2019 Movie Catch-Up

movies-sleep

“Give them pleasure – the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”
– Alfred Hitchcock on film audiences, Asbury Park NJ Press (13 August 1974)

Y’know how sometimes the spirit is willing, but the flesh can’t be bothered to give a shit? That’s been my reaction to writing up reviews for most of this year’s films. That doesn’t speak to the quality of them all, per se, just my inability to force myself to jot down a few hundred words about any of them – even the ones I liked.

And even I think that’s weird. As we near the end of the year (and the decade), I see that the only film review I’ve written has been for an advanced screening of the God-awful action-comedy Stuber. Of course, there are some good reasons for that:

  1. I don’t have a lot of money to spend all the time, so the movies I see that aren’t on tv are usually advanced screenings;
  2. Yes, I write up every play I see, but that’s because I’m on the press lists for damn-near every Bay Area theatre, which means I have to write reviews of the shows I see (incidentally, if any publication would like to hire me as a film critic, which I’ve been before, I’d be happy to write up every film I see – wink-wink, nudge-nudge);
  3. I’ve often found myself at a loss as to what I should say about the few films I’ve seen this year.

Which brings us to today. I looked back over my ticket stubs, lo these past twelve months, and found that I had plenty to say about what Hollywood’s been shoveling out this year. They may not be the freshest takes, but maybe that’s good – hindsight may give me a clearer perspective on what earlier confounded me. After all, the shit I saw couldn’t have been worse than Stuber, could it?

Could it?

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“Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, …backwards and in high heels.”
– Frank and Ernest by Bob Thaves (3 May 1982)

Y’know why I fuckin’ hate Google so much? Actually there’s no shortage of reasons to hate Google (thank God for DuckDuckGo), but I was thinking specifically of the bullshit excuse of “What else are you gonna use?” People mistake Google’s ubiquity for quality (McDonald’s is everywhere in the world, too – would you say they’re the world’s best restaurant?). Disney’s been taking a similar approach: flooding the market rather than living up to the high standards on which the company built its legacy. Their “one-StarWars-flick-a-year” policy bit ‘em in the ass somethin’ fierce, now they’re back to the drawing board.

But I’m a defender of what the MCU has produced, if for no other reason than they appear to have full creative autonomy from Disney proper. Whereas the recent Star Wars movies all stink of executive meddling, Marvel and Pixar seems to hold their own reins. Sure, there’s a definite “Marvel house style” prevalent through all their material, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t given room to experiment and cover topics you don’t expect to see covered in a popcorn superhero flick. For instance, if you’d told me beforehand that Black Panther was about the complexity of Black American and African identity post-slave trade, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Similarly, if you’d told me that Captain Marvel would be the MCU’s take on the Israeli occupation of Gaza (or that it unapologetically comes down on the side of the Palestinians), I’d have said “No fuckin’ way!” But that’s what we got. It not only makes for a fun time with Marvel’s first female-led film, but it takes one of Marvel’s signature “background” conflicts – the war of the Kree and the Skrulls, with the Skrulls traditionally villainous – and puts it center-stage, updating it the same way the first Iron Man was updated from Viet Nam to the conflict in the Middle East.

Captain Marvel is why I love MCU movies and know that people who dismiss them easily aren’t really just snobs turning their noses up at supposed “kid’s stuff”. It does what the MCU does best: make a relatable lead; create a fun adventure; and adds in just enough real-world parallel to leave you with something to think about. And, like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s easily accessible for those not well-versed in comics history.

The flick still has its flaws (some jokes don’t land, I’d have like one more fight, and CGI de-aging is just… wrong), but there’s more than enough to make me eager for the inevitable Brie Larson sequel. Plus, that Stan Lee cameo shouldn’t work (it’s so damn meta), but it does. Damn it, it does.

GRADE:                                                            B+

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“What’s the sense of wrestling with a pig? You both get all over muddy . . . and the pig likes it.”
– Cyrus Stuart Ching claiming to quote an uncle, The Saturday Evening Post (3 January 1948)

It hasn’t been a good year for WWE, has it? Just a couple of weeks after I saw this film, late-night host John Olive gave the company a brutal take-down on his show, the company began to see some real competition in the longest time in the form of AEW and (to a lesser degree) Lucha Underground, every announcement about the relaunch of the XFL has been met with deafening laughter, and Vince McMahon’s continued association with He-Who-Shall-Soon-Be-Impeached hasn’t done him or the company any favors.

