Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Vaughn; 2017)

Kingsman: The Secret Service was arguably the most pleasant surprise in film for the year 2014.  It was a film that capitalized on a nostalgia for the over-the-top camp prevalent in the spy films of the 70s and 80s while also modernizing them for today’s audience.  It did for the Roger Moore era James Bond what Casino Royale did for James Bond in general.  By giving us heroes and villains with realistic motivations and plot devices that paid off in droves by film’s end alongside action sequences ripped straight from the most bombastic of kung fu movies and cool gadgets that would only be ruined if they were explained in any way we saw a movie that knew exactly where to be smart and where to be dumb to make a roller coaster ride that had honest stakes.  When it made 414 million dollars from an 81 million dollar budget and only increased its following from there with incredible word of mouth, it was inevitable a sequel would be made.  Say hello to Kingsman: The Golden Circle written and directed by Matthew Vaughn just as the first film was.

It’s less than a minute before we are treated to the frenetic action and comic book gadgets of the first film, but moreso.  The combination car chase, fist fight, and gun fight shows off more spectacle than anything in Kingsman: The Secret Service, so it seems that we are about to get the creative adrenaline fueled film we were hoping for.  But, this leads us to the film’s first problem.   While it does have a lot of action scenes, all of them way over-the-top in the stunts and special effects departments, more action does not mean better when the scenes aren’t terribly well thought out.  Most of the action scenes come from an overly contrived situation or they involve actions taken by people that make no sense given the context of the scene around them.

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One area which was very smart in Secret Service is also excellent in The Golden Circle, and that’s the motivations of its villains.  In the first film we were given a villain who saw himself as the hero, or perhaps the anti-hero, doing a job that needed to be done even if it was distasteful.  Here, Julianne Moore as Poppy gives us a villain who knows she is one, but feels it’s unfair that the world considers her one and comes up with a grand scheme to make herself socially acceptable.  It’s a pretty fantastic motivation for a villain not quite like anything I’d seen before but still makes a lot of sense.  Add to that the reaction of the government of the United States to Poppy’s plot, and you have a really true to life reaction to an incredibly unbelievable situation.  There is a problem in the plot in that the scheme affects the entire world but only the reaction of the United States seems to matter, and this in a movie that focuses on a British Spy Agency and features a Swedish Princess, but for the most part the forces that drive the plot are quite intelligent and allow for real social commentary.

The rest of the writing, though, does not share this same intelligence.  The beats of the storyline feature manufactured drama after manufactured drama.  If a simple solution to a problem is apparent, you can be guaranteed that those involved will choose the most convoluted, illogical course of action nearly every time.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle relies on easily settled misunderstandings and epicly idiotic planning on the parts of its characters to work, and this very much soils the intelligence put into its overall premise.  Add to that that the opportunity for social commentary is largely wasted, and you have a script which is no where near the level fans of the first film were hoping for.

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The music in the original Kingsman subtly added quite a bit to its combination retro and modern feel by giving us a mainly orchestral score very. and purposely, reminiscent of a James Bond film, so that when “Freebird” suddenly comes in to the forefront in the infamous church scene it’s an adrenal shock to the system which adds an incredible amount to an already bonkers scene.  The Golden Circle does away almost entirely with the orchestral score and gives us action scenes set to Prince, and ZZ Top, and covers of classic rock songs done in different styles, and therefore ruins the juxtaposition of styles which added so much the original film and made for yet another Guardians of the Galaxy clone where the music is concerned, which was fun for a while and was shown it can still work in Baby Driver and Atomic Blonde, but this is a styling that is starting to wear very thin.

The performances here are on a par with the first film for the most part, though Julianne Moore’s villain has nowhere near the opportunities to shine that Samuel L. Jackson’s did and giving Elton John such a large role in the film in which he plays himself did not work for me, which is okay.  The Kingsman isn’t a showcase for acting, so we don’t really need more than okay in my opinion, though it would have been nice if someone could have given us at least a creatively thought out character like Samuel L. Jackson and Sofia Boutella did in the original, seeing the workmanlike but otherwise unspectacular performances here showed my just how much life those two brought to the first Kingsman.

