So we’re still doing this, huh? Well, glad that the closest I’ve come to self-harm is a very strong urge to give myself what would no doubt be a disastrous haircut. My shaggy-ass hair is legit driving me crazy.
While society has begun to tentatively reopen enough for me to see friends in open spaces while two metres apart, 90% of Lockdown Life is still finding stuff to watch, and I, your Pop Culture Sin Eater (why isn’t that the name of my blog…), am here with recommendations and maybe some cautionary tales.
Keeping it a little shorter this time. And once again, here’s a Table of Contents, in case you want to pick and choose.
Well, it’s May, and the world is still closed. My GPA in hospitality management remains high, though I do catch myself wondering if hospitality is an industry that will actually still exist or have sufficient openings this time next year. My place of employment, which I worked at for over six years, longer than I’ve worked anywhere, has shut its doors permanently thanks to five weeks of no revenue and no rent relief.Every movie I want to see has been delayed, and “new TV” is a soft maybe. I find myself only moderately more annoyed at anti-lockdown protesters than I am at people saying “Lockdown isn’t a big deal, stop whining.”
So let’s lose ourselves in entertainment, while there’s still entertainment to be had!
Here are some things I’ve been watching. You can too, unless I say you shouldn’t. I will definitely say you shouldn’t at least once.
Welcome to Plague Times! I, like most of you, am sequestered indoors until the infection rate drops enough that we’re willing to risk resuming society, which at time of writing is… at best a strong maybe? Nobody knows. Time has no meaning and we’re all going a little crazy from lack of human contact.
Which makes it a great time to watch stuff! Stuff you’d been meaning to watch but hadn’t found time for! Binge that series, watch that movie, don’t just say “Now’s a good time to finally watch Breaking Bad,” go for the weird stuff! Check out Psych or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency or watch Lindsay Ellis’ entire series on film theory through the lens of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.
So being a non-essential worker (I mean I think my annual comic book TV rankings are essential but I don’t have to leave home to do those), I’ve been home alone nearly 24/7 since March 15th, with only the occasional escape for groceries, alcohol, or just being outside for thirty dang minutes, and I’ve been watching a whole bunch of stuff, and now I want to talk about it. So let me present what will no doubt be the first in a series of My Quarantine Watchlist.
(Not included in this blog: re-watching all six Missions: Impossible. Look, either I do an entire blog on Mission: Impossible, or you all agree to watch Patrick Willems’ video on why they’re great so I don’t have to.)
(Or the fourth season of Nailed It. What on Earth could I have to say about Nailed It that you don’t already know.)
Okay, so, after ranking every best picture nominee for an entire decade, ranking this year’s crop should be easy, yeah?
Let’s see, gimmicks, gimmicks, what are this year’s gimmicks… well, let’s bring back some Out of Context Mulaneys, in protest of the fact that the Oscars have no host for a second year running when John Mulaney and Nick Kroll were an option…
…but in place of last year’s Hot Takes, I’m-a do something more positive. You see, a few of the better movies I saw last year didn’t get best picture nominations, which would mean I can’t talk about them in a Best Picture ranking blog… but I’m going to. I’m throwing in some “Things that got snubbed” sections. Plus one little question that kept coming up while watching these… in terms of rewatchability (not necessarily vital for a best picture, he said, nodding at 12 Years a Slave), how does this movie stack up to 2019’s most fascinating utter trainwreck? Simply put… Would I rather rewatch this or Cats?
It should have been a much easier bar to clear.
The Basics: Frank Sheeran has a long, long career with the mob, during which he had a close friendship with union leader Jimmy Hoffa… right up until Hoffa and the mob’s relationship sours. And then there’s still about 45 minutes of movie left as he gets old and contemplates mortality. Damn this movie’s long.
Here’s what you need to know about The Irishman. Two hours and forty minutes in, the central character and two others go to pick Jimmy Hoffa up for a drive because the mob has decided he has to go. The back seat of the car is damp because Hoffa’s son had transported a fish earlier, but didn’t know what kind it was. They discuss this for about five minutes. It should be a turning point of the movie but we’re talking about this fish for way longer than is warranted.
Every scene is like that.
This movie is easily an hour too long, and I know this because nearly every scene feels padded. A screenwriter was never told to reign in the filler dialogue, Martin Scorcese was obviously never told to bring down the run time. It’s languidly paced, overly indulgent in its bland dialogue riffs, it somehow feels longer than it is, and while the CG effects can make Robert Deniro’s face look younger, they skipped his hands and arms and it cannot make him walk or move like he isn’t over 70… there are elements of Scorcese’s better works in here but it’s all too long and too slow. About two hours in I was desperate for a cat to pop in and sing about how much he loves trains for seven minutes.
There’s a recurring bit where the film introduces characters, then pauses for a caption explaining how they died. In all but two cases, they died violently in 1979 or 1980, and I eventually kept thinking… where’s that movie? Clearly some shit went down between ’79 and ’80, and it sounds way more interesting than what we’re actually watching.
At least this year’s faux-Scorcese movie was faster and more eventful.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I could rewatch Cats twice in the amount of time it takes to watch The Irishman, and I goddamn would.
Snubbed: So Get Out gets a bunch of Oscar nominations but Us gets ignored? It’s like that, Academy? Mm-hm. So noted.
8. Worse Taxi Driver
The Basics: Arthur Fleck suffers from a variety of mental illnesses, but dreams of being a comedian. The world treats him poorly, however, and he eventually finds that hitting back is the one thing that grants him true satisfaction… setting him on a road to becoming Gotham’s greatest villain. Or he made the whole thing up, I don’t know, it’s not entirely clear. If you’re going to go the “unreliable narrator” route, you should have some visual storytelling tricks up your sleeve to help sell it.
It’s… fine, in places. It’s gorgeously shot, very well acted… but it’s… it’s a souffle. It’s a bunch of pretty cinematography and good performance fluffed up with “This Is Important” music beats and Scorcese references so that it looks filling but is mostly just air. You can’t dissect it, because there’s nothing to it. Like a souffle, it will collapse if you poke at it. So instead of trying to pick it apart, here is a brief list of movies I saw in 2019 that I think deserve a best picture nominee more than this… Knives Out. Dolemite Is My Name. Rocketman.John Wick: Chapter Three Parabellum. Shazam! Yeah I said it, Joker wasn’t even the best DC Comics movie of 2019. Movies I’m assured I would think deserve the nomination more: Uncut Gems. The Lighthouse. Booksmart.The Farewell, apparently?
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats?You know what, there are stretches of both movies where I think “This is the fever dream of a madman and nothing is happening for a reason,” stretches where I think “Why didn’t society stop this scene from happening,” and moments where I think “This bit’s actually okay if you don’t think about it much or at all.” Sure Cats leans more often into full-blown nightmare territory, so if I could replace Joker dancing down the stairs to Rock and Roll Part 2 (I’m not kidding, that was a weird choice that they definitely made) with Skimbleshanks*, it’d be Joker, but as it is… well, it depends a little on mood, but odds favour us grabbing a bottle of Jameson’s and watching Ian McKellan go HAM on a bowl of milk.
*The Railway Cat.**
**The Cat of the Raaaaiiiilwaaaaay Traaaaaiiiiiin
Snubbed: That Todd Philips has an Oscar nomination for this mediocrity and Greta Gerwig doesn’t for her sublime work on Little Women is a travesty. Her framing, sense of timing, visual storytelling, use of colour palette and saturation, and ability to create divine, beautiful chaos out of the four March sisters talking all over each other speak to a gift for directing that a bargain-bin Scorcese simulacrum just doesn’t.
7. Fast and Furious: Origins
The Basics: Lee Iacocca convinces Henry Ford Jr. that to end a sales slump, Ford Motors needs to win Le Mans, the world’s most prestigious race, one typically dominated by Enzo Ferrari. And so former champion driver Carroll Shelby and current low-tier, non-professional champion driver Ken Miles set out to build Ford a car that can bring down Ferrari… if only those damn suits would get out of their way.
This one hadn’t been getting much buzz, but it seemed right in the wheelhouse of voters who gave the top prize to Green Book, so I liked its odds.
This is a solid little movie, anchored around strong performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Sure asking us to see Ford Motors as a scrappy underdog is a bit of a stretch, but they get around that by making the actual scrappy underdogs Shelby (Damon) and Miles (Bale), whose attempts to win Le Mans for Ford are constantly held back by interference from a weaselly VP played by A-grade (if C-list) weasel character actor Less Likeable Aaron Eckhart Josh Lucas. Which… the whole “men of action held back by the suits at corporate” is a little paint-by-numbers, even if it is accurate.
Bale and Damon and are good, the racing scenes are very well done… but when actual “great” is on the table, “good” ends up back here, a notch over “fine.”
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I’d probably pick this one, unless I was in a mood for copious whiskey and self-destruction.
Snubbed: Imagine if The Disaster Artist was about making a movie that, while low budget and cheesy as all hell, people legitimately enjoyed and were proud to work on. Imagine if the attempt to make this weird, low-budget, ridiculous movie was actually uplifting and moving while also really funny to watch. That, friends, is Dolemite is My Name. Eddie Murphy plays comedian and “godfather of rap” Rudy Ray Moore, depicting how he rose to comedy stardom via his Dolemite character, and his attempts to forge his own Hollywood career by self-financing a Dolemite movie. I don’t necessarily want to be the guy shouting “The Academy doesn’t care about black people,” but Eddie Murphy shines in what’s probably the year’s best biopic which is also about movies, which they normally love, and yet nothing, so…
I guess you can’t be a movie about black people and on a streaming service and get award love.
6. Oscar Season’s Most Ironic Title
The Basics: Actress Nicole and director Charlie were married, and collaborators in Charlie’s beloved Brooklyn theatre company, but the marriage has ended. A process complicated by the fact that Nicole wants to move back to LA to get back into film and television (and landed a lead role in a pilot to help make that happen), Charlie thinks they’re a New York family and expects everyone to keep living there divorced or not, and their son can’t live in both places at once. Throw in some lawyers who see the divorce proceedings as a battle to be won, and what had been a sad but amicable split turns vicious.
Noah Baumbach has created a moving story here, with amazing performances from Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver as the collapsing couple, and Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as the various lawyers brought in to the process. Baumbach also does a great job of showing both sides… we see how Charlie can be self-centred and how Nicole is fed up with being just an extension of his ambitions; we also see how Charlie feels ambushed when the divorce process turns into a vicious street fight over custody, and it seems like Nicole has been laying groundwork for this fight for weeks, engineering the process to force him to choose between his life and career in New York and actually getting to see his son ever. And while it’s an inherently sad story, it’s also funny in places, mostly thanks to the lawyers. I also love that Baumbach trusted his cast enough to go with some long takes, really let the monologues play out, rather than fill scenes with quick cuts. It’s a very well done and engaging character piece that only occasionally made me worry one of these people would be dead before it was over. (Maybe one of them is, I ain’t telling.)