But there were a few bright spots. Though their new broadcast deal with FOX hasn’t been the ratings-rescue they’d hoped, several storylines have gotten decent reviews (watch the YouTube channel Wrestling with Wregret for simultaneous lambasting and praising on a regular basis). And then there was this well-shot piece of propaganda. That isn’t to say this film is bad – quite the opposite, actually – but make no mistake, this is a McMahon-approved shill that showcases the company as just greatest, most wonderfullest place on God’s green Earth – certainly not the sort of place that treats its wrestlers like cattle, punishes them for trying to unionize, or once suspended Paige (the subject of this film).

Nevertheless, this clichéd flick is incredibly entertaining. Writer/director Stephen Merchant is an unlikely choice for something so drama-laden as this, but his distinctive “Britishness” keeps this flick grounded and believable. Whenever an American tries to mimic a British voice, it’s painful. But Merchant and his cast – including Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh as Paige, Lena Headey as her mother, and producer Dwayne Johnson as himself – let the over-the-top nature of pro wrestling handle the outlandishness, whilst the actors themselves put heart into their characters.

It’s shamelessly used as a selling point for Vince McMahon’s morally dubious empire, but that doesn’t make it any less of a fun watch.

GRADE:                                                            B-

alita

“Whether we are based on carbon or on silicon makes no fundamental difference; we should each be treated with appropriate respect.”
― Arthur C. Clarke, 2010: Odyssey Two

Beware all anime that gets remade by Americans. I’ve yet to see a good one. Be it straight-to-video (in the US) travesties like Fist of the North Star, inexplicable big-screen train wrecks like Blood: The Last Vampire, or big-budget studio bullshit like Ghost in the Shell, it just doesn’t work. Aside from the fact live action just can’t recreate the uniqueness of illustration, cultural touchstones don’t translate from one culture to another. That’s projects like the upcoming-project-that-Leo-DiCaprio-won’t-let-die (his US remake of Akira) and upcoming JJ Abrams-produced remake of Your Name (my favorite film of 2017) fill me with nothing but dread.

The Robert Rodriguez-directed/James Cameron-produced remake of Battle Angel Alita isn’t the worst anime remake, but that’s because the bar is absurdly low. Callng the 1995 Mortal Kombat film “the best video game movie” has to be tempered with the fact that most video game movies are of an Uwe Boll-level of mediocrity.

This flick is less a gateway to its source material and more a comment on the state of the careers of its two adaptors. Both Rodriguez and Cameron made their names by creating big-budget thrills with low-budget resources. Unfortunately, the larger their budgets got, the lower their creativity seemed to get. Rodriguez has had a few more bright spots, but Cameron’s inexplicable dedication to his “Dances with Smurfs” franchise – which currently has four sequels in production, the first of which was promised to be released in 2014, despite the first one having been forgotten about a mere five years after its release – seems to have dropped him down a rabbit hole from which he may never return.

This flick seems to have made enough money to warrant a sequel, but I can’t think of a single person who saw this one, let alone yearns for a follow-up. And given the talent on screen (Oscar-winners Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, and Jennifer Connelly), it’s pretty much just a waste with a few fleeting moments of excitement.

GRADE:                                                            C

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“It’s somebody watchin’ the Ak’/
But I don’t know who it is, so I’m watchin’ my back
I can see him when I’m deep in the covers/
When I awake I don’t see the motherfucker/
He owns a black hat like I own/
A black suit and a cane like my own/
Some might say, ‘Take a chill, B.”’/
But fuck that shit! There’s a nigga tryin’ to kill me!”

– Scarface and The Geto Boys, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”, We Can’t Be Stopped (1991)

I’m kicking myself for not seeing more horror on the big screen this year. It’s my favorite genre and is dismissed all too easily (despite some major strides this past decade). Hell, it’s only this year – a few months ago, in fact – that I finally watched Bird Box on Netflix. I love horror because (despite condescending op-eds about its supposed “resurrection” of late) it never goes away. To say horror is “gone” or “back” is to say the world had nothing left to fear.

This film isn’t the only one I saw on the big screen, but it’s the one that’s lingered. Not the runaway success that was Get Out, this film shows writer/director Jordan Peele not allowing himself to be pigeon-holed into any form of “that kind” of storyteller. He’s now at the sort of place successful folks find themselves: how the hell do you follow up a masterpiece? If you’re PT Anderson, you follow up Boogie Nights with the far superior Magnolia. If you’re Quentin Tarantino, you follow up Pulp Fiction with you’re single greatest film, Jackie Brown. And if you’re Jordan Peele, you make Us.

