Split is a return to form for Shayamalan

M Night Shayamalan has certainly become a prolific director, as of late, if not a well renowned one. For all the classics he directed early on in his career, with genre classics like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, he’s become more well known for his various disasters, namely failed horror films like The Happening and the failed adaptation of The Last Airbender. Many have speculated that this comes from Shayamalan’s inability to use a larger budget to showcase his genuine talent, finding his form of filmmaking better suited to smaller, more grounded films. Split is his latest attempt to recapture what made his former films so beloved, and mostly works thanks to how restrained it stays, even in the face of utter insanity.

Smartly, Shayamalan’s story of three women abducted by a man with 23 different personalities stays focused on the film’s most interesting part, namely the man himself. A majority of the films running time is spent establishing each of the personalities, how they relate to one another, and the different traits each personality has that the girls need to exploit to get out. While we are told there are over 23, we spend most of our time on about 4 or 5 of them, while getting glimpses of the others near the end. This holding back on personality overload helps establish clear relationships between the different personalities, and makes the drama between them seem tangible enough that you need but so much explanation, leaving more room to enjoy the different performances McAvoy delivers.

The film treats Kevin’s condition with a surprising amount of realism through most of the film, thanks in part to scenes where Kevin discusses his condition with a therapist. While the girls may see him as a freak or monster, the therapist has a legitimate desire to help Kevin and his personalities, and understands that this came from serious trauma in his past. Scenes like this help endear audiences to Kevin as a whole, and to the victim personalities like Barry and Hedwig, while helping establish which personalities are clearly a danger to our 3 protagonists being held captive. The sessions with the therapist ultimately serve dual purposes in the film, both re-establishing which personalities are more dangers to the audience, as well as developing their characters and motivations more so that you understand their viewpoint when they come back and interact with the girls.

The girls in question (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula, respectably) all do a decent enough job in fulfilling their cliche’d victim roles. Taylor-Joy is the clear main protaganist in the film as Casey, and thus gets the most screen time of the three. Unlike other films of this nature, you never get the sense that she’s making constant mistakes, and behaves rather realistically, considering her situation. A character-beat for Casey near the end comes off a bit too out of left field, and feels like it only serves to explain part of the ending, but never detracts from her generally good performance. The same can’t be said for Richardson and Sula, however, as their serviceable performances are wasted on little screen time for the two characters, leaving no doubt as to which of the three will make it out alive, and who won’t. It’s understandable that a film like Split would want some sort of body count, but the suspense could have been improved if the film put extra effort into leaving the audience guessing  on what the girls fates would be.

The clear draw of the film, however, is James McAvoy, and Split‘s success lays entirely upon his stellar performance. Giving just enough nuance to each of Kevin’s personalities, McAvoy brings the character’s to life in a believable and very unsettling way. While he does paint some of these characters with the broadest of strokes, such as Barry’s flamboyant nature, they blend together in a way that makes it all feel like parts of a singular whole, and the explanation for several of the personalities adds a lot to Kevin’s story. McAvoy also displays himself as each character through pronounced facial and physical differences for each character, adding subtle touches to each performance, and preventing the film from becoming comedic. His final form in the end is highly disturbing through only minor changes in his performance, and is grounded enough to explain when things take a left turn in the third act.

Split‘s unconventional nature ignores common horror tropes, in favor of emphasizing the strengths of the films direction, story and characters. When things take a turn for the worst in the final third, with Kevin hunting down our 3 heroines, Shayamalan avoids jump scares or cheap scenes for an audience reaction, staying true to the established information the audience was given in prior scenes. While Kevin’s actions may go a bit far for some, nothing he does is outside the realm of the possibilities set fourth in this film, keeping to an internal logic that doesn’t pull audiences out of the film.

The film’s few flaws aren’t enough to bring the film down, but may stand out for some. The film briefly goes into dark subject matter, namely situations of rape, which comes somewhat out of place, and should probably be known about before seeing the film. The biggest concern, however, is the films ending scene. Without giving too much away, Split starts as one film and ends up being another, in a way that is divisive to be sure. It isn’t a complete departure from the rest of the film, as it serves to explain some of the more outlandish things in the third act, but will be a surprise reveal that for many will likely fall on deaf ears. I recommend not looking this ending up online before seeing the film, and will provide my spoiler-filled thoughts for those who have seen the film after the arbitrary rating.

Split is the combination of several great parts working together to make a strong whole. Many are likely to praise McAvoy’s performance or Shayamalan’s directing, but both parts serve symbiotically with one another, ultimately amplifying a film that could easily have gone into comedic or downright stupid territory. In a month usually considered a dumping ground for bad movies, that we get something as good as Split is certainly surprising, and hopefully signals a change in direction for Shayamalan. Many have waited for his return as a good director, and while it isn’t without its flaws, Split may be a good sign of things to come.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 8.5 Etcetera’s Out of 10

 

*Spoiler Discussion: Thoughts On The Ending*

Yes, it looks as if we are finally getting a sequel to Shayamalan’s sleeper hit Unbreakable, the story of a man discovering he is a sort of down-to-earth super hero. For years, discussions on whether a sequel would happen have been on many peoples minds, and the way it weaves into Split’s plot is actually one of the films strongest points. This surprise reveal serves as both a great set up for the potential sequel film, as well as explain the more extravagant things that Kevin is able to do as the Beast, namely bend Metal bars with his bare hands and walk on the walls while holding onto the smallest of cracks. It’s placement after the title break was also a smart choice, showing how the film’s immediate story (the three girls trying to escape) is over, while the overarching story (Kevin, his personalities and the Beast) is just starting to begin.

My reservations on the ending, however, come from the nature of Unbreakable as far as it’s popularity among most filmgoers. Remember, it was a sleeper hit, so not that many people are likely to have seen it; as Split has thus far been very successful, it’s surprise ending is likely to leave more audiences confused, rather then shocked/excited for the next film. Likely, this was an attempt to pull a Marvel-Style reveal of whats to come, using a previous project to surprise audiences with its reveal. This doesn’t work, however, if the audience isn’t already familiar with what is being revealed, more likely causing reactions of “wait, why is Bruce Willis in this?” or “who’s Mr. Glass?”, rather then the cheering or wave of surprise that would come with a more well-known reveal. Am I excited for a Split/Unbreakable sequel? Absolutely, but that’s specific to me because of my familiarity to Shayamalan’s past work, making this something that will likely divide audiences, even though everyone should be excited for it.

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Live By Night, Paint by Numbers

Fun fact: as part of his deal with Warner Brothers to sign on for a multi-picture deal as the new Batman, Ben Affleck asked in return that they green light his next project. That project, which Affleck directs and stars in, is an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel Live By Night, which won an Edgar Award in 2013 for Novel of the Year. Less fun fact: the making of this film is far more interesting then the finished project, a boring combination of cliches and tedium, likely explaining what made it this years first big bomb.