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The cinematography is another high point of the film, with shots that are both good looking and practical at the same time, and while CGI is in obviously constant use it flows fairly seamlessly for the most part, though there are a handful of exceptions to this.  Even if the plot is dipping into one of its more stupid bits or the pacing of a given scene is leaving you bored or overstimulated you at least know that whatever’s in front of you will be great looking.

Final verdict: Fans of the original Kingsman: The Secret Service will almost certainly leave Kingsman: The Golden Circle disappointed.  The script is sloppier, the nostalgic James Bond feel nearly non-existent, and the plot holes are on larger than life display.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t things to love here, though.  The over-the-top action is still incredibly fun to watch and the comic booky spy trappings are still creative and fun.  Most Kingsman fans could probably wait until this is rentable to see the movie, or even better catch a cheap matinee if possible, but if you are more into the movies for the stunts and special effects more than for story, Kingsman: The Golden Circle should scratch the over-the-top spy flick itch nicely.

mother! (Aronofsky; 2017)

If Eugene Ionesco or Samuel Beckett, your surrealist playwright of choice, were alive and working in Hollywood today I imagine the fever dream which is mother! is the sort of thing they’d come up with.  mother! is the latest offering from Darren Aronofsky the writer/director who gave us Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, among quite a few others.  mother! combines his obsession with the artistic process with his proficiency for creating images which are at once disturbing and beautiful and his penchant for creating an experience for the movie viewer more so than telling a story.

The prominent cast members of mother! are Jennifer Lawrence as mother, Javier Bardem as Him, Ed Harris as man, and Michelle Pfeiffer as woman.  The cast is impressive, and they do an excellent job for the most part, but what I wanted to point out here is the fact that no one in mother! has a name.  It’s one of many factors which make the film such a dreamlike experience, one of the many factors which make for an experience which is always on the border of being familiar, but never comes close to being intimate.

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mother! is a nearly impossible film to discuss on anything but a sheerly technical level without giving away spoilers, so past this I’m not really going to try, but it’s a film that is steeped in metaphor and in which the story such as it is is really only there to rope you in and give you a framework to start you on your journey into the nightmare which the movie ultimately ends up being.  No one has a name, yet you know who everyone is.  Everyone but you and Jennifer Lawrence seem to understand perfectly what is happening, but you and your anchor in this world are lost, scared, and confused.  It’s more dream than movie, and like a dream, mother!‘s purpose is to send you a message which is anything but obvious.

The performances in mother! aren’t going to win any awards, but they are what we’ve come to expect from a crew of veterans, and its especially nice to see Jennifer Lawrence return to form after the dreck she gave us in 2016.   Michelle Pfeiffer is the real standout among the main cast, in my opinion, giving us a performance brave enough that I’d wished she’d been playing roles like this for more of her career.  Javier Bardem and Ed Harris are more foils and excuses to move the action along than actual characters, but both perform this job admirably enough that you don’t notice that fact at all while the story is unfolding.

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The true draw for this movie, though, is the combination of sights and sounds which are at once gorgeous and disturbing, breathtaking and mundane.  The camera frames each shot in a way which is both practical and artistic, making the feel of a dream which Aronofsky so obviously is striving for making sure we are looking exactly where he wants us to be, but still unsure of exactly what it is what we’re seeing except that whatever it is is fascinating.  The combination of sounds and art direction add so much the proceedings and transform the house all the action takes place within into another character, and a character that in many ways is more important and more developed than the people living inside of it.

So, what kind of movie is mother! aside from an artsy one?  It’s closest to a horror film in that it is disturbing, creepy, and bewildering, but it’s goal is to unsettle more so than to scare.  What it primarily is, is a message to unravel, a puzzle to take apart.  It’s unclear if Aronofsky had one theme in mind, but I saw messages about immigration, fame, the process of creating art, environmental concerns, and others.  mother! is an art house film that somehow got a major release, and I really hope it gets the audience it deserves.

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Final verdict:  mother! is a difficult film, but it’s one worth unraveling.   It’s the act of unraveling, in fact, which makes mother! so fascinating.  To anyone who thinks dream interpretation is a good time, you will love mother!  To others, mother! is a hard movie to recommend, not that I don’t recommend, just that what you get out of mother! is going to depend an awful lot on what you’re willing to put into it.  If you want to turn off your brain, relax, and just let entertainment come to you when you see a film, avoid mother! like the plague.  If you want to actively engage with a film, sifting through its sights and sounds for meaning like a detective ferreting out clues at a crime scene, and if you don’t mind or even enjoy more a film which practically demands more than one viewing to take everything in, than mother! is exactly what you’ve been looking for.  I know I definitely plan on taking it again when I can.