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Whoof. Hard to say. Marriage Story is demonstrably better but was a rough ride in places. Not “Aaaah no why is Judi Dench singing right at me about cats not being dogs” rough, no, but still…
Snubbed: You know what else is a perfectly crafted piece of filmmaking? Knives Out. A whodunnit with multiple perfectly executed twists, a stellar cast, and every-frame-a-painting direction from writer Rian Johnson. And the twists are honest: the clues are all there if you can piece them together. It’s an original mystery in every sense that revels in the classic tropes, subverts whichever ones it feels like, and is even more satisfying the second time. Knives Out was a treasure of a movie, and while I’m sure it’ll lose Original Screenplay to Quentin Tarantino, I’m just glad that it exists. See it immediately. Find a way.
5. Obligatory Hollywood Handjob Movie
The Basics: Another character study that, in its closing act, ventures into Tarantino’s historical-revenge-fantasy territory. Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) used to be big in television and movies, but times are changing. Rick’s gone from leading man to special guest star villain-of-the-week, and Cliff’s barely getting by as Rick’s driver and general assistant, since some… allegations about his past have made it tricky to get work. Also that time he picked a fight with Bruce Lee. Rick’s trying to hold his career together, Cliff’s trying to put a calm face on a lot of anger and frustration… and they and their famous neighbour Sharon Tate are on a collision course with a cult that’s taken up residence in an abandoned backlot, a cult following one Charlie Manson.
They say that the Manson Family murders, most notably Sharon Tate, were the end of an era for Hollywood, an era that’s clearly one of Tarantino’s favourites given this lavish tribute to it… but does it really need a historical revenge flick as much as slavery or the holocaust? No, obviously not, but that’s not a big problem. The bulk of the movie is two men facing the end of an era, and wondering where if anywhere they fit in what’s to come, and that works very well. Both DiCaprio and Pitt are excellent, Cliff’s run-in with the Manson Family (answering in Charlie’s absence to Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme) is perfectly tense. The movie takes some flak for not really giving Margot Robbie all that much to do as Sharon Tate, but she accomplishes her most important task… make Tate seem lovable enough that her fate matters, and the climax has some stakes to it. We don’t need to be told why slavery is bad* and Django is right to get all Unchained on it, but while every death is a tragedy, “Doesn’t it suck that someone murdered Sharon Tate” needed a little push.
Just a couple notes… why did Quentin think Bruce Lee needed to be taken down a notch; I get that this particular Manson girl is using her sexuality to honeytrap possible rides around town and/or recruits for the family, but once you tell us she’s a minor it’s very uncomfortable how aggressively horny the camerawork around her is; and wow Tarantino was filming feet like it was his last chance to do it this time, I mean even for Tarantino it was just a lot.
Still… good flick overall. It might win and you know what, fine, whatever, that is very Oscars.
*Well, most of us… well, some of us… less than I’d like.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Given how much my opinion of this film improved after I let it marinate in my brain for a while, I’d like to give it a second watch at some point.
Snubbed: I have not seen Hustlers or The Farewell so I can’t speak to their exclusion from the awards, but if you’re looking for POC who deserved acting nominations, Dolemite is My Name (yeah we’re back on that one) has some obvious picks. Eddie Murphy was great as Rudy Ray Moore, sure, but Da’Vine Joy Randolph also brought a lot of heart to the movie as Lady Reed, a single mother that Rudy makes his partner in comedy. She, above even Rudy Ray himself, sells why making Dolemite was such a worthy endeavour… “I’m so grateful for what you did for me, cause I’d never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” Inclusion matters. Also Wesley Snipes gives probably his best performance in… I want to say over twenty years.
4. The Help 2: The Revenge
We are now into “Any of these would make a good Best Picture choice” territory.
The Basics: In South Korea, a poor family gradually infiltrates the lives of a wealthy family through a series of forged identities and grifts, figuring “Why eat the rich like a lion when you can just subtly feed off their resources like a tapeworm.” Hence the title. And just when you’re thinking “Hey, maybe this is gonna work out,” things take a turn. But not the one you’d expect.
Am I the only one who gets the song “Parasite” by 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy bandthe Guys Next Door stuck in my head when I hear this title?
Am I the only one who’s actually heard of 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door?
Because the song in general is a bit of an up-tempo incel anthem but the chorus is weirdly somewhat germane to this–stop talking about 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door now? Yeah, you bet.
So. Parasite. First, I refuse to allow the fact that my inability to parse other languages keep me from praising the cast, who deliver a bunch of compelling characters that, for the first half to two thirds of the movie, make it hard to say that either the rich or poor characters are inherently good or bad. Anxiety-ridden wealthy mother Park Yeon-kyo is just as interesting as grifter patriarch Kim Ki-taek. Although if I had to pick a favourite… the cool, commanding confidence that actress Park So-dam brings to Ki-taek’s daughter Kim Ki-jung makes her my new favourite con artist this side of the Ocean siblings.
And it all goes chaotic and it’s still great.
It’s very clever, and juxtaposes the lives of the rich and poor in a really effective way (the two families experience very different inconveniences during a torrential rainfall). There are elements of good con movies, farces, and suspense thrillers here. Absolutely worth your time.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? This times fifty.
Snubbed? What the hell did they have against Frozen 2? I mean I don’t want to complain about lesser-known animated films getting a nod, but if the third (fourth? I lost count) How to Train Your Dragon was good enough, why not the return of Elsa, Anna, and company? It was emotional, funny, inventive, and delightfully anti-imperialist. Even if you could kind of see the seams from where “Let’s give Elsa a girlfriend” was yanked out of the story.
3. A Walk to Remember
The Basics: In spring of 1917, two British soldiers are tasked with crossing No Man’s Land to deliver orders calling off an impending attack before the battalion (including one of the soldiers’ older brother) charges into a German trap and is slaughtered. It does not go smoothly.
Anyone who’s read my choices for Best Fight Scene in the annual comic TV awards knows I love a good long shot. So an entire movie crafted to imitate a single, unbroken shot? That has my attention. It’s not a new gimmick, it was done as recently as Birdman, but 1917 doesn’t have any of Birdman’s fantasy elements or unreliable narration or time jumps (okay, one time jump) to give us distance from what’s happening. What we have is a (mostly) real-time trek through the horrors of No Man’s Land that manages a perfect amount of tension, only somewhat broken by the quintet of Notable British Actors doing cameos along the way (also Mr. Young from Good Omens). Every swing of the camera (and the camera movement alone is masterful) seems to reveal some new terror, either a horror that was or a menace yet to come. George MacKay does a perfect job conveying how the weight of everything he sees and experiences during the mission is gradually crushing him, until all that’s left of him is the need to see the mission through, an ember of duty glowing in eyes deadened by trauma. It’s an incredible, gripping ride on top of being an amazing achievement in technical film making.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I mean… it’s bound to be less tense now that I know exactly what happens to who and when and how hard, like how no rewatch of The Fugitive ever matched that first time when it felt like I’d been holding my breath for two straight hours, but I might want to give it a second look just to appreciate the technical skill of the staging and camerawork. And that’s not something I’ve ever said about a Tom “Digital Fur Technology” Hooper film.
Snubbed: With Bombshell,the screenwriter ofprevious best picture nominee The Big Short tackles another infamous scandal… the sexual harassment accusations that managed to dethrone the head of the anti-feminist right-wing-propaganda engine Fox News. Sure it’s not as narratively clever as The Big Short or its director’s follow-up Vice, both of which used fourth wall breaks and meta-elements as a chocolate coating for their difficult messages… moreso Big Short, which was the best of the three… maybe director Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph work better together than apart on this subject matter, I don’t know. McKay seemed to have a livelier style withThe Big Short and Vice than Jay Roach, the director of the Austin Powers trilogy, does here. Still, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, and Kate McKinnon are quite powerful, and it’s very engaging… another year I might say “Sure, I can see not nominating it for best picture,” but… [gestures emphatically at the bottom of the list]
2. The One Where Women Have Thoughts and Feelings and Also Dialogue
The Basics: In case I’m not the only one who didn’t read the book… At the tail end of the US Civil War, the four March sisters juggle their dreams, responsibilities, and the harsh sting of reality. Jo wants to be a writer, Amy wants to marry rich, Meg wants love and family but would also love not to be poor, and Beth just wants to do right by the world and maybe play the piano when she can. And their rich neighbour Laurie just wants to be part of the gang… especially if it gets him closer to Jo. Things go bad, things go well, and it’s all so delightful.
Elephant in the room… at this point if Greta Gerwig were directing Cats 2: Way More Creepy Milk Parties and cast Saoirse Ronan in the lead I’d be there opening night.
Gerwig has written a superb adaptation of a classic novel, cutting back and forth between past and future (well, slightly more recent past, to us), and giving Jo an incredible new ending that I don’t want to spoil. The young cast playing the four sisters are all so good that I occasionally forget that Meryl Streep is also in this movie. Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep all came to play, but Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Eliza Scanlen still own every scene… fine, also Timothée Chalamet. The four sisters bounce off each other magnificently, their individual arcs are all touching in different ways… this movie is a delight.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Not even a choice. Not even Skimbleshanks (who, you might recall, is The Railway Cat, which is to say The Cat of The Railway Trains) can compete with this one.
Snubbed: Look. Obviously a lot of people, including every award show, seriously overvalued Bohemian Rhapsody last year. No question. That paint-by-numbers toothless biopic hit every worn-out trope of the genre you could name, we all know that now. But Rocketman didn’t deserve the bill for that. Rocketman, a warts-and-all biography of Elton John, succeeds in every way that Bohemian Rhapsody fell flat. It’s visually gorgeous, uses Elton’s hits to turn the story into a musical rather than a way to pad a soundtrack; has a much better framing device than “Don’t you know that before he sings, Dewey Cox Freddie Mercury has to remember his entire life?” as Elton tells his story to a support group, gradually stripping away the glitz and glamour of Elton until all that’s left is a man grappling with his pain; star Taron Egerton actually sings and sings well (Rami Malek’s big clip for last year’s ceremony was a scene of him lip syncing, what the hell); and the movie has a gripping central theme. To paraphrase The End of the F***ing World… when a person is raised without love, they don’t know what it looks like… and that makes them easy to trick. Elton is chasing the love that he’s never known, and in its place he finds a lot of bad choices, and it can be heartbreaking to watch.
1. Calvin and Hitler
The Basics: It’s 1945 in Berlin, and young Johann, Jojo to his mother and one close friend, is excited for his first day in the Nazi Youth, with hopes of making it into Hitler’s personal guard and being best friends… just like he is with his imaginary friend Hitler (writer/director Taika Waititi). But when a… mishap with a grenade demotes him to poster duty, his loving mother tries to nudge him away from Nazi life… just in time for him to discover there’s a Jewish girl secretly living in their walls. Jojo and Imaginary Hitler are in quite the pickle, and it’s hilarious right until it very much isn’t, it’s incredibly moving and I’m mad that I’m not watching it right now.
