly there and I wanted to see him stopped, but his final unmasking is nothing more than a revelation that he has secrets just like everyone else. Nor does the movie care about telling what those are. So the climactic showdown between him and Mae doesn't have any punch, because it's never clear what would happen if Bailey won.

The second huge problem with the final confrontation is that Mae's ideas are now just as harmful as Bailey's. She still believes in total transparency. Her problem with Bailey is just that he wants to be exempt from it. So I'm not exactly rooting for her, either.

It's not wrong that the movie ends with no clear answers. What I don't like is the way it phrases the question. It presents two, horrible solutions and asks which is preferable. There's some discussion that can be had around that, but the discussion would be so much richer if the film took its dilemma seriously and offered a couple of actually reasonable perspectives for its viewers to contemplate.

35. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul



I'm a big fan of the first three Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies. We talked about them (focusing on the third) on an episode of Mystery Movie Night, so check that out if you want an explanation of why the whole series is great. With that in mind, I was skeptical about continuing the series with new actors (the original kids have aged out of their roles). Skeptical, but not overly concerned. I'm also a fan of the books and know that there's plenty of great material to make more movies out of as long as the cast doesn't blow it.

Surprisingly, the actors aren't at all the reason I don't like The Long Haul. They all do a fine job jumping into their characters, with a special shout-out for Alicia Silverstone as the mom. The problem is actually the script. The series is known for its characters' bad decision-making, but the shenanigans in this are particularly dumb and unbelievable. There's some funny stuff, but it's hard for me to feel bad for the characters when they're getting exactly the results that their actions call for.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Notes on My General Movie-Watching in 2017



One of my favorite things about using Letterboxd is that it creates a nifty summary of your movie-watching for the year. So before I get into ranking the 2017 movies I've seen so far, here are some notes about the movies I watched from all the other years. After all, of the 389 movies I watched last year, 89% of them were from 2016 or earlier.

The first movie I watched was Buster Keaton's 1937 short, Jail Bait. The last one of the year was Office Christmas Party, sneaking in late on our holiday schedule.

My most-watched movie of the year was The Last Jedi, which I saw four times. Will probably watch it once more before we talk about it on Nerd Lunch.

The actors I watched the most were Vincent Price and Robert Mitchum, tied at 12 films each. Next was Boris Karloff (8 films), followed by a four-way tie between George Sanders, Sigourney Weaver, Milla Jovovich, and John Wayne (7 films each).

My most-watched director was Alfred Hitchcock with 7 films. After him there's a three-way tie between Paul WS Anderson, John Ford, and Ridley Scott (5 films each).

Alright, enough of that. On Monday: The worst movies of 2017!

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

45 Movies I Missed from 2017

Wow. This is my longest "missed" list since I started doing these posts in 2013. That's partly because this was a great movie year, but it's mostly because the way that I've watched movies has changed. I've gotten pickier about what I care to see in the theater, so I've only seen 39 so far of the 2017 films that interest me. Another factor is that some of these actually haven't been released yet, except maybe in festivals. That's always the case with some every year, but this year seems especially heavy in that category.

I tend to be about six months behind when catching up to these in home viewing, so I might try something new this year and revise my rankings around July when I've actually seen everything. In the meantime, this list will explain why some movies didn't make it into my rankings. And as usual, I'm listing them more or less in the order that they were released.

The Last Face



This one's mostly about the cast. Theron and Bardem play relief workers trying to help an area during a revolution and I'm curious to see director Sean Penn's view on that story.

Planetarium



This one's also about the lead actors, but they play sisters who claim to see dead people, so that sounds cool, too.

The Limehouse Golem



Bill Nighy in a Ripper-esque movie in which the murders may be the work of a golem. I really wanted to see this around Halloween, but couldn't get my act together.

City of Tiny Lights



Looks like a modern film noir with Riz Ahmed (Rogue One) as the detective. I'm not sure what Billie Piper's doing, but I'm betting that I'll love it, whatever it is.

The Big Sick



Kumail Nanjiani always makes me laugh and I've heard great things about this non-traditional romantic comedy written by him and his wife, Emily V Gordon. Plus: Holly Hunter!

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