This is a film that will continue to be revisited as the years go on. When it finally has enough time to step out of the shadow of its groundbreaking predecessor, it will find an audience that will appreciate it for the statement it makes. True, I’m not giving it my highest review because it’s not perfect (with Get Out being flat-out horror, this one seemed to try to hard to inject comedy), but the idea of being one’s own worst enemy is an idea that I can’t shake. Thank you, Jordan Peele, for showing why it makes me so uneasy.

GRADE:                                                            B

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“Death in superhero comics is cyclical in its nature, and that’s for a lot of reasons, whether they are story reasons, copyright reasons, or fan reasons.”
– Geoff Johns interviewed by IGN, “Inside ‘Blackest Night’” (17 July 2009)

This may seem an odd question, but does anyone remember when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was first released? GTA 3 was a culture-shifting smash and Vice City somehow improved on its success. But then San Andreas came out and, well, it wasn’t better, it was just… more. Don’t get me wrong, it was a helluva fun game to play and I’ve even come back to it in subsequent years. But I can’t honestly say it was a major improvement on its predecessors.

That’s the feeling I had watching Avengers: Endgame. Infinity War was not only fun and dramatic, it used the decade of built-up love for these characters do deliver the most WTF ending they could have. Commercial logic told us that the cliffhanger would obviously be reversed in the follow-up, but that still didn’t negate the sense of heartbreak of watching Spider-Man – a teenager! – begging his mentor to help him live as they both sit helpless against a cosmic power they don’t fully understand. And then, that glimmer of hope with Captain Marvel’s pager – this was setting up for something big!

Endgame is big, just not wholly satisfying. Captain Marvel’s contributions are limited to two book-ending cameos at the beginning and end; the Bruce Banner’s struggle to get the Hulk back is resolved off-screen; Shuri’s downloading of Vision’s “brain” probably won’t be resolved until the upcoming WandaVision series premieres on Disney+ (which means I’ll probably never see it). The fact that these plot threads either weren’t resolved or were just brushed away ways irksome from a narrative standpoint, especially after they’d been built up so much. And why, oh why, did they give Black Widow the same Women-in-Refrigerator treatment Gamora got in Infinity War?

Having said all that, the flick was a blast. This is the capper to a ten-year storyline, so Marvel Films went as big as possible. I got giddy so many damn times it’d be ridiculous to count them all. The final battle has to be seen to be believed. And, all these months later, I’m still giggling about “America’s ass”. Endgame is yet more proof that Marvel Films knows how to marry pathos and crowd-pleasing thrills, whereas their “Distinguished Competition” stays devoted to their “grim-dark” methodology. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to Joker later.)

Endgame isn’t completely satisfying an end to the first decade of the MCU, but it’s fun in a way only the MCU could be.

GRADE:                                                            B-

hobbs-shaw

“If you ever act up, I will knock your teeth so far down your throat you’ll have to stick a toothbrush up your ass to brush ‘em!”
– Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (4 April 2018)

This is where we’re at now with this series. What started as a Point Break knock-off about car thieves has somehow evolved into a series where Idris Elba plays a cyborg. That is a sentence I just wrote. Strangest of all? The evolution was natural.

I have but one complaint about this flick and that is the lack of Justice for Han. Why the series has consciously chosen to ignore this crucial plot point for-now-two-films is beyond me. It’s a major plot hole and insulting to its loyal fanbase. For Jason Statham’s unforgivably smug Shaw to get away with it without anyone trying to run him over is just… dumb.

Having said that, this spin-off may just save the series. The franchise’s main series has become too bloated for its own good, adding in an absurd number of characters (with more coming in Pt. 9) that serve no function. Hobbs & Shaw works by trimming the fat and serving as yet another showcase for the ever-lovable Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. That’s all the franchise needs. And since 1 – most of the cast members (including Johnson) are regularly fighting; 2 – the late Paul Walker’s Brian is just somehow “not there”, with no explanation as to why; and 3 – the series can’t go on indefinitely. Given all that, it’s time to end the main series.

Hobbs & Shaw (or Hobbs alone, if we ever get real justice for Han) is an idea that can last. The series proper has finally run out of fuel.