Jojo Rabbit is basically perfect. As a satire of the Nazis and other dictatorships, it’s spot-on, insightful, and hilarious. Taika Waiti expertly juggles amazing comedy, genuine suspense, powerful emotions, and perfectly shoots the scene where young Jojo meets his secret houseguest like a horror movie. Also the cast is phenomenal, from leads Roman Griffith Davies and Thomasin McKenzie, to Scarlett Johansson killing it as Jojo’s kindhearted but energetic mother, Sam Rockwell’s hilarious turn as the one Nazi soldier who seems to know he’s on the losing side (strategically and, perhaps, morally), Stephen Merchant’s simultaneously funny and terrifying appearance as an SS agent, and Taika Waititi’s amazing work as Imaginary Hitler. It’s great, it’s just great, I could watch this one over and over, I love it so much.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? If I’ve pulled out the Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray I will inevitably own, and you say “Or we could watch Cats instead,” I’ll punch you in your face. Well, no, but I’d be real tempted. I’m definitely not giving you any of the good whiskey.
Snubbed: I got so spun up about Greta Gerwig getting snubbed for best director, it took me all that morning to notice that Taika Waititi didn’t get nominated either, and that is also a shame. Jojo Rabbit is phenomenally put together. There is more artistry in the scene were Jojo discovers his houseguest than all of Joker put together.
So that’s the rankings for this year. Once again, my personal favourite is unlikely to take the top trophy, but I guess I’m just more into new, different, and interesting movies than the Academy. Also I like female directors and dislike “Yay for this white dude from history” biopics and for some reason the Academy just won’t get on board with the former or give up the latter.
It’s disappointing that my Big Annual Event Thing that I get excited about the way other people get excited about sports has to have such a narrow idea of what Good Film looks like, but…
It’s getting close to my annual post ranking the best picture nominees at the Oscars. I just need the Academy to decide what the best picture nominees actually are so I know which ones I haven’t seen yet. Other than A Star is Born, probably.
So while we’re waiting on that… and my Arrowverse Year Three rewatch is ongoing… let’s talk about the year’s superhero movies.
But not a rank ordering. I don’t see the point. There are interesting trends and symmetries this year, but the worst superhero movie I saw was fun, just a little disposable.
(I refer to Ant-Man And The Wasp, but if you thought I meant Aquaman... well, we disagree a little but that’s fine.)
The Oscars are just around the corner, and despite deep flaws in their voting board and a long, storied history of blown calls, they remain my Superbowl. They’ve once again rolled out nine films they’ve nominated as best of the year, once again I have some quibbles, but not on the same level as, say, last year.
Once again, I’ve seen them all (only partially so you don’t have to), and once again I’m here to rank them for you, say if they’re worth your time, and whether or not I think they’d even exist without Oscar season.
Enough intro. Lots to cover. Allons-y, Alonso.
I kid, I kid, the only thing this and last year’s winner have in common is gay youths finding their chosen loves difficult to pursue. I mean, that’s all they can have in common. Turns out that being gay, like everything on this Earth save for pulling off cornrows, is way easier when you’re rich and white rather than poor and black. So if this isn’t Moonlight, what is it?
In the early 80s Elio, his father the American professor (Oscar Season 2017 MVP Michael Stuhlbarg) and his French (Italian? Both?) mother, are spending the summer at the family’s villa in small-town Italy. When his father’s summer research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), arrives… eh, describing it in detail bores me. They don’t like each other, but that’s because they do like each other and this isn’t the easiest time to be gay, even in Europe, and then eventually they bang until the summer ends. There are a lot of pretty shots of the lush Italian countryside and a heartfelt speech from Stuhlbarg near the end, but that’s basically it. It’s a well-acted, prettily shot, but paint-by-numbers star-crossed romance flick that happens to have arrived at a time when doing a movie like this about two men is no longer so scandalous that it would earn an X rating and be banished to the back shelves of independent video stores, but not so commonplace that it doesn’t garner attention.
And frankly… it’s slow and a little dull. The stakes are low, the editing is self-indulgent, the whole thing is at least half an hour longer than it needs to be, the ending is soft (the only other thing it has in common with Moonlight)… it’s not great. Not, I would argue, Oscar calibre. I can think of several movies from last year that deserved the nomination more… The Big Sick, The Greatest Showman, and even War for the Planet of the Apes off the top of my head.
And as to the title… as pillow talk, Oliver says to Elio “Call me by your name… and I’ll call you by mine.” And Elio goes for it, instead of saying “Those are terrible codenames, everyone will see right through them” or the more simplistic “What? Why?” Naming the book/movie after this one doofy moment is like calling the first X-Men movie “What Happens to a Toad When It Gets Struck by Lightning,” or calling Age of Ultron “Avengers: Thor’s Magical Spa Day.”
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I doubt it? Not my usual thing. Glad you did? I’m not upset that I watched it, but… before long, I will forget it, and its absence in my memory will leave no hole.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? There’s every chance. Oscars How White? Rich people in rural Italy in the 80s. If this movie were any more white it would be an albino.
8. That Other Time Fighting Nazis Was Somehow a Controversy
Darkest Hour focuses on the rocky first month of Winston Churchill’s first stint as Prime Minister of Great Britain, from when Neville Chamberlain resigned as PM due to the opposition parties’ unwillingness to form a coalition with the architect of the appeasement policy, to the day of Operation Dynamo, the civilian-aided evacuation of the British forces from Dunkirk. During this time, Churchill tried to rally his country for war against Hitler, while facing pressure from Chamberlain and his first choice of successor, Viscount Halifax, to instead negotiate peace.
Chamberlain valued peace. He didn’t want his country in a second world war. Any other time in history, that might have been admirable. As it stands, his legacy is to be a historical cautionary tale, and to be one of the antagonists in a movie about his successor.
Gary Oldman is nigh-unrecognizable as Churchill, and he gives his usual great performance, so it has that going for it. But that’s kind of the problem. It feels like it exists as a “Great man in his most noble moment” Oscar-bait biopic and that is a genre I feel needs to die. There isn’t a lot of tension nor engaging material in watching Churchill attempt to keep his position and motivate the government to stay in the war. Movies about “that guy you’ve heard of is just as great as you’ve been told, and here’s an actor trolling for an Oscar playing him” just feel a little… empty.
Also I can’t watch this sort of biopic and not wonder how hard they’re working to make the adversaries worse than they need to be. Chamberlain isn’t done many favours (that he was dying and just wanted to see his nation at peace before the end is a little sympathetic?), but Halifax? With his angry glowers, unflattering hair, and Elmer Fudd speech impediment (which might be historically accurate, I don’t know), he is played as a straight-up villain. He didn’t want to be at war with Germany because they’d just watched all of western Europe be conquered at alarming speed, and he didn’t want England to be next. Sure it was the wrong call, we all know that now, obviously there’s no way to depict “Let’s negotiate with Hitler” positively, I’m just saying that maybe history is judging them enough and they didn’t need to play Halifax like he murders puppies when he gets home.
Parliment is well-shot, though.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Maybe? I do like Gary Oldman. Glad you did? Eh.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? This movie reeks of “Win Gary Oldman an Oscar.” Oscars How White? There’s a black guy in a pivotal scene in the London underground. He gets lines and a name and everything. Which sounds like a goddamn pittance but puts this one in the top half, diversity-wise.
7. Obsessive Compulsive Vs. Passive Aggressive: A Love Story
Phantom MenaceTollbooth Thread is the story of a waitress named Alma, who encounters a famous dress-maker named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he’s claiming is his retirement performance). Some would say Woodcock is the central character. I dispute that assertion. Anyway, Woodcock asks Alma to be his live-in model, she falls in love with him, buuuut…
See, in their very first interactions, Woodcock makes it abundantly clear that he is extremely controlling. Sure, at first he does it with a smile on his face and a song in his heart but still. Shortly thereafter, he also makes it abundantly clear that his routines and his work will always take precedence over the happiness, comfort, or any feelings of those around him, save possibly for Cyril, his razor-tongued sister and business partner. But despite his cold-to-the-point-of-cruel reactions to any kind gesture Alma makes that even remotely disturbs his work or habits, she is determined to be allowed to love him and be loved back on her terms.
Also I get the feeling he’s supposed to be gay. When she asks him why he never married, he gives the following responses:
“I make dresses.”
“I’m a confirmed bachelor. Incurable.”
“Marrying would be deceitful.”
At least one of those is old-timey-Hollywood code for “homosexual.”
But that ultimately doesn’t matter to the story. The point is, she wants to be a partner, but he’s determined to treat her like an accessory, and their various dysfunctions go to quiet, bitchy war.
This one gets tons of hype behind it, because Paul Thomas Anderson is a known quantity for quality films and Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t get out of bed if there’s not an Oscar nomination in it for him, but it’s… just pretty okay. I didn’t see anything that special in it. Also, Day-Lewis will not be getting one last Oscar. His performance is good, but subtle. The Academy doesn’t have a track record of rewarding subtlety, especially not when “Bombastic, in a biopic, with a lot of facial prosthetics” is on the table.
Also… I know there is nothing to this, but… the director’s name is two letters away from the auteur of the implausibly successful Resident Evil movies, Uwe Boll thinks they stole his poster design for Bloodrayne, and the male lead shares a penis-joke of a name with a failed and terrible-looking Billy Bob Thornton comedy. All of that is meaningless but it’s a weird confluence of shit cinema surrounding a prestige picture.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Doubtful. Glad you did? The ending was actually pretty neat, but it was a long road to get there.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis do not work together for other reasons. Oscars How White? Like the driven goddamn snow.
6. Remember Journalism? Man. Those were the days.
Jebas, the cast on this thing. Even aside from Streep and Hanks, nearly every frame had someone I know and like from somewhere. Alison Brie, Zach Woods, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, Bradley Whitford, Fat Matt Damon Jesse Plemons… David Cross and Bob Odenkirk? Big year for sketch comics doing prestige pics. But it is a Spielberg picture. People show up for Spielberg.
Meryl Streep is Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, first female publisher of a major American newspaper. Tom Hanks is her editor-in-chief, who’s eager to publish the leaked Pentagon Papers which revealed damaging secrets about America’s involvement in Vietnam. A masterful director and solid cast tackling a topic of depressing relevance: the responsibility of news media to hold the government accountable. But as legendary and Oscar-attracting as Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep are… this isn’t really any of their best work. I mean, even Spielberg’s B-game is pretty watchable, but this one is likely to get shut out and not for no reason.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I’d have gotten to it. Glad you did? Yep.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? You know at this point I think Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks just do whatever they want and if it gets Oscars, it gets Oscars. Oscars How White? Couple of black women in the crowd scenes. Jesus. This is a white-ass year.
5. Worst Layover Ever
The British army, in full retreat from the Nazis, find themselves trapped on a beach in Dunkirk, waiting for a miracle, while a massive fleet of civilian craft sailed in an attempt to rescue the troops before the panzers arrived. Christopher Nolan tells the story through three perspectives, each with a different time frame: the men in Dunkirk (primarily Tommy, who is particularly eager to get away), which covers a week; one of the boats heading for Dunkirk, and a rescued sailor quite determined not to go back to Dunkirk, which covers a day; and one air force pilot (Tom Hardy, doing some intense but silent eye-acting for most of his screentime) desperately trying to keep the German bombers from sinking the rescue ships, which covers an hour.
The various, non-synced timelines mean we encounter a few key moments from multiple perspectives, but if you’re paying attention it’s not hard to follow. Actually kind of cool realizing that the “sea” plot has caught up to “air” and whatnot.
