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Mary Elizabeth Winstead

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2016 in Film.

Queso, usually I’d put a bunch of excuses in this opening paragraph about why this is going up so late, when the real question is: nearly ten months into 2017, why even do this Best of 2016 movie list at all? (Answer: I’m a completionist and it was bugging me.) But really the bigger issue here is: I missed a LOT of movies last year.

I missed Oscar contenders (Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge) and Oscar bait (Allied, Florence Foster Jenkins). I missed promising indies (Captain Fantastic, American Pastoral) and movies with cult-cachet (Swiss Army Man, High-Rise, Elle, Kubo and the Two Strings). I missed the big winter dogs (Passengers, Assassin’s Creed), the summer dogs (Independence Day: Resurgence, The Legend of Tarzan), and the just plain dogs (Alice Through the Looking Glass, Deepwater Horizon).

I missed some big tentpole remakes (Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, The Magnificent Seven, Pete’s Dragon.) I missed a bunch of unnecessary sequels (Now You See Me 2, Ride Along 2, London Has Fallen). I missed the maybe-better-than-you-expect B-movies (The Shallows), the high-rated Disney outings (Moana). I even missed a few movies I still really want to see (Silence, Toni Erdmann).

But of the ones I did see, I suppose these are my…

Top 25 Films of 2016
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/
2008/2009/2010/2011/2012/2013/2014/2015/The Oughts]

1. Moonlight: Damien Chazelle’s meet-cute May-December musical romance featured Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone at their…wait, one second. Er…Yeah, I know, a little late for that joke — Anyway, we’ll get to La La Land later on.

For now Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was a perfectly-contained short story about a young boy forced to toughen up in a harsh and uncaring world, and a man trying to be brave enough to shed that lifetime’s worth of armor. I have some quibbles with the movie — the classical score can be occasionally cloying, and some of the characters — Naomie Harris’s junkie mom, Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae’s saintly neighbors — occasionally felt too broadly drawn. But at a time when too many films feel swallowed by their own ambition, Moonlight told a powerful, personal, memorable, and resoundingly human story on a small and colorful canvas.

2. The Nice Guys: Not to bag on La La Land in every entry, but if you saw Ryan Gosling in one burgeoning (b)romance in the City of Angels in 2016, I hope it was this one. Harkening back to other LA neo-noirs like The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice, and maybe even a smattering of Lebowski, Shane Black’s throwback buddy-cop misadventure was one of the smartest, funniest, and most purely enjoyable movie experiences of the year (even if I saw it on a plane.)

3. Captain America: Civil War: In his last installment, our hero took on the military-industrial complex that had made his beloved country more like Hydra than the New Deal America of his youth. In Civil War, Cap makes the case for free-thinking dissent as the proper form of democratic consent, and punches that billionaire war profiteering egomaniac Tony Stark a few times in the face to boot. (#TeamCap4life).

Clearly Cap is the hero we need right now, even if, in these Hail Hydra times, he’s not the one we deserve. Throw in that ripped-from-the-comics airline melee, Spidey-done-right, and Daniel Bruhl as the best and most nuanced Marvel villain to-date (until the 2017 list, at least), and you have another jewel in Marvel’s gauntlet. Go get ’em, Cap.

4. Green Room: Antifa, meet the Ain’t Rights. Like his first film Blue Ruin — do we have a KieĊ›lowski color trilogy going here? — Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room portrays in naturalistic fashion a bad situation growing increasingly worse. It also provides a final stage for the late Anton Yelchin (meshing well with an ensemble that includes Alia Shawkat and Imogen Poots) and a rich opportunity for Patrick Stewart to play it real dark for once. Sadly, Green Room feels even more realistic now than it did last year, what with the return of Nazis marching in the streets. Tiki torch this, you rat bastids.

5. The Lobster: Since La La Land has been the Rosetta Stone of this list so far, let’s just say The Lobster is the meet-cute rom-com that movie is farthest from. I liked the first third-to-half of this movie, as sad-sack Colin Ferrell navigates the hotel of last opportunities with folks like Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly, more than I did the back-half, where he finds himself caught up in an anti-romantic resistance of sorts, living in the woods with Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, and a bunch of aloof ravers. (There’s also a section in the middle involving Farrell’s brother-turned-dog which I’d like to never think about again, thanks much.) Nonetheless, this weirdo, pitch-black satire about human coupling has moments that will stick in your craw, and makes the uncomfortable, misanthropic squirm-humor that propels (great) shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm seem positively Up-With-People.

6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople: In its own way, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is also the anti-Lobster — a funny, sweet, good-natured foray into the deep New Zealand woods with a gruff Sam Neill, getting ever less gruff as he lets orphan Julian Dennison under his skin. Throw in Rhys Darby for a touch of Conchords zaniness and you have a thoroughly pleasant afternoon hike.

7. Hell or High Water: It’s a credit to the overall experience of David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water that it’s this high on the list, even though there’s some seriously ham-fisted writing in this movie. The most obvious offender is the racist-sheriff-with-a-heart-of-gold, a character that might not have worked at all if it weren’t Jeff Bridges playing him. But the heavy-handedness starts in the very first shot of the movie, with the wall reading “3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US.” Ok, ok, I get it.) Still, even if it’s occasionally just No Country for Old Men by way of The Dukes of Hazzard, it’s a crowd-pleasing movie alright, and its heart was in the right place.

8. Doctor Strange: Another quality Marvel outing that’s all the more impressive given how badly it could have turned out. Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t the most inspired choice to play Dr. Stephen Strange — he’s basically just doing his Sherlock with an American accent — but it’s great fun to have Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Tilda Swinton(!) along for the ride, as well as Mads Mikkelsen playing the heavy. (Obvious highlight: “Mister Doctor?” “It’s Strange.” “Maybe, who am I to judge?”) Now maybe they can find something for Rachel McAdams to do in the next one — she’s as wasted here as Natalie Portman in the first Thor.

9. The VVitch: “Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” And now we’re back to the woods being terrifying again. While the most memorable part of Robert Eggers’ The VVitch is its (kinda problematic) ending, I was also impressed with the way this movie puts you square in the 17th century, conveying the strangeness, isolation, and religious panic that must have come from living alone along the unexplored frontier. (Kinda what The Village aspired to do, but really, really didn’t.) Sure, it’s a slow-moving affair, but that’s likely how it would be, until Black Philip comes-a-callin’.

10. 10 Cloverfield Lane: I thoroughly hated the original Cloverfield, but watched this on the strength of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. Pretty good choice! To be fair, this is basically the War of the Worlds reel in Tim Robbins’ basement drawn out to feature length. Still, 1010 Cloverfield makes for a reasonably taut chamber piece for most of its run, as alliances shift among the three main characters who may or may not be waiting out the end of the world in Goodman’s well-stocked bunker. Can you guess how it ends? Probably, but at least you got to see some of old Walter Sobchak along the way.

11. Rogue One: A Star War Story: To be honest, if I’d only seen this movie once, it’d have been much higher on the list. At that opening night show, Rogue One felt like it delivered the visceral thrill of the original films in a much purer way than the prequels or The Force Awakens. Finally, Vader — a character who’s been bogged down by New Age-y family matters for close to 25 years now — was an unstoppable malevolent force again, like he was when I was a kid. Finally, the world of Star Wars developed more much-needed diversity, even as Ben Mendelsohn gets to be the sneering Imperial aristocrat he was born to play.

Speaking of Imperial aristocrats, he gets a lot of grief, but I really liked CGI-Peter Cushing, and, while I get the icky implications for the future, I still thought it was an appropriate homage to a guy who hunted the undead for so long. And, of course, the Death Star’s exhaust port got a brilliant retcon.

