January 2017 Recap: The Best

janbestAnd so, now that you know what didn’t do it for me last month, here are the films I watched that stood out the most, and for the best reasons.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)
Directed by Mike Nichols

I tend to not be too fond of movies that feel like ‘filmed plays,’ but this one is so lively, so biting, so clever, and just so damn much that I never found it lacking. Where some adaptations of theater are flat on the screen, Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is overflowing with energy and character (not to mention yelling).

As much fun as this film is—and it is a lot of fun—its remarkable ability to blend darkness with intelligence and humor is what I’ll remember most. As many have said before me, the two lead performances are also fantastic, with Taylor and Burton portraying their characters with nuance without ever sacrificing their incredible intensity.

Videodrome (1983)
Directed by David Cronenberg

Until last month, the only Cronenbergs I’d seen were Eastern Promises and A Dangerous MethodVideodrome represents the first step in my efforts to remedy this situation.

As someone who grew up without venturing into the horror genre, I’ve been a little wary of Cronenberg’s earlier work. As it turns out, I’m an adult, and watching Videodrome was no problem at all. In fact, it was absolutely delightful (in a dark, grotesque sort of way).

Videodrome is stylish, excessive, creepy, and—most importantly—thoughtful. Cronenberg’s picture of a world in which the barriers between man, media, and weapon have all but crumbled is fascinating in part, because it doesn’t feel that far-fetched. In Videodrome, an “enthusiastic global corporate citizen” seeks to turn us all inside out, to dissolve whatever holds us together and use us for its own ends…

Oh, and Debbie Harry is lovely.

Cabaret (1972)
Directed by Bob Fosse

Cabaret is A LOT. For all its decadence, playfulness, and exuberance, it never shakes lose a palpable sense of despair. I don’t typically like musicals, but I love this one. There is a grit and a realism to Cabaret, and though its got plenty of style, it never sacrifices substance in the name of spectacle.

For what its worth, I really love The Master of Ceremonies, a character  as endearing as he is strange and as unsettling as he is delightful…

I watched Fosse’s film two days before the Orange Beast was inaugurated, and that context may have heightened my sensitivity to its impact. The last shot in particular left me reeling; that reflection of all the Nazi’s in the club’s audience has burned itself into my brain. If you’ve never seen it, let it do the same to you too.

Alien (1979)
Directed by Ridley Scott

Ignoring the fact that it took me this long to watch it, Alien is a damn good movie. It’s enveloping, revolting, intelligent, and precisely calculated. The film uses its sci-fi and horror elements with purpose, and it’s an impressive exercise in sustaining cinematic tension. Where lighter science-fiction fare (like Star Wars) is expansive, Alien swallows up everything in its path. Alien is a film of dark, slippery, nasty surfaces; the imagery may not be subtle, but it is effective.

And who needs villains when the body and reproduction are both absolutely terrifying all on their own?

For what it’s worth, I also watched Aliens this month and, while it’s very good, Alien is definitely the one I prefer. Narratively, its more tightly wound and less loose around the edges than its sequel. It’s also more atmospheric and leaves more room for rich, potentially radical thematic interpretation.

Anyway, Ripley and Jones the Cat are the heroes we need right now.

Margaret (2011)
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

I watched the theatrical cut of this film, and after learning what the extended cut adds, I’m more than content with that choice.

As with Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan uses Margaret to plumb the depths of trauma and guilt. This sprawling, somewhat unruly film doesn’t make the mistake of trying to oversimplify its subject matter for narrative convenience either. The film is messy, but so is everything it cares about, and it’s better of Lonergan’s last two works. The film is also haunted by the specter of 9/11 and serves as a meditation on the difficulties of integrating such an event into one’s understanding of the world (particularly as a young person).

There is a lot to love about Margaret, Anna Paquin’s performance very much included. She feels real in this film, and that fact is absolutely essential to its success. Lonergan’s script is layered and includes some of the most authentic-sounding mother-daughter interactions I’ve heard. Lonergan also embraces the awkwardness of his high-school-aged characters. Such a script would have trouble accommodating an overly polished figure at its center, but Paquin never allows that to become an issue. Her work here is controlled chaos at its best.