Regardless of your familiarity with the source material, you likely know how this story goes. A mobster with a heart of gold loses the love of his life, and after a brief period in jail, looks to regain his fortune and exact revenge on the people who took his life away from him. Simple enough, that is were it not that this plot was in conflict with another plot going on simultaneously. While the film opens with promises of Mob warfare and Boston shootouts, it quickly invites distracting subplots in Florida about the KKK, religious extremists, the end of prohibition, attempts to open a casino, and a barely focused on romance between Affleck and Zoe Saldana. The films structure crumbles due to a lack of any narrative threads to connect the two stories; the mob story gets the first thirty minutes, then the hour afterwards focuses on all of the Florida plot lines, then brings back the original Mob storyline for the last thirty minutes despite having gone unmentioned for the past hour. Making matters worse is the borderline monotone narration by Affleck that occurs throughout the films runtime, more likely to put audiences to sleep then pull them further into the film.

The opening minutes of the film do show promise, with a car chase that feels authentic to its time period, and manages to remain thrilling while not feeling like a hollywood production. Likewise, theres beautiful cinematography that makes even boring scenes of dialogue pleasant to look at. Supporting Affleck is also a cast of goof side characters, with Chris Cooper in particular providing a lot of range for his small role in the film. These are small parts to enjoy when compared to the films many problems, but this (as well as the original source material) show how a good film could easily have been made.

Live By Night‘s biggest problem is Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Joe Coughlin, and the efforts he takes to keep his character likable. Coughlin is a gangster, but keeps trying to put up this pretense of being closer to Robin Hood, stealing from other gangsters and only killing when necessary. But once the films plot gets moving, Affleck begins killing people left and right, while still trying to keep this pretense of being a great guy, and not like those other gangsters who do the exact same things. The film tries to distract us by showing how much he loves his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), but she serves no purpose other then to strengthen him as a character. When the film ends, you don’t feel sorry for Coughlin’s plights and troubles, because you know earned those through his actions. No number of witty one-liners and smirks can excuse the fact that our main character is an unlikable murderer and criminal, who’s made even less likable through his holier-then-thou attitude.

Speaking of unlikable, this films’ villains are every shade of racist awfulness, to the point of being almost cartoonish. In case you didn’t already know who the bad guy in a scene is, just wait for any number of sexist remarks, racial slurs or plain vulgarities to come out of someones mouth, before promptly being killed by Affleck, to make him look like even more of a hero. It’s an arbitrary and absurd way to try and endear Coughlin to the audience, as if to say “our protaganist may be a law breaking murderer, but at least he isn’t a racist!” This is nothing to say of the great-white-hope stereotype that Affleck’s character represents, as only he and his band of good white mobsters can protect the Cuban mob down in Florida (who were doing fine before he showed up, and we know can defend themselves) against the bad white mobsters who all throw racial vulgarities like its going out of style. Some films may paint with broad strokes, but Live By Night sets itself apart by throwing the goddamn bucket of paint at a wall, looking back at audiences and expecting to be applauded for it.

Lastly, I would be remiss if we didn’t discuss Elle Fanning’s subplot and its impact on the film, or complete lack thereof. In the middle of one scene, halfway through the film, we are introduced to Loretta Figgis (Fanning), a girl who we are told is going to Hollywood to become an actress, and is completely forgotten. Later, her character comes back as major religious figure, blocking Coughlin’s plan to build a casino, implying that she will become the film’s new main antagonist  (at this point, the third the film has had within its first hour). After this plot line reaches its conclusion, however, the film unceremoniously kills the character off-screen, mentions it briefly in a single passing line of dialogue, and goes about its way, as if nothing happened and we didn’t just spend an hour of the films running time on a plot that made no difference in the end. What is already a boring and unneeded story within the plot serves to further display how even the best directors need people to sometimes tell them no. Likely, the only reason this depressing, boring and ultimately pointless subplot was allowed in was due to Affleck’s complete control over the project, as other creative teams would have likely excluded it, instead putting more work into the other lacking stories going on in the film.

Ben Affleck has made bad films before, and it’s likely that Live By Night will quickly become forgotten overtime. This is no excuse, however, for a film that is teeming with cliche’s and predictability, while sorely lacking in any merit or effort. At the time of this reviews release, the movie is estimated to lose Warner Brothers over 50 million dollars. Much like the hardships Affleck goes through in the film, I cant help but feel this is entirely deserved.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 4 Superior Boston Crime Films out of 10

The Founder: A Quality Imitation of Better Films

Being a winner, arguably, is one of the biggest lessons our society emphasizes.  In the wake of the 2016 election, being right was shown to be less important then being more popular, but this was hardly the first example. The Founder,  for instancelooks to explore the real history of the McDonalds corporations rise to infamy, and the shady business deals that ended up screwing over the men responsible for everything. But while it’s by no means a poorly made film, it lacks the artistry and detail to elevate the picture above workmanlike quality.

Much like other films detailing the early days of now famous inventions, The Founder gets a lot of mileage from viewing a pre-fast food era, with much of the films first act showing how slow and aggravating the idea of eating out was. Once we are finally introduced to McDonalds, the film does slow down to deliver a kind of history lesson on the McDonalds brothers’ first location, taking time to show the process by which they thought up the now famous speedy delivery method. You gain an appreciation for what made McDonalds so revolutionary, as the film examines the cultural wave that the fast food industry made at the time. And unlike other films that glamorize their subjects, The Founder smartly details the events that showed why the quality of the food went down so dramatically, directly pointing fingers at Ray Croc and providing a protaganist that we can both identify with and despise.

Speaking of Ray Croc, The Founder is undoubtedly Michael Keaton’s film, as most of the films strengths come off of his strong leading performance. His portrayal of Ray Croc provides a driven man that works hard to achieve his dreams, while simultaneously showing his lack of empathy towards others, and the emphasis Croc placed on succeeding above all else. It’s hard to not look at Croc’s actions and feel inspired to work harder yourself, even as the film leaves you questioning what you would do in his shoes. Even with a script in desperate need of punching up, Keaton delivers lines that can be both inspiring and utterly despicable, delivering a character that will leave audiences questioning what they would have done were they in Ray’s shoes.

But while Keaton’s performance helps keep the film interesting, theres very little else to praise. The film is just so utterly average, never aspiring to be better, but not so bad that it can’t be recommended. As previously mentioned, the script lacks any memorable lines, leaving characters stuck saying predictable lines, and failing to keep the audience guessing as to what will happen next. The pacing is all over the place, with a second act that moves at a snails pace, but sadly rushes through the most interesting part at the end, namely the legal battle between Croc and the McDonald brothers. The film never tries to do anything interesting with the cinematography, and the score is likewise unmemorable. For a film with so much going on, its a shame that theres so little to say outside of how good Keaton is, serving only to show how inferior the rest of the film is.