American Assassin (Cuesta; 2017)

1987 called, it wants its movie back.  I suppose I could have also said that about last week’s It, but in the case of American Assassin its even more true.  Whereas It at least had modern sensibilities where its cinematography, special effects, and treatment of the subject matter are concerned American Assassin feels in nearly every way like a 30 year-old movie in which Michael Keaton has somehow aged and they forgot to write in the corny one liners.  This is a movie in which every American but one is a no questions asked good guy and every one who isn’t an American except one is a no questions asked bad guy.  America – yay!  Not American – Boo.

The premise behind American Assassin is that a guy who hates terrorists (Mitch played by Dylan O’Brien) is recruited by the CIA to kill said terrorists, but one guy who used to have the same job the guy who hates terrorists (“Ghost” played by Taylor Kitsch) now has has gone bad for reasons and is helping the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, because all Iranians really want to do is blow stuff up despite treaties they entered into.  The strokes painted here are so broad as to be downright insulting to anyone with enough reason to see the world in anything other than absolutes.  Add in the old trainer who is so much better than anyone else that you wonder why they don’t just send him in to do the job in the first place (Stan Hurley played by Michael Keaton) and an undercover operative whose main skill is being pretty (Annika played by Shiva Negar) and you have nearly every offensive stereotype in the book pretty well covered.  At least the Deputy Director of the CIA is a black woman, I guess (Irene Kennedy played by Sanaa Lathan), but in this movie its the equivalent of someone saying “I have a black friend”.

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Okay, so cliches are rampant and offensive, but how is the plot?  There was not a single beat or motivation in this entire film that was not both telegraphed and, again, cliche.  Even if you’ve never seen a movie before I find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t see every single bit coming in this movie long before it actually happens.  Add to that the fact that the writers didn’t even attempt to come up with plausible bits of action for our characters – for instance, the bad guy who is the world’s greatest bad ass secret agent gets caught showing his face on security camera easily and immediately for no good reason (it’s not part of some ploy) but apparently that’s okay because the Deputy Director of the CIA doesn’t even think to check security footage – and you have writing that is both inept and broadcast.

The best thing that can be said about American Assassin is that at least the acting and camerawork aren’t as bad as the script.  The actors aren’t given anything to truly work with, and they never manage to rise above the material – even Keaton who seems to be in “doing it for a paycheck” mode – but, they at least show that they may have some promise if they are ever given a decent script and director.    As for the cinematography, the opening is probably the worst bit as its meant to be the main character filming on his phone, but even I who have made the claim that I have never taken a decent photograph could do a better job.  After that, though, the camerawork becomes serviceable, if never in any way, shape, nor form artistic.

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You would think a film in this style would at least be over the top with American nationalism, but we don’t even get that.  There’s no American flags to be seen, no cries for God and country (though, there is one call to prayer), no speeches about American superiority, nor worship of the military.  It’s a film based entirely on terrorists being bad, foreigners being terrorists or at least in league with them, and these facts give Americans an excuse to beat them up and kill them.  That’s the gist.

Final verdict:  The only reason I don’t call American Assassin the worst movie of the year is because the plot was at least mostly coherent, if still nonsensical in its own way.  The script is horrible, the action basic and dull, the characters offensive stereotypes, and even the special effects look like they come straight out of the ’80s.  The only reason to see American Assassin is as a bet with someone you dislike to see who can hold out the longest, either disgust or sleepiness will almost certainly overtake anyone before the movie’s end.

It (Muschietti; 2017)

There is little point to reviewing the story elements of It.  The classic Stephen King novel has been read by nearly every fan of horror and by a great many who aren’t, and there was also a television mini-series made of the novel in 1990 for those who haven’t.  If you haven’t been exposed to the story behind It already, it is either because you are a newborn (who apparently was born able to read – congratulations!) or you have never had the least bit of interest in It in the first place.  In the interest of full disclosure, though, I have to admit before getting into the review proper that my feelings on Stephen King in general and on It in particular is that he is horrible at writing plot, okay at writing character, and one of the best in the business when it comes to description and atmosphere, so take that as you will.