Mad Max: Fury Road, Black & Chrome Edition (2015/6)
Directed by George Miller

I’ve seen Mad Max: Fury Road numerous times. It’s my favorite movie (full stop). I know it well. And yet, the Black & Chrome Edition still managed to surprise me. Which is all to say that I’m so glad that George Miller invented cinema in the year 2015, and that he and Warner Bros. later decided to bless the masses even further by releasing this alternate version.

None of the energy or the glorious excess of the color version of Fury Road is lost in black and white. In fact, the images in this version are charged with even more power. I felt this film more intensely than just about any other. Swapping color for black and white highlights the incredible composition of the film’s images and lends them a strange, new beauty. There is a sense of timelessness conveyed by black and white that melds seamlessly with Miller’s tale. More importantly, the emotional element of the film is undoubtedly intensified in this edition. I don’t know how to describe it (I am, after all, in the realm of the abstract here), but I experienced itthe color version of the film packs a wallop, but this one left me reeling in a way I won’t forget.

I was lucky enough to watch the Black & Chrome Fury Road on a big screen. If you get a chance to do the same, don’t let it pass you by.

20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills

20th Century Women features a solid, nuanced, sensitive, and well-timed script from Mills and is bolstered by an exceptional lead performance by Annette Bening. Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning are also quite good.

Mills and his cast respect all of the film’s characters, and the result is a tender, emotionally intelligent work of art. 20th Century Women also excels at interweaving its different narratives with different moments in history. The film just feels good. And its now crystal clear that Beginners (2010) wasn’t a fluke.

Silence (2016)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

ALL HAIL, MARTIN SCORSESE.

Even if the last 15 minutes of the film don’t work for me (they don’t), it’s clear that only a master could have made this film.

So much of Silence is sublime (I know what the word means, and I mean it). This is especially true of Rodrigo Prieto’s cold, elegant, and overwhelming cinematography.

The film is also (appropriately) more ideologically ambivalent than some are giving it credit for. Silence presents. It does not judge.

The subjects that Scorsese tackles herereligion, sacrifice, morality, self-preservation, and much more besidesare complex in the extreme, and to oversimplfy them by opting for easy answers is work for much lesser films.

I’ve never really been a “fan” of Andrew Garfield’s acting, but Silence makes it clear that he is capable of giving a performance that is intense, layered, heavy, and controlled all at once. I’m sure Scorsese deserves some of the credit here, but Garfield’s performance here is one of the best of 2016 (that he was nominated for the hot mess that is Hacksaw Ridge instead is absolutely baffling). Though he’s not in the film all that much, Adam Driver also does impressive work here, and he’s quickly become an actor to keep an eye onhis range is impressive, and he has more sheer presence than most.

Silence left me rattled in that no other film has for a while, and I have little doubt that it will endure far longer than La La Land (or just about anything else from 2016). Silence is a brave and beautiful film, and Scorsese refuses to underestimate his viewers.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! I’d love to know what the best films you’ve watched recently are, so feel free to share in a comment below!

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January 2017 Recap: The Worst

janworstI watched 28 movies in January, two dozen of which I had never seen before. As a graduate student (and an adult who has work to do and whatnot), I simply can’t write on that many films. So, for the time being, my plan is to combine regular letterboxd and twitter updates with monthly recaps like this one. This installment will be followed by a similar one on my best films of the month. For the time being, I’m not including rewatches in these posts.

Here are the least satisfying films I watched last month:

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Directed by George Miller

Given just how much I love Mad Max: Fury Road, it pains me to say that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is simply not good. There are (potentially) good ideas scattered throughout the film, but they never quite cohere into something meaningful or worthwhile. This installment of the Mad Max franchise is not nearly as economical or as distilled down as its counterparts, and the result is a confusing, messy, and diluted work. Much like the Ewoks in The Return of the Jedi, the children in the film take up precious time without contributing any dramatic weight. That Tina Turner song is a jam, and it’s hard not to admire Miller’s creativity, but Beyond Thunderdome left me more disappointed than anything else.

The Founder (2016)
Directed by John Lee Hancock

After watching The Founder, I wrote on letterboxd that the film is “middling and not worth the two hours it takes to watch it.” I also repurposed Dwight MacDonald’s claim that “There is slowly emerging a tepid, flaccid Middlebrow Culture that threatens to engulf everything in its spreading ooze,” to suggest that John Lee Hancock’s latest effort should be regarded as such.

