Shaun Celebrates Mad Max Fury Road and its Feminism in Disguise

Mad Max: Fury Road is the best movie of 2015 and one of the best action movies of all time.  A majority out there, while not necessarily agreeing with that statement fully, will nod their heads in understanding for where that sentiment comes from.  But, when a film gets the kind of praise Fury Road has since its release it will have its fair share of backlash.  It’s understandable.  Part of human nature is to feel unique and contrary opinions are one way to achieve that.  A person can be in a bad mood upon first seeing a film most love.  Then there’s the fact that the hype surrounding some films (as well as bands, books, foods, and nearly anything one can have a positive feeling toward) is so intense that nothing can ultimately live up it.  This could very well be the case where Fury Road is concerned.

To explain at least partially what I love so much about Mad Max: Fury Road, I’ve realized while trying to organize my thoughts on the movie I could probably write a novella length piece about it and no one wants that, I’ve taken some of the most common complaints I’ve heard aimed at the movie in an attempt to replace some of the negativity with appreciation.  I don’t expect to convert anyone through this article as film appreciation is such a subjective endeavor, but I can at least hope for understanding.

Fury Road is just a two hour long car chase

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This complaint is the one I hear perhaps the most, and it’s also a great place to start since it sets up a discussion of why Fury Road is such a unique film.  I often respond to this complaint when I’m in one of my more snide mood with, “Yes.  That’s the point.”  I think this complaint comes from people who are more comfortable with and find more enjoyment in story telling which relies on dialogue.

The word “movies”, though, is a shortened slang word derived from what they were originally called – moving pictures.  Movies as a storytelling device was a happy accident (though, possibly an inevitable one) as the original intent for the invention of film was closer to a photograph than a novel or a play.  The earliest movies created to tell a story were silent, and therefore had to rely entirely on visuals to get their account across.  Eventually someone came up with the idea of using title cards for dialogue, and shortly after that sound-on-film was invented, but at its core movies are moving pictures.

Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t a silent picture by any stretch of the imagination, it’s actually quite noisy, but it uses dialogue sparsely relying primarily on images and action to tell its story.  In making Fury Road George Miller understood that while there are many ways to create a narrative, only film can use images captured over large and myriad areas from any angle as a means of depicting his.  His being said two hour long car chase.

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There are many reasons to tell a story which is essentially just one long action sequence, the first of which being exactly that.  How cool is it to craft one long action sequence?  The story is driven not by what people say, but by what people do.  Talk is cheap, and a picture is worth a thousand words, and all that.   Sure, occasionally a command is barked but little time is wasted on people speaking about their feelings or their motivations, those are shown in the most direct way possible – through the actions the characters take.

Beyond the fact that Mad Max: Fury Road fully takes advantage of the medium of film by being almost entirely composed of action, there is also the fact that making an entire film from what is normally a single beat in a standard film adds up to a truly unique experience.  It makes for a film that, in a literal sense, very rarely slows down.  The start, the finish, and during the act breaks we get an opportunity to leave the vehicles and get a little expository and character building dialogue in, but outside of those four short sections the characters, the story, and thus our attention never slows down.

This a brave decision because it had the chance to alienate a good part of its intended audience (and, I think it actually did do just that which is part of the reason I felt compelled to write this piece) and it forced the writers to get across character development and themes in the middle of a whirlwind with little speech.  The fact that they not only accomplished that, but did so in a manner more loud and clear than a great many character pieces let alone action films, is a great testament to their talent.

There is one more very important reason the film makers made the movie one long car chase.  But, that reason ties in more closely with my discussion of themes which will come along a little later.

Everyone in in the post-apocalyptic world has great hair and make-up

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The Mad Max movies portray a world in which the last humans are trying to survive on an Earth with little food and water left, in which gasoline is more valuable than any precious metal or gem, and where gangs impose their power on the weak where they can and join together with would be dictators when they become the weak themselves.  They also all apparently have attended cosmetology school and have access to whatever makeup and hair styling tools they want.

Or do they?

If you remember, when Max is discovered at the start of the film, his hair and beard are overgrown, tangled, and matted.  He’s dirty and I imagine if a film could convey smell we’d all be grateful that the opening scene is over quickly.  Once he’s captured, the first thing the War Boys do to him is shave him, wash him, and brand him and once the action starts in earnest he’s freshly cleaned up.

Furiosa has lived most of her life in The Citadel as one of Immortan Joe’s lieutenants, and so has had access to plenty of clean water to wash with.  Plus, she shaves her head so hair isn’t an issue and she doesn’t wear make up.  She just happens to be played by Charlize Theron, so of course she’s incredibly beautiful even without the normal trappings, but that’s bone structure and other genetics, not the result of being dolled up.

The War Boys, Immortan Joe, Nux, and the other denizens of The Citadel all exist in various states of ragged dress, skin disease, and uncleanliness depending on their position within the society and their age.  The young War Boys look the most fit, but even they shave their heads completely and cover themselves in a white chalk.  The elder leaders of The Citadel have boils, cysts, and oozing sores.  The commoners in The Citadel have it worst of all, bent over, covered in grime, skinny, overgrown, the throngs of The Citadel not able to fight for Immortan Joe exist in state which can barely be considered human by the standards of here and now.

Which brings us to Toast, Splendid, Capable, and The Dag collectively known as “The Wives” who are the real target of this complaint.  The Wives do have impeccable hair, make-up, and skin.  This is because until the start of the film they were considered the property of Immortan Joe, the god-king of The Citadel and controller of the entire region’s water supply.  He makes sure they have the best, but he also makes sure they look the best since they are his personal baby factories.  Sex slaves.  Their appearance is essential to several Mad Max: Fury Road‘s themes, plus it just makes sense that the people of The Citadel would make absolutely sure the Wives always looked the best the possibly can to keep their master Immortan Joe pleased with them.

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So it’s not that everyone has hair stylists and make-up artists on their personal payroll.  It’s that Fury Road understands and has something to say about social classes.  It’s not something I’m going into any more detail in this particular article, but the reason people look so good post-apocalypse is George Miller saying in effect the more things change the more they stay the same.  The rich and powerful keep people as toys, and they want their toys kept in peak condition.

It is weird that with so many high-powered, large-tired motor vehicles moving at top speed through the desert that every single character isn’t covered in sand and dirt a few minutes into the chase.  If you want to make that complaint, I’ll give you a side eye for nitpicking but will grudgingly agree.

The movie is named Mad Max: Fury Road, but Max doesn’t do much

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Max has not been the focal character in any of the Mad Max films since the very first installment, and even that one could be up for debate.  The Mad Max films are more about the world they take place in and why George Miller feels that is a world we are hurtling toward if we don’t change our ways than they are about any of the people inhabiting that world.  Max has always been closer to a very active narrator than a protagonist, he brings us to the stories, tells them, but they are not his stories.