It’s super tense, well done, and there are some solid performances throughout. I just ultimately liked a few others more.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I never miss a Nolan movie except Interstellar for some reason. Glad you did? Yeppers.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? The Oscars have taught Nolan to make movies for other reasons. Oscars How White? White chocolate dipped in vanilla. Come on, man, there had to be people of colour in that army. They had an empire.
4. Awful People Trying to Do Good, also Explosions
You’ve heard of this one. Grieving mother Mildred (Frances McDormand, who makes the character a force of nature), filled with anger that her daughter’s killer hasn’t been caught yet, rents out three billboards to shame the local police chief (Woody Harrelson), angering many in the town. None more so than Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who has problems with anger. And alcohol. And racism. And basic human empathy. He’s a mean drunk with a badge.
Writer/director Martin McDonagh is pretty good at throwing together deeply flawed people and getting a pretty solid story out of them (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). The central theme this time around is that people in pain lash out. Mildred lashes out at the police (and others), Dixon lashes out at her, her billboards, and anyone connected to them. Also it’s made clear he does this a lot.
That, then, is the centre of the Three Billboards backlash: the redemption arc for the violent, racist, drunk cop. Because I guess people would rather that bad people stay bad people? I mean the point, right, the point of his arc is not that “Sure he’s a racist, violent thug of a cop, but that doesn’t mean he’s all bad.” The first step of his redemption is realizing, with a push from the chief, that he is a bad person now, but he doesn’t have to stay that way. Woody Harrelson delivers a beautiful speech, the central thesis of which is “Hate never solved nothing, but calm did.” Or as The Doctor put it… “Hate is always foolish, and love is always wise.”
Because a topic the film tackles, one that I am just now seeing, actually, is that perhaps the line between justice and revenge is love and forgiveness. The chief gives Dixon the push, but an act of forgiveness that he had not earned makes sure the push takes. Whereas Mildred’s rage just brings more destruction.
There are a lot of layers here. A lot to unpack. Which is why it ranks higher than the others: sometimes I’d rather my best picture nominees start a conversation rather than just say “Wasn’t Churchill great,” or “There was a time when Stephen Hawking was bangable.” Also it’s got a great cast bringing their respective A-games.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I had every intention. Glad you did? Indeedy.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? This is the first real Oscar buzz McDonagh’s gotten, so I imagine so. Oscars How White? Just “Mostly.”
3. None Suffer Like White Drama Kids
A coming of age tale set in Sacramento, California, Lady Bird is about a teen girl (Saoirse Ronan, earning the crap out of her third Oscar nomination) on the verge of college trying to find an identity outside of her parents. Her family’s poor, her mother is passive aggressive, controlling, and short on kindness, so she tries to break away. By changing her name to Lady Bird, dating boys (with a few variations of failure on that score), getting into drama (though not exactly landing any leads), trying to trade up friend groups, and eyeing school in New York, waaaaaay away from home, which her parents do not love.
Do I have anything in common with Lady Bird? No. Well, mostly no. I was a drama kid and there was a hot minute in grade, I wanna say three, when I thought I wanted my name to be Robert instead of Dan. Then my dad called me “Robert” to play along and it felt weird and I never brought it up again. I lacked Lady Bird’s commitment to reinvention. Where was I? Right. I’m not much like Lady Bird, but I surely connected with her more than that stoner punk from Boyhood. It’s a film rich in charm, wit, and emotion, with outstanding performances from Ronan and Laurie Metcalf (poor woman, stuck doing the Trump Apologist Roseanne Reunion). I quite adored this movie.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Look, she may have had to do an American accent, but if Saoirse Ronan is involved I’m probably gonna show up. She is concentrated adorable. Glad you did? Oh my yes.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Yes, but the studio would have buried it and we’d be poorer for not knowing it exists. Oscars How White? A few people of colour in significant supporting roles. So, “Very.” Very white.
Elisa, a mute woman working as a cleaner at a government lab, encounters their latest discovery: a fish man brought up from the Amazon. She and the fish man grow attached to each other, but the head agent is more interested in torturing and vivisecting him to see if they can find something to help with the space race. Elisa, her friends, and a surprising ally scheme to liberate Fishy.
Also Elisa wants to tap that amphibian ass.
Guillermo Del Toro directed one hell of a romance adventure here. Visually it’s great, the cast is outstanding, and it’s subtly subversive. Well, maybe not that subtle. I’ll explain. Who are the heroes? A mute, a black woman, an older gay man, and a communist. Outsiders. The marginalized. Who’s the villain? A personification of white US-style patriarchy and intolerance. People who find something miraculous and want to tear it apart to see how it works. People who see outsiders and think of them as “less than.” It makes the case that pretty is no substitute for kind.
Quite delightful, this one.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Sure would. Looked fun, was fun. Glad you did? Darn tootin’.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Nothing about this screams “Oscars” at all. Quality won out over Oscar bait box-checking. Oscars How White? Octavia Spencer has the largest role for a person of colour in eight out of nine best picture nominees, but pretty damn white. The fish-man counts as “white,” ’cause the actor is white.
1. White People are Horror Monsters, Literally This Time
A horror movie directed by a sketch comedian with black protagonists is a serious Oscar contender? Is this real life?
Whoo boy this one was a ride. Tense, creepy as all get-out, Jordan Peele in his directorial debut nailed racial awkwardness as horror fodder. See, it’s not that the villains are stereotypically racist. They don’t hate black people. They seem to even admire them. But that doesn’t make them good people, that doesn’t make them good at dealing with race. They still try to claim ownership of black bodies. The whole situation is demonstrably uncomfortable even before the really creepy part kicks in. It’s like it’s calling out white liberals, saying “Hey, you’re not as woke as you think.”
And man is that the horror movie America needs, since it turns out a huge swath of the country was so mad about eight years of a black president that they would elect an incompetent orangutan to the White House if it meant undoing Obama’s legacy. [spoiler title=’You probably know this but just in case…’ style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’]And because so many white viewers can’t process that Allison Williams’ character is indeed just as much of a monster as she seems. No she’s not mind controlled, no she’s not a victim, she harvests black bodies and keeps trophies, that is some evil right there.[/spoiler] When people show you who they are, believe them. Otherwise you end up married to mentally abusive dressmakers. FULL CIRCLE! BOOM! … Crap, Phantom Thread was number seven. Less of a circle and more of a spiral. Damn it.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I did. I did watch it without Oscar nominations. Glad you did? Surely am.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? A black-led horror movie released in February? They can’t have thought Oscars were on the table. Oscars How White? Only, like, half white! And the good guys are both black!
…Not the best year. Nothing was Fences bad, but nothing was Spotlight good, either. The prestige picture industry was so off their game that a horror film and a fantasy romance snuck onto the shortlist.
Also a really damn white year. Get Out and Black Panther are not swinging that pendulum as fast as you’d like.
I wasn’t going to do this. Review Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets. You can tell because it’s been out for a while now and I’m just getting around to it.
But it turns out that there are a couple of things about it I want to talk about. So let’s do this.
First, the bad news.
The titular “City of 1000 Planets” is space station Alpha, which once was an Earth space station, but in the film’s intro gradually grows into a hub of interplanetary diplomacy and commerce. After wrapping a mission, interplanetary agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevinge) return to the station to find themselves caught in an intrigue between their military bosses and a mysterious alien race.
That’s about all I can say about the plot… not because not much happens, but because if I try to go into more detail it’ll get out of hand fast and I’ll describe way too much. But don’t worry. You’ll figure it all out. It is… not hard. If you can’t tell exactly where the story is going within half an hour… how fun your simple life must be. I’d love to be surprised that easily some days.
The romantic subplot between Valerian and Laureline, because of course there is one, because why wouldn’t there be one other than not wanting to be trite… it’s forced and hackneyed. Very hackneyed. Someone who is 19 wrote the dialogue for that plotline. Luc Besson was late to set, so he gave an intern a Writing Romance For Dummies book and had them write Valerian’s dialogue in the car. I don’t think there was one scene involving Valerian trying to convince Laureline to marry him (they are not dating, by the way) that didn’t make me roll my eyes at the bland, passionless approach, and DeHaan’s uninspired take.
(Okay, sure, Delevinge didn’t exactly set the screen on fire, but were we expecting much? Frankly her performance fit Laureline’s general sense of exasperation with her partner pretty well, so I’d give her more of a pass than DeHaan.)
With that out of the way…
The visuals on this film are incredible.
It was honestly hard to be too upset with the wooden romantic arc when every ten minutes there was some new amazing sight, some new high-concept facet of this world splashing across the screen. I’m not one to throw around the phrase “Every frame a painting,” but hot damn this film is pretty to look at. And conceptually fascinating. I could spend entire seasons of a TV show devouring the ideas being thrown around.
Big Market, a popular tourist market that exists in a different dimension, only accessible through special goggles, gloves, and hand-held portal devices, leading to a chase scene that simultaneously takes place in a back alley market and an empty desert.
Telepathic jellyfish that form symbiotic relationships with massive sea creatures that, for some reason, live in Alpha.
A truly dizzying red light district, featuring Rihanna as a shapeshifting exotic dancer/prostitute and a delightfully over-the-top Ethan Hawke as her… manager, I guess we could say? No. Pimp. Call it what it is.
(While Rihanna and Delevinge display all the emotional acting depth you’d expect from a singer and a model, and DeHaan sometimes seems lost in his role, Hawke and Clive Owen just cut loose. And that’s super fun.)
Honestly words aren’t enough. If you’ve seen the trailer, know that you’ve barely scratched the surface.
How do they fit all of this stuff into one movie? That’s the thing I most wanted to cover.
Comic Book Storytelling
A little over halfway through I noticed something odd about the way the story was going. The main plot, as I said, isn’t super complex… but we hadn’t really touched on it in about half an hour. Valerian had gone missing chasing one of the aliens, then once Laureline found him, she got grabbed by a different group of aliens who banned outsiders.
On a space station built around mingling. I mean, sure, your embassy is sovereign ground, but a whole– nope, it’s fine, don’t get distracted.
So then Valerian has to pull off a complicated extraction, after which we finally begin to get back to the main story. I didn’t mind any of this, it was all engaging, I just happened to notice how long it had been since we’d addressed the main story and briefly thought it weird, until I realised what was happening.
This movie is based on the French comic Valérian andLaureline. And that’s why this story keeps shifting from odd locale to odd locale, sub-plot to sub-plot. It isn’t just taking a comic story and making it into a three-act action movie like your average Marvel or DC movie, it’s doing comic-style storytelling on the big screen.
Which is to say, it’s episodic. Each time the story takes a left turn or finds a new locale, that’s a new issue. And I can’t name a comic book movie off the top of my head that’s experimented with that.
Does it work? It worked for me, because it allowed the movie to explore so much more of this fascinating and gorgeously realised world, and since the visuals and world-building are what the Besson was doing best here, more was definitely better. But if you found the story a little scattered I couldn’t particularly blame you.
I do not officially endorse the consumption of mind-altering herbal substances (hi Mom), but this seems like an ideal movie to be super high for.