Essentially, there is just nothing interesting, compelling, or memorable about The Founder. The story of Ray Kroc is to The Social Network what a single raisin is to an entire chocolate cake. It’s Steve Jobs if someone drained all the life and dimension out of it. There’s simply not enough there, and Kroc’s character development is inconsistent to the point that one suspects the film(makers) of laziness.

The Comedian (2016)
Directed by Taylor Hackford

There’s an intelligent, thought-provoking film about comedy, celebrity in the age of viral media, and the challenges of growing old buried somewhere deep in Hackford’s latest film. Unfortunately, the pile of cringe-inducing, torturous garbage covers most of the film’s surface renders any of its solid ideas and potential all but invisible.

At times, The Comedian comes across as something like Bojack Horseman, but with all that is good and enjoyable sucked out of it. And when a film as well-crafted and as intelligently written as The King of Comedy already exists, one wonders why De Niro wanted to debase himself with a project as misguided and flawed as this one.

Gilbert Gottfried is in this movie, but he doesn’t have a single line. Audiences are asked to believe that Danny DeVito and Robert De Niro are Jewish. Harvey Keitel is a sad shadow of himself….It’s just not good.

And what’s will all the insufferable jazz?

The Bye Bye Man (2017)
Directed by Stacy Title

Faye Dunaway is in this movie, and this movie is very bad. That said, it’s not bad enough to be much fun. The performances are amateurish. The plot is nonsensical. The pacing is clunky. The ideas are uninspired.

I could go on, but there’s really no reason to. The Bye Bye Man isn’t worth it, and one wonders why anyone wanted to see it made in the first place.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by!

Best of January 2017 post coming soon.

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What I’ve Been Reading: Life as a Cinema and Media Studies Grad Student III

readingHere’s a little on some of what I’ve been reading over the last 6 weeks or so.

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth – A.O. Scott (2016)
I received a copy of film critic A.O. Scott’s book for free and read it over winter vacation as a means of taking a ‘break’ from assigned texts while still feeling borderline productive.

Ungainly and pretentious (full) title aside, Better Living Through Criticism is relatively easy read. Occasionally funny, entertaining, and insightful, the book is a praise of criticism that also takes a stab at (loosely) defining what criticism should be. As a film-lover with a blog (lol), I found a number of Scott’s observations helpful, and reading the book did leave me with the nagging feeling that I should make more of an effort to improve my writing, which can only be a good thing. That said, the book is not completely successful. Sections structured as a dialogue’s between Scott and some unknown interviewer (presumably, another version of Scott himself) come off as artificial and often lack the clarity of the book’s better sections. Scott also engages a wide variety of art, artists, writers, and philosophers (including Marina Abramovich, Ratatouille, Wilde, Sontag, Rilke, and the poetry of John Keats). At times, the more immediate relevance of Scott’s examples remains hazy, although he does discuss them in direct, plain language. Scott’s far-flung reference points also call attention to just how meandering some of the book is; while Scott himself may say this was a deliberate, even meaningful choice, it is also one that will frustrate certain readers.

Just how worthwhile or educational Better Living Through Criticism is depends a good deal on what the individual reader brings to it. Someone with a vested interest in film or art criticism is likely to get a good deal more out of Scott’s work than someone who doesn’t, which is just fine. Scott’s book may not be as life-changing as it’s title would see mto aspire, to and isn’t quite as cogent as the author seems to believe, but it’s a pleasant, occasionally eye-opening read.
buy on amazon

Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image – Laura Mulvey (2006)
This book from Mulvey is quite possibly my favorite text from my (rather short) stint as a graduate student. Though it probably doesn’t reflect well on me to say so, Death 24x a Second is one of the only nonfiction/theoretical texts that I’ve enjoyed cover-to-cover.

This thought-provoking and refreshingly lucid text pulls together cinema, delay, and the uncanny. In particular, Mulvey is interested in the ways new technology and at-home viewing practices have changed and influence spectatorship and our experience of cinema. According to Mulvey, the stillness and focus on a single frame that can now be achieved (by watching a movie on a DVD for example) alters the experience of watching a film. For instance, the ability to pause, slow down, and rewind movies at home allows the inclined-viewer to discover meaning in films that they would not have had access to before today’s media-viewing devices. Mulvey also explores the way watching and re-discovering old cinema through new technology calls attention to the ghostly, uncanny nature of film.