The popular opinion is that Furiosa is the main character in Mad Max: Fury Road.  It is she who who rescues the Wives, she who steals the War Rig, she who teaches the Wives to be strong, she who leads the group, makes the deals, and she who ultimately kills Immortan Joe and becomes the leader of The Citadel after great personal sacrifice. Those are all the traits of a hero, and normally the hero is also the protagonist.  But, while she is a paragon and of utmost importance to the film’s themes she is not the main character, either, as she doesn’t have a character arc.  She begins and ends the movie in the same place, literally and figuratively, and she makes that place better for everyone around her.

My more unpopular opinion is that the War Boy Nux is the main character in Mad Max: Fury Road.  Nux begins the movie an aggressive man-child eager to be noticed by Immortan Joe who has promised his War Boys a place in Valhalla if they fight well for him.  Nux is told to stay home by his superiors instead of joining the war party going after Furiosa because he is not well (for some unrevealed reason).  Nux, however, insists that his newly captured blood bag, Max, has strong blood and as long as Max can keep giving him his blood infusion (against Max’s will) he’ll be fine to join the party seeking to recapture their god-king’s sex slaves back from the evil woman who stole them.

Nux finishes the movie sacrificing his own life to be sure the horde of hyper-aggressive men he was once proud to be a part of won’t be able to capture the women whom he now loves and respects so they can retake The Citadel now empty of the warmongering horde and turn it into the paradise they were seeking elsewhere.  Now that’s a character arc, and it is all handled organically through visually focused story telling.

Why Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie worth celebrating

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As I in my opening, I could go on and on about Fury Road.  I haven’t mentioned its spectacular, Oscar winning art direction.  I could put an entire section on how in an age of CGI laden visuals Fury Road returned to stunt work and practical effects.  Fury Road out actions most action movies without cheating (okay, CGI isn’t cheating, but you get the idea), but what really sets it apart is what it has to say and how it says it.

We have a film in which powerful men control the world’s most important resources and dish out just enough of them to the people to keep them from revolting while also controlling the masses through false proverbs and promises of an afterlife.  These lords are powerful enough that they naturally feel entitled to anything they want, including other people, and they pass this sense of entitlement on to those closest to them in their hierarchy.  A powerful woman who was stolen as a child from her clan of all women who lived in a paradise is now mature and experienced enough to see the evil her master is doing, and decides to free the women he keeps as sex slaves and take them away with her to the green place of her childhood where they can join and be protected by the matriarchy rather than mistreated by the patriarchy.

She means to sneak away, but she’s found out and every man able to drive a war vehicle and fight soon comes after her.  One of these men brought along against his will joins her crew, and soon after one of the War Boys also joins her after disappointing the lord who promised him rewards after death and finding he respects the people in this band more than those he grew up with as they are kind, forgiving, and thoughtful in addition to also being strong willed survivors.

When the woman and her crew find that the green place no longer exists and barely a fraction of the matriarchy are still left, they decide to go back to The Citadel from whence they started and take it over for themselves now that the warmongers in charge are all outside The Citadel chasing them.  The sex slaves learn they can fight against their captors and the woman and former War Boy make sacrifices, the War Boy the ultimate sacrifice, to stop the war party and their leader in its tracks.

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So, put that all together and what we have is a film about literally and metaphorically removing the toxic masculinity from a society, and replacing it with more feminine ideals to heal the damage done to it by aggression and entitlement over the decades.  It shows us this through the state things have declined to under the men who lie, coerce, and bully to get their way and contrasting that with a woman who is just as powerful but was brainwashed from childhood to believe what the rest of society believes and now realizes the error of those beliefs.  It gives us a boy who is just another cog in a machine to be used by his master, and thus is filled with this contagious toxic masculinity, but who becomes loved and respected once he is able recognize the poison inside of him and release himself from it, and revered when he acts out of love instead of out of greed and entitlement for the first time in his life.

Mad Max: Fury Road tells us that the green place actually is within our grasp, and it’s closer than we think.  It’s right here.  But, to get to it, we have to remove the toxic masculinity which has been controlling our religions, our governments, our economics, and our entire way of life for centuries and embrace the feminine.  It’s not about hating men.  Men are essential to the human race’s success.  It’s about letting the women have at least an equal voice, maybe more until we can achieve some type of balance between the masculine and feminine voices.

Mad Max: Fury Road gives us the most feminist of messages wrapped up in a style and genre which most appeals to the hyper-masculine.  It uses action and visuals, not words.  It uses spears, and fast cars, and amazing stunts instead of soliloquies and serious facial expressions.  Mad Max: Fury Road is a feminist film masquerading as the toxic, supposed alpha male’s most desired fantasy.  It delivers its message not to the choir, but to those who most need to hear it, and in a way in which they want to listen.  That’s what makes Fury Road so brilliant and worth celebrating.

 

Marvel Studios: 11 Years and 21 Movies Ranked

With Avengers: Endgame just about to hit theaters, I and everyone else obsessed with movies whether professionally or otherwise have decided to look back to the beginning in 2008 and rank and talk about the 21 movies which have been released prior to the epic finale of phase 3 and of the entire Marvel story line thus far.   The feature films in the MCU could arguably be the most consistently entertaining, crowd pleasing group of movies ever released by a studio, but that doesn’t mean they are all equal nor that they don’t have their share of issues.

The secret to Marvel’s success and consistency, in my opinion, is a deep understanding of their characters and themes.  While they have had an issue giving life to their villains at times (and certainly not all the time, there are a few great villains in their canon), they otherwise give us three dimensional, exciting, witty people we can get deeply invested in.  Where they fail is in lack of stakes and in being so true to visual and storytelling formulas that all their films look and feel far too similar, creativity gets lost to what is seemingly studio mandate.

From their worst to their best, here is how I feel about the pre-Endgame MCU feature films.

21.  Thor: The Dark World (Taylor; 2013)

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Underwhelming writing, dull cinematography, and a cast which doesn’t seem to want to be there make for Marvel Studio’s worst film by a rather large margin.

If any of the MCU films can be called downright bad, it would be Thor: The Dark World. The villain problems extant in much of the MCU is at its worst here with a villain so basic, so lacking in any personality or distinguishing traits that he’s nearly impossible to remember for most.  The heroes aren’t much better with Chris Hemsworth not being used to the best of his ability, yet, and obvious lack of chemistry between most of the cast, and supporting characters who don’t seem to have much of a reason to be in the film beyond exposition and snark.  Even Tom Hiddleston, the best part of the first two Thor movies, is somewhat wasted here as Loki is only in half the film and his character is written inconsistently.

 

20.  Iron Man 3 (Black; 2013)

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Much like Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 3 is a mess of a movie with dull villains and an unnecessarily complicated story line.  The exploration of Tony Stark’s PTSD after the events of The Avengers is a fantastic idea, but the idea is poorly executed and diluted by too many unrelated subplots.

Iron Man 3 does take its fair share of risks, something I wish more Marvel Studio’s films would do, but in this particular case those risks don’t pay off and can be actively aggravating.