The story of It focuses on an evil clown named Pennywise who appears every 27 years to terrorize and kill the children of the Derry, Maine.  It’s never explained what the clown is, why it appears as a clown, why it has to do this, where the clown gets its powers, what its powers are, where its weaknesses come from, and any number of other questions.   The book’s story is about a group of children who have to confront Pennywise in their just barely pre-teen years then again 27 years later as adults.  This film deals only with the first confrontation as children, though it is more than just hinted at that we will get the film which shows them as adults later, and the children are fairly 2 dimensional characters painted with broad strokes, but at least they are very likable characters we can recognize as at least friends if not as ourselves in some way.

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What It wants to do more than world building, more than giving you strong characters, more than giving you ideas to ponder is scare you, and this it does.  It is an incredibly atmospheric film with days that never seem to be sunny, old buildings that have no business still standing, sewer tunnels, and many other dark claustrophobic locations which you can tell the art directors had a great time working on. The darkness is a tool here, and never a crutch meant to hide the action, just to lend a sense of dread of the unknown to the proceedings.  The special effects and makeup are also incredible making the lack of clarification surrounding Pennywise seem like less an annoying lack of effort on the author’s part and more a genuine use of fear of the unknown.

The best part of It, though, is the performances given by this group of child actors.  Again, what should normally be a weakness of story is used to best advantage in It as the fact that the characters are very two dimensional allow the young actors to grasp onto one or two strong character traits and run with it in their performance.  We have the stutterer who is loyal (Bill played by Jaeden Liberher), the girl outcast tomboy (Beverly played by Sophia Lillis), the foul mouthed smart ass (Richie played by Finn Wolfhard), and so on.  Normally, these broad swathes of characterization would make for dull, predictable protagonists, but here it actually works allowing the kids to really latch onto their roles and give an ensemble performance that really works.

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The R-rating of this version of It means that it is much closer to the book than the 1990 television version.  The kids in this version cuss, there is blood and gore including small children being dismembered, it even addresses some uncomfortable subject matter regarding kids beginning to come into their sexuality, though the incredibly disturbing ending of the children’s story in the book is smartly dropped and changed to something which still gets the same idea across without dealing with child porn.

Compared to the other horror films coming out over the last year or so, It lacks a lot of the intelligence we’ve been treated to.  In films like Lights Out we’ve been treated to three dimensional characters making intelligent decisions or in It Comes At Night we have our lack of knowledge coming from a point of view rather than from a writer lazily not filling in details.  It is a true 80’s throwback in that it relies entirely on atmosphere for its scares making those scares purely emotional, never thought provoking in the least.  While I definitely prefer the more intelligent horror we’ve been getting, and hope Hollywood continues on that trend, It is so well made that this throwback is more entertaining than annoying.

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Final verdict:  It is such a faithful, but fortunately not too faithful, adaptation that fans of Stephen King are almost sure to love it and his haters are quite unlikely to change their minds.  Just like the novel itself the story is silly and makes absolutely no sense under even minor scrutiny, but the kids – characters and actors alike – are so great and the atmosphere so intense that the story’s flaws can be easy to overlook.  Everything about the making of the film is of top notch quality, so whether I recommend it to you or not hinges entirely on how much you like Stephen King, and if you’re neutral I can only say that It is one of the best looking and acted horror movies to come out in a while, but It shows its age where intelligence in the story is concerned esecially when compared to Hollywood’s horror output over the last year, or so.

Shaun’s Top 5 Movies of 2017, so far.

Summer is not over according to the calendar, but it’s Labor Day weekend in the United States, kids are going or already have been back to school, and Hollywood is done releasing blockbusters for a while, so it at least feels over.  Which makes this a good time to make a list of what my favorite films of the year are, so far.

This has been a strange summer in that it has given us one of the best batch of films the movie going public has seen in a very long time, but it’s also a summer that set record lows for box office numbers.  People keep saying they are sick of superhero movies, yet those are the only movies making any money, at all, so Hollywood must be getting at best mixed messages right now, but most likely the message they are getting is keep making superhero movies and nothing else.  So, if you are one of those complaining about Hollywood output, it’s time to put up or shut up.