The other actors don’t offer much else to the film either, say for the stock roles in which the script requires of them. The brothers are well acted by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, but gives them so little screen time that they eventually become absentee factors in the films drama, serving to undercut their importance in the film, and hurting the betrayal they undergo towards the end of the film. With so little involvement in the film or with Ray Croc, the audience never gets the sense that they did everything they could to control Ray, and ultimately had the loss of their company coming. Worse off are the female leads in the film, With Laura Dern’s role as Ray’s wife doing nothing more then looking sad and sitting in their house, in a thankless role that makes her character come off as nothing more then another hurdle for Croc to overcome. Likewise, Linda Cardellini’s Joan Smith is given a bit more to do (showing how she was responsible for McDonald’s powdered milkshakes that helped earn millions), but is emphasized more as a prize for Ray to get at the end, and an upgrade for him to take once he’s discarded his current wife. For all the time Keaton and Cardellini’s characters spend on screen, that he divorces his wife as an afterthought and we only see Joan Smith once more as a callback undercuts their characters, as well as their importance in Ray’s life.

The Founder is at it’s best when focusing on the founder himself, and the steps he took to owning the McDonalds corporation. While some of those steps may take too long, and there aren’t good enough supporting characters to act alongside, most of the film gets by through Michael Keaton’s electric performance. This is the best example recently of a film propelled through its lead star, becoming as much a film showcasing Keaton’s acting talents as it is about the McDonalds scandal. but much like the fast food it focuses on, there’s not enough here to recommend going out to see, and is better viewed at home once its a bit cheaper. Just be sure to not super size your expectations.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 7 Burgers I’m Now Craving out of 10

Andy’s Worst Films of 2016

Although 2016 had a number of exceptional releases, it was hard to find them under the mountains of bad remakes and sequels. This past year brought out the worst in films, presenting often xenophobic, racist and sexist ideas on top of already terrible products. It’s a wonder that many of these made it it past their initial pitches, let alone were made at all to punish moviegoers. So let’s take one last look at the worst 2016 had to offer, and promise to try and do better in the New Years

 

Honorable Mention: Finding Dory

Before the comments come, hear me out. Pixar has been the driving force behind animated movies for over a decade, and last years Inside Out  was a great example of how what many consider children’s films can be used to teach important lessons, many of which touched adults and children alike. So it was doubly disappointing that their next project was a shallow cash grab, using the success of Finding Nemo and well as the nostalgia behind it. The jokes often fell flat, the characters repeated character arcs from the previous film, and the whole thing had a direct-to-dvd feel that undercut the importance of events. The film also tried to have its cake and eat it too in regards to Dory’s disability, sometimes using it for humor and other times as for dramatic effect to get audiences to empathize with them, switching between the two far too often. It’s good that Pixar tried to show what mental issues such as Short Term Memory Los feels like, but it’s hard to feel sorry when the film also wants you to simultaneously laugh at Dory for it. While not among the worst of the year,  Finding Dory was made for financial purposes alone, showing how even innovators like Pixar can make something soulless.

 

Number 10: The Mechanic: Resurrection

Stop me if this sounds familiar: Jason Statham stars as a badass that mumbles all his lines, fighting a gang of dudes who steal his girl, using only martial arts and henchmen that can’t aim to save the day within a 90 minute running time. If that sounds like something you’ve seen before, it’s because you have, but this time with any effort removed. Offensive in how boring it is, every character’s a tired stereotype, every line riddled with cliches, and each punch makes you care less and less thanks to uninventive choreography. The film is a relic of a bygone time, much like Statham himself, trying to excuse bland filmmaking with punching and kicking, all while doing even that poorly.

Click here to read my original review

Number 9: Assassins Creed

The video game movie curse strikes again, this time dragging down great actors like Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard with its terrible script. Shoddily edited action scenes that hint at the effort behind the film aren’t enough to excuse a script that has as little idea of what’s going on as the audience, with characters often asking “what the fuck is going on” without any good answers being given. Many of the characters lack anything to do, everyone’s alignment between good and evil switches constantly, and the film is littered with terrible CGI. To the uninitiated, Assassins Creed is confusing, boring and dumb; this is doubly true for fans of the franchise, making even the most devout players wonder why they liked something so convoluted and dumb in the first place.

Click here to read my original review

Number 8: Gods of Egypt

Much like last years’ Jupiter Ascending, Gods of Egypt is the rare bad film that goes all in with its ideas, despite them being completely insane. Whitewashing an Egypt made up entirely of white Europeans, good actors like Geoffrey Rush, Chadwick Boseman and Game of Thrones  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are stuck wandering around badly hidden green screens, in an awful sword and sandals flick that also manages to be a terrible sci-fi film at the same time. Ambition often outweighs budgets, with epic creatures and gods presented in dated, 90s-quality CGI, beginning laughable before quickly becoming tiresome. Add to this a borderline sexist treatment of its female characters, and Gods of Egypt can’t even be recommended in a so-bad-It’s good-way.

 

Number 7: The Forest

Trying to sneak its way past audiences in early January, The forest is more xenophobic then scary. Using the controversial suicide forests in Japan for the setting of a D-grade horror flick is insulting enough, but that half of the film  isn’t even in the forest and  gets its jump scares from scary looking Asian people is frankly offensive. So much of the film is seen from the white-privileged perspective of lead star Natalie Dormer, often looking down on Japanese culture, and presents even beloved cultural staples like sushi in a disturbing light, making the film feel out of touch when it isn’t outright offensive towards Japan. That the second half relies so much on bad twists and jump scares makes the film that much more insufferable. In a year full of unique horror offerings like Don’t Breathe and Green Room, it’s hard to tell who this shallow, racially insensitive flick was for.

 

Number 6: Zoolander 2

Among the many sequels no one asked for in 2016 comes Zoolander 2, a film that seems equally confused as to why the first film was a success. Unfunny, stupid and often oblivious to how little interest the filmgoing public has in Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, with several jokes about them being now old and lame ringing more ironically then what was probably intended. The film just repeats and references the past film constantly, with another set of cameos from popular actors, more jokes about the fashion world that few people get, and more scenes of Stiller and Wilson acting out of touch with the modern day (again, an ironic allegory for the film itself). Were it a different set of actors, we could at least say we could have expected better, but this is about what’s to be expected from Hollywoods’ “why is this guy famous again?”

 

Number 5: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Yes, we got another good Batman in Ben Affleck, and the warehouse fight was okay; this doesn’t excuse the other 2 hours and 25 minutes of nothing, ranging from an hour of dream sequences and future film teasing that ends up meaning nothing. A versus movie means nothing when the film picks a side for the audience, favoring Batman so clearly as to never let Superman even defend himself, which is especially egregious in a film where everyone gives their opinion on Superman. The last fight against Doomsday is a pastiche of bullshit, combining bad cgi, loud and overly-dramatic music and epilepsy-enduring flashing lights into an incomprehensible mess. I respect D.C. for wanting to make their films feel different from the Marvel offerings, but overly-serious and under-good are a bad way of standing out.