But then I watched Rogue One again a few months ago on DVD. And, exposed to the light of day, it’s hard to ignore the movie’s serious pacing and writing problems. Almost all of Felicity Jones’ suicide squad are one-note at best — Alan Tudyk’s quippy droid comes off the best by a large margin. It’s hard to tell what they were going with with Forest Whitaker’s character, but it feels like more than half of his arc got cut somewhere. And, while we’re not at Starkiller Base, doing-violence-to-basic-physics bad, so much of what happens doesn’t make any sense. (If they desperately want to stop the transmission of the plans, why don’t the Imperials just blow up their own radar tower?)

So, in short, Rogue One was a great nostalgia delivery device, but it doesn’t really hold up. Here’s hoping some of the other one-off installments have more intrinsic quality.

12. Arrival: I haven’t read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” so can’t attest to how Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival holds up to the source material. As for the movie, it’s a heady First Contact story that shows a great deal of promise in its first half, before getting derailed by a silly bomb subplot involving Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mark O’Brien — how were these aliens meant to be surprised by a bomb? — and then spending the rest of the movie explaining what you’ve probably already figured out. Still, a good run up to that point.

Much was made of this being the blue state science-fiction movie we all needed after Election 2016. But given that Arrival ends up being more cerebral than smart, and that the basic message ends up being “acquiesce to the inevitable preordained tragedy in your future,” I don’t think that holds up in the way suggested.

13. Louder than Bombs: Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs very much has that indie-arthouse Squid and the Whale, broken family/coming-of-age-drama, I’m-watching-this-on-a-Saturday-on-the-IFC-channel feel about it, and not just ’cause Jesse Eisenberg is back for another round. But this story about a father (Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons (Eisenberg, Devin Druid) coming to terms with the untimely death of their photojournalist matriarch (Isabelle Huppert) has a natural, melancholy, lived-in feel and some well-observed moments (and, let’s face it, it’s always great to see Tom Reagan again, with or without his hat.) Definitely comes by its Smiths B-sides title honestly.

14. Hail Caesar: With The Ladykillers being the exception that proves the rule, there are two types of Coen movies: the instantly great ones (most of them) and the ones that’ll grow on you if/when you see them again. For me, Hail Caesar was among the latter.

Set around a decade after Barton Fink burned down the Hotel Earle and disappeared from Hollywood, Caesar continues Fink‘s initial inquiries into the mid-century studio system, fellow-traveling screenwriters, and movies as the spiritual iconography of our time. Also has Channing Tatum dancing, Tilda Swinton playing twins, George Clooney mugging, and Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich doing their “Would that it were so simple” routine. Like I said, my initial reaction to it was around the level of The Man Who Wasn’t There — eh, ok — and like that one, I probably need to see it again.

15. The Birth of a Nation: Both the problem and the potential are right there in the name. The Birth of a Nation is wildly over-the-top and full-of-itself at times. It’s also too self-consciously designed as a star vehicle for its writer-director Nate Parker (who, it has to be said, must go alongside Polanski and Woody in the probable rapist scumbag in real life department.)

At the same time, I appreciated the scale of ambition here — the blatant eff-you to the racist-as-hell D.W. Griffith standard and the attempt to overturn a cultural legacy that’s treated Nat Turner (or Denmark Vesey or John Brown) as criminals rather than survivors who rose up against an American hellscape that we sanctioned here for far too long. If all the turning Nat Turner into a vengeful Christ figure here is laying it on extra-thick, maybe we needed an extreme corrective to get the message out. In that regard, Nation is striking the same vein as QT’s Django Unchained, with a better grip on history to boot.

16. Knight of Cups: So we’re getting to the part of the list where I’ll freely admit that some of these probably played better on my TV than they would’ve in the theater. I grew a bit bored by Tree of Life in its second hour and absolutely loathed To the Wonder from start-to-finish, perhaps because I was trapped in. (Loved The New World, tho.) But, watching Terence Malick’s equally languorous Knight of Cups at home felt like less of an imposition on my time, and I could just roll with its impressionistic beauty. Christian Bale takes long walks on the beach and wrestles with deep spiritual malaise about the meaning of life, his many romantic escapades, and (Malick, natch) the wisdom once bestowed to him by his father (Brian Dennehy)? Go with it, my man. It helps that, like its milieu, Knight of Cups looks like a million bucks, with a captivating, sensual sheen (provided by Emmanuel Lubezki) throughout.

17. The Neon Demon: Here, again, if I’d seen Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon at the multiplex, I think I’d just be waiting for this hyperbolic, cut-rate-Aronofsky madness to end. (Then again, I saw Only God Forgives on the small screen and lordy it did not help.) But for whatever reason, at home I could take Refn’s ludicrous, pulsing disco-club beautiful-people-are-vampires story for what it’s worth, and just enjoy the trippy visual stylings without being unduly burdened by plot, character, or the usual elements that make, y’know, a decent movie. Bronson and even Drive are far better, but this one’s oddly entertaining in its weirdo midnight movie Cat People sorta way.

18. Midnight Special: Speaking of midnight, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is another movie with great promise that kinda falls apart in the final act. In its opening moments, as Michael Shannon (also in Nichols’ Take Shelter) and Joel Edgerton cruise along at high speed with night-vision goggles on, the film immediately feels like an lost and underrated Stephen King short story, a sensation helped along by Sam Shepard and Bill Camp showing up as conflicted cult leaders and Adam Driver playing against type as a nerdy government agent. But as the Very Special Kid (Jaeden Lieberher) moves to the fore and we get to the Very Special Ending, Special loses its punch, and begins to feel less like an original sci-fi story and more like one of the many so-so ’80s Spielberg knockoffs these days, a la Super 8 or Stranger Things.

19. Lion: Lion is a true story about Saroo Brierly, a young Indian boy who accidentally left his village as a child and spends his days haunted by what he left behind. It is also well-made and perfectly cromulent Oscar bait, with solid performances all around, especially Dev Patel as the young man in question, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as his supportive, if not totally understanding adoptive parents, and Divian Ladwa as his resentful adoptive brother.

Still, even if they’ve added a mid-movie romance with Rooney Mara to pad the running time (and which doesn’t contribute much to the film), we’re talking about a two hour movie here that basically builds up to a Google search. Lion was…fine, I suppose, and would probably appeal more to more sentimental types.

20. A Bigger Splash: A remake of La Piscine (which I haven’t seen), updated for modern times to incorporate the European refugee crisis and accommodate folks’ desire to hang out with Tilda Swinton, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash‘s main asset is Ralph Fiennes’ manic turn as an extroverted, cocaine-fueled record producer on Italian holiday. Fiennes has played against his usual clipped-and-distant type before, most notably in In Bruges, but he’s still a jolt of delirious energy throughout A Bigger Splash, which feels a bit like the first third of Sexy Beast before taking a turn — as I now know, like the original movie — in the late going. (It gets a bit long in the tooth after that.)

21. La La Land: City of Stars, why do you have to be so white? Alright, so La La Land — or, as Amy and I began calling it as soon as it was over, “white people shit.” To be fair to the film, I thought it got better as it went along — I was on the verge of walking out during the big frenetic “let’s put on a show!!” traffic jam-boree at the start — and Ryan Gosling and especially Emma Stone are both appealing enough, even if Gosling can’t dance without looking at his feet.