Before I get to my top 5, here are some of the great films that weren’t great enough to make the top 5 we were treated to this year, plus a short synopsis of why they didn’t make the top 5.

Raw – This truly original family coming of age film masquerading as a horror gorefest was just a little too grotesque for most audiences.   It’s brilliance would probably be overshadowed by its depravity for most movie goers.

Wonder Woman – It kind of killed me to not put this on the list, but its importance as a feminist milestone was unfortunately mixed with some fatal flaws in its script.  Wonder Woman will end up being one of the most historically  important films of this year, but horrible villains and a retched third act keep this off my list.

It Comes At Night – This small indie thriller showed just how much can be done with an infinitesimal budget making one of the most horrific and thought provoking films of the year on a shoestring. However, it’s going to be a bit too much for most audiences.  Much like Raw, it may be ahead of its time.

Baby Driver – If I were giving an award for most slick movie of the year, this would win.  But, with a poor love story which is central to the plot and little intellectual merit, this one couldn’t make the final cut.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – The opposite of Wonder Woman in that it had a nearly perfect script and a great villain, but it was just a really great popcorn movie with little importance outside of the entertainment it provides.

Dunkirk – Arguably the prettiest movie of the year, and an interesting experiment in how to write a war movie, but in the end it’s really just a really good looking pseudo-documentary.  I love documentaries, it’s the pseudo part that’s the operative word here.

Girls Trip – While this movie is really just an excellent take on The Hangover style movies except with African American women, it’s the fact that this ended up being the 10th highest grossing film of the summer which makes it important and hopefully sends a message to Hollywood that when people are represented in a film, they will come see it.

Detroit – The fact that no one saw this movie is a shame.  It doesn’t make the list due to the fact that I don’t feel its unusual plot structure entirely works, but this is one of the most important films of the year so far in that it’s horror, and this is largely a horror movie, comes straight out of reality and gives us a warning much needed today.

Logan Lucky – This movie is charming on nearly every level, and is also excellently filmed and acted.  It doesn’t make the list only because it is another film that seeks to entertain and nothing else.

Wind River – This is Taylor Sheridan’s least film, which is why it barely misses the list, but it’s still a Taylor Sheridan film.  This means it is both thoughtful and entertaining, it can be enjoyed both as a think piece and a popcorn flick, and it kind of hurts to leave it out of the top 5.

And, now the list proper –

5.  Colossal

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Wonder Woman wasn’t the only feminist movie to come out in 2017, just the biggest.  No one saw Colossal and that’s a shame because this is one of the smartest movies to be released this year, smart not only in the nuance of its message but also in the way it presents that message.  It seems at first that Colossal is a film about an irresponsible party girl trying to get a grip on her life, and the giant monster attacking South Korea is a fun but obvious metaphor for that.

One of the biggest twists in the movie shows that that isn’t what Colossal is about at all.  It’s actually about how relationships can become abusive and controlling even when the signs aren’t obvious on a physical or confrontational level.  It’s about how men see women as objects to be controlled just because the men find them attractive.  It’s about how passive-aggressive abuse is still very much abuse, and is no less dangerous than more commonly understood abuse.  It also somehow manages to get across this message by being weighty exactly when it needs to be but never forgetting that a film also needs to entertain.

The original Godzilla (Gojira for the purists out there) was a metaphor for a culture trying to cope with the aftermath of being attacked with nuclear weapons.  Giant monster movies since have largely dispensed with the metaphors and have focused more on the fun of gigantic creatures hitting each other.  Colossal returns to the giant monster as metaphor trope, and it does it as well as any film has since the original.

4.  The Big Sick

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While I’ve never done a list on this site aside from these occasional best of the year lists, I have been known to make them for fun and post them on my Facebook page or just keep them in a notebook or computer folder somewhere.  After leaving the theater having seen The Big Sick, I knew my “Top 10 Romantic Comedies of all time” list needed to be updated.  The true story of how Kumall Nanjianni met, fell in love with, and ultimately married Emily Gordon is funny, charming, and poignant all at the same time, and will enlighten you while also plastering a big smile on your face.