Click here to read my original review

Number 4: The Brothers Grimsby

Sascha Baron Cohen was revolutionary when he introduced us to the comedy stylings of Borat back in 2006, combining social satire with an uncomfortable look at how real Americans act. Almost 10 years later, he delivers a tasteless, unfunny mess that tests its audiences patience towards vulgarity. Each scenes formula is to place unlikable characters in situations for them to act horrible to one another, say something disgusting, or go for the most desperate of laughs through bathroom humor. The jokes linger for far longer then they should, turning already unfunny premises unbearable by the end. In case you weren’t already convinced not to see the film, the five minute scene of Cohen and co-star Mark Strong trying to jerk off an elephant penis while inside an elephants vagina is more then enough to point to as how far the film chooses to for a laugh, despite never ceasing to be more then insufferable.

 

Number 3: Dirty Grandpa

Robert De Niro used to be an acclaimed actor, and it’s made that much worse seeing him stoop to such a low as Dirty Grandpa. A sexist, racist and unfunny film is already bad enough, dragging down talented young actors like Zac Efron and Aubrey Plaza to perform the lamest of sex jokes. But someone like Robert De Niro should know better then to degrade himself in a film like this, with a twelve-year-olds idea of comedy in the form of crude language delivered in a way no one talks, race jokes no one finds funny, and old jokes that Robert De Niro is too good of an actor to endure. It’s the kind of film made for frat guys, treating women as objects to be attained and used, and thinking that acting like a child is still funny or charming. Dirty Grandpa is the kind of offensive to women film that works great as a double feature with Trump’s video where he talks about grabbing women by pussy, if that’s any indication of how much I unabashedly despised it.

 

Number 2: London Has Fallen

Another in an unfortunate list of xenophobic films released in 2016, none were quite as irresponsible and offensive as London Has Fallen. Where the first film could be excused as typical action movie fare, this 2016 sequel focuses so much of its energy on how scary and untrustworthy brown people are, taking time to single out arabic looking men and women in crowds, in an attempt to raise suspicion and fear of them. The film disturbingly takes joy in murdering scores of brown people, with Gerard Butler delivering one-liners that come off more racially offensive then endearing to the audience (the most notable of which has Butler exclaiming “Go back to Fuckheadistan”). On top of this, the film looks bad, lacks any semblance of a script, and presents people who drone strike a wedding of innocent people as the heroes of the picture (spoiler alert, they bomb innocent people in the end as an extra fuck you to the villains). London has Fallen is cinematic bile, representing the worst that Hollywood has to offer, and playing on people’s irrational fears to try and seem relevant. It’s a film perfectly made for your racist relatives, and much like said relatives, should be ignored and left alone.

 

Number 1: Suicide Squad

Years from now, once the allure of seeing fan-favorite characters on screen for the first time has died down, Suicide Squad may finally be seen by fans as the poster child for how not to make a film. College classes could be made dissecting the insane editing, contradictory script and numerous bad decisions the film makes. A movie that somehow explains too much and too little, it’s the rare superhero film that explains why the films heroes serve no purpose, and actually make each problem worse with their involvement, inviting speculation from the audience as to why they should even care. Not a single character is likable, wasting talented actors like Viola Davis and Will Smith on a script lacking in any subtly our nuance. Suicide Squad‘s ugliness ranges from its downright misogynistic treatment of women to outdated racial stereotypes, with violence towards women occurring to an inexcusable degree.  Never has seeing people get shot seemed so lifeless, as a team of characters we don’t enjoy following face off against waves of faceless drone that don’t matter, to stop a badly acted villain whose powers are never defined, trying to destroy the world with another stupid blue beam in the sky death machine. You’ve seen this movie before, you’ve seen it done better, and theres absolutely no reason to waste 2 hours enduring this childish, insultingly stupid drivel. For the third time in a row, DC’s joke is on the viewers.

Click here to read my original review

Andy’s Top 10 Films of 2016

Much like everything else in 2016, this was certainly an off year for the film industry, spitting out more unneeded Sequels, remakes and reboots then in previous years. But for everything 2016 was lacking, it made up for with a lot more variety in terms of what we are used to, focusing on thematic elements and stories we don’t see enough of on screen. It’s to these films that we look at why 2016, while not a great year for most, featured titles worth remembering.

 

Honorable Mention: The Jungle Book

Remakes, I believe, can serve a particular purpose if done right, either improving upon a poorly executed idea or showing something well known from a fresh perspective. Jon Faverau’s remake of The Jungle Book served as the latter, taking a beloved if flawed Disney classic and adding the plot and character development the original was severely lacking. An impressive cast of voice actors helped make even the smallest of supporting characters memorable, with the gorgeous special effects bringing the most out of the performances. It’s simply a great remake, that doesn’t so much reinvent the wheel, as much as it shows why the house that Mickey built has earned the pedigree their name implies.

Click here to read my original review

 

Number 10: Weiner

Love him or Hate him, both being equally understandable, the troubled story of Anthony Weiner’s fall-rise-fall again was a documentary made more engrossing having already known the outcome. The opening act smartly skips past the first scandal, presenting what almost looks like a redemption story, and showing Weiner’s passion for politics and serving the people of New York. Once the second scandal drops, however, the film opens up to all perspectives on Weiner, from a tragic figure, serial cheater, and even just a politician trying to not let his personal failings affect his political career. It’s the rare documentary that lets the audience decide the kind of man Weiner was, and how much of the public’s disdain he ultimately deserved, making for the years most involving documentary.

 

Number 9: Don’t Breathe

Evil Dead’s Fede Alvarez returns with an original premise that delivers on its potential for scares, where in a group of robbers are stalked in the house of the blind man they attempted to rob. Through a combination of great cinematography and staging, the film creates tension through the audiences knowledge of prior events, as well as what we can imediately see/here, rather than the tired cliche of jump scares and loud noises. The film also doesn’t shy away from the knowledge that our protagonists are in fact bad people, not letting you forget the reasons the bandits are there, and making whether the punishment fits the crime a question left for the viewers to ponder. While a major left-turn in the film’s final act is likely to turn off some viewers, Don’t Breathe is the rare horror film that understands that lasting scares come from strong characters in a tense situation, rather then loud noises and imagery alone.

Click here to read my original review

 

Number 8: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Announced only a few months before its release, 10 Cloverfield Lane offered a slower, more claustrophobic film in comparison to its predecessor. Much of the film’s weight is placed on the weight of its leads, and they are more then up to task. Mary Elizabeth Winstead feels like a believable every-man, while simultaneously owning her role as the film’s heroine; meanwhile, John Goodman is allowed to stretch his acting chops in an uncharacteristicaly menacing role, owning whole scenes on his intimidating demeanor alone. Much like Don’t Breathe, the film does take a left-turn into some questionable territory, which is also likely to divide some audiences. Despite this, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an almost Hitchcock-Ian effort, remeniscent more of The Twilight Zone then it is of its prior film, and stands as a fascinating start to the series’ new anthology-based direction.