But the real issue here is: Why should I care? Stone wants to be a megastar? Gosling wants to open a jazz club (presumably so he can keep whitesplaining it to anyone who walks in)? Gosling is worried his fusion breakthrough with John Legend might make him a sellout? Honestly, who gives a shit? C’mon, people, it is — sorry, was — the year of our Lord 2016. This is like the poor King of England having a stutter all over again. Please come at me with real problems.

22. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: I never read the books (I know, I know, we’re a long way from The Leaky Cauldron days), and I’m not sure we need an all-new multiple-film foray into the expanded Potter universe. But a Harry Potter prequel spinoff set in 1920’s America? Now you’re speaking my language! (Also, not to give the ending away, but I think I’d prefer Colin Farrell as the multiple-movie nemesis rather than He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named-On-Account-Of-Spoilers.)

23. Don’t Breathe: Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe was one of those horror movies getting It Follows, Babadook, and VVitch-level hype in some corners, and I saw it after it had been rather intensely hyped. Given that, the second act twist didn’t particularly impress me, and I was expecting more memorable all around than just a reverse-Wait Until Dark. Still, it’s always good to see Stephen Lang getting his due — unless you’re watching Gods and Generals, in which case dear god why?

24. Star Trek Beyond: a.k.a. the one where Kirk’s big contribution to the endgame is popping wheelies on a motorcycle. Idris Elba and Sofia Boutella are both wasted behind the extensive make-up, but at least this third installment of nu-Trek sidestepped the stupid remix brain of Into Darkness and focused on telling a fun, small-bore TNG-ish adventure. Beyond isn’t classic Trek or anything, but it does lend credence to the theory that, in the reboot universe, it’s the odd ones that don’t suck.

25. Deadpool: Like I said for a few years now, I like to give the last spot to a genre movie that knows what it is and does it well. This year, that was Deadpool. I have no connection to the character and frankly find him kinda irritating — he’s a sophomoric Liefeldian (re: many pouches) knockoff of the DC’s funnier, more-meta Ambush Bug. And much like Ryan Reynold’s very similar comic hero in Blade: Trinity, he also “appears to have learned English from reading AICN talkbacks” (or Reddit, for the kids out there).

Still, Reynolds, director Tim Miller, and co. embraced the guy, pouches and all, and gave him a movie that suited the character. Besides, it was fun to actually have Colossus running around a X-Men movie for once — but not sure this will get me in the theater for Josh Brolin’s Cable.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

Warcraft: Look, I know that you probably weren’t disappointed by Warcraft. But I sure was. Duncan Jones of Moon and Source Code bringing the game I’ve literally spent a year in to life? This could’ve been pretty good!

Except — and here was the big issue — Jones didn’t make a World of Warcraft movie, which would probably involve a bunch of D&D-like classes on a quest to level up and gain loot or somesuch. Instead, he made a movie of the original Warcraft, a.k.a. the RTS game from twenty years ago, which means…orcs bashing things for two hours. (And I don’t even recall a single “ready to serve!”) The story of the entire movie should’ve been a LotR-like prologue.

It also doesn’t help that, with the exception of Paula Patton and Team Preacher (Ruth Negga, Dominic Cooper), most of the human actors — I’m looking at you, Travis Fimmel and Ben Schnetzer — are 110-level charisma voids. By contrast, there are some good, fun actors among the orcs — Toby Kebbell, Clancy Brown — but they’ve been literally turned into cartoons. And Ben Foster, who can be fine in other things (Hell or High Water, for example) is operating on his own mad level of terrible here, like he method-trained for this by watching Jeremy Irons in D&D or Brando in Dr. Moreau. Just an all-around missed opportunity.

WHAT IS THIS I CAN’T EVEN:

Suicide Squad: Remember how I said Rogue One seemed like a disjointed mess the second time I saw it? That’s Suicide Squad right from jump street. The whole movie has that Tranktastic Four, “we rewrote this in the editing room” and “eh they’ll see it anyway” haphazardness to it. Margot Robbie acquits herself fine as Harley Quinn, I suppose, and this may be the most likable Jai Courtney has been in anything. But Will Smith is bored, Viola Davis seems ashamed to be there, Joel Kinnaman, as the-absence-of-Tom-Hardy, just plays his cop from The Killing, and Jared Leto is a completely egregious misfire as The Joker.

On top of everything else, the film is just ugly — everything looks like it got storyboarded by Ed Hardy, not the least the Clown Prince of Crime, who we know is damaged because…it says “Damaged” on his forehead. Trust me, this movie isn’t even fun bad — it’s just an amateurish disaster. In other words, exactly the type of movie you’d expect from executive producer Steve Mnuchin.

THE REST:

Worth On Demand-ing::

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: MARTHA!! Why am I (barely) recommending this deeply flawed sequel to (the even worse) Man of Steel? Well, mainly because of Batfleck and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred. Zack Snyder can’t seem to understand that Superman should not be a tortured, emo character — he’s more like Chris Evans’ Cap, boy-scout to the bone. But, yeah, Batman sure is — maybe they should write “damaged” on his head — and that stuff here works pretty well.

Don’t get me started on Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor — rein it in, Jesse — or Snyder’s absurd love for slow-motion bullet casings, or the truly awful ways Diane Lane is employed here. (I’m not just talking about the Stepbrothers-esque “Did we just become best friends?” part — Zack, get Martha Kent away from your creepy-ass Polaroids.) But still, y’know, Batman, Wonder Woman, there’s some stuff to like here.

Keanu: Keanu, about Key & Peele trying to get their cat back from some stone-cold gangsters (including Method Man) is…ok. To be honest, given its creative team, I expected something much funnier, but then again I saw it well after the hype machine had kicked in. A nice send-off to George Michael, if nothing else.

Loving: Jeff Nichols’ Loving tells an important story in a rather drab and by-the-numbers fashion — there was considerably more energy in his Midnight Special. Joel Edgerton basically mumbles his way through the movie and even Ruth Negga, such a spitfire in Preacher, is rendered inert here. But, y’know, it’s fine for what it is, no harm no foul.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising: Did you like the first Neighbors? Well, here’s more of the same, now with Chloe Grace Moretz, Selena Gomez, and Kiersey Clemons in the mix as well. Rose Byrne is the secret weapon of these movies, but give Zac Efron credit: he’s surprisingly game for anything.

Manchester by the Sea: Hey ma, look heah: we gawt moah white people praw-blems. I had this in the “don’t bother” section for awhile but eh, it’s competently made, I guess. The main problem here is Casey Affleck’s bitter janitor (an Oscar-winning performance?!) is so emotionally recessed that he doesn’t register — he just mopes his way through scene after scene. (Lucas Hedges gave us a more layered character here, I thought.) I really like Kenneth Lonergan’s other movies, but this one, like Inarritu’s 21 Grams (which is more fun, because it’s so much more pretentious), just assumes that misery is a substitute for character.

Don’t Bother:

Fences: My wife and I saw Dave Chappelle here in DC this past week, and his opening act was Donnell Rawlings, who you may remember from Chappelle Show or as Clay Davis’s chauffeur in the The Wire. Anyway, he basically summed up the problem with this movie in his act: “Denzel, it’s been two and a half hours! Get out of your backyard! Stop looking at the fence!” In other words, this is not really a movie of any kind. It’s a filmed play — which is fine, if it had any sort of energy. It does not — just go see the play.