I admit to this low of a ranking being subjective.  I did not see Iron Man 3 until many years after its release by which time I had seen a few MCU films which already grappled some with Stark’s PTSD and so the impact wasn’t as great as it could have been had I seen the films in order.  I decided to not take that into account in my rankings, however, as this demonstrates one of the many ways personal experience can impact one’s investment into and enjoyment of art.

19. The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier; 2008)

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The Incredible Hulk is sort of the poster child for what makes a bad MCU film.  It understands the character of its protagonists well enough, but it again has dull villains (yes, that will be said a lot throughout this list), is predictable, takes no risks with its story, and outside of its action sequences has little creativity in its technical aspects.  The tensions between Edward Norton and the studio are also well known, and almost certainly played a part in The Incredible Hulk‘s lack of inspiration.

William Hurt’s role as General Ross was arguably the movie’s highlight, and his return in later films was appreciated.  Hulk – not a smash.

18.  Iron Man 2 (Favreau; 2010)

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Iron Man 2 is undeniably a mess.  It touches on Tony Stark’s irresponsibility and alcoholism, but not to the degree necessary for those themes to contain any weight.  Its story line is a little all over the place trying to grapple with more conflicts and character arcs than its running time can reasonably allow.  And, its action sequences are arguably the hardest to follow in the entire MCU.

It does have two often forgotten saving graces, however, in Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell as well thought out, well acted villains.  Mickey Rourke famously hated working on the film and refuses to return to the MCU, which is too bad because his professionalism still allowed him to give a captivating turn as Whiplash, but the fact that Rockwell has never returned as Justin Hammer is a little bewildering as he was excellent as well.

17.  Thor (Branagh; 2011)

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Thor’s origin movie suffers from the same problems as its sequel where the cast chemistry is concerned, but has the advantage of Hemsworth being allowed to flex is comedic muscle a bit more and Tom Hiddleston has a much larger role.  The film does suffer from pacing issues, and the fact that Hiddleston and Hemsworth are separate for the majority of the film means we are stuck with Hemsworth and Portman’s comedically bad rapport for most of Thor.

The screenplay does do an excellent job of getting the primary characters personalities down, Branagh’s direction does add a distinction most MCU movies don’t contain, and Hiddleston was so great that I believe he is the reason Rourke and Rockwell were all but forgotten about from Iron Man 2.  Thor has more positive than negative, but is still far too inconsistent and rocky to be considered among even the more moderate movies of the MCU.

16.  Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston; 2011)

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By the time the first Captain America movie came along, Marvel Studios had a plan and it showed.  However, it did not have a complete formula and that also shows for better or worse.

When Chris Evans was chosen to play Captain America the general consensus was that he looked perfect for the part, but since he was just coming off of a short run as The Human Torch in the not so great Fantastic Four movies many were dubious as to his being able to give the role the calm charisma needed.  We know now that he perfectly embodied the role to the same degree Hugh Jackman embodied Wolverine, Ron Perlman did Hellboy, or Ryan Reynolds Deadpool.

The rest of the film is not quite as great.  Cap’s relationship with Bucky is near perfect, but the rest of the characters don’t fare quite as well.  His chemistry with Peggy is certainly better than Thor’s with Jane, but it’s still not stellar, and Hugo Weaving gives a so-so performance as Red Skull.  Overall, a solid, but slightly underwhelming entry into the Marvel canon.

15.  Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed; 2018)

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Ant-Man and the Wasp is a film which may epitomize both the best and the worst parts of the MCU in one film.  On the one hand, it understands the majority of its characters intimately, nailing their relationships with one another, the positives and negatives of their personalities, and what their talents and abilities allow them to accomplish on both a practical level and in a fun for the audience way.  It’s humorous without devolving into pure camp, its action is creative and exciting, and its dialogue witty but light and unpretentious.

However, it suffers from having a truly underwhelming and underwritten villain in Ghost (which is particularly annoying here since the last few Marvel films had gotten past this flaw), and it’s primary plot shows that stakes in Marvel films are not just light, but non-existent.  It’s a running gag that people never die in the comics, but the Marvel films could fix that since actors have contracts and while Spider-Man in the comics has to survive for decades to sell books, the movies not only don’t have that problem, they can’t even if they wanted to.  So, to have the Marvel films constantly resurrect their dead protagonists lowers the stakes when we know it isn’t ever permanent, to have a plot which revolves around essentially bringing a character back from a point of no return epitomizes and exacerbates that.

14.  Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon; 2015)

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What Marvel having a cinematic universe allows it to do better than any series of films before or since is have large event films with dozens of characters and gigantic action scenes which don’t need the usual exposition and set up since this has already been done in other movies.  Personally, I enjoy these large event movies more than the smaller films (spoiler alert as to which films are going to be toward the top of this list) as they allow me to see something on an epic scale done in a manner few if any films prior to the MCU have been able to accomplish.

Avengers: Age of Ultron most definitely has the touch of its director Joss Whedon with witty dialogue, a light tone which uses self awareness and verbal prestigitation, and death to evoke an emotional reaction.  Unfortunately, these very qualities undercut the film’s tone giving us a villain more snarky than scary (though not dull, at least), a film with emotional beats more manufactured than earned, and an action movie which depends more on what the characters say than what they do.

Add to all that inconsistent tone and many scenes which have little to do with the main story and break the narrative flow, and that makes Avengers: Age of Ultron the worst of these large event films.

13.  Ant-Man (Reed; 2015)

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One thing Marvel did in its second phase of films is start branching off into different genres than straight comic book action dramas.  In Ant-Man we got Marvel’s first heist movie with all the fun and large supporting cast heist movies generally entail.

Going with the Scott Lang version of Ant-Man rather than the original Hank Pym version was a bit inspired as it allowed Ant-Man to be portrayed by Paul Rudd with his “aw shucks” brand of hilarious charisma rather than an Ant-Man who is incredibly intelligent but otherwise bland as Pym is in the comics.  It also created a far more interesting character dynamic than Pym’s origin had in the printed version.

Unfortunately, Ant-Man was severely hampered by a plot far too similar to the other Marvel origin movies, including the usual lackluster villain, and the comic, light-hearted tone means the film didn’t even have high stakes tension to lean on for excitement factor.

12.  Dr. Strange (Derrickson; 2016)

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The fact that a movie as solid as Dr. Strange is this far down the list speaks to why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has struck such a chord with general audiences.  We’re not even halfway through the list and we’re to films that aren’t just good, but have positive qualities which far outweigh their negatives.

Dr. Strange is nearly perfectly cast, it has trippy, creative visuals, it separates the magic of the Marvel world from the fantasy magic we are used to from traditional fantasy films, and it is written with a deep understanding of its characters without being afraid to change their more problematic elements.

All that being said, Dr. Strange still has horrible villain problems, the only interesting factor involving the villains is how the ultimate enemy is finally defeated, and is predictably formulaic to an extreme.  Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect for the role, and Ejiofor as Mordo showed a lot of promise as a future villain, so I have to believe that the second solo Dr. Strange film will be superior.