Click here to read my original review

 

Number 7: Deadpool

As one of the biggest critics of Fox’s X-Men franchise as of late, Deadpool is the breath of fresh air the comic- book genre needed to stay relevant. The rated R antics of comics’ favorite Merc With a Mouth feels as genuine as Dream projects come, with the collaboration of director Tim Miller and lead Ryan Reynolds bringing a fresh take on comic books, action tropes, and even self-aware comedy. One-liners pay off as often as the action continues to be engaging, with both serving symbiotically to add depth to what could have been one-note, childish characters. Among the films many surprises is Deadpool’s surprisingly affecting love story, as Morena Baccarin and Reynold’s natural chemistry makes even an excessive relationship like Wade and Vanessas’ seem believable. It was a reminder of the narrative potential the genre is capable of in the right hands, and proof that better doesn’t always have to mean bigger.

Click here to read my original review

 

Number 6: Doctor Strange

Marvel’s second outing this year, Doctor Strange was an interesting combination of   traditional narrative elements with strong characterization and imaginative effects pulled straight from the Steve Ditko comics of the 70’s. While it’s easy to compare to the original Iron Man, Strange manages to stay fresh thanks in part to screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, managing to make familiar idea such as magic and alternate realities seem simultaneously foreign, yet understandable. Cumberbatch is magnetic as Stephen Strange, and is surrounded by strong supporting characters, with special mention going to Chiwetel Ejiofor, who performs even the silliest of material with gravitas and emotional weight. Even without these strengths, Doctor Strange is simply a gorgeous film to look at, wildly imaginative and disturbing in its imagery, bolstered by well-handled 3D. While it may seem familiar on the outside to some, what’s here stands alongside Guardians of the Galaxy as a prime example of how Marvel can take even the most non-sensical material and make something extraordinary for anyone to watch.

Click here to read my original review

 

Number 5: Moonlight

While many go to the theaters for simple entertainment, films can also be a glimpse into lives, perspectives and situations we may not always think about. Moonlight is one such example, exploring how factors like masculinity, strength, vulnerability and sexuality exist in the harsh environment of the ghetto. The film’s viewpoint of three viewpoints in Chiron at different ages in his life shows how our interactions with others weave into the creation of our own identity, at times delivering poignant and beautiful scenes, often clashing against the harsh realities of the films setting. It’s a combination of several topics, from growing up in the hood, gang lifestyle, bullying, and just being gay, and theres enough subtext within each element that many people will see the film in different ways. Moonlight is a movie 2016 needed, a film reflecting an often ignored demographic, and making their struggles and triumphs real in a way that leaves an impact on viewers.

 

Number 4: Captain America: Civil War

The culmination of the past 8 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Civil War is an example of the kinds of detail-rich narratives that can come from an ongoing film franchise. For newcomers, the story is simple enough to invest in, with the summers best action sequence in the 2nd acts’ airport battle, as well as great performances from the expansive cast. But theres a real impact that comes from having watched the prior films up until this point, where knowing the relationships between our heroes makes Civil War‘s fallout that much more heartbreaking. It’s the rare action film that is more concerned over the breaking of bonds as it is of bones, with the highlights often coming from when the characters sit down and discuss their differences on the issue of government registration. And unlike a certain other superhero versus film this year (check the worst of list coming soon), the script manages to give both Cap and Iron Man shared screen time, so you understand where both sides stand in this debate, and establish the tragedy that neither one is wrong in what they believe. The impact Civil War will have on the continuing MCU is sure to be felt for many films to come, and was a welcome reminder of why its important larger-then-life characters to be relatable on a personal level.

Click here to read my original review 

 

Number 3: Star Wars: Rogue One

When people said they wanted something new from Star Wars last year, this is what they were talking about. A decidedly darker look at the events before Episode IV, the story of the mission to steal the death star plans made for an engaging and fresh story, while remaining steeped in the look and aesthetic of the original trilogy. A cast of interesting, yet realistically flawed, heroes helped audiences to care about events that we already knew the outcome of, thanks in part to the tragically brutal ways our protaganist’s meet their fate. Its a sequel that naturally mixes in new elements, while also bringing back elements of previous films with respect and care, and comes off more like a necessary inclusion, rather than a shameless cash-grab. As the final act begins, action set pieces and tearjerking moments come in equal measure, in one of the few Star Wars that really seemed to emphasize the “war” part of its title. Good luck, Episode 8; you now have even higher expectations to live up to.

Click here to read my original review

 

Number 2: Arrival 

This may come off as a hyperbole, but i’m being completely honest when I say that I didn’t know how to review Arrival after my first viewing. It stands alongside Children of Men as a film that uses hard science fiction ideas to deliver important messages about the human condition, and does so with a subtly and earnestness that is impossible to ignore. Each performance is engaging, every action feels realistic, and each reveal unveils another layer of the film that you wont see coming. likewise, its a science fiction film about using actual science, namely linguistics, to solve the worlds problems, and never compromises this focus in favor of cheap emotional beats or forced spiritual interpretations. A film best gone into blind, Arrival is one of the smartest films this year, and comes highly recommended.

 

Number 1: La La Land

Having just seen this on New Years Eve, I didn’t have enough time to review this before my Top 10 best films list, but theres already so much to say. While I’m typically not the biggest fan of musicals, La La Land is simultaneously a gorgeous musical, a beautifully shot film, and just a well told story of love, dreams, aspirations and choices. Gosling and Stone are in top form, delivering a believable and heartwarming romance, building a relationship throughout that makes their hardships later on in the film feel more important to viewers, in comparison to lesser romantic dramas. The music is wonderful, a combination of old-time musical beats and jazz, in a track list where each song feels equally beautiful to listen to as the others. The choreography and timing of each dance is equal parts charming and impressive to behold, with the opening highway number and moonlit dance numbers being particularly enjoyable. We just don’t get films like this anymore, delivering real stories through extravagant means, all while not compromising the melancholy ending that will have you fighting back tears by the time the credits begin to roll. La La Land is impossible not to love, and is as beautiful and enjoyable as it can be poignant and heartbreaking. In a way that few films this year have done, I felt touched and inspired by La La Land.

 

Assassins Creed: As Good As You Expect A Video Game Movie To Be

I have no doubt that Hollywood will eventually make a good, if not great, video game movie. In recent years, Video Games have delivered richer, more insightful narratives then most big blockbusters. Almost 25 years after the abomination that was the Super Mario Brothers movie, its fairly reasonable to expect that we are finally due for a video game movie that does right to audiences and fans alike. But lets be clear: Assassins Creed is not that film.