GRADE:                                                            B-

yesterday-movie-1

“I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did.’”
– Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake (1997), Ch. 1, p. 1

There was a moment when I watched Yesterday when Jack (Himesh Patel) is desperately trying to recall the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby”, but keeps messing them up. His memory betrays him and mixes up the order of Eleanor’s story with Father Mackenzie’s. As Jack struggled to fix the order of the lyrics on screen, the woman to my right was fighting the urge not to shout the correct lyrics at him. “Waits at her window,” she barely whispered, “Wearing a face that she keeps at a jar by the door!” The woman was clearly a decade-or-two older than I, but I felt her frustration – if you’re gonna plagiarize The Fab Four’s songs in an alternate universe, you damn-well better get ‘em right.

But I also felt Jack’s pain: in a world where you’re the only person to remember The Beatles and their music, what do you do when you forget some of them? It’s not as if he can just look them up at the click of a button (something he tries early on). No, he has only his memories of the songs of the 20th Century’s biggest pop band. That has to be enough. And for a Beatles-deprived world, it somehow is.

Speculative fiction is a wonderful thing. It’s based entirely around the premise of “What if..?” It’s often fused into science-fiction, but the two aren’t necessarily synonymous. Still, a celestial event that blacks out all the world’s electricity and leaves seemingly only one man with the ability to remember The Beatles (and Coca-Cola and Harry Potter)? Yeah, that’s pretty sci-fi. And good sci-fi at that. It does what the best of the genre can do: takes the focus away from the technical stuff and keeps it on the human element. If you don’t care what happens to these people, why would we care about the minutiae of their world? When Jack first plays “Let it Be” and his friends are stunned in a way they’ve never been about the songs he’s written, it shows us why someone would go down the slippery slope of theft.

And therein lies the film’s flaw: Jack gets away with it. Conventions of the genre predict that eventually he’ll have to fess up about the songs, but he’s never given any major comeuppance. Even the knowledge that he just might not be the only person to remember the band goes nowhere. I know Mick LaSalle often complains about Americans wanting comeuppance, but there’s still something to be said about going down a road, but not reaching the destination.

Still, the film is a delightful distraction. Clichéd as all hell, but another nice little feather in Danny Boyle’s cap. It’s too bad he had to pass up 007 to make this film, but at least he can say this one has something of him in it.

GRADE:                                                            B-

sffh_venice-high-res

“I created Spider-Man. We decided to give it to Steve Ditko. I drew the first Spider-Man cover. I created the character. I created the costume. I created all those books, but I couldn’t do them all. We decided to give the book to Steve Ditko who was the right man for the job. He did a wonderful job on that.

It was Steve Ditko that made Spider-Man the well-known character that he is.”
– Jack Kirby, interviewed by Gary Groth, The Comics Journal #134, (February 1990)

We came so close this year. After Sony’s two previous attempts at a Spider-Man franchise resulted in boffo box office, but hollow storytelling, they finally did the right thing and let the MCU take over. Then… they reneged on the deal. For a whole damn month, fans like myself were gobsmacked that a fun film series about a beloved character was now being halted over petty corporate bullshit. Yes, the matter was eventually resolved, but it served as a reminder about how most beloved IPs are the possession of men in suits who couldn’t care less about good storytelling.

Fortunately, good storytelling was once again a priority for the second-ever good Spider-Man film. In a post-Endgame world, Spidey (whose world is still chock-full of PoC in every direction) has to learn about how important it is to live and learn without your mentor to guide you by the hand. It’s a lesson everyone needs to learns, and the triumph of this film is that it acknowledges the fact that Peter hasn’t had the chance to properly grieve and process his feelings when his would-be holiday turns into another call to action.

Jake Gyllenhaal – a guy who’s been connected to so many comic book movies the past 20 years, he’s more famous for the heroes and villains he hasn’t played – is pitch-perfect as Mysterio. Not the Hollywood F/X man of the comics, but yet another guy with a chip on his shoulder. Gyllenhaal is best when things go wrong for him in the third act and his fuse shortens. Whereas someone like DiCaprio is a poor actor who just screams to cover it up (oh, I’m gonna get to Once Upon a Time, don’t you worry), Gyllenhaal shows us why he’s angry, and is pretty damn scary when he’s pissed.