11.  Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts; 2017)

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The only entry in the MCU not distributed by Disney/Marvel Studio’s, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a solid entry for Sony, one of the best of the Spider-Man films, but not quite good enough to break into the top 10.  Sony made the very intelligent choice to not make Spider-Man: Homecoming and origin story, figuring most likely correctly that its audience already knows this story and more than a little sick of it.  Another aspect of Spider-Man: Homecoming which demonstrates a lot of intelligence on the part of its creators is a phenomenal cast including the rare for Marvel movies fantastic villain Vulture played by Michael Keaton and Tom Holland as Spider-Man the first person to take on the role who is excellent as both Spider-Man and Peter Parker.

The very personal story line of Spider-Man: Homecoming allows for one of the most intimate character studies in a Marvel movie to date of both Peter Parker and Adrian Toomes (Vulture) but it also makes for much smaller stakes than we are used to in an MCU film.  I do like the fact that this means for his first MCU feature we get a “friendly neighborhood” Spider-Man, I don’t like that this makes for a movie which has very little to say beyond its surface.

Still, what we get is enough to make it a strong entry in the MCU, the second best live action Spider-Man film after Spider-Man 2, and while its themes of working class man who gets screwed over by the powers that be are shallow, they are enough to make for a bit more than just surface level investment.

10.  Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi; 2017)

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I’ve stated that Marvel has never made a truly bad movie, except possibly for Thor: The Dark World, but past this point we go beyond mediocre and good into exceptional.  Which if you have already calculated the very simple math means I believe that nearly half of the output of Marvel Studios enters the exceptional category (though, I don’t believe any approach anything resembling a masterpiece).

Thor: Ragnarok is the first Thor film to recognize and utilize Chris Hemsworth’s talent for comedy to its fullest extent, which makes sense since it is directed by Taika Waititi the New Zealander responsible for What We Do in the Shadows.  What doesn’t make sense, yet absolutely works anyway, is that this comedic tone is taken in a film which focuses on gladiatorial combat, the end of the universe, and the goddess of death.

The first Marvel Universe film which is a straight-up comedy also deals with its darkest subject matter (until we get to Infinity War) but Waititi somehow manages to balance the light tone with the heavy stakes without turning to cynical dark comedy.  It’s an amazing feat, and I hope that Waititi and Marvel Studios can somehow find a way to work together again sometime down the line.

9.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn; 2017)

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This was perhaps the most difficult film for me to place on this list as it does the thing I love most in a film better than any other Marvel movie, and that’s use the fictional and the fantastic to grapple with a theme relevant to reality.  In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s case its using superhero space opera to cast the light from a semi-warped mirror onto the dysfunctions present in most every family on Earth.  It sheds that light primarily onto those with “daddy issues”, but it also tackles sibling rivalry, being overly attached to a parent, and issues prevalent in foster families.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 also has the best cinematography of any MCU film.  Somehow, Gunn managed to get away with more than just the standard practical but farthest away from anything which could be considered art cinematography of the other Marvel Studio’s films and gave us a few scenes, in particular the opening credits scene of all things, which have a definite artistic personal style to them.

Even though GoG 2 does two things better than any other MCU entry, though, I can not rank it any higher than this because it suffers from the same villain problems as most other Marvel films (though not quite to the usual degree) and its comic tone never finds a true balance and is often downright distracting in it inability to just let a tender emotion sit and stew with the audience.

8.  Black Panther (Coogler; 2018)

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There is one reason and only one reason that Black Panther isn’t far enough up on the list to make it the best of the Marvel solo origin movies, and that reason is that starting with Iron Man we had already seen this film 5 times before in the MCU.  Man lives morally questionable lifestyle, said lifestyle threatens man’s life, man makes better choices and acquires superpowers simultaneously, man meets his villainous mirror image, man overcomes villainous mirror image in final battle to make up for past self is the Marvel solo movie formula, each one having one variation on the theme, and Black Panther is no different.  But, this no different is the 6th time it was no different.

Beyond that, though, Black Panther is brilliant.  There’s the obvious fact that it highlights a continent and a culture which too much of the world is largely ignorant of.  While T’challa may not be the first black superhero to lead a film, not even the first time for a Marvel movie, Black Panther is the first superhero film to have a very predominantly black cast and, in my opinion even more importantly, crew.   It has a solidly African American message, too, which may be handled with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but not every movie needs to be subtle, and it being primarily a big budget, epic scale, superhero action movie I can definitely forgive it not making its audience discover its themes.  In fact, that was absolutely the right way to go in a film of this sort.

Black Panther is also the very rare Marvel movie which has a villain more interesting than its hero.  Its costumes won it an Academy Award, every aspect of its production design was incredible, and even its soundtrack was excellent and original.  Except for its way too derivative plot, Black Panther is top notch superhero origin movie material.

7.  Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck; 2019)

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Captain Marvel is far from a perfect movie.  It tries to do too much in its just over 2 hour running time to maintain consistency.  Its tone is a little all over the place, its humor is inconsistent, and its the rare Marvel movie which neglects protagonist characters as well as its villains.  But, this all occurs because Captain Marvel is an incredibly ambitious, risk taking movie – a quality far, far too rare in Marvel films – and those risks make for a unique experience among the MCU, and while that uniqueness occasionally is discordant, it more often adds up to a very powerful experience.

The risk that always works is its overtly, and also sometimes not so overtly, feminist themes.  Wonder Woman was an inspirational film, and it was wonderful to see a well made movie about a woman with godlike powers finally do well with both audiences and critics, but Captain Marvel not only has all those same qualities, but it also intelligently scrutinizes the way women are treated by their male peers (lest anyone think that means this movie “hates men”, may I point out her closest companion throughout the movie is a man).

But, what sets Captain Marvel just ever so slightly above Black Panther in my esteem is the fact that it finally breaks the MCU solo origin movie formula.  Rather than show a man overcome his past both literally and metaphorically, we get to see a woman gain power through her own heroism, then realize there is nothing wrong with fully embracing that power despite what the men around her whisper in her ear.

6.  Avengers: Infinity War (Russo & Russo; 2018)

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This is the ultimate example of what the Marvel Universe was created to do.  It would be impossible in any other circumstance to make a movie with dozens of protagonists all with established personalities, motivations, and backgrounds.  Even a television show, which in many ways the MCU resembles more than any other series of films, would take multiple seasons to establish a cast of characters as Marvel has, and a television series wouldn’t have anywhere near the budget a feature film has.

Avengers: Infinity War‘s genius is that it does even one better than would seem necessary, though.  Not only did Marvel studios have the patience to wait for 20 films so that it could tell a story so epic in scale without having to use the majority of its running time for exposition and character development, it wrote its villain as its protagonist so that we still do have that exposition and character development for a singular character for which it’s most important.  This also has the not incidental side effect of making it so Avengers: Infinity War does not have the MCU’s usual villain problem.

