May 292016
  May 29, 2016

So, with the number of bad war films I’ve complained about in the last few days, in honor of Memorial Day, I’ve made a list of must see ones. These are my favorite war films (with the caveats that I’ve stuck with real wars, wars that include guns, and ones where the war is front and center, not a setting for other drama, thus I’m leaving out things like Casablanca, The African Queen, Beau Geste, and The Sea Hawk).


#11 The Dirty Dozen (1967)

The first of multiple “fun” war films on this list, The Dirty Dozen is all about shooting the bad guys and gleeful nastiness. Lee Marvin leads a band of mid-level stars in a big shoot-‘em-up that feels like playing army.

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May 072016
three reels

In what might be the future, David (a chunked up Colin Farrell) arrives at the hotel for single people. He has 45 days to find a partner, or he will be turned into the animal of his choice: a lobster. The one rule is that one must have a commonality with one’s proposed partner, which could be absolutely anything, a requirement that is not only forced upon the people, but one which they all believe in. There he meets John (Ben Whishaw), who self-identifies as a man with a limp and so hopes to find a woman who limps, and Bob (John C. Reilly), who lisps. In the wood nearby live the solitary people, including the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), who are hunted by the hotel guests. Though outcasts, their lives are just as controlled as those in the hotel by their leader (Lea Seydoux) who has cruel punishments for anyone who flirts.

The Lobster is the oddest picture of the year, or of the last five years. It is Logan’s Run via Monty Python. It’s closest kin are the works of Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). It is theater of the absurd, a mix of dark comedy, science fiction, and tragedy where metaphors run wild and satire is king. At times it is upsetting and at other times I laughed. It is certainly unsettling.

The satire is aimed at relationships and social expectations. But don’t expect this to be a Disnefied manifesto on being your own person and finding yourself. If there is anything worse than external controls and the lies inherent in relationships, it is the internal limitations we set and the lies we tell ourselves when alone.

Ferrell gained forty pounds for the role, giving up movie-star looks for that of an everyday man. Pudgy and hesitant, he seems to define a single person not at home in his own skin. Weisz, on the other hand, seems to be growing more attractive over time, but with her stony delivery, still fits.

The Lobster has the indie-drama look, which works, though an overly colorful, faux-Technicolor look would have worked better. But director and co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) wanted to strip away emotion and energy. Everything appears muted. The peculiar characters share one trait: they seem acutely uncomfortable at all times. Coupled or solitary, everyone speaks in an uneasy deadpan that you might expect from an extreme introvert forced to give a speech.

The downside with the indie drama look—with an emotion and energy low world—is that you have to be right on point at all times. There needs to be something interesting to engage our intellects or startle us at every moment. Otherwise, it gets dull. The Lobster succeeds in this for the first half, but later, it begins to drag. While still in its strange world, the story become predictable. Without something to invoke a bit of passion, the film needed to leap from strangeness to strangeness as we are never engaged with David. At a minute short of two hours, it should have lost fifteen minutes, or given us more time in the hotel as there was a lot more that could have been done there. The Lobster is interesting and innovative, but as it isn’t exciting, it could have been a touch more thoughtful.

The Lobster started its festival run in 2015 but was not released generally till 2016.

May 062016
  May 6, 2016

Marvel is on a roll, with the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) being both wildly successful and consistently good. But Marvel has had its share of artistic failings, always when someone else’s hands were in the pie. So, to celebrate the release of Civil War, I’m going to dwell for a moment on the worst Marvel, costumed, superhero films.

The failures tend to be of two types: campy kid’s stuff or self-important whining. In a few cases, the films manage both simultaneously, going way over the top with silly super-villain dogs or dance routines while keeping to a self-important tone. Those can be the worst. If you are going to fail, choose the camp kid’s route. At least there can be some fun there.

I stuck with theatrical releases for this list, thus ignoring the direct-to-video, TV, and never released flicks like Captain America (1990), The Fantastic Four: The Movie (1994), Generation X (1996), and any of those Bill Bixby Hulk TV movies. Those are on a different level, more primitive in every aspect of production, but more fun if you happen to have friends over and a lot of beer. Yes, they are all horrible, but it’s a different form of horrible.

In making this list, I intended for each film to take its own place, but similar films kept tying or ending up next to each other. So in the end, I grouped some together: 12 films in 7 slots.

If you’ve avoided any of these, good for you. Keep up the good work. All of them are embarrassments.


#7 Spider-Man (2002)/Spider-Man 2 (2004)/Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Raimi’s Spider-Man films still fit together not only by being terrible, but by being the same damn film. It’s a common mistake of sequels to cling close to the original, but my God this is ridiculous. Which of the three films is this: A hopeless miscast and sleepy Tobey Maguire stars uncharismatically as Peter Parker, a 27 plus-year-old teenager who can’t deal emotionally with his powers, moons over Mary Jane who he dumps, and fights an enemy who coincidently is personally known to him and gained his powers in a “science” accident? Yeah.

All three mix super-serious pretention with camp. But there are fun games to be had. You could argue over who is the worst actor between Tobey Maguire, Kristen Dunst, and James Franco. Or you could search for the exact moment when Willem Dafoe, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, and Topher Grace forgot it was a live action film and just started playing animated characters. Or you can rattle off other ways to kill off Uncle Ben, because, wow, that guy needed to die.

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May 052016
two reels

Super mercenary William (Matt Damon) and his sidekick Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are looking to steal black powder from the mysterious Orient, ending up instead in the custody of the Order, a group of colorfully-armored warriors that man the Great Wall, defending against an endless number of semi-intelligent monsters. Commander Lin (Tian Jing) wants to kill the Westerners to keep their monster-fighting secret, but Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) thinks their history of killing a monster and William’s freakish skill with a bow make them an asset. While fighting the hordes of creatures, William and Tovar team up with Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another black powder-seeking mercenary, to plan an escape.