This flick was a helluva lotta fun. The mid-credits scene (with JK Simmons cameo) was not only a blast, but it honestly has me wondering where the series will go from here? And to think, we’d have never gotten an answer if cooler corporate heads hadn’t prevailed.

GRADE:                                                            B+

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“I was a housewife.”
– Arlyne ‘Mob Girl’ Brickman, when asked about her criminal activities during 1981 (1992)

After all that Marvel praise, we come, at last, to DC’s lackluster output for the year.

Y’know what’s really sad about The Kitchen? The fact that there’s a great film just s a great film just dying to burst its way out of the poorly-paced, cliché-ridden waste of time we get here. You’ve seen this film before, whether you know it or not: Mean Streets; The Pope of Greenwich Village; Wise Girls – and those are just the ones off the top of my head. Name a “local mob flick” trope and this flick has it. Every. Single. One.

And yet, this could have been better. Had this premiered as a (mini-)series on DC Universe, HBO, or some other network where you’re allowed to say ‘fuck’, then the characters would, at least, have had room to breathe and grow as the narrative didn’t try to rush to the end so damn fast. Our three leads are fine performers, but we’re never given a reason to give a shit about their characters because they aren’t characters – they’re names that have to go through a series of plot points.

This is a severe waste of time for everyone involved. Yet, it wouldn’t be the worse DC film this year.

GRADE:                                                            D

scary-stories-to-tell-in-the-dark-poster

“I guess you think you know this story.
You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.
The phoney one, the one you know,
Was cooked up years and years ago,
And made to sound all soft and sappy
just to keep the children happy.”

– Roald Dahl, “Cinderella”, Revolting Rhymes

What the hell were they thinking? Why the hell would you buy the rights to an anthology horror series only to do it all as a series of interconnected incidents (not stories) that are all part of the same story? For that matter, why make up new stories if they’re so damn weak?

Some of the visuals are actually pretty damn creepy for a film aimed at kids, but it sorta has the reverse problem of the latest Goosebumps flick. That flick didn’t take itself seriously at all, this one takes itself too seriously. It really believes its making a serious statement about old-time racism and personal responsibility, but it just winds up being a story about irresponsibility of one kind being replaced with irresponsibility of another kind.

This should have been an updated version of Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. Instead, we get the same watered-down ‘horror’ that does the oft-maligned genre no favors.

Unlike our next flick…

GRADE:                                                            C-

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“My feeling about in-laws was that they were outlaws. Right among the Temple Seven Muslims, I had seen more marriages destroyed by in-laws, usually anti-Muslim, than any other single thing I knew of.”
– Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ch. 13

As of this writing, I’ve yet to see Knives Out. But when I saw the trailers for that flick, I kept thinking of this one. This is a fun jab at the 1% that takes itself serious enough to be exciting, but not serious enough to where the silliness of the situation isn’t commented upon regularly.

Mind you, some of the jokes – such as a running gag about how the richies keep (accidentally) killing their maids in an attempt to catch our heroine – don’t have the satirical bite they should, but the balance of the visceral and cartoonish violence is done well enough to where this would make for a fun movie night with you and your friends.

GRADE:                                                            B+

dont_let_go

“Don’t make the same mistake twice seems to indicate three mistakes, doesn’t it? First you make the mistake. Then you make the same mistake. Then you make the same mistake twice. If you simply say, “Don’t make the same mistake,” you’ll avoid the first mistake.”
– George Carlin, Brain Droppings (1998), p. 120

I had to fight myself for this entry. I really wanted to use the Tyra Banks “I was rooting for you!” .gif for this one, but thought better. That’s how I felt watching this film

A sci-fi story with a primarily-Black cast? Hells yeah! David Oyelowo in the lead? Take my money already! A knock-off of Frequency that seems all-too-happy to show its characters both dead and making one stupid decision after another? …aw, shit.

This is Roger Ebert’s Idiot Plot on overdrive. Characters refuse to do the simplest damn actions that would help them out, then wonder why things go wrong. And that’s without the time-bending bullshit on which the plot hangs. How this flick with this script got a big-screen release, I will never know? This is something that was meant to go straight-to-video and be forgotten about until Syfy gives it an unwatched airing sometime at 2 in the afternoon.

GRADE:                                                            D

Huh… so, lookin’ back at those grades, it wasn’t such a bad average for me. I know I teased two big ones (Joker and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) without looking at them here. You’ll see why when I write them up in my next entry.

And what do YOU think?

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