Death 24x a Second is about film in a generalsense , but Mulvey does devote a few chapters to invidual films; in particular, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Robert Rossellini’s Viaggo in Italia, and the works of Abbas Kiarostami all recieve devoted chapters.
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Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality – Christine Cornea (2007)
I’m attempting to complete an science-fiction-related independent study project this semester, so feel free to wish me luck with all of that.

Anyway…Christine Cornea’s book provides a broad overview of the science fiction genre in film. The book begins with the genre’s origins in literature and then moves on to consider science fiction movies from the 1950s through the 1990s. Cornea investigates gender, race, and other representations in science fiction and also includes interviews with a handful of actors, writers, and directors.

I gave this book a chance, and I read about 100 pages of it, but I don’t think I’ll be spending much more time with it.

While there are good ideas and useful information throughout, the book suffers from so many issues that one wonders whether it should have been published. At times, it reads much more like a draft than a finished, polished work. The quality of the writing and some of the arguments are both suspect. There are gaps in logic and many arguments are quite hurried (words like “obviously,” “basically,” and “definitely,” appear with almost alarming frequency). The interviews, while occasionally illuminating,  aren’t well integrated with the main text either.

I have no doubt that Cornea knows a great deal about her subject, but that knowledge is not conveyed in the most successful manner. Depending on one’s research, Science Fiction Cinema might be useful, but I’m not stoked about having spent money on it.

Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film – Vivian Sobchack (1980/87)
As Sobchack herself writes, the “aim” of much of Screening Space is “to ‘redeem’ and illuminate a genre that [as of 1980 or so] had been completely neglected by film scholars and merely valorized by film buffs.” Sobchack’s thoughtful work covers a great deal of ground. She explores definitions of the genre, it’s engagement with creatures and monsters, and other prevalent themes. She also devotes entire, detailed chapters to the way science fiction films look and sound.

I have the “Enlarged Edition” of Screening Space, which includes an additional chapter which, for me, is the highlight of the text. Titled, “Posfuturism,” this (rather lengthy) chapter considers the aesthetics, themes, and forms of science fiction films following 1977’s Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. More specifically, Sobchack investigates new relationships between time and space in science fiction touched by postmodernism. Other important topics include the reduced distance between man and alien other in such films, as well as the changing importance and meaning of both technology and the cosmos. Much of this chapter engages with Jameson and his “Postmodernism, of The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” and its final pages gesture toward the future in thought-provoking (if pessimistic) fashion.

While science fiction has transformed considerably since Screening Space was published (and presumably will only continue to do so as technology becomes an even more important part of our lives), Sobchack’s book is still quite valuable to anyone with particular interest in the genre.
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Until Next Time
One of my goals for the year is to read more (mostly because I have to)…so we’ll see how that goes.

Other posts I’ve made like this can be found here and here.

Based on the way this semester has started, I don’t expect that I’ll be able to post too many reviews. One reason for this, is that I’ll be watching far too many movies to have the time for that (I’ll also be doing a lot of reading, writing, and working, but there’s less irony in those activities). So, for the time being, my plan is to continue logging films on letterboxd and twitter. I’m also going to try to do regular posts summing up my film-viewing activity for each month. (Hopefully, I’ll find time for a January one soon).

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My Top 10 Films of 2016

top102017This is my personal top 10 for 2016. That is, these are the films I enjoyed the most and they are those that I expect I will revisit the most in my future. There are plenty of movies I liked this year that aren’t in this post. Such is math (or whatever). The films below are ranked, but only loosely. And of course, I can’t rank films I haven’t seen yet (including 20th Century Women, which I’ve been looking forward to meeting for a while now).

10. Green Room
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

Saulnier goes hard.