Everything about the film is performed at a top notch level, but the actors need to be given special credit. Zoe Kazan gives a performance which is practically over a quarter of the way through the movie, yet you feel her presence hanging over everything that follows.  Kumall manages to be straight man and comic at the same time as he both brings big laughs and provides an anchor.  Holly Hunter is great as always, stealing the show on multiple occasions, and Ray Romano gives the best performance of his career.

Tne Big Sick manages to be one of the funniest films of the year while also giving real insight into racism, cultural pressures, family, and love.  It’s the whole package.

3.  Get Out

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The horror genre graduates to a new level with the release of Get Out, in fact, story telling in Hollywood in general took on a new facet with its release.  It’s not new for a horror film to be a metaphor for a weighty subject.  It’s not new for a film to focus on an African American star, nor is it new for a mixed race couple and their parents to be central to a film’s premise.  What is new is a horror film made to show the white majority in the United States how the black minority view them through both a general paranoia and through the lens of cultural appropriation.

Get Out uses horror as a metaphor for racism, but not the more obvious hateful form of racism, it focuses on the racism that wants to take on the elements of black culture that are viewed as positive and throw the rest away into the trash bin of history.  In short, liberal racism, a new, important, and pretty great subject for a horror movie to take on.

Jordan Peele shows he does horror at least as well as he does comedy as he keeps up the suspense, the creep factor, and the investment in the characters from beginning to end.  Plus, this is a film that can be watched over and over again and you will see something new every time so layered are the script and the visuals.  Get Out is both a great horror film and a great commentary and is one I’m sure will go down in history as important.

2.  War for the Planet of the Apes

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If War for the Planet of the Apes weren’t the last film in a trilogy I’m not sure I’d rate it this highly, but it is, so I am.  Starting with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 audiences have been treated to a film trilogy that is epic in scale, thoughtful in its commentary on our society, deeply emotional, and always entertaining.  Every chapter in the story of Caesar, given life fantastically by Andy Serkis, so fantastically there is a lobby to get him a Best Actor nomination despite the fact he is never actually seen on screen, is an excellent look at how humans treat outsiders while also giving us trilling action and engaging, realistic characters.

War for the Planet of the Apes closes the story of Caesar in spectacular fashion giving us an epic fantasy which mirrors our own real world in how it portrays fear of the unknown, how we act when paranoia overtakes our reason, and the ultimate consequences of arrogance.  It does all this with glorious camera work, beautiful art direction, and CGI work which has to be seen to be believed.

War for the Planet of the Apes manages to have it all and at an epic scale.  Caesar’s character arc, if you follow it from the first film, will be remembered as one of the best in film history, the visuals are nothing less than breathtaking, the action is thrilling, the themes poignant.  War for the Planet of the Apes is the nearly perfect closure for a nearly perfect trilogy.

1. Logan

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You’ll notice that every film on this list has one thing in common, they all manage to have some excellent insight while also remaining entertaining.  No film released so far this year does that as well as Logan, the final film in Hugh Jackman’s long run as the character Wolverine of X-Men fame.  When I initially gave my review for Logan, I compared it to The Dark Knight and wondered at the time if I was perhaps going too far in my praise for the film.  Upon multiple rewatches and a few months of looking back on it, not only was I not going too far, but I think Logan is the movie that all superhero movies will be compared to going forward instead of The Dark Knight.

Choosing to make a movie giving us an aging Wolverine who is slowing down while also having to care for an ancient and decrepit Professor Xavier whose mind has become a weapon of mass destruction due to onset of dementia is a stroke of genius.  Add in a young girl who has way too much in common with Logan for it to be coincidental, and you suddenly have a superhero movie which surpasses anything done in the genre before as it uses the abilities of the characters to send us a message reflecting on familial ties and responsibilities, the horrors of old age – in addition to Xavier being a danger to the entire planet, Logan has to literally fight his younger self in an on the nose but excellent metaphor, and the importance of making sure we pass on the best of ourselves to later generations.

Logan uses its R-Rating for far more than just making things bloodier and cussing, though those two additions really do add a lot to the story, it makes for a film with real consequences and tragedy, something all too rare in standard superhero fare.  But, with all that taken into account, it is still an immensely entertaining superhero movie with some excellent action set pieces, great special effects, and moments of true elation.  Logan is a movie that allows its audience to have it all and then some. Entertaining, thought provoking, insightful, and deeply emotional – can anything more be asked from a film?