Based on the Ubisoft series of action video games, the Assassins Creed film seems destined to be more notable for the talent behind the film, rather then the actual content within the films running time. Pulling in big named stars like Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons and so on would indicate something unique or interesting within the films’ script. Yet somehow, Assassins Creed does what many film adaptations succumb to, dumbing down elements that fans of the source material would enjoy, yet simultaneously adding too much exposition in many scenes so as to confuse newcomers.

Admittedly, the basic plot of the games can be equally confusing, following our protaganist experience the memories of his assassin ancestors and become an assassin in the process. But, perhaps in an effort to add extra drama to the film, the script tries to make a mystery out of which side each character is on, regardless of how clearly defined it already is. Several twists throughout the film reveal that certain characters are either an Assassin or Templar, despite our already knowing which side they already align with, leading to a major disconnect between the filmmakers and the audience. At times, you’ll be either 5 steps ahead of the filmmakers, and at others be completely lost as to what’s going on; more likely, you’ll just give up and stop caring, finding the film lacking in rewarding audiences for their time and money.

Not helping the undecipherable plot are performances that can best be described as un-involving. Regardless of whatever’s going on in the scene, most dialogue comes off as unemotional mumbling, often feeling as if the actors are simple reading right off the script. Fassbender does alright in the lead role, but the combination of no material to work with and a script riddled with cliche’s makes it impossible to connect with his present day Cal, or past ancestor Aguilar. We never get to learn anything about his supposed assassin friends either, wasting veteran actor Michael Kenneth Williams in the process. As for the villains, Marion Cotiliard suffers from a lack of motivation given to her character, resulting in a character with no defined side in the films conflict, and appears to switch roles unnaturally to support the script as needed. Special mention must be made of Jeremy Irons, an acting legend that we know can do better, but spends his time in Assassins Creed sleepwalking through monologues about control, order and other typical villain motivations.

As far as the split stories going on between the past and present, the far more interesting-in-concept past segments only account for barely a third of the films running time. We spend far too little time in the past, and as a result never get to learn anything about the characters, conflicts or stories in the past. What should feel like a parallel storyline going hand in hand with the events in the present is instead treated like action scenes to interrupt the main story, and the film suffers because of it. Making matters worse, the action is terrible, with over editing and poor cinematography serving as the main culprits; you certainly get the IDEA that something cool is happening, but rarely do you ever see this action on screen. For a film with so little else going on, its a shame that Assassins Creed couldn’t even succeed as the kind of mindless action film worth renting.

Ive seen a number of reviewers try and defend Assassins Creed, claiming that points like “it’s not as bad as previous video game movies” is enough to earn the film a better rating. I want there to be good video game movies as much as anyone else, but if we are to get good ones, we have to treat them as we did the comic book movies of the past. We had to praise the good ones, but more importantly call out the bad ones, if the genre is allowed to improve and evolve. Assassins Creed puts no effort into making an enjoyable, interesting or even coherent film, and is simply a waste of time.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 3 Moments of Apple Symbolism out of 10

Passengers: A Stalkers’ Love Story

Due to the insane nature of Passengers‘ plot, Reel Thoughts will be dividing its review into a small non-spoiler section, and a more in-depth spoiler filled review. We find that our impression of the film cannot be fully explained without giving away major details of the films’ story, and want to spare anyone considering seeing the film. So, Please enjoy the shortened, spoiler-free review bellow, with the full-spoilers review afterwards.

Spoiler-Free:

Passengers certainly isn’t without its bright spots, highlighted by generally good performances and an engaging first act. But once the main idea of the film is presented, the writing cant help but make this film feel far more disturbing then intended, turning what should be a space-set love story into something more unsavory. The film certainly tries to recover, but does so in a way that seems to miss what the problem with the script was in the first place. Combined with effects that never make you feel like you are really there, and a number of major plot holes towards the films climax, and There’s very little to recommend. While it may make for a fun rental, Passengers will likely be remembered less for the first on screen pairing of two Hollywood icons, and more for the ludicrous places the script tries to take its audience.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 5 Concerning Ideas About Love out of 10

 

Spoiler Review

Passengers, on paper, seems like a perfect film: a sci-fi romantic thriller, staring two of hollywoods’ biggest stars, with an ad campaign that teases at a greater mystery in the film. Although certainly popular right now, Hollywood has been releasing Science Fiction films concerned with ideas like love for several years, with this years’ Arrival as the most recent example. But what this film may have lacked in originality, it was hoping to draw in audiences with its twist of what wasn’t being shown in the trailers. And while Passengers starts out engaging, it’s not long before the creepy nature of the script unravels the films initial promise.

While the ads presented that Co-Stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence wake up together in the beginning of the film, as a result of malfunctioning stasis pods aboard a spaceship, the film actually begins with just Chris Pratt’s pod malfunctioning. During the entirety of the films first act, we watch as Pratt’s Jim explores his new surroundings, realizes he is now alone on the ship for the rest of his life, and tries to make peace with this. Pratt’s entire performance at this point is left on his shoulders, and he delivers an engaging performance, pulling you into the sense of desperation that should come with current situation. The standout scene comes in a montage where Pratt experiences all the ship has to offer, beginning playful and childlike, and slowly turning depressing, as he begins to come to terms with the hopelessness of his new life. It’s one of the few real moments the film has, made better by the portraying most of reactions through visuals, rather then dialogue.

Everything for the film changes, however, once Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora is introduced. While the ads for Passengers made it appear as if her stasis pod had also malfunctioned, she is actually woken up on purpose by Jim. As Jim drunkenly walks into where the pods are kept, after a failed suicide attempt, he sees her sleeping in her pod and forms a bond with her. He spends the next few months in the film reading everything she has written, looking up everything he can learn about her, and struggling with whether or not to awaken her, which he ultimately does. The problem with this is that these actions are that not of someone in love, but a stalker, looking up ways to manufacture a version of himself that she could come to romantically invest in him. While the film shows his struggle with whether or not to wake her up, it never questions his looking up everything on her, creating this persona for her to fall in love with, and the questionable eeriness of Jim’s actions.

Once Aurora is awakened, Lawrence and Pratt show plenty of natural chemistry with one another. It makes sense that they would end up romantically entranced by one another, and obviously they end up falling for one another. What’s concerning about how the film portrays this is that while it begins by showing how disturbing Pratts’ actions are, there comes a point where the film suddenly switches sides, ignoring how he is responsible for taking away Aurora’s life, and instead looking at the events of the film as “isn’t it touching how these two found each other and have fallen in love?”. To answer your question, Passengers: this isn’t romantic, because Jim forced all of this to happen, and destroyed another persons life in order to do sowhich is less “romantic” then it is a deeply disturbing and selfish act.