Ghostbusters: I’m bummed about this one because every MRA asshole on the planet has been whining about an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters somehow ruins his childhood. (To which I say: First, obviously, grow the fuck up. Second, the original Ghostbusters is wildly overrated and wasn’t even one of the ten best fanboy movies of 1984, so develop some taste.) All of which is to say that I was rooting for Paul Feig’s reboot — but, alas, it’s just not very good. Kate McKinnon gets in a few zingers, and they make solid use of Chris Hemsworth, but Kristen Wiig is wasted as the straight woman, and too much of the movie feels like it’s being improvised on the fly, like one of those interminable 11:45am trial-run SNL sketches. I’m glad this Ghostbusters is out there so future fangirls have some role models to look up to, and because this movie’s sheer existence deeply angers many of the worst people in the world. But in the end, sadly, it’s just not all that funny.

Jackie: Yeah, sorry, I don’t understand the love for this one at all. I was bored, as was our entire party. JFK getting shot is not new information, so please find something more to say about it than “then Jackie came up with Camelot.” And maybe Natalie Portman nailed the accent to some extent — moah white people praw-blems — but you can see the Herculean striving throughout her performance, and it makes her Jackie seem weirdly graceless. This was just a ponderous film throughout, tho’ it was nice to see John Hurt give one final, brief curtain call.

Jason Bourne: Have you seen any of the other Bournes? Yeah, you’re good, then. This is basically a Gus Van Sant Psycho remake.

Money Monster: The ubiquitous, beat-for-beat trailer spoiled this movie several times over well before I saw it. And despite the impressive pedigree here — Jodie Foster, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Giancarlo Esposito, Dominic West — here’s no other part to the movie that you’re missing.

Snowden: I’m very sympathetic to Edward Snowden and his predicament. This dull, hagiographic Oliver Stone outing still misses the mark by a country mile. That being said, Rhys Ifans does a pretty good CIA sinister, Nicolas Cage is here as NICOLAS CAGE!, and it’s kind of a funny kick to see Zachary Quinto playing Glenn Greenwald. Still, you’re better off watching CitizenFour.

X-Men: Apocalypse: Weirdly lifeless for a number of reasons. First, this movie makes the Willem Dafoe-as-Green-Goblin mistake of casting a fun, engaging actor (Oscar Isaac) as the Big Bad, but then burying him so deep in make-up that his personality disappears. Second, a lot of the new X-Men here, like Sophie Turner/Sansa as Jean Grey and Tye Sheridan/Ready Player One as Cyclops, are more than a little on the stiff side, while some of the better actors from the last outing — Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters — aren’t given enough to do. (That’s especially true for Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, who gets one scene from a much better movie involving an attack on his family, and then just delivers exposition the rest of the time.) Third, maybe standards have changed, but this film looks really cheap for some reason. Bryan Singer delivered one of the best X-outings with X2, but this one’s only for completists.

Unseen: The 5th Wave, 13 Hours, Absolutely Fabulous, The Accountant, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Allegiant, Allied, American Pastoral, Assassin’s Creed, Bad Moms, Bad Santa 2, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Beauty and the Beast, Ben Hur, The BFG, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Blair Witch, Bridget Jones’s Baby, The Brothers Grimsby, Captain Fantastic, Central Intelligence, Collateral Beauty, The Conjuring 2, Criminal, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Deepwater Horizon, Demolition, Dirty Grandpa, Eddie the Eagle, The Edge of Seventeen, Elvis and Nixon, Eye in the Sky, Fifty Shades of Black, Finding Dory, Florence Foster Jenkins, Free State of Jones, The Girl on the Train, Gods of Egypt, Hacksaw Ridge, The Handmaiden, Hardcore Henry, Hidden Figures, High-Rise, A Hologram for the King, How to Be Single, The Huntsman Winter’s War, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Invitation, I Saw the Light, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Jane Got a Gun, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Legend of Tarzan, Live By Night, London Has Fallen, Love and Friendship, The Love Witch, The Magnificent Seven, Me Before You, Miss Sloane, Moana, A Monster Calls, Nocturnal Animals, Now You See Me 2, Office Christmas Party, Passengers, Paterson, Pete’s Dragon, Popstar, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Race, Ride Along 2, Sausage Party, The Shallows, Silence, Swiss Army Man, Sully, TNMT: Out of the Shadows, Toni Erdmann, War Dogs, Where to Invade Next, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Why Him?, Zoolander 2, Zootopia, pretty much anything else you can think of.

(The Rest of) 2017: It’s September, y’all already know what’s coming out over the next few months. And while if I’d done this list nine months ago The Last Jedi or Blade Runner 2049 would probably get the pole position here at the end, I have to say at this point I’m most excited about…


The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, sing and cry, Valhalla, I am coming…

From Mars to the Arctic (to your hands), Life.

In the trailer bin of late (along with the Bat, the Spider, and the Forelock):

  • Gwyneth Paltrow has more than just a few Coldplay albums to answer for in the scary-impressive trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, also with Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Enrico Colantoni, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, John Hawkes, and Elliot Gould. This goes right next to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as one of my most-anticipated films of the fall.

  • Taylor Kitsch braves the deserts of Mars, Peter Gabriel by way of Arcade Fire, and some of the earliest fanboys going in the teaser for Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (formerly of Mars), with Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, with Thomas Haden Church and Willem Dafoe. That’s a great cast, and I like the period look on Earth, if nothing else.

  • Real-life couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz discover their new family home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in the trailer for Jim Sheridan’s Dream House, also with Naomi Watts. With such an A-list director and cast, this film probably deserved a trailer that didn’t give away a key plot point — I suggest not clicking through here if you’re one to avoid spoilage.

  • Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law reunite for a second installment of Holmesian shenanigans in the trailer for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, with Noomi Rapace tagging in for Rachel McAdams and Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty. This looks…pretty bad, but the first one turned out better than expected, so who knows?

  • Jude Law also takes time to disappear, and thus set up a grand adventure of magic and self-discovery for his son, in the the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, with Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Sasha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Michael Stuhlbarg, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths, Frances De La Tour, Helen McCrory, and Emily Mortimer. Like Dream House, I’m more interested in the pedigree than this trailer. But we’ll see.

  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead really never should have gotten involved in this particular Norwegian research project in the trailer for Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing, also with Joel Edgerton, Jonathan Lloyd Walker, Ulrich Thomsen, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Unlike most fan-folk, I’m perfectly fine with a prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter film, just because it’s one of the scarier horror premises going. Let’s hope van Heijningen makes the most of his shot.

2010 in Film.

With Snooki set, and the earth embarking on another tour around the sun, it must be time for the 2010 movie round-up. As always, there are a few contender films I haven’t yet seen — Blue Valentine opens here next weekend, for example. But, as it happens, I did see quite a few more movies than usual this year — an added bonus to having a full-time, non-gradual school income again. In any case, without further ado, the…

Top 20 Films of 2010
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009/The Oughts]

1. Toy Story 3: I kept expecting some other movie to come along in the second half of 2010 and knock this lachrymose Pixar masterpiece out of the top spot. But, in a not particularly great year for movies, Lee Unkrich’s surprisingly sad and soulful Toy Story 3 held onto the crown. (As it turns out, the highest grossing film of the year was also the best.) Basically, this is the movie about fleeting youth and fading plastic that Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are wanted to be. And, while I’m still not sure if kids will vibe into the melancholy shenanigans here at all, it touched a chord in more than one aging man-child out there…just ask QT.

2. The Red Riding Trilogy: Amid the moors of the North, there is an evil that does not sleep. Originally a TV miniseries in Britain, the Red Riding trilogy — 1974, 1980 and 1983 — counted as full-fledged movies for those of us stateside. And, while perhaps too grim for some tastes, this three-part, nine-year inquiry into black deeds in Yorkshire was as immersive and transporting a movie experience as there was in 2010. (The problem was, you didn’t necessarily want to be where it transported you.) True, the third film was weaker than the first two installments. But taken as a whole, this was one gritty and impressive crime saga, with a number of memorable turns by Paddy Considine, Andrew Garfield, Mark Addy, Rebecca Hall, Peter Mullan and others.