“…Green Room is sharp, dark, and relentless. Like the young rockers it puts through its neo-Nazi wringer, this intense film is brimming with violent creative energy, and it makes the most of its resources. Though its setting, premise, and scope are all limited, Green Room’s power as an in-your-face exploitation film is never in question. Saulnier’s horror thriller may not be as layered or as complex as his last film, Blue Ruin, but it will shred the nerves of its viewers all the same…Green Room isn’t for everyone, but it’s a well-crafted and tightly wound thriller that’s sure to leave a mark on those who see it.
my full review

9. The Witch
Directed by Robert Eggers

“…This provocative and unsettling film is a dark period drama, an atmospheric psychological thriller, and a haunting fable all at once, and with it, Eggers makes it clear that he takes his craft seriously and that he is more than capable of presenting a fully realized vision…Though it’s Eggers’s first film, there is nothing timid about The Witch; in fact, it’s one of the most exciting and distinct directorial debuts that I’ve seen in some time…Though (appropriately) claustrophobic, The Witch presents themes and concerns that reach far beyond the family and the time that it depicts, and it contains complex characters who interact in interesting and well-developed ways. This slow-burning film also indicates a great deal of confidence on behalf of its director, who clearly has a knack for filling audiences with a deep-seated sense of dread. Whether such dread comes from fear of women, religious beliefs, or the untamed North American wilderness, there is not a single scene in The Witch that isn’t touched by it, and the result is a film that gets under the skin of its viewers and that succeeds on multiple levels….”
my full review
some thoughtson the film’s heroine and its use of gender

8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi

A good time at the movies! Much fun was had! Many laughs were experienced!

“…Waititi is a talented and inventive writer, and he clearly has a knack for intelligent, quirky comedy. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is built on its characters, and it never forgets its story, but it never goes too long without a laugh either.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is genuinely funny. It’s also incredibly charming. There is something precious and undoubtedly touching about Waititi’s tale of accidental fugitives who develop an unlikely friendship. Even at its most whacky, it never lacks heart…”
a few more thoughts on the film

7. The Handmaiden
Directed by Chan-wook Park

The Handmaiden is far from perfect, but when it fails, it fails fantastically. Many will hate it, and it’s hard to dispute that the sex scenes are excessive. And yet, for others, Park’s latest will prove to be an absolute delight, a film that’s defined by a dizzying combination of indulgence and craft.

” The Handmaiden is a movie and a half—visually, narratively, and thematically. There is no lack here…Sapphic lovemaking? Check! Gratuitous violence? Check! Perverted old men, tentacle porn, revenge and betrayal? Check, check, check, check! And it all works—in its own gorgeous, erotic, and crazed way… This dark tale of love, sex, and abuse knows it’s too much for some, but those that it does seduce will get more than enough pleasure out of it for everyone.”
a few more thoughts on the film

6. Toni Erdmann
Directed by Maren Ade

I went into Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann knowing next-to-nothing about it or any of the actors in it. What I found was a unique, character-driven comedy that’s genuinely touching, funny, and full of personality. Instead of relying on tired comedic cliches, Toni Erdmann forges its own path to create a film with staying power that stands out from the pack. Even if the film’s ending does briefly threaten to undo some of the magic that comes before it, Toni Erdmann remains a film worthy of the time, hearts, and minds of its viewers. When I first watched it, I gave the film a 4/5 on letterboxd and moved on; but as the days went by, I found myself thinking about and liking it more and more, and I’m eager to revisit it when I get a chance.

For what it’s worth, Toni Erdmann has contains the single funniest film-moment I saw this year.

5. American Honey
Directed by Andrea Arnold

American Honey left me shaken and tired (and I love it for it). The film is sprawling and flawed, but so are the lives at it center. All messiness aside,  Arnold’s film is beautiful, powerful, exuberant, and tragic, and Sasha Lane makes for a fiery and alluring center. While I would have appreciated some calmer camerawork and a slightly shorter running time, the film’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious, even as the film itself works to remind viewers of so much that is wrong with the country its characters traverse.

The people in this movie look a lot more like the people I grew up around than I’m used to, and several of them are from backgrounds that I know and understand. As film after film is dedicated to the quirky New York lives of those who are sad, but well-off, Arnold focuses on a cast of young people who don’t have access to certain luxuries that characters in those other films might take for granted. Importantly, Arnold never mocks her characters (even when viewers might question some of their decisions), and the film’s heart is considerably stronger for it.
American Honey on Blu-ray

4. Moonlight
Directed by Barry Jenkins

Moonlight is lovely, tender, and crushing. The cinematography is often gorgeous and the script is moving and respects its characters.While Mahershala Ali is quite good in the film (as the nominations he has received would indicate), Andre Holland, and Trevante Rhodes  are just as good. Both of them give gentle, powerful, three-dimensional performances, and their work in the film’s final section elevates all that comes before it.