While it is eventually revealed to Aurora that Jim is responsible for taking her life away, the script only continues to make bad decisions by trying to make the audience feel bad for Jim, often having him try to explain that what he did was okay “because he fell in love.” One particular scene has him explaining his disturbing actions to Aurora on the intercom of the ship as she tries to run away; with a change of setting and tone, this is a scene from a horror film, about a trapped woman running from a man she doesn’t know who has taken her and claims that he “loves” her. There is never a moment where Pratt and Lawrence’s characters sit down and discuss the disturbing implications of what Jim has done, and thus the film ends up being in favor of his kidnapping of Lawrence’s life.

The Last third act could have been spent trying to fix this, perhaps giving Jim a moment of realization, or the talk between our leads we discussed previously. Instead, the film tried to deliver a trial for our characters to overcome, through a malfunction that threatens to destroy the ship. While not done poorly, it’s an all too familiar third-act sequence, full of teasing character deaths and ticking clocks. It’s the kind of movie scene where lines like “theres no time”, “this is the only way” and “I have to do this” and thrown about a dozen or so times. Not helping matters are the subpar special effect, which while not bad in any noteworthy way, are fairly lackluster and green screen heavy, distracting from the emotional weight the film tries to portray.

In the final minutes of the film, it is revealed that Jim has managed to find a way to put Lawrence’s Aurora back into stasis and give her her life back. Instead, She chooses to stay with him, forgiving his actions without any explanation, and robbing the audience of an explanation for why we should forgive his actions. It comes off less as a “love conquers all” message, and feels more like a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome, where in Aurora resigns herself to the emotions she’s feeling, and moves past the fact that this man destroyed her old life in favor of making his better. It’s an eerie, highly disturbing look at how love works, whose muddled message carries with it an unfortunate translation for viewers who end up miss-interpreting it.

Ultimately, Passengers is a film about selfishness, where in no one pays for their own selfishness in any meaningful way. Jim steals vital resources from the ship to create gifts for Aurora and doesn’t pay for it, putting his needs over those of the other 5,000 members of the ship. He steals Aurora’s life from her so that he wont have to be lonely, and doesn’t even not pay for it, but be rewarded for his own selfish act by having her stay with him for the rest of his life. The film tries to romanticize its own view of love, which has nothing to do with attachment and connections, and instead has everything to do with attraction and selfishness. The first act may intrigue audiences, and there may be some okay effects and performances from the films leads, but Passengers script ultimately astonishes in how far it goes to try and justify and glamorize the deeply concerning actions of its lead actor, leading to one of the years most morally dubious film of the year.

Rogue One Modernizes The Star Wars Franchise

While The Force Awakens was certainly a critical and commercial success when it released last year, many complained that its success was due in part to its familiarity, using a familiar story structure to the now familiar A New Hope. More importantly then that, even fans agreed that although Episode 7 director J.J. Abrams had managed to recreate the feel of the original Star Wars films, his entry into the series play things safe, rather then adding new elements into the almost 40 year old franchise. With added pressure to correct the previous films’ mistakes, as well as supporting the existence of several upcoming side-story films, Rogue One shoulders the weight of many high expectations. But against such high expectations, the latest Star Wars film manages to deliver an exceptionally made blockbuster, that never lets its franchise ties eclipse its own merits.

The tale of the the brave rebels who stole the plans to the original Death Star already has plenty going against it, in as much as its a story where the ending is well known to anyone familiar with the original trilogy. But rather then try to keep the audience guessing as to the fate of our heroes, director Gareth Edwards instead chooses to frame the story as a look at the insurmountable odds our protaganist’s faced, and what it was that they sacrificed their lives for. While past films showed the war between the Empire and Rebellion through a series of skirmishes, Rogue One delves into the war at the heart of the original trilogy, looking in detail at the Empire’s subjugation of planets, as well as the more ruthless lengths the Rebels went to fight them. While the the film gives clear protaganist’s and Antagonist’s to root for/against, there’s no mistaking that our “heroes” are murderers and capable of bad things, grounding the conflict and reminding us of the real loss of life that is often forgotten in most Hollywood blockbuster films.

Much of this is thanks to the strong performances of our leads. Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso is a strong female action hero, who manages to remain realistically flawed and down-to-earth, even when put in fantastical scenarios. Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor gives us a different side of the rebellion, showing the men tasked with less-heroic acts, such as assassinations and acts of terrorism; many of these honest looks at the actions of the rebels are put on Luna’s performance, and he is thankfully up to task. The supporting cast all deliver engaging characters, despite sharing limited screen time, with Donnie Yen standing out as the Blind force-wielder Chirrut Imwe.

Part of what makes Rogue One such a risk, as well as its greatest triumph, is the dramatic shift in tone. As previously mentioned, many parallels to real-world wars are shown in the actions of the Empire and Rebellion. Our heroic rebellion now takes on the role of terrorists, more concerned in their goal of destroying the Empire at times then they are in protecting the galaxy. Likewise, the Empire now comes off as a more ruthless and imposing foe, willing to sacrifice innocent lives and planets in pursuit of what they view as “order.” Despite going to such dark material, Rogue One manages to keep either side from feeling  black and white morally, a flaw many have cited with previous films. Likewise, the world returns to a dirtier look, making the alien worlds feel real and lived-in, which helps bring more emotion to the battles that take place within them. Should this film be a success, it’s likely that future films will have to address this dramatic shift in tone, which Rogue One thankfully benefits from.

The film’s new direction does cause some problems during the first act, as we jump between several planets and perspectives. While not engaging, there does come the feeling of a lack of connectivity between the events taking place, which makes it hard to invest in the events of the film early on. Once the second act begins, and our characters have come together for a defined purpose, the film quickly adds plenty of action set pieces and elaborates on the different dynamics between our characters. A few too many cuts might be made throughout the film, referencing characters and events in future films, but this never feels distracting to the immediate events going on, and manages to add context to certain characters placement in the saga as a whole.

Where Rogue One goes from good to great is in its final act, the climactic assault on the planet Scarif. A Saving Private Ryan-level depiction of war, here the darker tone benefits the film the most. Edward’s pension for filming large-scale events comes through, depicting how much the odds are stacked against our heroes, making every victory feel earned, and each loss that much more tragic. No character goes out in a blaze of glory either, keeping the film from turning death into a hollywood spectacle, and helping add to the emotional impact of each characters end. The finality of each death only makes the characters’ actions resound that much more, making Rogue One feel like an important story to tell, even with the well-known ending.

Rogue One is an important turning point for the Star Wars franchise, forgoing the more flashy direction of previous films in favor of a darker, more grounded approach. Only time will tell if Disney decides to explore this more in future films, but as it stands, Rogue One is one of the riskiest Hollywood films in recent memory, one that doesn’t compromise its darker vision in favor of mass appeal. This is Star Wars for the 21st century, and the future is bright in a galaxy far, far away.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 9.5 Hopes Delivered out of 10

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Distracting Subplots

Among the most successful film franchises of all time, Harry Potter invited audiences to a world of magic and adventure at the wizarding school of Hogwarts. But for the next film in JK Rowling’s series, Fantastic Beasts introduces new characters, a different time-period, and a new setting in the streets of New York. For the most part, this change in tone and perspective helps remove some of the sameness that comes with franchise reboots and spin-offs. But while the immediate film is certainly enjoyable, the quality falters when Fantastic Beasts’ focuses more on setting up sequels then its own strengths as a stand-alone adventure.