The costumes are spectacular—absolutely beautiful. Rows and rows of blue and red Technicolor armor and flowing robes. Without even knowing the competition I can say The Great Wall should win the Academy Award for costume design. And add to that the Oscar for art design. The Great Wall (the physical wall in the movie, not the movie itself) is magnificent. Every room, every hall, every walkway is a beautiful fantasy. Armored, female, acrobat warriors leaping from elaborate scaffoldings while defended by thousands of scarlet archers is a thing to cherish. That is cinematic artistry and director Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) throws his heart into each gorgeous group shot. Well, his heart had to be somewhere; it wasn’t with the story.

Yes, this is a sumptuous film, but it’s all background beauty. The monsters are reasonable CGI creations and the idea of a siege by supernatural forces on The Great Wall with secret warriors on the defense is fine. The whole White savior thing is not.

OK, The Great Wall gets a pass on racism due to it being a Chinese production… Well, not really. This is an American production from Legendary Entertainment, with a Chinese company signing on to co-produce. It does have a Chinese director (second choice after a White guy turned it down) but the writers—6 of them? Really?–and producers are all Hollywood folks. But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll give it a pass on racism because the same choice pulled this film down artistically. The problem with having a White savior isn’t just a social issue, it’s that it is boring. Really, really boring. The savior is, by nature, disconnected with his surroundings. He could be used as a portal character is some instances but that is unnecessary here. The story should be about Commander Lin, Wang, and an inexperienced soldier just finding his courage as they defend against forces that could crush their civilization. But we don’t get that story. We don’t get to know two of those three and Lin ends up dwelling not on how she feels about what is happening but how she feels about some dude who happened to show up. There’s no time to tell us what the monsters are or make us feel what is truly at stake. Instead we spend time with William.

William knows nothing about China. He doesn’t know the monsters. He doesn’t know what they are so we never learn. He doesn’t have any connection to the civilization under attack, so we have no connection (except it is very pretty). We follow the outsider and his story, and as is often the case with White saviors, he doesn’t have much of a story. He’s the cold mercenary who turns caring when he sees something to believe in, or so we are told. We are told how cruel he was, not shown it and his heroics are just what he does so we don’t witness any deep character development nor are we made to feel anything. William’s just a generic White savior doing what White saviors have done so many times before for no real reason and with only cursorily explanation for his abilities: He’s better at doing the things the Chinese having been doing for years just because he is. The whole “escape with the black powder” subplot is a snooze.

It is telling that William, Tovar, and Ballard could be plucked out of the film without harming it. It simply isn’t their story. Get rid of them and give me an extra half hour of Lin and Wang and the young soldier and we could have a great fantasy film.

So, if you don’t want to blame racism, then go with callow Hollywood commercialism. The producers figured a White Matt Damon would sell tickets where an all Chinese cast would not, so he got shoehorned into a movie where he doesn’t belong.

That doesn’t make this a terrible film, just a missed opportunity. The action is exciting and everything looks so good that the movie is watchable. And Damon is amiable enough. It just should have been so much more.

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May 052016
one reel

Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is a lonely, insomniac orphan. Awake far too late for a little girl, she spies a giant (Mark Rylance) roaming the streets. He, in return, sees her, and kidnaps her so she can’t tell anyone, taking her back to Giantland. Quickly it is revealed that he is a kindly giant who delivers dreams, surrounded by nine much larger, cruel and stupid child-eating giants.

The BFG was a surprise failure. With Steven Spielberg at the helm, a script based on a book by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and the very latest and greatest in motion capture effects, it was a license to print money. Or not. Poor marketing and bad timing (the film had been in the planning stages for years) were mainly to blame, though children shrugged through screenings and parents found more to admire than enjoy. The BFG is at times wondrous, but just as often infuriating, and the whole is lacking.

The BFG could and should have been a clever family film, but it is instead a children’s movie, in the worst sense of the term. Everything is simple and blatant. Quips and loud music replace earned emotion, and bright flashy colors are meant to distract the short-attention-span viewer. Plot doesn’t pop up till the last third and substantial time is set aside for a reoccurring flatulence joke. Its messages that “bullying is mean” and “stand up to bullies”—right out of the 1950s—are delivered with all the subtlety of a tuba blast with your face in the bell.

Children deserve better. Families deserve a different movie.

There’s no question The BFG is a superb technical achievement. In a normal year I’d say it was a shoo-in for an FX award for its motion capture CGI work. But this is the year of the “live action” Jungle Book and the return of Governor Tarkin, which makes it a year too late. Still, the work is excellent, and the dream-catching scene is particularly fetching. But it is all to no purpose. We’re shown Giantland purely because it is nice to look at. With no story kicking in until the final moments, it’s all just pretty lights.

Ruby Barnhill is cute and spunky enough, but her Sophie is aimless and annoying. Ignoring danger and suicidal leaps to get attention are not adorable. Some “smart” to go with the spunky would have helped. The giant is nicely constructed and Rylance’s voice work is solid, but he isn’t engaging and is a side-kick in search of a protagonist who never arrives.

There is some nice concepts surrounding dreams that could have been the core of a better film. But those nice concepts, instead of helping, just point out where the film didn’t go and how it failed.

Perhaps someone should have informed the filmmakers that since the children’s book was written, “BFG” has picked up a meaning: Big Fucking Gun. But blindness to the last twenty years could explain the whole movie.

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