3. The Secret in Their Eyes: Alas, you will find no respite from the Yorkshire darkness in the Argentina of the Dirty War. Earlier in the year, I had A Prophet ranked above this movie, the Best Foreign Film winner of 2009. (It was released here in 2010.) But Juan Jose Campanella’s haunting picture has grown in my memory in the months since. Like Red Riding, this is another wistful investigation into murder, missed opportunities, and the choices we make, one that sticks with you well after the theater lights come up.

4. True Grit: For the third time in four years, the Coens make the top five. (See also No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.) And while I concede to being a bit of a Coen fanboy, I’m guessing this retelling of the John Wayne classic stands on its own merits. The occasional quirk aside, this is the brothers’ Straight Story, and, as I said in the original review, it feels like an unearthed and quintessentially American coming-of-age tale. The travails of Ree Dolly may have been the cat’s meow to many critics this year, but, when it comes to teenage girls facing a heap of adversity, I myself cottoned to the western adventures of Matty Ross.

5. The Social Network: With top-notch work from David Fincher, Trent Reznor, and the entire cast, The Social Network has a crisp, sleek, and entertaining interface to be sure. On an intellectual level, it’s definitely one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the year. But I still find this film somewhat dubious in terms of content. It works better as a Shakespearean tale of ambition and betrayal — Richard III by way of Revenge of the Nerds — than it does a legitimate recreation of the origins of Facebook. Still, given that much of the action takes place at a university whose motto is Veritas (“Truth”) and yet whose most prominent landmark is the “Statue of the Three Lies,” I guess I should probably forgive TSN its many factual screw-ups. Print the legend and all that.

6. A Prophet: Call it the Antisocial Network: Another 2009 foreign film that made it here in 2010, Jacques Audiard’s novelistic, keenly observed A Prophet — about a young prisoner learning to survive and thrive in the interstices of a cross-cultural jailyard — was another of the best films of the year. A Prophet can feel slow at times, and it’s not an experience I’m likely to revisit anytime soon. But it’s this film’s continual attention to the devastating detail that makes it a prison movie to remember.

7. Inception: Just as he did with The Prestige after Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan took a mental health break from Gotham City after The Dark Knight by crafting this mindbending sorbet, the best “summer movie thrillride” experience of 2010. (The only other ones that come close are #9 below and the first-half of Tron: Legacy.) I still wish Inception was a bit more ragged in its dreaming, and, like a dream, it makes more sense when you’re watching it than when you think back on it later. Nonetheless, Inception was great fun throughout, and if nothing else, it spawned one of my favorite new Internet memes.

8. The Fighter: I just saw this one over the weekend, so it has no review up yet. Suffice to say, I was pleasantly surprised by David O’Russell’s chronicle of the comeback of welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward, the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts. In fact, I had the opposite experience here that I had with The King’s Speech. There was a potentially interesting story told extremely conventionally, while this is a tried and tested sports movie formula — a boxer with one last shot at a title — that still felt fresh and invigorating. True, the seven Ward sisters were a bit much — They were the only time this boxing movie veered toward the egregious cartoon rednecks of Million Dollar Baby. But otherwise, solid performances by Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams and especially Christian Bale give this could’ve-been-by-the-numbers film a much-needed heart.

9. Kick-Ass: Capitalizing on the promise he showed in Layer Cake, director Matthew Vaughn brought to life the most engaging comic book reverie of 2010 with Kick-Ass, his warmer, more colorful take on the Mark Millar comic. This film saw Nicolas Cage continue his Bad Lieutenant mini-revival, Mark Strong continue to hone his talent for instant Big-Bad gravitas (see also: Sherlock Holmes, 2011’s Green Lantern), and, like a bat out of Hell (or New Mexico, for that matter), 13-year-old Chloe Moretz become an out-and-out, foul-mouthed, ass-kicking action star. Few films this year were as fun as this one.

10. Exit Through the Gift Shop: As this potentially faux-documentary explains: Before he exposed the sweatshops under Springfield, British provocateur Banksy set the world of street art careening over the shark by encouraging Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, to get in the graffiti game. It’s still an open question whether Banksy’s disastrous creation of MBW was inadvertent or just his latest well-crafted skewering of the powers-that-be. Either way, Exit Through the Gift Shop, about the rise and fall of street art, is a merry prank indeed.

11. Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: While the Harry Potter books grew distended and clumsy in the home stretch, the movie series continues to gain steam along that last low road to Hogwarts. In bringing to life the first half of Hallows, David Yates has made arguably the best Potter film yet, and not just because he has the good sense to riff on Brazil therein. The danger feels more palpable, the hopping around the countryside feels less episodic, and, after a decade of doing this, the Big Three wear their characters naturally now. Here’s hoping Harry Potter and the Battalion of Thespians manage to close things out as smoothly this summer.

12. Inside Job: You think Banksy got away with a grift? Check this one out. Pinning its high-profile subject to the mat much more successfully than did Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack documentary, Inside Job impressively lays out the causes and (lack of) consequences of the Great Wall Street meltdown of 2008. Those would be a swollen, rapacious, and unregulated financial services sector, and a government that, even after the Big Bust, still bends over backward to appease it. The only real problem with Inside Job is the feedback loop — The only folks likely to see this film are the same ones who already know the story and are enraged by it. Still, I’m glad it’s there, and at least it’s encouraging economists to clean up their act.

13. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Like I said back in August, Scott Pilgrim seems to have gone the way of the much-maligned Speed Racer. As visually inventive as it was, Pilgrim didn’t make much of a splash at the box office. But even if its fanboy fan service tendencies still rankle, Edgar Wright’s ode to geek crushes and the g4m3r life deserved more love than it got on the first play, so hopefully it enjoys several more lives on Blu Ray and beyond.

14. The Town: Admittedly, Boston is getting a bit peaked as Hollywood’s go-to destination for white working-class crime stories of late (Mystic River, The Departed, Gone Baby Gone.) That being said, Ben Affleck’s “Beantown Heat” was a strong, well-made, and entertaining ensemble film with a good sense of place and charisma to burn. Everyone from Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall to Chris Cooper and the late Pete Postlethwaite bring their A-game here, with special kudos to Jeremy Renner as Affleck’s crazy-like-a-fox pahtnuh-in-crime.

15. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers: After watching Inside Job, you might wonder why our government is in such a furor over Julian Assange and Wikileaks when crimes like constructing an illegal torture regime and, oh, causing an worldwide global economic meltdown seem to go unpunished. And after watching Ellsberg, you might think we’ve seen this movie before anyway. (Just take it from the man himself.) Constructed like a conspiracy thriller, Ellsberg is a testament to the notion that sometimes whistle-blowing — the only “misdeed” our current administration can seem to get angry about these days — may in fact be a higher form of patriotism. However you feel about Ellsberg and Wikileaks, this is a compelling documentary about tough choices in contentious times.

16. Never Let Me Go: Like The Secret In Their Eyes, this quiet, elegiac sci-fi film has risen in my estimation in the months since I saw it. Keira Knightley is still a drag on the production, and all of the characters a bit too locked-in for my taste — If they were so invested in one plan to avoid their fate, they should’ve been more willing to contemplate other avenues of escape as well. Still, also like The Secret In Their Eyes, this is a movie whose mood of reticent mourning lingers on.