Avengers: Infinity War is not the smartest, most emotional, most artistic movie in Marvel Studio’s canon.  But its epic scale, particularly where the sheer number of characters is concerned, has arguably never been matched in any film before.  It does that without sacrificing cohesion or audience investment, and that’s damn impressive.

5.  Iron Man (Favreau; 2008)

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The movie that established the MCU is still one of its very best.  Prior to 2008, Iron Man was at best a third stringer superhero.  If you said the name people had heard of it, though it’s just as likely it was because of the Black Sabbath song as the comic character, but they probably couldn’t say much more.  As someone who collected comics for a while in my teen years, I still had never bought a title in which he was a main character. But, post 2008 Tony Stark is a household name just as much as Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne.

The secret to Iron Man‘s success (and Dr. Strange‘s, and Thor‘s, and Ant-Man‘s, and Black Panther‘s, and The Incredible Hulk‘s if it can be considered a success) was that the story came from the character and his growth and experience rather than the other way around.  Tony Stark isn’t a man reacting to circumstances beyond his control, he’s engineering his own fate and everything that happens to him from his accident, to his change of heart, to his battle with his former partner comes naturally as an extension of who he is.

Iron Man is not just the first of the Marvel movies, it’s still the best of the origin movies and it’s the movie that defined what the Marvel formula was to be (at least until Captain Marvel – we shall see what happens from here).

4.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo & Russo; 2014)

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier has as much, if not more, in common with The Bourne Identity as it does with other superhero movies.  This, the second Captain America movie, was the first of the Marvel movies to play around with genre by giving its audience a political spy thriller instead of straight comic book action/adventure.  Its success both with audiences and with critics meant it wouldn’t be the last Marvel film to incorporate different genres into its story and tone.

What made the success of The Winter Soldier more surprising than perhaps any other factor, was its directors.  Prior to this movie, Joe and Anthony Russo were known for directing comedies.  Television situation comedies for that most part, at that.  Many thought prior to The Winter Soldier‘s release that the heads at Marvel Studios had lost their marbles and had made their first major, possibly studio ending, mistake.  What the heads at Marvel had actually done was demonstrate their genius, or at least their luck, in a grander fashion than ever before.

The Winter Soldier is a fantastic film on its own merit even if none of the other Marvel Studios films had ever existed, but it ended up being more as much of the storyline still going on derives from this movie.  The first Captain America movie defined his character, but this is the movie that defined his place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and thus the path of the MCU in general to a very large degree.

3.  Marvel’s The Avengers (Whedon; 2012)

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The first big Marvel event movie had huge expectations partially due to the quality of the films leading up to it, partially due to Joss Whedon helming the project, and partially just from pure hope that it could be as much fun as the idea seemed.  It not only met those expectations, it exceeded them and became one of the top grossing movies of all time as well as a critical success.

It was made in the days before Marvel Studios forced the same visual style on all of its directors, and so had some truly fantastic visuals including a long, unbroken shot during its final fight scene which has been equalled in artistic and technical merit only by the opening credit sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 mentioned earlier.  It also had Joss Whedon’s style tattooed all over it from its witty dialogue, to its subversion of both character and genre, to its use of humor and drama when least expected to heighten the impact of each.

Marvel’s The Avengers created the template for the huge event movie of today, and remains one of its best examples still.

2.  Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn; 2014)

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Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel’s greatest risk not only because it was a property which not even die hard comic book nerds had much familiarity with let alone the majority of its potential audience whom had never heard of it at all, but also because it had to be an origin story for an entire group, not just a single person, and could thus very easily have lost focus. done a disservice to its characters, or more likely both for a movie this large in scale with this many moving parts.

It not only pulled off giving us five fully fleshed out, engaging, charming protagonists within an epically scaled space opera along with just as fully formed side characters, Guardians of the Galaxy and director James Gunn created the tone which would propel forward not only the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but which would also be copied by movies such as Baby Driver, Suicide Squad, Atomic Blonde, and many more.

It broke the mold on Marvel movies and action movies in general, created a new one which everyone wanted to get their hands on, made household names of characters whom nearly no one had heard before, and did it all in a movie seemingly cram packed with too much material for anything to get the attention it deserved, yet somehow was actually perfectly paced.  Its only real glaring problem was, say it with me, the villain, whom even by Marvel standards was especially bland.

1.   Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo; 2017)

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Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War somehow managed to have its cake and eat it too by being both one of Marvel’s epic event movies and a piece which was personal in scale by focusing more on character than on plot.  It has the large scale action and fight sequences with many characters and moving parts to keep your heart racing and your eyes glued to the screen, but at its heart is a movie about duty, friendship, and responsibility and what those values mean to different people.

Captain America: Civil War‘s secret to success was to focus not on the accords nor the assassination attempt, those were merely excuses to move forward the action, but on Captain America’s friendships with both Bucky and Tony Stark and the lengths to which he’ll go to protect those people and ideals which mean the most to him.

Everything great about any individual Marvel movie is present in Captain America: Civil War, except for the occasional brilliant camera work.  It has relatable, engaging characters who change and grow throughout the movie, it takes risks in making those we’ve always seen as heroes before into the villains here, it has some of the greatest action sequences ever put into a Marvel movie which means they are in the running for greatest of all time, period, and it does all this while also having themes with far more depth than all but a handful of the other Marvel films and it introduces two characters brand new to the MCU on top of all of that.  If Marvel ever manages to top this movie, it will only be because they somehow managed to add art to their formula, because aside from that missing factor Captain America: Civil War is a near perfect comic book movie.

 

The Post (Spielberg; 2017)

The story I’ve heard is that Stephen Spielberg had always wanted to make a film based on The Pentagon Papers.  As one of the most important events in 20th Century American History, it’s been a story Speilberg felt deserved a big screen treatment.  On election night 2016 when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, though, due to Trump’s constant attack on the American press and by extension the First Amendment of the American Bill of Rights it went from a story he wanted to make to a story that needed to be told so the American public could be alerted to the purpose of the American press and the dangers of an Executive Branch which portrays it as an enemy.

The film he came up with in that year is The Post.  It’s a straightforward telling of the story behind The Pentagon Papers and particularly The Washington Post’s role in their publishing.  The Washington Post was a third-rate newspaper in the early 1970s, and the paper’s owner had committed suicide not long before the film’s events leaving his wife, and the daughter of the paper’s founder, in charge.  That woman was Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), and while The Washington Post had nowhere near the prestige of a New York Times or a Boston Globe at the time, it was still unusual for a woman to hold a position that lofty for any length of time.   Spielberg starts the story with someone working at the Department of Defense making the decision to get top secret documents showing that the US government has been lying to the public for decades about the Vietnam War to the New York Times for publication.  When the New York Times publishes just the first few pages of the Pentagon Papers, the White House orders them to cease publishing anything more on the leaked documents or face legal consequences.   Soon afterward, editor in chief of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) finds himself in possession of more of The Pentagon Papers and he and Kay have to make the choice whether to publish and risk going to prison for doing so.