It’s good but flawed, gorgeous but slightly hollow. It makes me fascinated by its world(s) but not quite its main characters.I’d watch it again, but not in a hurry. Of the movies I’ve seen this summer movie season (May-present) so far, it’s probably eighth, under either Spider-Man: Homecoming or Dunkirk. I have not made up my mind as to my feelings on Dunkirk.
4.5/5 for visuals, 3.5/5 for story, buoyed mostly by its different approach and high-concept space opera fun rather than its leads. Worth seeing, worth seeing on the big screen, but probably cheap theatres? Unless you have a really nice TV or something.
Well if this isn’t the most half-assed endorsement you’ve ever read. But that’s Valerian.
So when you devour geek entertainment news the way I do (ie. not dissimilar to Augustus Gloop set loose in the Wonka Factory), San Diego Comic-Con is like being at a lavish Vegas buffet. There’s almost too much, and I want up on most of it, so I guess I’m going to be bloated and uncomfortable later.
That’s the worst metaphor I’ve ever opened with but it is not inaccurate.
So I can’t possibly cover everything that was announced about everything I love that week, be it Arrow (Slade’s back! Yay!), Flash (Tom Felton isn’t back. Boo.), Westworld (Already filming, I guess?), or what have you. But DC made some announcements on the Warner Bros. panel, in addition to releasing a decent and more colourful new trailer for Justice League…
…that admittedly is still hiding how and when Superman shows up… they’ve also begun to clear up a point of contention with the franchise’s future.
Back in 2014, Warner Bros. made as low-key an announcement about their planned slate of DC films as it was possible to make, addressing shareholders rather than Comic-Con attendees. It laid out about nine films over the course of five years, including two Justice Leagues and a far-off Green Lantern reboot. But then 2016 happened. After the negative critical reception and mixed fan reactions to Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad, everything seemed to be in doubt. New potential projects were being announced as in development left and right, whereas their previously announced films, looked shaky, with Flash in particular going into a tailspin of quitting directors and rewrites. So the question became, what exactly is going on over there?
Well, at Comic-Con, they announced… not a firm slate, but certainly their next wave. Their primary to-do list after Aquaman, the only post-League movie they’ve managed to get camera ready thus far. So let’s take a look at what they announced: what we know; what, based on the comics we might expect; and if I resist the urge to believe that everything’s going to be Wonder Woman-good from here (I’d love that but have no hard reason to assume it), how excited should we be?
We’ll skip over Justice League and Aquaman and go right to 2019.
Even before the big panel, news hit that the next DC film to go into active production will be Shazam, which… interesting. That’s interesting in a couple of ways. First, it’s an open declaration that they haven’t completely abandoned their original plan, since Shazam is still aiming for a spring 2019 release. That said, there is a lingering question mark.
Prior to Wonder Woman, the big “stay excited for DC movies” banner was the eventual arrival of proven franchise-saver Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Shazam’s classic nemesis, Black Adam. But the story began shifting… instead of Black Adam being the villain in the Shazam movie, he’d instead be introduced in a solo film, which given how interesting an anti-hero Black Adam has become in the last two decades, honestly seems like a better idea than doing both origins at once. This, naturally, led to some questions about whether Shazam was still on the table.
Well, now Shazam has a rough filming date, a release date, and a director, while all Black Adam has is Dwayne Johnson’s determination to make the movie once his busy schedule opens up. You know, assuming that 2020 presidential bid doesn’t happen.
What do we know?
Shazam has a director, David F. Sandberg. Not a big name, but a promising up-and comer. It starts filming in January/February of 2018, with a projected release date of April 5th, 2019.
With all of that in mind, you’d think we’d know more. Casting rumours about which Stranger Things kid is playing Billy or what Channing Tatum-type is playing his adult self or something. But all we know on that front is that Black Adam won’t be appearing.
What can we expect?
Shazam is about as far as it’s possible to get from the dark, brooding atmosphere that has clung to DC films from Batman Begins all the way to Suicide Squad. It’s the ultimate in wish fulfillment.
Classic origin story: ten-year-old Billy Batson encounters the wizard Shazam, who makes Billy his champion. By saying the wizard’s name, Batson gains the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus (that one’s kinda vague), invulnerability of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. In short, he transforms into a big, muscular, adult superhero who’s basically Superman with no vision powers. For seven decades and change, he went by Captain Marvel, but since Marvel Comics has at least three of their own characters with that name, DC recently laid down arms and just started calling him “Shazam,” since that’s the name everyone knows him by anyway.
So it’s a little weird that this kid-friendly superhero wish fulfillment movie is being handed off to a director best known for horror films, but I guess he’s got a decent eye. If Jordan Peele can jump from sketch comedy to horror and knock it out of the park, maybe Sandberg has more bullets in his gun than making light switches scarier than they need to be. And hey, given that Shazam’s rogues’ gallery is called “The Monster Society of Evil,” maybe a touch of horror background isn’t the worst. Like Monster Squad.
There’s no word yet about what villains we can expect, with Black Adam off the table, but there’s three strong candidates: for brain vs. brawn, there’s Shazam’s own Lex Luthor, Dr. Sivana. For the creep factor: Mr. Mind, a Venusian caterpillar with mind-control capabilities. But I’m placing my money on Ibac.
Ibac brings all of the “like the hero but evil” that origin movies have been using for their villains ever since Iron Man, but without the complexity of Black Adam. Like Shazam, his name’s an acronym of his abilities: the terror of Ivan the Terrible, the Cunning of Cesare Borgia, the fierceness of Atilla the Hun, and the cruelty of Caligula. That gives us more promising action set pieces than Sivana, and builds the acronym-based mythology up, readying us to meet Dwayne Johnson as the wizard’s less noble champion from the ancient mid-East, Teth-Adam.
How excited should we be?
Hard to say. There’s so little to go on here. But the one thing that most gives me hope for this movie is that all the details, from script to overall vision to company approach, are coming in the wake of the bright, hopeful, inspiring Wonder Woman, which means they’re moving in the right direction to tackle Billy Batson. And hey, there’s this rough concept art for the costume.
I mean, duh. This is a gimme. The most financially successful DC film since 2012, and most beloved since at least 2008. Of course they want to stay in the Wonder Woman business.
What do we know?
It’s said to be set in the 1980s, at the end of the Cold War. The first film’s director, Patty Jenkins, and the co-writer/DC mastermind Geoff Johns are working on the story right now. Gal Gadot will be back as Diana, and to the surprise of no one who witnessed their chemistry, they’re trying to bring back Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor. Wonder Woman 2, or whatever they call it, will arrive in December of 2019: 30 months after the last movie, one year after Aquaman, and way too damn long from now.
What confuses people is that they still haven’t officially confirmed that Jenkins will be directing. I mean come on. Whatever she’s asking must be worth it.
What can we expect?
Wonder Woman was a triumph for Warner Bros., so I have to assume they’ll try to keep the same inspirational tone that made it a hit. For villains? I don’t know. Diana hasn’t fought a lot of Russians. I, personally, would love to see devious corporate tycoon Veronica Cale turn up, but for reasons I don’t have time to go into. In short, she and Dr. Sivana could open the door for the sovereign nation of mad scientists I used to enjoy in the comics. Or they could have Diana fight personified misogyny in the form of woman-hating telepath Dr. Psycho. Yes, that’s his name. Not odder than Dr. Poison.
Should we be excited?
If they sign Jenkins, yes, absolutely. If they somehow don’t… less so. Because what we really want is “more of that,” and replacing their best director since Nolan would not be the right first step.
And now things get more vague.
The 2014 movie slate didn’t include any Batman solo movie, but come on. It was always coming.
What do we know?
We know that director Matt Reeves (the man behind the excellent Dawn of and War For the Planet of the Apes) has taken over from departing director Ben Affleck, and has also started over from scratch on the script. It would be easy to see this as a slam against Affleck and Geoff Johns, who had been writing The Batman up until that point, but it seems to just be how Reeves works as a director.
Reeves approached The Batman the same way he approached the Apes franchise. He went to the studio and said “This is the movie I want to make. This is what an Apes movie I’d want to direct would be,” and then held to his guns against any studio notes pointing in another direction. So it makes sense that he’s starting over on the script. He didn’t sign on to direct Affleck’s Batman idea, he wants to make his Batman idea.
We also know that rumours aside, Ben Affleck will absolutely be playing Bruce Wayne. Affleck has said that he’d be a background chimp in an Apes movie if Reeves asked him to. But Joe Manganiello might be out as Deathstroke. And if that’s why Deathstroke’s back on Arrow, I’m fine with that.
What can we expect?
Reeves promises a noir-esque Batman movie, with more focus on Batman the detective. Which I’m good with. It’s a new take. Big-screen Batman’s just been about the villain punching since 1989. His best big-screen detective work should not be Adam West figuring out that when the solution to the Riddler’s riddle is “an egg,” he means they’re attacking the UN. Other than that? No idea. It’s early days. Whatever story or characters Reeves is considering, he isn’t sharing.
Should we be excited?
I would say yes. Affleck does a good Batman, and Matt Reeves makes good movies. I think we have a good shot of being more Nolan than Schumacher here.
Justice League Dark
No, this would not be the new title of Justice League Part 2, which is absent from WB’s plans. Perhaps they’re waiting until the first one comes out and reassessing, or maybe they don’t want to discuss it openly while the issue of “So is Zack Snyder being replaced, and by whom?” is dealt with.
Justice League Dark is a now-ended title in which the magic-based heroes of the DC Universe unite to tackle magical problems that the Justice League can’t handle. The cast rotated frequently, but typically revolved around wizard con artist John Constantine, sorceress Zatanna, and acrobatic ghost Deadman. Their book might not be running, but they did just get an animated movie on Blu-ray with Matt Ryan reprising Constantine.
What do we know?
That the original treatment for this movie was written by Guillermo del Toro, and every report about the ongoing development has said they’re sticking to it. Probably because they want to keep del Toro’s name on the project as long as they possibly can, because that gives it value. Sadly, the director of Hellboy making a magic-themed DC movie was a dream too beautiful to live.
Other than that, very little. Honestly I’m surprised this got announced as being in the next wave and not Black Adam, all things considered.
What can we expect?
Ideally? A magical Guardians of the Galaxy. A group of misfits who are thrown together to save the world from something no one else can handle. Worst case scenario is Suicide Squad with more spells and less boomerangs. I would prefer the first thing.
Should we be excited?
…I don’t know. I’d like to say yes, but other than the well-done animated movie, I don’t have much to go on. Maybe if they nail down a director, and said director says “We’re going to show the world why Zatanna belongs on the A-list,” I’ll have a better idea.
This right here might be the money movie.
What do we know?
That it’s written and directed by Joss Whedon. What we don’t know is whether signing on to make this movie is what led to Whedon being asked to work on Justice League, or if making a Batgirl movie was part of Whedon’s asking price to write and ultimately direct additional Justice League scenes. Doesn’t matter, it’s happening. Barbara Gordon, Gotham’s premiere lady crime fighter, is coming to the screen in a non-Lego context.