17. Terribly Happy: How do you say “Blood Simple” in Danish? This weird Coenesque ditty about a sheriff with a troubled past investigating Something Rotten in Denmark was yet another late arrival to these shores — It premiered in Europe in 2008. And yet, once again, it was among the best 2010 had to offer. Let’s hope the pattern holds and right now, some of the best films of this year are already kicking around other continents, ready to be unleashed.

18. The King’s Speech: I wrote about this one rather recently, so my views on it haven’t changed much. This is a undeniably well-made, well-written, and well-performed film, but I found its sports-movie structure and Merchant-Ivory bromance all a bit pat. Still, Colin Firth in particular is excellent here — With this and A Single Man, he’s aging into a more interesting actor than he was before. Consider it his Baldwinning.

19. The Ghost Writer: As he pieces together the memoirs of England’s ex-PM, boilerplate and boredom are the least of Ewan MacGregor’s worries — He also has surveillance men and femmes fatale to contend with. Ghost, welcome to the Machine! This conspiratorial yarn isn’t a particularly deep film — more just a cheeky throwback to 70’s paranoia thrillers and an extended screw-you to the departed Tony Blair. Still, whatever his other sins, Roman Polanski fashioned a brisk and entertaining cloak-and-dagger flick here.

20. The Kids Are All Right: I thought about Get Him to the Greek, Greenberg, and Shutter Island for this last spot. But, in the end, I gave the nod to this, Lisa Cholodenko’s well-observed slice of family life in 21st century California. This is a small and unassuming film, but one that does what it does quite well — It takes a number of well-drawn characters and lets them breathe and bounce off each other.

Most Disappointing: Alice in Wonderland: An embarrassment to the Carroll book: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have never seemed so uninspired together.

Worth Netflixing: 44-Inch Chest, The American, A Single Man (2009), Crazy Heart (2009), Daybreakers, The Eclipse, Get Him to the Greek, Greenberg, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009), Knight and Day, Let Me In, Life During Wartime, The Lovely Bones (2009), Shutter Island, Splice, The Square, Tron: Legacy, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Winter’s Bone, Youth in Revolt

Don’t Bother: The Art of the Steal, Black Swan, The Book of Eli, Brooklyn’s Finest, Casino Jack and the USM, Catfish, Clash of the Titans, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Green Zone, Hot Tub Time Machine, Invictus (2009), Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Legion, The Losers, Machete, Red, Robin Hood, Salt, Sweetgrass, The Tourist, The Werewolf, The White Ribbon

Best Actor: Ricardo Darin, The Secret In Their Eyes, Tahar Rahim, A Prophet; Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone, Haylee Steinfeld, True Grit
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter; Jeremy Renner, The Town; Andrew Garfield, The Social Network/Never Let Me Go
Best Supporting Actress: Chloe Moretz, Kick-Ass, Amy Adams, The Fighter; Charlotte Rampling, Life During Wartime

Unseen: 127 Hours, The A-Team, All Good Things, Animal Kingdom, Another Year, Blue Valentine, Buried, Burlesque, Carlos, Casino Jack, Centurion, Chloe, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, Conviction, Cop Out, Country Strong, The Crazies, Creation, Date Night, Despicable Me, Devil, Dinner for Schmucks, Easy A, Eat, Pray, Love, Edge of Darkness, The Expendables, Extraordinary Measures, Fair Game, Fish Tank, Four Lions, From Paris with Love, Get Low, The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, Gulliver’s Travels, Harry Brown, Hereafter, How Do You Know?, Howl, I am Love, The Illusionist, I Love You, Phillip Morris, I’m Still Here, Jackass 3D, Jack Goes Boating, The Karate Kid, The Killer Inside Me, The Last Exorcism, The Last Station, Leap Year, Little Fockers, MacGruber, Made in Dagenham, Micmacs, Monsters, Mother, The Next Three Days, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Other Guys, Paranormal Activity 2, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Please Give, Predators, The Prince of Persia, Rabbit Hole, Rare Exports, Repo Men, Secretariat, Shrek Forever After, Skyline, Somewhere, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Step Up 3D, Survival of the Dead, Takers, Tangled, The Tempest, Tiny Furniture, Twilight: Eclipse, Unstoppable, Valentine’s Day, Vincere, When In Rome, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

    A Good Year For:

  • Abduction as Seduction (Knight & Day, Red, The Tourist)
  • Andrew Garfield (Red Riding, The Social Network, Never Let Me Go)
  • Aussie Noir (The Square, Animal Kingdom)
  • Charlotte Rampling (Life During Wartime, Never Let Me Go)
  • Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In)
  • Ghostly Ex’s (Life During Wartime, The Eclipse)
  • The Dude’s Paternal Side (Tron: Legacy, True Grit)
  • Working-class Bay Staters (The Town, The Fighter)

    A Bad Year For:

  • Angelina Jolie (Salt, The Tourist)
  • Art Museums (Exit Through the Gift Shop, Art of the Steal)
  • B-level DC Heroes (Jonah Hex, The Losers)
  • Eighties Remakes (Karate Kid, Nightmare on Elm Street)
  • Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland, The Tourist)
  • Leo’s Sanity (Inception, Shutter Island)
  • The Street (Inside Job, Wall Street 2)

2011: 5 Days in August, 30 Minutes or Less, The Adjustment Bureau, Albert Nobbs, Amigo, Anonymous, Arthur, Arthur Christmas, Bad Teacher, Barney’s Version, Battle: Los Angeles, The Beaver, Beginners, Bernie, The Big Year, Black Gold, Brighton Rock, Caesar: Rise of the Apes, Captain America: The First Avenger, Cars 2, Cedar Rapids, Colombiana, Conan the Barbarian, The Conspirator, Contagion, Coriolanus, Cowboys and Aliens, Damsels in Distress, A Dangerous Method, The Darkest Hour, The Debt, The Deep Blue Sea, The Descendants, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Drive Angry, The Eagle, The Factory, The Fields, Friends with Benefits, Fright Night, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, The Guard, The Hangover Part 2, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Haywire, I am Number Four, Jane Eyre, Larry Crowne, Limitless, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, The Muppets, Paul, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Priest, Rango, Sanctum, Scream 4, Season of the Witch, Sherlock Holmes 2, Source Code, Straw Dogs, Sucker Punch, Super 8, The Thing, Thor, The Tree of Life, The Way Back, X-Men: First Class, Your Highness, and…

Thundering Son of a Sea-Gherkin! It’s Tintin!

Love in the Time of Konami.


Now that I’m back in civilization (and particularly given that my apartment is having power issues, and thus Berk and I are living like the Amish this week), time to catch up on the recent movies I’ve missed. First up, Edgar Wright’s fun and propulsive adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on the (vaguely problematic) indie comic by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Sadly, it seems Pilgrim has already joined a film it shares a lot in common with in terms of visual inventiveness, the Wachowskis’ unjustly maligned Speed Racer, as something of a box office “bob-omb”. (That pun, by the way, was borrowed from one of the many Expendables fans on AICN strangely all-too-happy to dance on Pilgrim‘s box office grave.) And that’s really too bad. Because, even if I have some issues with the blatant fanboy (emphasis on “boy”) wish-fulfillment at its core, which I’ll get to in a bit, Scott Pilgrim deserves a wider airing.