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The Post is far from the most impressive film of the year, the most impressive element of its creation is the fact that it took just barely more than a year to create from germination of the idea to its being projected on screens, but it is a film very obviously made by seasoned professionals.  The cast are all excellent, but the most stand out performance is definitely Meryl Streeps’.  She gives us a Kay Graham who is very much a woman right out of her time and place.  She acts as a woman who loves running a newspaper, who realizes the power she has, but also realizes that she cannot alienate the powerful men in her life.  She’s not afraid to make difficult decisions, but it almost seems as if she’s seeking the permission and blessing of those around her whenever she does, and I like that authenticity to the time period in her portrayal.  As to the rest, Bruce Greenwood gives an excellent Robert McNamara impersonation, Bob Odenkirk continues to show that he’s more than just a good comedian, and if anyone is slightly miscast here it would have to be Tom Hanks, who is just too much of his normal nice guy persona to really sell the fact that he’s the template of the modern hard-nosed editor stereotype who is Ben Bradlee.

Aside from the acting, the rest of the production is what we’ve come to rely on from Stephen Spielberg, but will certainly never be considered one of the most impressive in his catalog.  The art direction and cinematography are both by the book but still appealing.  The script is straightforward, but still with snappy dialogue, excellent focus, and great pacing.  The most prominent element of the screenplay, though, is its razor-sharp focus.  There are no subplots in The Post to speak of, other than relationships which have a direct connection to how The Pentagon Papers’ story plays out, and even the dialogue is almost entirely focused on the unfolding story save for a handful of jokes here and there to keep things from getting too intense.

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So, The Post is a well-made film, but wouldn’t be truly notable outside Streep’s performance if it weren’t for the film’s purpose.  Spielberg had seen the parallels between Nixon’s attacks on the press and Trump’s attacks during his campaign.  We now know those attacks have continued proving Spielberg’s (and a large chunk of the world’s population) forboding correct so Spielberg used this story to show the ability and purpose of the press to speak truth to power.   Even if Trump hadn’t shown himself to be so adversarial to a free press as he was when campaigning, it’s still an important lesson for the American public.  Since he has, it’s not only an important lesson but one with parallels to one of the darkest times in American political history.

It’s easy to compare The Post to the Best Picture winner for 2015 Spotlight.  Both are films about the power of the press which rely on a taut script and powerful performances for their impact, the major difference being The Post is about abuse of political power while Spotlight centers on abuse of power by the church.  The Post is not quite the film Spotlight was – it doesn’t have the same level of intricacy in plot and character – but that doesn’t mean that its tight focus doesn’t have merit or purpose.

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Final verdict:  The Post is a film that relies heavily on the talent and experience of its cast and crew.  The fact that a film of this caliber could be put together so quickly is a true testament to those involved, particularly Meryl Streep who gives us a performance worthy of award mention in a year filled with incredible performances by strong woman leads.   Also worthy of mention is the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer due to its incredible ability to teach while it entertains.  The Post is not the most entertaining, most nuanced, nor the most artistic film of the year, but it is the most important.

I, Tonya (Gillespe; 2017)

The purpose of a biopic, next to entertainment, is to show the audience how the writer and director of the film view a particular person and their story or place in history.  Normally, the view is positive, though some of the best biopics focus on some of history’s more nefarious individuals, and often the film’s creators try to be as objective and realistic as possible, but when Steven Rogers was interviewing the main figures involved in Tonya Harding’s career and found that none of them were telling the same story, he found his hook that would make the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya unique.  These interviews would actually be staged inside the film (with the actors playing the characters acting out the interview, not the actual interview subjects) and as the story plays out Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and Tonya’s mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) would break the fourth wall and let the audience know exactly what they think of the particular interpretation of the scene they are currently partaking in as if they were still in mid-interview.  Every character, while they were a part of the story, has their own version of it.  In I, Tonya truth is subjective.

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That subjectivity is the focal point of the writing in I, Tonya, and makes for an exceptional take on the biopic.  While fourth wall breaking and self-awareness in film is hardly new, in fact, it’s becoming something of an overused trope, the fact that the story of I, Tonya is not only true but also one most of the people seeing the film witnessed via television news at the time of the events brings a new life to the tropes which keep them from being overly cutesy.  It also means that the film ends up taking on a tone which is as much comedy as drama and this is important to the themes of the film, as well.  As Harding herself says at one point in the film first she was loved by everyone, then hated, then she became a punchline.  I, Tonya uses the world’s perception of her masterfully by alternately playing to those perceptions then subverting them, using the punchline perception of her and her companions to get us to laugh, then using the love and hate perceptions to peel back the curtain and show us just what it is we’re laughing at.  It’s a masterfully written film which uses subjective truths to allow for a story which is comic and tragic, inspirational and incriminating, beautiful and repugnant all at the same time without ever feeling inconsistent nor without ever breaking stride.

We generally tend to equate a great performance with embodying and understanding a character, and this is definitely an element of performance which has to be covered in order to be great, but the very best performances go beyond character and show that the actor understands the themes, tone, and message of the entire film.  That being the case, I, Tonya gives us a trio of truly remarkable performances.  Margot Robbie is the anchor embodying a Tonya Harding who is charming and sympathetic, but who we can also see is constantly making excuses for the fact that she allows others to control her life and probably isn’t even conscious of the fact that she does this.  Sebastian Stan is a great Jeff Gillooly who truly loves Tonya but is unable to recognize his own immaturity which causes him to lash out whenever it seems he may be in danger of losing her or whenever he comes close to recognizing his own failings.  Allison Janney may be best of all as the mother who both loves and resents her own child, who wants the best for Tonya but also despises her for the sacrifices Tonya is forcing her to make.  All three of the primary cast members give us not only fully realized people, but people that embody the themes of subjective truth in the way they are only able to see the half of their own reality which makes them out to be a good person and not the half of themselves which the world would consider ugly or a weakness.

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With one of the greatest scripts of the year and three of the finest performances, it’s almost like I, Tonya’s director of cinematography Nicolas Karakatsanis and film editor Tatiana S. Riegel decided they wouldn’t be outdone and on top of everything else gave us one of the most visually beautiful and intricate films of the year, as well.  From the sweeping shots of Tonya on the ice rink to the more intimate conversations shot from the perfect distance and angles with perfectly timed cuts to the long seemingly unbroken pans which must have involved some trickery in order to work.  While there were a few visuals which had me immediately gasping from the incredible talent on display, most of the film’s visual genius crept up on me later as I thought over certain performances and the film’s overall message and realized just how much the camera work added to both of those elements.

That’s actually a good way to describe I, Tonya overall.  It’s a film that creeps up on you with its genius.  Leaving the theater, I knew I had seen a really good movie, but I wondered at how authentic it was.  Was Tonya really such a tragic figure or is that just the filmmakers manipulating their audience to make their story more digestible?  Could the people involved in one the most famous crimes of all time really have been that stupid and/or ignorant or was it played up for comic effect?  As I thought more and more about what I had seen I realized that most of the usual questions one asks about a true story were questions that missed the mark.  This wasn’t meant to be half education half entertainment as most biopics are, but instead is an honest to goodness art film which also manages to be hilarious and crowd-pleasing in a way very few art films are.  It never intends to be authentic, it never intends to tell us the truth.  What it intends is to show us how each of us makes the truth a personal thing and that objectivity is an ideal which can never truly be achieved even if it’s something we should strive for.  But, it sugarcoats this rather depressing message in a true crime story about the world’s worst criminals so that we can take this message in in its entirety without even noticing that’s what’s happening.