There is neither a name nor a short list attached to the lead role, but if Joss is anything approaching clever, he’ll get JK Simmons to keep playing Batgirl’s father, Commissioner Gordon. I don’t need Batman to show up. I wouldn’t complain, but I don’t need it.
Release date hasn’t been set, but Whedon is expected to start work on it in early 2018, once he’s rested up from reshooting Justice League.
What can we expect?
If he’s focusing on The Killing Joke and Barbara’s recovery from being paralyzed, expect a lot of complaints about a male writer tackling a sexual assault survivor’s story. With luck, he either skips that or only briefly touches on it. With extra luck, maybe he incorporates some of the more recent Batgirl stories, as the defender of Burnside, Gotham’s Brooklyn. Barbara juggles school, work, and fighting upscale crime alongside DC’s most diverse supporting cast. And it’s more targeted to women than men, which would be great for a studio trying to keep the interest of all the women inspired by Wonder Woman.
Keeping Batgirl in Burnside might also help with the fact that I don’t anticipate a lot of overlap between this and The Batman. Reeves and Whedon will probably do their own things. If they want to prove me wrong, and sync their films up, hooray, but Reeves has been clear about sticking to his vision, and after Age of Ultron Whedon is probably wary of having to jam a bunch of awkward franchise-building scenes into his movie.
Should we be excited?
Yes. Yes we should. Though maybe play it cool until filming starts, so the gods don’t try to take it from us like they did Guillermo del Toro’s Justice League Dark.
And here we hit the controversy.
What do we know?
That the Flash movie is still happening, and is now called Flashpoint. And that one fact has raised a lot of eyebrows and a few alarms.
What can we expect?
The thing about Flashpoint is that it’s less famous for what it was, and more for what it did. Flashpoint was about Barry waking up in a world where his mother wasn’t killed when he was young, but the ripples of this change have made a dark and terrible world, one with no Flash or Superman, one where Thomas Wayne became a more brutal Batman when his son was killed (and Martha went crazy and became the Joker), one on the brink of destruction as Atlantis and Themyscira are fighting a devastating war. Wonder Woman conquered England, Aquaman flooded western Europe, and things are only getting worse.
But what Flashpoint is famous for is DC using it to reboot nearly their entire product line into the New 52, with fresh starts for basically everyone but Batman and Green Lantern. So like Captain America: Civil War, naming it Flashpoint kind of points in a direction.
Some question whether Warner Bros. will use this movie to similarly reboot their film universe. Others, like me, realize that’s probably not the best idea. Whatever you think about the DCEU this far, rebooting it once they finally find their stride is going to look ridiculous. And if Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Ezra Miller’s Flash break out the way Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman did last year, they’re not going to want to change much. By the time we reach Flashpoint, either their product will be better and won’t need rebooting, or things will have gone wrong and a reboot isn’t going to save them.
Others have asked whether Flashpoint would be used to replace Ben Affleck or Jared Leto, as rumours had claimed Warner Bros. was interested in doing. They must have written all of those articles or videos in the narrow window between Flashpoint being announced and Ben Affleck soundly denying the rumours he was leaving. But hey, you went ahead and posted them anyway, because what’s a little debunking between friends.
Now… there is potential here. There must be, since there’s already an animated movie based on this story, and the third season premiere of The Flash TV show is named after it. Seeing Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa go to war as twisted versions of Wonder Woman and Aquaman could be fun, albeit everything the DCEU is trying to move away from. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Thomas Wayne Batman? That I’d pay to see. But there is that one little nagging problem… if this is your first Flash movie, you don’t have an established Reverse-Flash to be the main villain. The one Barry assumes is responsible for all of this. And I’m not positive there’s a great workaround.
Of course they could be doing the Marvel thing and using the name without using much at all of the story. But if that’s true, man, you could have picked a less notorious name.
Should we be excited?
…Too soon to tell on that one, but so far I’m more concerned. It doesn’t help that instead of finding a Matt Reeves with a Flash story they really want to do, you need to find people willing to make that specific Flash story.
Suicide Squad 2
Time for something simpler.
What do we know?
That Suicide Squad made enough money that they want to make another one. Jaume Collet-Serra, another horror director, is rumoured to be close to signing on, and Joel Kinnaman (Rick Flagg) once expected to film in 2018, but any of that could prove wrong at any moment.
What can we expect?
That Warner Bros. will do their best to keep Will Smith and Margot Robbie involved, because they were seen as the highlights, and Warner Bros. wants very badly to stay in the Harley Quinn business.
Should we be excited?
Finding a less accomplished, easier to control director isn’t a great first step, seeing as Suicide Squad’s problems had “studio interference” written all over them.
Green Lantern Corps
And to wrap up, the last of the 2014 slate still on the table, with Justice League Part 2 and Cyborg absent from the announcement.
What do we know?
That they’re aiming for a cosmic-themed buddy cop movie, with a veteran Hal Jordan training a rookie John Stewart. Who’s going to write, direct, or act in it is up in the air.
What should we expect?
Getting pieces in play for all of the other Lantern Corps would be my guess. The Emotional Spectrum, and the associated ring slingers, are one of the biggest parts of Lantern lore to be added in decades, so I think it’s safe to say we’d see some set up for Sinestro, Larfleeze, the Star Sapphires, ect.
No I’m not explaining who they are. You’re on the internet. Google them if you’re that curious.
We’re at 3300 words? Wow. I do ramble on about this stuff. Okay… um… bye, then.
Okay. So. Can we talk about something? There has been a Planet of the Apes trilogy running over the past six years, essentially a prequel to the original Charlton Heston film (though not canonical to the first prequels to the original, Conquest of and Battle forthe Planet of the Apes), and what’s weird about it is that despite there being a full trilogy at this point, we don’t think about them when they’re not in theatres.
Let’s be clear. This is not me shouting from a street corner about how the Planet of the Apes franchise is great and only I seem to know it. I am like you. I forget about them as well. I have seen Rise of, Dawn of, and now War for the Planet of the Apes in theatres… I saw Dawn while on vacation in New York freaking City, when I could have been doing infinite other things, and had zero regrets… but unlike allofmyotherpop-cultureinterests, I give it no thought between movies. I don’t follow casting news… in fact, I probably heard that Woody Harrelson was in the new one more than once but kept forgetting. I don’t watch and rewatch trailers. Hell, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trailer for War. I’ve seen each of them on the big screen, often opening weekend or close to, yet I’m always surprised when a new one shows up in theatres.
As, I imagine, are you.
And the reason, friends, the reason that this is weird? They’re so good, you guys. They are all so good.
The current Planet of the Apes franchise is consistently well-made, well-acted, and has potentially ended on a tense, powerful, emotional finale that challenges Wonder Woman and Baby Driver for best movie of the summer.
And maybe the reason that we keep glossing over it is that Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake was so very, very bad. It was, we can admit that, it was. I saw that one in theatres as well, also on opening weekend, but thankfully at a time when I didn’t need to pay for movies. Because that film had flaws, yo. But no Planet of the Apes film should ever be judged on that Marky-Mark-starring incoherent train wreck. It stands alone and rightfully unloved. And since 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this has become a franchise without a weak link.
So let’s talk about this weirdly forgotten but excellently made trilogy while I still remember it exists and doesn’t have musical numbers.
But first, an acknowledgement
Brianna Wu, frequent target of internet misogynists who prove that man is, indeed, the real monster, raised an issue about the most recent entry… the female roles aren’t the best. Her assertion is that no female character, human or ape, has a spoken line in the movie. I would counter that three female characters, human and ape, have dialogue delivered via sign language, and shouldn’t that count, but… let’s not get into a debate over what is or isn’t ableism. That is not my purview.
Also, it’s not important whether the exact facts involved in her complaint are correct, the important thing is that she’s not wrong about this franchise lacking when it comes to writing for women. Rise to War, it is a male-driven franchise. I’m sure the first two movies had female characters, save for Cornelia the ape (looking up her name tells me that Keri Russell was in Dawn, which you’d think I’d remember), but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. That’s… that’s a problem. That’s an authentic problem.
So let’s just go ahead and put “Roles for women and POC” on Wonder Woman’s scorecard for “Best movie of the summer,” much as we’ll be giving “Well written villain” to War for the Planet of the Apes. Or Spider-Man: Homecoming. Or Baby Driver. LET’S…
Let’s just focus on the apes from here. They’re not great at writing for women, that’s unfortunate, but let’s move on.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Spoilers ahead. And throughout. If you want to watch the whole trilogy unspoiled, oh my God go do that right now. Stop reading this and watch these movies. Otherwise… allons-y.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out a full decade after Tim Burton made the concept look worse than 1960s production values ever, ever could. Some brave soul thought that enough time had passed that people were ready to revisit this brand, and developed an all-new prequel to the 1968 original film. So I guess it’s kind of a reboot, since Conquest of and Battle for the Planet of the Apes already did the prequel stuff back in the 70s, but there’s still at least one Easter egg setting up the original movie.
James Franco (James freaking Franco used to be in this series, that seems incredibly weird six years and two films later) plays Will Rodman, a biologist trying to find a cure for neuro-degenerative issues like Alzheimer’s, which his father suffers from. His father being played by John Lithgow (John freaking– no, no, that dude has range, he can be in whatever he likes). So eager is Rodman to find this cure that he does his own off-the-books testing with a baby chimpanzee he names Caesar (mo-cap superstar Andy Serkis), and ultimately his own father. This causes some issues.
First, Caesar attacks Will’s asshole neighbour when he gets hostile with Will’s father, and is taken to, basically, a dog pound for apes. Here Caesar meets a fellow chimp named Rocket and an orangutan named Maurice who, like Caesar, speaks sign language. Rocket (Terry Notary) and Maurice (Karin Konoval) will be two of Caesar’s closest friends and acolytes for the rest of the trilogy, and these three will be the only people to appear in all three movies. Notable amongst the staff of the… I hesitate to use the word “sanctuary,” because these people are terrible… is Harry Potter/Flash star Tom Felton, who is given two of Charlton Heston’s iconic lines from the original movie.
Second… Will’s serum has some unfortunate side effects. Viral in nature, it makes apes super-smart, but is lethal to humans. And spreads really easily. Soon Caesar has enhanced an army of apes, and is charging the Golden Gate Bridge. But not to conquer anything. Just to take his much-abused ape brethren, be they chimp, orangutan, or gorilla, away from humankind to somewhere they can live in peace.
Not that that will be an option.
Also, Will’s asshole neighbour is an airline pilot. So, while infected with this lethal virus, he heads to work at the San Francisco international airport, allowing said lethal virus to go everywhere.
And thus the fall of humankind begins.
This movie is great. It was great. I remember thinking that. And the most important non-ape character (obviously the most important character is Caesar, being the lead of the entire trilogy) might be Tom Felton. The ape pound provides our best look at what will be the central theme of the entire trilogy… hatred and fear of The Other drives us towards war and away from peace and progress. In this case, mistreatment of apes pushes them, once gifted with higher intelligence, towards banding together and leaving the world of humans.