 

Good Time (Safdie and Safdie; 2017)

Rules in screenwriting and film making exist for a reason, and breaking them usually creates a mess of a movie.  Knowing exactly how and when to break these rules, though, can occasionally make for a classic.  Memento and The Sweet Hereafter break the rules of time, telling the story in non-chronological fashion, and these two are remembered as classics and started a trend which film makers are still trying to mimic.  Man With a Movie Camera and Koyaanisqatsi will live on for a very long time due to the fact that they don’t even have a plot and just attempt to observe the real world.  Dogville forgoes having a set whatsoever and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn throws the preconceptions of genre out the window.  I mention all these because Good Time is another rule breaking film, but it’s unlike any other that make the attempt in that it is neither a mess nor a movie that is destined to be talked about in film classes for years to come, but merely a film that you look at as an interesting idea that worked relatively well.

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That unwritten rule which Good Time breaks is that a story needs to have a mapped out plot and subplots with clear high points and breaks according to a long accepted structure.  Good Time‘s story is less structured and more the feeling of being dragged along by strangers through a place you’re unfamiliar with to a destination you don’t know.  The story is one of two brothers, Connie Nikas played by Robert Pattinson and Nick Nikas played by Benny Safdie who also wrote and directed Good Time.  The story starts when Connie decides he is going to rob a bank dragging Nick, who is intellectually disabled, along.  Connie gets away with the robbery, but Nick is captured by the police and the money stolen is lost.  The majority of Good Time takes place over one night in which Connie tries to get his brother out of jail using whatever means are available to him as the night progresses.

Good Time never focuses on any one part of the story arc for very much time, and once a specific incident is finished from Connie’s perspective, that incident and everything it involved is left behind never to be seen nor spoken of again.  This means that the fate of important characters are left up in the air, objects that were once important are forgotten about, and central ideas are discarded.  It makes for a story which feels more like a panicked night of grasping at straws than a coherent plot, and I’m sure that is exactly what the film makers were trying for.

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Adding to the disorientation is the camera work.  Normally I consider it a knock against a film, particularly an action film, when the director of cinematography chooses to use close-up shaky camera techniques as a means of disorienting the audience and thereby masking the fact that the stunt work doesn’t look good or some other flaw in the creation of the film’s action visuals.  Here, the grainy shaky hand held camera is very much a feature not a bug as it accentuates the disoriented mix of dream and reality which the Safdie brothers are trying for.  It’s certainly not a law being broken, as this style of camera work is still in regular usage even if it is in disfavor by most critics, but this cinematic technique is still a gutsy move as it is going out of style and is used not just to hide lack of talent or budget but to give the entire film an emotional core.  In my opinion, it works.

Robert Pattinson’s performance as Connie is the final make-or-break element of the film, and ultimately what Good Time‘s success hinges on, and he certainly pulls it off.  He manages to make Connie a realistic person and a relatable one.  We may not approve of his criminal lifestyle, but we can definitely see that underneath it all is a confused man who loves his brother above everything.  Pattinson delivers a character that is at once tough and vulnerable, intelligent and charismatic, yet also willfully ignorant and selfish, and it all works to make a truly three dimensional human being.  With Good Time, Pattinson shows there is a lot more to him than he was able to show off in the Twilight series.

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Final verdict:  Good Time is an unusual film in that it takes a lot of chances, all of those chances work, yet it still doesn’t manage to elevate itself above the level of an interesting study.  Perhaps it’s its subject matter, crime movies are hardly original, perhaps it’s its hyper-realism, we have all had nights like the one focused on in this film, but the circumstances are too foreign to really relate to, but Good Time is a movie that is more fascinating than entertaining.  The Safdie brothers have given us a movie that film scholars will truly appreciate, but that general audiences will most likely find dull and disjointed.  If you are the type who goes to a film largely for intellectual reasons, then I recommend Good Time, but most others won’t get a great deal out of Good Time other than a feeling of “what the hell did I just watch?”.