With the shackles of the Harry Potter storyline removed, Fantastic Beasts‘ is allowed to forge its own identity, creating a more adult interpretation of the wizarding world then we are familiar with. the 1920’s setting compliments this new direction by stewing the film in a combination of prohibition-time intrigue, as well as a look into the differences between how British and American wizarding communities function. While there are the occasional name-drops that longtime fans will enjoy, they never distract from the immediate actions in the film, merely serving to add context to the film in relation to the Harry Potter series.

Most of the performances add plenty of dramatic weight to your traditional blockbuster fare. Eddie Redmaynes’ Newt Scamander is portrayed as a Grizzly Man/Steve Irwin-esque figure, a man whose inability to connect with people is only outmatched by his love and respect for animals. Theres a legitimate love and care that comes from Redmayne in these scenes, and it brings a lot of life to what are otherwise CGI animals. Special mention should be made to Dan Fogler, who delivers an enjoyable turn as Scamander’s friend, even while he never breaks out of the typical comedic relief archetype.

And while these performances are all well and good, the real stars of Fantastic Beasts are the beasts themselves. While the CGI doesn’t exactly make them appear lifelike, the designs manage to shine through, and give us some of the more creative moments in the film. At its best, the film takes the time to explore these creatures, making even the more wildly creative beasts feel fully fleshed out, if not more believable. The team behind bringing these creatures to life should be commended for their work, and are likely to receive recognition for their efforts come awards season.

Sadly, For a film titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, there aren’t that many to find. While that isn’t to say this aspect of the film is neglected all together, a large portion of this film spends its time setting up sequels, and it never naturally melds with the Fantastic Beasts‘ portion. Often, the film stops things just as they seem to be getting interesting, and it never seems to gain back its momentum. Perhaps this comes from the length of the original story, but the way Director David Yates attempts to overcome this ends up distracting from the stand-alone strengths of this first entry into a new series. While things appear to get larger-then-life by the end, it all feels artificial with the knowledge that they are setting up something supposedly bigger.

Making matters worse is the set up for upcoming villain Grindelwald. For those who don’t know, he’s intended to be this series’s Voldemort, but he never feels natural in Fantastic Beasts‘ plot, even harming what seemed to be the films’ main antagonist by-association. Yet despite this, the film constantly treats each mention of the name Grindelwald like a bombshell, much in the same way the reveal of Kylo Ren’s identity was handled in the last Star Wars film; this is problematic, considering what should be the jumping point for anyone not intimately familiar with the Harry Potter franchise are already being left out of major moments in Fantastic Beasts, just because they didn’t already read the book and know why this Grindelwald person is so important. And with how prevalent these mentions are within the film, it ends up making Fantastic Beasts feeling like a side-story in its own film.

There’s plenty to enjoy in Fantastic Beasts, but the film never allows you to sit back and enjoy it on its own merits. By forcing a stand-alone plot into the role of a franchise stepping stone, the plot feels inconsequential, with constant reminders of “something bigger coming” undercutting the importance of the current events going on in the film. There’s still plenty to love, from strong performances from the lead stars, and creative creature design that will delight audiences young and old alike. But the constant set ups to future events, and the overall lack of focus, takes away most of the magic that we should have found from the get go.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 6.5 Albino Bad Guys out of 10

Doctor Strange: Genre Weirdness Everyone Will Enjoy

For Marvel‘s second cinematic outing this year, Doctor Strange certainly has a lot to live up to. Not only does the film need to properly introduce Strange himself, a major driving force in the Marvel Universe, but also properly introduce and explore the world of magic, which the MCU has thus far not discussed. But through impeccable direction and writing, stunning special effects, and standout performances by all of the cast, Doctor Strange is one of the most imaginative and entertaining films of the year, let alone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It’s hard to know where to begin on all of the things this film does right. The story, while familiar Marvel fare of an arrogant man being humbled and becoming a hero, feels reinvigorated thanks to the work by writer C Robert Cargill. The film smartly simplifies Strange’s life before learning the mystic arts, while leaving all the important details to flesh out his character. Once Strange begins learning how to use magic, the film slows down enough to really explore the possibilities of this new world we’re learning about, just as much as Strange is. The dialogue avoids feeling exposition-heavy, and manages to keep things moving at a steady pace, keeping viewer interest throughout the 2 hour runtime.

Equally impressive is the films large cast of well-renowned actors and actresses, each of whom deliver a stellar performance. Cumberbatch may play Strange with similar beats as Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film, but he is none the less charming, engaging and an absolute delight to see on screen. Likewise, Tilda Swinton is surprisingly charming as The Ancient One, Doctor Strange’s teacher, and manages to steal many of the film’s best scenes. The Supporting cast of Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor play their roles well as Strange’s compatriots, managing to play off Cumberbatch well, and serve as engrossing characters in their own right.

The weak spot for the Marvel films thus far have been in their romantic leads and villains. And while the characters are not given as much time as our protagonists, Doctor Strange manages to be the exception to the rule as far as its romantic lead and villain goes. Rachel McAdams is untraditional Doctor Christine Palmer, supporting and caring for Strange but still having her own responsibilities as a surgeon. Unlike other love interests, her small role in the film has less to do with her lack of importance in the film, but rather that she has her own life and responsibilities to attend to, serving as a more mature love interest who doesn’t drop everything for the needs of our male lead. Likewise, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is a given more material then the typical Marvel villain, thanks in part to his unique perspective on this new world we as an audience are being introduced to. The script gives Mikkelsen more depth to his character, so that even while he isn’t as strong as Strange as a character, we understand his motivations as more then just evil for evil’s sake, while still being an imposing threat throughout.

The real star of the film, however, are the visuals. There simple aren’t words for how uniquely bizarre the visuals manage to get, with characters bending reality and enviroments at will, leaving audiences as surprised as characters can be. Standout moments include a chase sequence that literally reshapes all of New York into an M.C. Escher-esque maze, as well as  Its frankly beautiful to look at, vibrantly colorful and simultaneously foreign AND understandable. While many have compared the visuals to Inception, there there’s nothing to visually compare Doctor Strange to, let alone a film that uses its visuals as enjoyably as this.

An enjoyable popcorn-flick, an experimental Super Hero film and a genre-bending art exhibit, Doctor Strange simply has it all and does it beautifully. Its the kind of film that you cant just see, but experience on an individual level. In a year where Super-Hero films were muddled in lore, realism and consequences, it’s beyond refreshing to find one that is so outlandishly fun, well told and, yes, strange.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 10 Astral Projections out of 10