Maurice, by the way, is named after the actor who played orangutan scientist Dr. Zaius in the original movie.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
This was the hardest one to motivate myself to see. But not so hard that when my parents said to me, on our trip to New York, “Want to see a movie…”
Yes, my parents took me to New York in July of 2014. Just because my travel agent friend had a deal. It was awesome. My parents are pretty great. That is not our topic.
Anyway, my parents suggested a movie, this being a night when we hadn’t pre-booked a show (and maybe it was Monday, and nothing was on? I’m honestly not sure), and down the street from our hotel was a theatre that had re-dedicated itself to being as fancy as possible, so I said “Sure. The theatre down the street is showing the new Planet of the Apes, may as well see that.”
One of the consistently best-made summer movie franchises and I see them largely by accident. This is the whole “nobody thinks about them” thing.
I hadn’t been excited for this one because of the basic plot. The survivors of the “simian flu,” aka that lethal side effect I mentioned from last time, are attempting to rebuild society in the ruins of San Francisco, near Caesar’s ape village. A human named Malcolm (Jason Clarke, who you’d probably recognise from something but never bothered to learn his name) reaches out to Caesar, hoping to build a peace between human and ape. Caesar is down with this, having been raised by a human (who died between films, probably from the simian flu). But there’s a problem. The head of Malcolm’s group, played by Gary Oldman, does not trust these apes at all. And one of Caesar’s top lieutenants, Koba (Toby Kebbell), is a former lab animal who cannot let go of his hatred for humans.
Sidebar… between Caesar, Rocket, and Koba, there were now three past and future King Kongs in the franchise. That doesn’t really mean anything, save that Serkis, Notary, and Kebbell are good at motion capture, but I thought it worth noting.
So anyway, that’s the central conflict. Caesar, Jason Clarke, and Keri Russell think peace between man and ape is possible, but Gary Oldman doesn’t buy it, and Koba is actively trying to start a war.
My one complaint, my only complaint, is that, well, it’s not called Dawn of the Planet of Apes and Humans Who All Get Along and Everything is Fine, so… it’s kind of a foregone conclusion.
Which, depending on your perspective, might only help the movie. It’s an epic tragedy, like the better Godfather movies or TheEmpire Strikes Back or Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which is still one of the best Batman movies. Fight me.
So I didn’t rush to watch it, and it had this thing weighing it down, but it’s excellent, really it is, and it’s vital to understanding what comes next.
And we reach the War
Seeing this was somehow even more accidental than the last one. I only saw this one on opening day because I misremembered a start time and we were 20 minutes late to The Big Sick. But it worked out.
It’s now 15 years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, according to the opening text bursts. The opening text also serves as a valuable tool for those who didn’t see or just forgot about the last two movies, because they summarise the events and highlight the words “Rise” and “Dawn” so there’s no confusion.
In War For the Planet of the Apes, Koba’s choices still loom large. Humans and apes have been at war since Koba started a larger fight. Caesar still pushes for peace, but the nearby human military, led by Woody Harrelson’s unnamed Colonel, are not having it.
Matt Reeves, writer/director of both Dawn and War, indicated that The Colonel also killed Jason Clarke and Keri Russell’s characters from Dawn, but had to cut the dialogue that revealed that. Not surprising, since the movie’s already over two hours, and that dialogue is not strictly necessary.
Matt Reeves and Woody Harrelson steer hard into the comparison between the Colonel and Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. The apes discovering graffiti reading “Ape-pocalypse Now” is actually one of the more subtle allusions.
The Colonel is definitely and unquestionably the Bad Guy. He’s cruel and and merciful, displayed by how he treats both ape-kind and humans he finds lacking.
However, all of his many, MANY misdeeds come from one easy to understand source. He sees where all of this has been going: apes replacing humans as the dominant species. His fear of this eventuality pushes him into truly dark actions, including an attack on Caesar’s ape hideout that leaves some of Caesar’s own family dead. Caesar is then determined to bring down the Colonel in return.
Caesar: Hate. The Colonel: Fear. Thus are our two main themes represented. Maurice even points out that Caesar’s hatred is making him more like Koba, whose hatred of humans caused all of this, and who continues to haunt Caesar through dreams and hallucinations.
Worse than that, several of Koba’s acolytes now work for The Colonel. They’re known as “Donkeys,” for two reasons: 1) they’re basically treated as pack animals, and 2) as the Vietnamese were known as “Charlie” and the Germans were known as “Fritz,” the apes are referred to as “Kongs.” Thus the traitor apes are “Donkey Kongs.” I dig that.
This movie is so good. Aside from another excellent exploration about how hate and fear are destructive to any attempt at civilisation, and how tribalism drives cruelty, Reeves knocks this one out of the park. Serkis is as good or better in this movie as he was as Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Steve Zahn is great as Bad Ape, an unexpected ally they pick up along the way. Karin Konoval’s thoughtful, philosophical, empathetic Maurice has been and remains a series highlight. Newcomer Amiah Miller acquits herself well as Nova, a young human girl who helps bridge this movie and the world of 1968’s Planet of the Apes in a way I’m choosing not to spoil. And Woody Harrelson? He is amazing. He gives Michael Keaton’s Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming a run for his money as the summer’s best villain.
Sorry, Wonder Woman and Baby Driver, you are fighting for third and that’s just how its is.
And the effects. God, the effects. If I didn’t know that the apes are done through motion capture, I would assume that the mask work on this movie was bleeding edge. In other words, the CG on the ape performances is so convincing that if you told me that they actually bred apes who could act this well, I wouldn’t be 100% sure you were wrong.
What I’m saying is that the ape characters look incredibly realistic. More than the last two, the apes carry this movie, and they do not look like CG apes at all. Which means that the performances of the humans behind the apes are able to absolutely crush it, and the CG never once took me out of the moment. Scenes involving Caesar and Maurice were absolutely heartbreaking.
War For the Planet of the Apes moved me in a way that only two movies in the last year have. And not any of the best picture nominees: just Wonder Woman andRogue One.
A thing I haven’t gotten around to mentioning yet. The latter-day Planet of the Apes trilogy are not action movies. If memory serves, the trailers lean on what action there is. (I say “If memory serves” because I don’t think I’ve watched a trailer for any of them since 2014.) But they aren’t, on the whole, driven by action. All three have a very well-done action set piece in the climax, but the meat of the film is in the drama, not the fighting.
In terms of sheer fun, maybe Spider-Man: Homecoming and Wonder Woman edge out War For the Planet of the Apes, because it is a kind of grim story. I mean, again, the title kind of implies that humans are not going to do well, although this time we are just straight up the villains, so sure, fine. Also, the recurring theme that fear and hate hold us back does not present an easy solution. These movies basically say “fear and hate will screw us over, and there’s nothing we can really do about that as long as the fearful and the haters are in charge.”
But maybe if we all really try, we can move past fear and hate. Maybe we can embrace hope for a better future, and the will to see it through. And if the Green Lantern comics teach us anything, it’s that will backed by hope is unstoppable.
Yes, I went nerdy there. I’m not sorry.
Long story short. Watch War For the Planet of the Apes. And if you haven’t seen the others, track down Rise of the Planet of the Apes and work your way forward. This franchise is too good to be overlooked.
And now my declaration of that fact will live on, even when I forget how good these movies are and assume that only Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and Edgar Wright knocked it out of the park this summer.
Oh, shoot, I forgot about Dunkirk and Valerian. Man, it’s almost enough to make you miss last summer, when you could take all of June off from the movies and miss nothing.
Maybe you haven’t seen Spider-Man: Homecoming yet, and want to know what you’d be in for. Or maybe you have seen it, but haven’t been in a fight about your opinion yet. Nathan.
(No, not cousin Nathan, the uppity one– he knows who he is.)
Either way, I’m here for you.
Overall? It’s fine. It’s good. Definitely enjoyable. It doesn’t quite live up to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Mans at their finest, but is a marked improvement from the train-wreck Amazing Spider-Mans. As far as Marvel Studios films go, it’s not quite on par with Guardians of the Galaxy or Winter Solider, not bland and stupid like anything Thor-related… it’s about equal with Dr. Strange or Ant-Man. Fun, enjoyable, but I’m not in a rush to rewatch it like I was with Avengers or Wonder Woman. And kind of still am with Wonder Woman.
Anyone not seen Wonder Woman yet? Should we go do that? Real quick? No, you’re right, let’s finish this first…
I’m really not trying to damn this thing with faint praise, but the overall take is “Fine, fun, good, not Amazing or Spectacular or Web of or other adjectives associated with Spider-Man.” Now… I do have some complaints. But if I just make this review a laundry list of small grievances and nitpicks, it might seem like I’m calling it bad. And I’m not.
So here’s what we’re gonna do. For each nitpick, I’m going to also name something they did well, and we’ll see which I run out of first.
Good: The Boys
Okay. Props where props are due. Tom Holland nails it. He sells both the inherent teenage awkwardness and iconic battle-wit of Spider-Man. He also gets a new twist on the character to play. Tobey Maguire got the origin and the typical comic struggle between the difficulties of young adult life and the fact that Spider-Manning is both a complication to and a release from it. Andrew Garfield slouched his way through two films that were more concerned with setting up sequels and spinoffs that never were than telling a coherent story, but somehow still got the most charming romance.
Holland’s Peter Parker is the best for showing what a joy Spider-Manning is to Peter, while still giving us the first Spider-Man whose eyes are bigger than his stomach. Maguire and Garfield’s Spider-Men fought super-villains because they were the only ones who could (and often because said villains developed a mad-on for Peter and/or Spider-Man). Peter goes after Adrian Toomes and his crew because two months ago he was fighting side-by-side with Iron Man and the Avengers (against other Avengers, but still), and now he’s back to dealing with bike thieves and other low-level crime, and while being Spider-Man is still the best part of his life, he’s getting bored and frustrated. Peter wants to prove to Tony Stark that he’s ready for Avengers missions on the regular.
(Not mentioned: you’d think Tony would be eager for help, since I’m pretty sure there are only three non-fugitive Avengers at the moment and one of them needs technological help to walk, but whatever.)
Peter’s best friend, Ned, is also pretty perfect. He’s the nerdy, over-eager best friend who gets way too into being best pals with Spider-Man. He plays confident (well, him and the AI in the suit Tony made him), and gets a few hero moments of his own. Physically and in terms of characterization, Ned brings to mind Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales’ best pal Ganke rather than anyone in Peter Parker’s supporting cast, but since they’re understandably taking a break from the Osbornes in the wake of Amazing Spider-Man 2, why not create a new best friend?
(Other than if you don’t introduce Harry and Norman Osborne right away, then the Green Goblin story loses impact if you decide to do it later, and need to retcon in this “old friend” and his father we haven’t seen before, but maybe two movies is enough for the Green Goblin. Comics need to go back to the classics way more often than movies, because they have so many more stories to fill.)
No no no. Don’t get sidetracked on how three Green Goblin stories in 20 years is too many for movie audiences but not nearly enough for comics. Stay on target.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen… 60% of Tony Stark’s screen time, something like that? But that’s okay. There is precisely enough Tony Stark in this movie. Enough that it never gets old or tired, or threatens to overshadow the actual lead of the movie.
Bad: Still not great with women, are we?