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Final verdict:  I, Tonya is a movie that after a few days contemplation I have decided is not just really good, but is, in fact, a borderline masterpiece and one of the very best films of 2017.  Every single element of the film, except perhaps its too on the nose score (I liked it, but I know it will annoy more than a few), is near perfect.  It’s a film that uses many different forms of dishonesty in an attempt to not just expose the truth but to actually teach us what it means for something to be true.  This is one I not only recommend, this is one I ask you to rush right out and see so you can see the gorgeous visuals in larger than life proportions while simultaneously laughing and pondering things you thought you knew were true.

 

 

Molly’s Game (Sorkin; 2017)

The only screenwriters in Hollywood who have household names that I can think of are also either actors or directors, as well, save one – Aaron Sorkin.  Even if you’re not familiar with what he’s written you’ve almost certainly heard his name, but what he is known for is political drama with some of the snappiest, wittiest dialogue around.  He’s probably most famous for The West Wing, A Few Good Men, and The Social Network, but even if you haven’t seen one of these you have still likely seen something he’s written and were struck by his too smart and too thoughtful to be true characters spouting off funny and poignant one-liners at a mile a minute.  Now, Sorkin brings us Molly’s Game, but this time he wasn’t content to just write the screenplay.  For the very first time, he got behind the camera and sat in the director’s chair himself.

Molly’s Game the movie is based on “Molly’s Game” the book, the autobiography of Molly Bloom.  Molly Bloom was an Olympic level downhill skier who had to drop out of the sport and through the series of events covered in the book and film became a power player by running a regular poker game for some of the world’s biggest power (and poker) players.  It’s a fascinating story about a woman so strong-willed and intelligent that she can be within spitting distance of achieving her dream, lose it all, then climb right back to the top again with nothing, not even a dream nor a real plan, but just whatever happens to fall in front of her.  Plus, she keeps her integrity and sticks to an ethical code on top of it all.

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Sorkin went with Jessica Chastain as the titular Molly Bloom.  I think I am in a minority when I say this, but I have never thought Chastain is a good actress.  She’s incredibly stiff in her delivery of dialogue and her stone face doesn’t help at all which essentially makes her a more voluptuous Kristen Stewart.  What Chastain is good at aside from choosing scripts (she may not be a fantastic actress, but the film’s she is in are for the most part wonderful), however, is speaking quickly with good enunciation and intensity.  Since Molly’s Game is written by Aaron Sorkin it takes someone who can do exactly that, and after having now seen this film I believe that Jessica Chastain could be the greatest mouthpiece to ever have delivered Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue – it plays perfectly to her strengths and vice versa.  Even her voice-over narration which is used throughout the entire film and which I usually perceive as a crutch which hurts a film is used excellently allowing us to enter the mind of the main character without having to break her tough facade or pause the rapid fire pacing of the film and its dialogue.

As for the other actors and their dialogue, none are quite so perfectly matched as Chastain, but all give excellent performances.  Michael Cera as “Player X” (who is actually Toby Maguire if rumors are to be believed, but no celebrities are named in the film) is the best at delivering Sorkin’s machine gun style dialogue after Chastain, surprisingly, and showed a talent at portraying a smugly confident scumbag I didn’t realize he had, though I probably should have.  Idris Elba and Kevin Costner are also both fantastic, but neither seem to be delivering Sorkin’s dialogue in the manner we’re used to, which makes me think they must have adapted Sorkin’s words to fit their own personal style and this is not a problem, this is a testament to just how talented these two are and how well they understand their craft.

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As for Sorkin, is he as talented a director as he is a writer?  Of course not, but he does show wisdom in his direction by sticking to what he knows, i.e. dialogue and story, and by not doing much to show off where visuals, editing, and other more subtle directorial duties and decisions are concerned.  The art direction is well done, Sorkin has a definite eye for city skyline shots, and he does allow himself some stylistic panache in the film’s opening, but overall what we have is a very straightforward directorial style which doesn’t really set itself apart from any number of newly out of film school directors.  He lets his writing be the element that does that.

The thematic elements of Molly’s Game are incredibly timely.  The main takeaway from the film is its depiction of a woman who understands the power games men play and manages to sidestep all of that by playing her own game and never allowing herself to become a part of theirs, not purposely, at least.  Without spoiling anything, it’s the moment Molly gets drawn into the games the men play and not just hosting them in her own that her world begins to implode.  (Since the entire film is interspersed with her meetings with her criminal defense lawyer, it’s not a spoiler to mention that implosion.)  While sexual harassment is barely even touched on in the film, it’s because they show how well Molly understood sexual politics and power and absolutely would not let those elements tarnish her game and that anyone not willing to leave that shit at the door would not be welcome back.  It’s a wonderfully practical feminist message that doesn’t depend on idealism and inspiration to get across but shows a real-world example of just how a woman can establish her own power under her own rules without men trying to undermine her nor really even notice they aren’t in control of the game.

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Final verdict:  In a year of feminist films, Molly’s Game manages to make its mark by giving the most practical and realistic portrayal of feminism of any of them and has Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and storytelling to make that portrayal fast-paced and gripping.  All the performances are wonderful, even Jessica Chastain who is surprising in just how proficient she is at the delivering the quickly paced witticisms of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, and Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut shows why he’s a true professional by not trying to bite off more than he might be able to chew.  Molly’s Game is a phenomenal story with some of the best writing of the year, and is one I absolutely recommend.  It’s not necessary to see it in theaters, but if you do decide to pay full price for it you will not be disappointed in the slightest.  Molly’s Game is worth it.

 

 

 

Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino; 2017)

It’s Italy in 1983.  Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a highly regarded American professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture who summers with his wife Anella (Amira Casar) and son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) at their home in Northern Italy.  It’s a tradition that every summer the family invites one of Professor Perlman’s grad students to spend the summer with them, and this year the student of choice is Oliver (Armie Hammer).  The film opens with Oliver’s arrival and the story is of the events that take place over this particular summer focusing on the relationship between Elio and Oliver.

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Call Me By Your Name is an unusual film in that there is no conflict in the film outside of some short-lived inner turmoil.  Rather than conflict, Call Me By Your Name uses some nostalgia and some wish fulfillment to keep the audience’s attention.  While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of it as a mirror image of last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight.  Instead of an urban Florida setting in which a young black man comes to terms with his sexuality while also struggling with his life of poverty and absentee parents, Call Me By Your Name gives us an idyllic rural European setting in which a rich white young man with an incredibly intelligent and supportive family has to come to terms with his.  Where in Moonlight we were transported to a rather dark world and experienced tragedy after tragedy in Chiron’s life until he finally found a way to escape through hardening himself and becoming a man he didn’t really want to be, Call Me By Your Name shows Elio in a world in which his biggest trouble is disappointing the girl who has fallen in love with him and wondering about the appropriateness of his feelings toward Oliver.