For one, with its Wham-Pow! effusiveness and viscerally engaging superhero fights, it’s easily one of the most imaginative comic book renderings onscreen this side of Sin City. And comics are only half the story. From its 8-bit Universal opening (a la those great NES Pink Floyd mash-ups I linked to a few months ago), the movie also has one foot firmly entrenched in the world of old-school console gaming. If the dreamworlds of Inception felt like stages in a video game, this movie takes the conceit to the next level: Scott Pilgrim’s entire life unfolds in a Walter-Mitty-meets-Street Fighter, coin-operated Toronto (Trononto?) where g4m3r rules are a fact of life.

This allows for defeated villains turning into collectible coins, 1-ups around for psychic rejuvenation when needed, and — always a happy indication that the movie is about to get super-fun again — the Capcom “VS.” popping up whenever Scott (Michael Cera) must face off against another of his dastardly foes. Those would be the seven members of the League of Evil Ex’es, the sinister cadre of former significant others to the lovely Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) that have gathered together to block our hero from ever dating his dream girl.

And trust me — These Ex-Men (and one Ex-Woman) are no slouches. Among their number are not only Captain America (Chris Evans), here an action hero heartthrob and skater punk with a Jamie Madrox-style army of stunt doubles at his disposal, but the one and only Superman (Brandon Routh), now blonde, psychic, and, most dastardly of all, Vegan. (In the Pilgrimverse, Vegans operate like the Green Lantern Corps. Just ask Thomas Jane and Clifton Collins, Jr.) And they’re just the mini-bosses Scott will have to contend with before defeating Gideon (Jason Schwartzman, a bit anti-climatic, quite frankly — They should’ve sprung for Aldous Snow), the music biz impresario who still has an unholy thrall over Ramona, thanks to a chip implanted in the back of her neck.

Wait…a what? A chip, you say? That makes her a rather passive character, doesn’t it? Yeah, well, that’s the major problem with Pilgrim, which I attribute more to the source material than anything else. This is basically fanboy pr0n, and, in terms of the ostensible romance here, Pilgrim is as one-sided and overtly gendered a piece of rom-com wish-fulfillment as I imagine Eat, Pray, Love was in the theater next door. I mean, I get it: Saving the girl of your dreams from despicably evil forces has been a fanboy trope from Princess Leia to Princess Zelda (although, to her credit, Leia takes over the show as soon as she’s sprung from Detention Block AA-23.) And as one who’s eternally fond of Brazil, I’m not one to complain about a man going out on a limb for his dream-girl.

Still, something about Scott Pilgrim rankles. Sure, Michael Cera specializes in dweebs, but as George Michael in Arrested Development and in movies like Superbad, Juno, and Youth in Revolt, he still had a certain wry, self-effacing charm about him. But, as Scott Pilgrim, he’s just a lazy, whiny, self-entitled jerk, and seems unpossessed of any trait that would make him either desirable to the opposite sex or worth rooting for as a hero. (Well, I guess he does play the bass.) Meanwhile, Ramona is a very pretty cipher — She doesn’t bring much to the table either except Kate Winslet’s hair from Eternal Sunshine and the plot-driving baggage of seven evil ex’es. She’s more of a Macguffin than a fully-realized character.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s a lot of joy to be had in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, mostly due to Edgar Wright, after Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz, really letting his freak flag fly. There’s almost always something fun and geeky going on in the margins of the screen or on the soundtrack, and the Brandon Routh fight and a later Battle of the Bands (between Scott’s outfit, Sex Bob-omb, and a pair of Japanese twins by way of Daft Punk) are both absolute showstoppers. (Maybe too much so, in fact — The final twenty minutes are muddled, and feel like a letdown after these earlier highs.)

Yet, despite the flaws of its titular hero, Scott Pilgrim is the most purely enjoyable roller coaster ride to come down the cinematic pike since Kick-Ass. And, sure, Scott Pilgrim probably doesn’t deserve the girl in the end (or maybe he does, given that she’s drawn as such a blank), but Scott Pilgrim vs the World definitely deserves your ten bucks regardless.

Pilgrim’s Progress.

After some wrangling on Facebook, the second trailer for Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is now live. Michael Cera, is, for better or worse, Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and her great big googly-eyes still seem pitch-perfect for Romana Flowers, and Chris Evans especially makes for an apt evil-ex. (Also along for the ride: Anna Kendrick, Kieran Culkin, Allison Pill, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman.) Looks like it probably goes overboard on the geek wish-fulfillment, but I’m in. Update: Here are a few comic panel comparisons.

His Luck, a Two-Headed Cow.

Speakin’ in tongues is worth a broken lip for Michael Cera, as is the love of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, creepily dead-on), in the new trailer for Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, with Chris “Captain America” Evans (I like that choice, btw), Jason Schwartzman, Kieran Culkin, Allison Pill, Brandon Routh, and Anna Kendrick. Between this and Kick-Ass, we’re getting pretty meta with our fanboy films now…but it looks like fun.

Live Free or Meh Hard.

I find Len Wiseman’s Live Free or Die Hard, a.k.a. Die Hard 4 or “Die Hard in the Chesapeake,” a difficult movie to review (which is perhaps why it’s taken me an extra week to spend any time on it.) As a long-awaited fourth installment in the Increasingly Unlikely Trials of John McClane, I’d say it’s probably better than Die Harder (about which I only really remember Fred Thompson as an ATC exec) and Die Hard 3 (which brings to mind Samuel L. Jackson in Malcolm X glasses doing jug-of-water problems), and it’s a considerably more enjoyable movie than I expected from the director of Underworld. But it also doesn’t make much sense, it traffics in action-movie cliche, most of its boldest setpieces were telegraphed in the previews, and it doesn’t hold a candle to the still-quite-impressive first film, which ranks deservedly high in the Actioner Hall of Fame. In short…well, it is what it is. I was intermittently amused and diverted by about half of Live Free or Die Hard, restless and somewhat bored by the other half. Bruce Willis has always been an easy actor to root for, and it’s definitely fun to see him back in the saddle as America’s favorite Working-Class Hero, but in the end I thought this Die Hard didn’t really pay the nostalgic dividends of, say, Sly Stallone’s recent return as Rocky Balboa. Willis doesn’t embarrass his franchise by any means, but he doesn’t really add much of note here either.

So what’s the doomsday scenario this time? Well, as the movie begins, we watch various teenage computer hackers, geeks, and webheads out of Fanboy Central Casting report in to the comely villainess Mai (Maggie Q) with their various h4xor pet projects, then — thanks to their sabotaged PCs — get rubbed out in an explosive fireball of Playstation parts, computer cables, Red Bull cans, and collectible figurines. Escaping this awful fate — but only barely — is Mac Guy (Justin Long), who was fortunate enough to have had NYPD Det. John McClane in the nearby Rutgers area, troubling potential suitors to his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and asked by the usual consortium of concerned government NSA-types to pick the kid up. Soon, McClane and Mac Guy are on a road trip to DC to see these aggrieved Feds when the real cybermachinations begin: all traffic lights go green, all fire alarms go off, all stocks plunge. And, we come to discover, pulling the strings is an even more aggrieved Fed, one Thomas Gabriel (Tim Olyphant), a cyberterrorism expert whose Richard Clarke act got him fired and buried by the blase powers-that-be. Now a private citizen, he’s out to make them, and all America pay, unless McClane can work his analog mojo to stop Gabriel’s digital devastation…

Uh, Mac Guy? McClane’s all-grown-up teenage daughter? And yet, one of the bigger surprises in this otherwise regular-as-clockwork movie is how well it sidesteps what at first look to be really obvious pitfalls. For example, sidekick Justin Long doesn’t come off half as irritating as you might expect, and in fact acquits himself rather well. And while Winstead is given some predictably schlocky “Baby Badass” moments — a la Katherine Heigl in Under Siege 2 — they’re thankfully few and far between. (As for the baddies, Olyphant’s Seth Bullock seethe is put to good use here, but he’s still no Hans Gruber…although I think I’ll take Maggie Q and a parkour henchman or two (a la Casino Royale) over Alexander Godunov.) And, for his part, Bruce Willis is still convincingly tough, crazy, and disgruntled as the man of the hour despite himself….one hopes Harrison Ford holds up as well for his upcoming stint in Indy IV.