Zendaya does well as Peter’s sarcastic associate Michelle, so good at being wherever Peter is that one could almost assume she’s Peter’s own surly Tyler Durden. I do have one qualm about her character but I’ll come back to it because it’s not germane to “Marvel doesn’t write women well,” since she’s written as well as most of the men.
Marisa Tomei does well with Aunt May, for all that she’s given to do. May’s entire role basically breaks down to two things: worrying about Peter, and having any male character in her radius comment on how hot she is. Which is fairly reductive, for one, but also kind of weird?
Sure, every time they reboot Spider-Man they knock a decade off Aunt May’s age. Rosemary Harris was about 74 when she first played the role, Sally Field was 65, and Marisa Tomei is, in fairness, looking good at 52. But the characters don’t know any of that. They don’t know that Aunt May has historically looked more like Peter’s great-grandmother. People age better now than they did in the 60s. A high school student should have an aunt who looks more like Marisa Tomei than Judi Dench. She’s still more attractive than average, but… can we just all agree that it’s weird and a little bit creepy everyone needs to comment on it?
And then there’s Liz.
Liz is Peter’s love interest. And having said that, I have damn near summed up her entire character. She has little agency, no real development, she basically only exists to be an object of desire for Peter, and to give him a chance at her affections when he’s done nothing to be worth it and everything to let her down, but we’ll come back to that.
So, yeah, Marvel isn’t getting better at writing women in a hurry. Here’s hoping they figure it out before Captain Marvel.
Good: Michael Keaton
When people call Spider-Man 2 one of the all-time great superhero movies (and they do), Doctor Octopus is usually one of the main reasons why. But then Sam Raimi’s trilogy came out before 2008, the year that marked both the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the end of villain-driven superhero movies. Not a coincidence.
Before Iron Man, villains were as important a part of the movie as heroes. In fact, villains got top billing in two pre-Nolan Batman movies. Sam Raimi’s two better Spider-Man movies were as much about Norman Osborne and Otto Octavious as Peter Parker. In fact, the Raimi trilogy only ended on a sour note because Sony forced him to shoehorn Venom into what could have been a good (if unnecessarily retconny) Sandman story. And sure, Joel Schumacher went for quantity over quality with his bad-to-worse Batman movies, but quality was out of his reach from day one. The point is, truly great superhero villains seemed to peak with Joker in the Dark Knight.
Because, you see, Marvel changed the game. Starting with Iron Man, villains became almost an afterthought in their movies. Marvel villains are mostly two-dimensional personifications of the hero’s flaws. Iron Man fights arms dealers, Thor fights characters from Norse myths, and Captain America fights evil supersoldiers and/or manifestations of America’s failure to live up to its own ideals.
As a result, the bar for a good Marvel villain is staggeringly low. But there are a few questions to ask.
1) Is the actor good? Most of the time they are, since actors like being in giant hits, so Marvel ain’t starved for choice. There are exceptions. Ant-Man’s Yellowjacket had basically nothing to work with and Thor: the Dark World’s Christopher Eccleston/Malekith was so buried in makeup and voice modulation he never had a chance.
2) Do the villain’s actions and motivations make any sort of sense? Like I said… the bar is low. Winter Soldier and the first Thor do well at this. The endless series of evil arms dealers out to kill Tony Stark/Hank Pym and sell weapons make less sense, since nothing was stopping them from legitimately selling weapons. Ultron went from zero to “kill all humans” in an eyeblink. And, of course, Malekith’s plot from Thor: the Dark World is just word salad.
3) Is the villain a credible threat without resorting to Infinitely Respawning Henchmen? This is the least important, but it’s a definite nice-to-have. Loki in Avengers needed endless Chitauri to be dangerous (otherwise he couldn’t even hold his own against Tony Stark) and nobody expected Robert Redford to actually go toe-to-toe with Captain America. But then Avengers was about getting the band together and Winter Soldier was about an ideological fight, not a physical one. Well, an ideological fight with punching and explosions.
So… how does Michael Keaton do as Adrian Toomes, known to comics fans but never once referred to in the movie as the Vulture? Pretty damn good.
1) Is the actor good? Yes. The post-Birdman Michael Keaton Renaissance continues.
2) Do his actions and motivations make any sort of sense? Absolutely. Adrian Toomes is one of the better written Marvel villains. His origin is understandable, his motives relatable.
3) Is the villain a credible threat? Oh yeah. The Vulture swooping in is typically where everything goes wrong for Spider-Man. Fighting Toomes himself is much harder than fighting his chief henchman, The Shocker, a Spider-Man villain who could never carry a movie so may as well be a Giant Mook.
So, in short, and without going into spoilery details, Vulture might be one of Marvel’s very best villains.
Bad: We get it. Spider-Manning requires sacrifice.
So remember how Liv as romantic interest meant ignoring heaps of flaws from Peter? That’s because he bails on her constantly.
I get it. Being Spider-Man means doing the important thing instead of the fun thing. This is a classic trope, needing to ditch friends and loved ones to go stop a villain and save the city. But you can overdo it. You can overdo it so easily. Look at the second season of Arrow. It’s greatest flaw (well, definitely top two, depending on your views on Thea Queen) is that every time Oliver needs to have a business meeting or important personal conversation, Digg or Felicity will invariably interrupt with Arrow business. By the late-season moment when Oliver just needs a few goddamn minutes to convince Thea to sign a form to keep them from losing their house and nightclub, and Felicity immediately interrupts him, I was literally screaming at the screen. That is how played out that plot point was.
That was spread over six months. Peter bails on Liz to fight Vulture’s crew no less than four times in two hours. That’s too many. It’s too many trips to that well in one movie.
And it further weakens her character. Peter wants to take her to homecoming, and should that even have been an option after, at that point, he’s bailed on her threes times and come through for her zero times?
And furthermore… the homecoming dance, which lends its name to the subtitle (yeah, yeah, it’s called Homecoming because it’s Spider-Man joining the MCU fold, not because of the dance) has zero impact. It feels so inconsequential given that since Peter has never turned up for any of his non-Spider-Man obligations even once, we know there’s no chance Liz is having a fun Homecoming. Maybe if even one time he had chosen Liz or any high school melodrama/activity over being Spider-Man, even once, the choice of “dance or stop Vulture” would have had stakes, but instead it’s a foregone conclusion the second Aunt May drops him off at her house. When it’s a critical choice, the audience should not be thinking “Again with this.”
Here’s hoping they strike a better balance in 2019’s Spider-Man: Winter Formal.
Good: Peter and his suit
Peter’s experimentation with his Stark-designed suit’s full capabilities is fun, and mocks a few super-hero tropes. His swift and firm rejection of the suit’s more lethal capabilities is a nice break from the kill-happy Avengers, and… sadly… most recent Batman. And his experimentation with “enhanced interrogation mode” is a pretty fun mockery of the “spooky voices” employed by Green Arrow and Batman.
Bad: Michelle is who now?
This one’s a spoiler, but it’s spoiling something stupid. Make your choices and either read on or meet me at the speed round.
Michelle is the sardonic non-friend following Peter through his non-heroic escapades. Sure she treats him with disdain, but she must like him a little, given her dedication to being wherever he is, if only to mock his pain. Michelle’s a reliably fun character and Zendaya plays her well. But then at the end… look, I mentioned the spoiler thing… she says “My friends call me MJ.”
Dun dun DUUUUNNNN! Michelle is actually MJ, aka Peter Parker’s classic love interest, Michelle Jane Watson!
No. Wait. That’s not right.
It’s Mary. Mary Jane. That is what “MJ” stands for, and everyone knows that, because a) only characters in the comics actually call her “MJ,” not real people, and b) we’ve already had three massively successful (financially, anyway) movies refer to her as “Mary Jane.” Not Michelle Jane. That… that isn’t a thing. Nobody thinks that’s a thing.
So like “Laurel” Lance and “Curtis” Holt on Arrow, I’m forced to ask… why? What does changing her name actually accomplish? Were they worried that if Peter had a classmate named “Mary,” we’d know where that was going and not get invested in Peter and Liz? A fair concern. Once Lois Lane turned up on Smallville, it was hard to get too invested in Clark’s turbulent relationship with Lana Lang for the next… Jesus, four years? They kept Clark and Lana going for four years after introducing Lois? Man. That show had no plan. No plan at all.
Sorry. Got distracted.
But if that’s the case, even the Amazing Spider-Man movies managed to find a solution, and it was don’t have Mary Jane in the movie. Because unlike the hollow shell that is Liz, Gwen Stacy is the real deal. In comic continuity, Peter only ended up with Mary Jane because Gwen died, so there’s no sense in diminishing the one thing about the Amazing movies that worked by telegraphing where it’s going more than they already did. Sure it meant cutting Mary Jane out of the second movie, but Amazing Spider-Man was nothing if not willing to cut huge swaths of the movie out even if it left massive plot holes in their place.
Option two, don’t say her name until the end. Entirely doable. There were several other characters of note whose names were never spoken aloud, you could’ve gotten away with not saying “Mary” until the very end.
Or… and I have no evidence for this but it seems plausible… did they name their “MJ” Michelle so that Mary Jane Watson wasn’t black? Because if that’s the case, you fucking cowards. Have a black Mary Jane or don’t.
That might not be the reason. Again, I have nothing I can cite that says it is. But whatever the reason, it’s stupid. It’s just plain stupid. “Michelle Jane” isn’t a thing I can picture no reason to make it one.
I mean I look forward to seeing where they take her in Spider-Man: Spring Fling, but nothing’s going to make me consider this less stupid.
The Aforementioned Speed Round
Okay, let’s speed this up,
Good: The montage of Peter’s street-level attempted heroics was really fun.
Bad: Saying that the movie takes place eight years after Avengers, which came out only five years ago, makes figuring out the Marvel movie timeline really hard. But that’s a whole other blog’s worth of material.
Good: Peter’s suit-based arc works really well. Is he doing this for the glory of being an Avenger, or because it needs doing? (Sure the answer is obvious but it’s about the journey.)
Bad: The trailers gave away too much. There’s not a lot of suspense in the ferry fight.
Good: Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, uncle to Miles Morales. We might never see Miles on the big screen, but it’s nice they opened that door. Also Donald was fun in the role.
Good: Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr had some fun one-liners as Peter’s teachers.
Bad: I think I ran out. I think I’ve run out of complaints. Let me think… no, Ned, Vulture, Bokeem Woodbine as the Shocker, the ethnic diversity of Peter’s high school, Happy Hogan, the unexpected denouement cameo, the Captain America videos for high schools, all of that worked like gangbusters. Even the fact that high school crap like being popular and getting a date to the dance feel kind of inconsequential when you’re a couple of decades removed from high school isn’t really a flaw, because they are inconsequential compared to keeping giant sci-fi weapons off the street, that’s the point, that’s why he keeps bailing on things to Spider-Man at people.
So, yeah, there you have it. It’s not Earth-shaking, it never moved me the way Wonder Woman did, but it’s fun and decently paced and even when you’re really willing to pick nits the good outweighs the bad. It’s probably worth your time, and is almost certainly better than most of last summer’s tentpoles.
But go ahead and skip 3D and IMAX. I did, and I don’t think I missed anything.