The scenery of the Northern Italy village is shot beautifully.  Every single scene takes place either in a setting of small ancient buildings of spectacular architecture or a natural setting so empty of the trappings of society you could believe that no person had been in that locale for years.  The director of cinematography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom takes his time with his camerawork using the slow pacing of the film’s story to allow himself time to revel in the beauty of his surroundings just as the characters in the film do.

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The writing in Call Me By Your Name is borderline pretentious, and I have no doubt there are those who will say it crosses that line, with characters who are capable of gleefully discussing off the cuff the etymology of the word apricot, the reasoning behind decisions made by ancient Greek sculptors, and how a particular song would sound had it been composed by Bach vs Liszt.  But, past just demonstrating how intelligent the characters in the film are, there is nothing about the dialogue in the film that is meant to be showy nor judgemental.  Once we establish that these people are highly intelligent and sensitive, we really don’t get any more intellectual displays as once the intelligence of our characters is established the screenplay leaves those elements behind for the most part and focuses on the relationships between these people.   These relationships are genuine if also idealized and it’s this factor that keeps me from calling this film pretentious and just an honest look at a very intelligent, very well to do group of people.

This honest portrayal obviously could not happen without strong performances, and Call Me By Your Name does give us those.  I wouldn’t call any of the performances on display spectacular, but they are earnest and well thought out.  I have to wonder that Armie Hammer isn’t a larger star than he is, as I have yet to see a performance from him that isn’t at least charismatic, and he is most certainly easy on the eyes where the camera is concerned, and the performance here is good enough that it could lead to the bigger and better things down the road he seems destined for.  The rest of the cast is also captivating and in particular, the intensely vulnerable performances given by the younger cast members Timothee Chalamet and Esther Garrel as Elio’s best friend and maybe more Marzia make me hope we will see more from them in the future, as well.

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Final verdictCall Me By Your Name is one of the sweetest coming of age films I’ve seen.  Its total lack of nearly any conflict works in this case due to its embrace of nostalgia, authenticity, and a true love for its characters and their experiences.  Call Me By Your Name is not a film for everyone, as I believe it will be immensely boring for those not interested in romance nor coming of age films, but for those who don’t need tension in their drama every time Call Me By Your Name will plaster a huge smile on your face while simultaneously putting a lump in your throat with its entirely genuine, familiar, and yet still very personal tale of young love, friendship, and family.

 

All the Money in the World (Scott; 2017)

Even if you have no idea what this film is about, or don’t even recognize its name, you have probably heard about the controversy surrounding it, so I’ll start by addressing that.  All the Money in the World is based on the true story behind the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s, the richest man in the world and that time ever, grandson John Paul Getty III.  Kevin Spacey played the role of the eldest Getty, the film was all but finished and very near release when the news of Kevin Spacey’s scandalous past surfaced.  So, director Ridley Scott reshot every film Spacey was initially in with Christopher Plummer recast in the role and re-edited the entire film in nine days in the reports I’d heard.  It’s an incredible achievement and had the story not been so widely known there would be no way of knowing from watching the film that major changes had ever been made to what was thought to be the final cut.  It was probably a smart decision from a business standpoint, and an ethical one as well, but it can’t have been an easy one to make nor an easy task to pull off, and even after seeing how well it was done I couldn’t help but wonder throughout the entire film what the film would have looked like with Spacey in the role.

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All the Money in the World lets us know how J. Paul Getty amassed his oil fortune early on in the film while using the same time to establish the Getty family dynamics.  The kidnapping of John Paul Getty III happens very quickly after the necessary exposition and from that point on the film focuses almost entirely on four characters in three storylines.  One storyline is that of the kidnapped Getty’s mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and the elder Getty’s chief security officer Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) working together to find where young Getty has been taken and why.  Secondarily, we have the story of what Getty III (Charlie Plummer) and what happens to him under the care of his kidnappers.  Finally, we have the story of John Paul Getty himself and his attempts to remain in denial of the entire situation and his refusal to pay any kind of ransom.

We will most likely never know how close to the truth the events captured in All the Money in the World are, but we do know that the broad strokes of the story, at least, are almost entirely accurate.  The kidnapping did occur, the divorced single mother and the agent did work together to find the son, Getty did refuse to pay the ransom, and kidnappers did use certain means which are now infamous to let the Getty’s know they were serious.  Past that, a lot of it is conjecture on the part of the film’s writer David Scarpa.  To its credit, though, it seems like conjecture which is very interested in remaining factual as it never takes an easy route where dramatic effect is concerned and seems very intent on keeping the story grounded in reality.  The most over the top elements of the story we know actually did occur, and the relationships between characters which is the part which had to have been filled in the most seem natural and honest.

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Michelle Williams gives a fantastic performance here making me wonder why in the hell Hollywood doesn’t use her more often in larger roles.  Perhaps it’s her choice and she prefers to work in smaller budget films that let her really sink her teeth into a meaty role, and if that’s the case she gets all the respect in the world from me.  If it’s not, start giving this woman more love and attention, Hollywood, she is never anything less than amazing.  The other actors can’t match the same level Williams gives us, but they are still all solid.  Wahlberg sells us his agent character and the transformation he has to go through, and while Christopher Plummer doesn’t come anywhere close to giving us a performance we know he’s capable of, he does give us one strong enough to allow us to forget the circumstances under which he’s playing the role.

If I were to call out one major problem with All the Money in the World it would be the movie’s pacing.  There are far too many scenes which seem to be glamour shots meant to show off all the time and money spent on the grandiose sets in the piece, and while I know I have praised films for not being afraid to do this exact same thing in the past, there is an art form in the cinematography and the editing of a film to make these long lingering scenes work, and it isn’t captured well here.  Rather than establishing tone and pace, the camerawork in All the Money in the World seems to be a choice made by Scott more because he personally loved the way a certain set looked instead of making that choice because it would help the dramatic flow of the story.  That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have some gorgeous settings and cinematography, it absolutely does and should be commended for both, but the choice of how to incorporate those visuals do as much to hurt as help the story making the viewer wish the director would pick up the pace.

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Final verdict:  All the Money in the World is yet another true story for 2017, though its focus on a story rather than a character means it isn’t yet another biopic, and it absolutely deserves to be recommended in a year overflowing with good movies based on true stories (and which still isn’t done, as I have yet to see and review Molly’s Game, I, Tonya, nor The Post).  While I firmly believe that this film will be remembered more for the circumstances surrounding it than for the content of the film itself, that doesn’t mean it’s not a film worth watching.  It manages to toe the line between gripping drama and a commitment to the facts quite well most of the time, and Michelle Williams is always worth watching in anything she does.