Ingrid Goes West (Spicer; 2017)

Social media is not exactly a new subject for Hollywood, but it also isn’t a subject that’s treated with insight often.  The Social Network is arguably the best work on the subject, but it’s more of a story of how a social media giant came to be than how social media affects our daily lives, while films like Catfish and Hard Candy focus more on very specific dangers inherent to social media.  Ingrid Goes West is the story of a woman who seeks meaningful human contact through Instagram, and it’s one of the first films that meaningfully shows us a mirror of just how pathetic our cultural quest for likes and tags has allowed us to become.

The cast and crew of Ingrid Goes West are not neophytes by a long shot, but neither are they big screen regulars.  Aubrey Plaza plays the titular Ingrid, and most of us know her for her television work than her work in film.  This the directorial debut of Matt Spicer who also wrote Ingrid Goes West, and he only has one other major motion picture credit to his name on the writing end of things.  The Director of Cinematography Bryce Fortner does have a long list of credits, but again these are mostly for shorts and television.  The only true big screen veteran in the cast is Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Taylor, the latest object Ingrid’s obsession, and even she has a relatively young career.  All this adds up to a film that has a very distinct style, even if that style isn’t terribly refined and often comes across as a really good episode of a television series.

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Ingrid Goes West opens with a quick montage showing Ingrid stalking a woman named Charlotte on Instagram on the day of Charlotte’s wedding.  We learn that Charlotte doesn’t even know Ingrid, that Ingrid has latched onto Charlotte since Charlotte once liked a comment from Ingrid on her Instagram page, and so when Ingrid marches into Charlotte’s wedding uninvited it’s a surprise.  When Ingrid sprays mace into Charlotte’s face as reprisal for not inviting her to the wedding, Ingrid lands in a mental institution.   Shortly after leaving the institution, Ingrid finds a new target to stalk – Taylor, an Instagram photographer and model of some notoriety, and when Ingrid’s mother dies leaving her a relatively large sum of money, Ingrid decides it’s time to go to Los Angeles and make Taylor her new best friend.

Ingrid Goes West is a difficult film to talk about in any real detail, as to do so may spoil elements of the film best left to the audience to discover, but I’ll take a small chance on a bit of a spoiler by letting you know that while the acting and visuals on display are well done (if, like I said earlier, a tad “television-y”) the reason to see Ingrid Goes West is it’s incredibly insightful look into just how much social media has infested every element of our culture and the impact it has had on our ability to treat others and even ourselves as real people rather than dispensers of instant gratification.  It’s easy to look at Ingrid in the film and write her off as pathetic and crazy, if also entertaining, but when we start to see that the characters we empathized with and saw ourselves in are just as fake and needy as Ingrid, just better at hiding it because they aren’t our point of view character, the movie starts getting real, for some it may be a bit too real.  The insight goes even deeper than this, and when the plot lines wrap up and our various characters are left to their fates at film’s end, you can see what a truly poignant and damning film Ingrid Goes West really is.

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Your enjoyment of Ingrid Goes West will depend not only on how open you are to the film’s themes, but also on how much you enjoy Aubrey Plaza’s style of comedy.  While Ingrid Goes West does have a strong cast of characters, Plaza’s Ingrid is the obvious ever present focus of the film, I don’t remember a single moment of film without her, and if you are not a fan of her deadpan, snarky, self deprecating while also disdainful delivery, then the other performers are probably not going to be enough to make up for the film taking on her demeanor as its own.  Elizabeth Olsen does give a great performance, as good as her showing in Wind River, O’Shea Jackson Jr. is charming as Dan, Ingrid’s long suffering landlord, and the remaining supporting cast are all darkly, quirkily humorous, but this movie is Plaza’s through and through.

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Final verdict:  Ingrid Goes West is a film that uses its razor sharp insight into our instant gratification social media society as both its main source of humor and commentary.  The humor is deadpan, often mean, and always smart, but it most certainly will not be everyone’s cup of tea.  Last week I praised Taylor Sheridan’s script as the best of the year so far.  Ingrid Goes West, while radically different in style and tone, matches, and possibly even surpasses Sheridan’s effort.  Ingrid Goes West, while entertaining, is never light entertainment, and often is downright nasty, but it’s nasty with a purpose.  Ingrid Goes West exposes truths about ourselves we don’t want to confront, but if it forces some of us to do so, we may find ourselves better off and happier for it in the long run.