Nevertheless, what Live Free or Die Hard is really missing is the narrative economy of the first film, which all took place within the increasingly claustrophobic confines of the Nakatomi Building (thus spurring the “Die Hard on a *blank*” genre in the first place.) Instead, this movie is sprawled out across the mid-Atlantic, with McClane & co. actually driving off to West Virginia and back at one point. Perhaps as a result, the tension in Live Free or Die Hard often goes completely slack, as McClane and Mac Guy have nothing to do but trade clunky exposition or thinly veiled movie-message pablum while driving from place to place. And unlike in the first movie, when, say, McClane is forced to do unsavory things like pull pieces of broken glass out of his torn, bloodied feet, there’s never much sense of any real danger or menace in this film. Perhaps it’s progress, I suppose, but dying hard here doesn’t seem half as troubling as it used to.

A Bit of a Grind.


So, Grindhouse. Frankly, it seems a bit late to post this review. Those limited few who had any interest in this two-director vanity project caught it that first weekend, and it’s completely nose-dived since (so much so that even Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is now being scaled back to escape a similar fate, as if that were ever going to happen.) But, for completists’ sake, I found Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the violent, smutty B-movies of yesteryear to be a fun idea at first, but not nearly entertaining enough to merit the three-and-a-half-hour slog. Some of the fake trailers, particularly Rodriguez’s Machete (i.e. the Mexican Shooter) and Edgar Wright’s Don’t, are chuckle-inducing, and there’s a certain goofy relish to be taken in the Z-grade John Carpenterisms of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, if you were ever a late-night Cinemax addict or grindhouse aficionado (I was not the latter — I’m too young for the whole Grindhouse scene, frankly, which may explain why the film bombed so badly. When even cinephiles in their early thirties missed the nostalgia train Rodriguez and Tarantino are serving up, that’s going to seriously eat into your audience figures.) But, otherwise, Grindhouse reminded me more than anything else of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police — a film that started off enjoyably, but ultimately became too much like its object of parody (there, bad action films; in this case, bad ’70’s movies.) And Tarantino’s Death Proof is to my mind just an egregious misfire, but more on that in a bit.

The first half of the Grindhouse bill is Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a sort of John Carpenter meets George Romero zombie flick in which a good-hearted stripper (Charmed‘s Rose McGowan) and her bad-ass trucker ex (Six Feet Under‘s Freddy Rodriguez — let’s hear it for short action stars) must rally a small Texas town against the flesh-devouring zombies in their midst (Said zombies were created by a wayward toxic cloud unleashed by the unholy tandem of Osama Bin Laden and Bruce Willis.) In keeping with the Grindhouse milieu, Planet Terror is, by design, a lousy film — its only upside comes in feeling in on the joke. And I will admit to sorta stupidly enjoying myself through most of Rodriguez’s half of the show, be it due to Josh Brolin’s low-grade Nick Nolte (as an HND poster noted), Rodriguez blasting away on a mini-bike, the CGI-enhanced sloppy edits and film deterioration, or the perfectly cheesy synth score. (And, really, who better to play redneck brothers in a capital-B-movie than Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn? Speaking from a purely fanboy perspective, it was just great to see Hicks/Reese again on the big screen.) In short, Planet Terror is, frankly, kinda awful: I wouldn’t sit through it again, and I can’t even come close to recommending it. But it’s a better bad film than, say, From Dusk Till Dawn, the last time Rodriguez and Tarantino tried this gag, and for its first hour at least I found myself going along reasonably contentedly on the terrible-movie-ride I was promised.

But, then comes Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, which admittedly I’m holding to higher expectations. Rodriguez has shown himself over the years basically to be a prolific and well-meaning hack. But, from Reservoir Dogs — a movie that blew me away as an 18-year-old Blockbuster clerk — to Pulp Fiction, the thrill ride (and soundtrack) of my sophomore year in college, to Jackie Brown, still Tarantino’s most mature and accomplished work, QT seemed like he might be a true auteur, a guy who could recombinate his extensive knowledge of cinema with his sheer passion for movies to create a career’s worth of films for the ages. But, like Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2, Death Proof marks another self-satisfied retreat into Tarantino’s narrowly-defined, solipsistic fanboy universe. To be honest, even though I was bored through much of Kill Bill 1, I never expected him to make a movie this dull.

Basically, Death Proof examines the fate of two female quartets — one in Austin, one in Tennessee — after they encounter the dark, dangerous, and wheedling persona of one Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, winking back to his Carpenter roots), a homicidal stalker with a “death-proof” car. But, despite its schlocky set-up, Death Proof is way too talky to have ever made much headway in a real grindhouse: The film is mostly comprised of these gangs of four nattering endlessly in unrealistic fashion about boys, music, or whatever else comes to mind, and each and every one of them talks and acts like Quentin Tarantino in wish-fulfillment mode: Amidst the MF and N-bombs, these beautiful gals name-drop movies like Zatoichi and Vanishing Point or esoteric bands like Dave Dee, Dosy, Beaky, Mich & Tich, all the while showing off their sumptuous feet and eventually, of course, kicking ass and taking names. (Yes, we already saw this in Kill Bill. In fact you could argue Tarantino’s cameo as a fiend-rapist who gets his just desserts in Planet Terror is all of Death Proof in a nutshell.) Really, Tarantino’s ear has never been so off. It being a grindhouse/exploitation flick, QT can get away with unrealistic women…but boring is its own problem.

At any rate, as you might guess from the plot, the last half hour or so of Death Proof involves a car chase between Russell and one of the aforementioned quartets, but that isn’t much more interesting than all the interminable chat we’ve already labored through. (Some reviews have pegged this as a bravura moment in car chase cinema — I thought it was dull even compared to recent stuff like The Bourne Supremacy or Ronin, to say nothing of flicks like The French Connection.) There’s one exceptionally haunting scene involving Vanessa Ferlito’s very last encounter with Stuntman Mike that suggests Tarantino might still have a few tricks up his sleeve, if he ever gets his act together some day. But, all in all, Grindhouse suggests more than anything else that he’s still stuck in the Kill Bill rut. What he probably needs to do is try to adapt someone else’s work again, a la Jackie Brown, before indulging in yet another B-movie flight of fancy like the Kill Bills and Death Proof. As it is, Tarantino’s flicks are sadly becoming a bit of a grind.

Grind, Kingdom, Prime, FF.

Another wave of holiday trailers comes down the pike: Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez let their B-film freak flags fly (again) in the full trailer for Grindhouse, with Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, and Freddy Rodriguez, among others; Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Chris Cooper, Jeremy Piven, and Richard Jenkins fight the war on terror in Saudi Arabia in this first look at Peter Berg’s The Kingdom; and Shia la Boeuf and the US military run from metal toy-like things in the new preview for Michael Bay’s Transformers (If you’re interested, see also the pic of Optimus Prime here.) Word is the trailer for Fantastic Four 2 is also showing in theaters at the moment, although the only thing online right now is this rather meh image of the Silver Surfer…hopefully, they do a better job with Galactus. Update: The FF teaser is now up.

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