On one level, Moonlight is a timeless tale of growing up, navigating difference, and falling in love; but the film’s focus on the less-than-universal aspects of its protagonist’s life are just as, if not more important than all of that. Moonlight is about human connection, but it’s also about being black, growing up in financially unstable situation, and coming to terms with being queer. With Moonlight, Jenkins has provided a moving, exceptional movie and a representationally significant work of cinema. These characteristics are not, and never have been mutually exclusive, but its wonderful to see them brought together all the same.

3. Jackie
Directed by Pablo Larrain

Jackie surprised me a bit. I tend to find biopics dull and narratively uninteresting, and I’m not the biggest fan of Natalie Portman. Fortunately, none of that mattered with this film. Jackie transcends the realm of ordinary biopics, and Portman gives one of the most complex and memorable performances of the year.

The best word to describe Jackie is ‘haunting.’ It’s a dark, eerie film that uses an iconic figure and one of the most notorious events in US history to tell the most effective ghost story of 2016. In Larrain’s film, Kennedy himself is a specter,  while Jackie is a woman, a soldier, and a wraith. More than a mere dramatization of historical events, Jackie is an atmospheric work of cinema that fuses horror, character study, and melodrama. The film is also a mediation on the trials of being a woman, on the value of life (if there is one), on celebrity, and on the treacherous divide between the public and the private.

I saw Jackie twice, and it more than held up the second time around, and the movie also boasts my absolute favorite score of the year.
Mica Levi’s score for Jackie

2. Silence
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Only a master could have made this movie. Plain and simple.

With the exception of it’s miscalculated ending, and the less-than-ideal casting of Liam Neeson, Silence comes very close to perfect, even sublime. At nearly 3 hours, the film is surprisingly well-paced, and Scorsese tackles difficult, sticky subjects with a deft hand. This unsettling, overwhelming, and utterly beautiful film also contains some of the most impressive cinematography of the year and features Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver at their best.

Silence represents the single most rattling and the most transporting trip to the movies I had all year. Go see it if you haven’t yet. I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to do so, but I’m just itching to watch it again…

1. The Lobster
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

HILARIOUS. BEAUTIFUL. UPSETTING.

Since writing my initial response to The Lobster, I’ve watched it again, and I enjoyed it even more the second time. It’s cinematography isn’t as impressive as Rodrigo Prieto’s in Silence, and it’s musci isn’t as haunting or as original as Mica Levi’s for Jackie, but The Lobster remains my favorite film of the year all the same. It’s funny, dark, odd, and daring. It’s also intelligent, well-acted, and well-made. Beyond all that, the film has a distinct personality and refreshing approach to its subject, and it blends the tragic with the absurd so well that it manages to be incredibly endearing and devastating in a way that feels authentic and that challenges audiences to see people and relationships in a new light.

The screenplay deserves awards. Colin Farrell deserves awards too.

“…One of the most impressive (and important) things about The Lobster is just how effective Lanthimos’s world-building is. The universe in which the film takes place is fascinating and original, and Lanthimos immerses viewers and acclimates them to his world’s rules with incredible effectiveness and dexterity… …The Lobster [also] manages to flirt with the absurd without abandoning a reasonable and believable internal logic. The result is a film that benefits from immense creativity without sacrificing the piercing darkness that comes with intelligent examination of reality.

The Lobster does things differently. It’s odd and offbeat, and it doesn’t worry about dumbing itself down. The script is imaginative, daring, and even terrifying. The visuals are cold, stark, and distinct. The music hits viewers in the face and makes sure that they never forget the strange, dreadful world that they are in. Lanthimos’s characters—even when they appear for only a portion of the film—are also layered and incredibly human. So human, in fact, that they can be hard to watch.”

(I know The Lobster premiered at Cannes in 2015, but I didn’t get to see it then, and it wasn’t released in the US until May of 2016. It’s my blog, and time is a fiction anyway.)

Until Next Time
If you have your own top films for the year, I’d love to hear what they are. I look forward to meeting many more movies in 2017!

I wrote similar posts for 2015 and 2014 as well. Check them out if you want (even if I no longer 100% standby the opinions contained within them).

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Quick Post: Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed

assassinsI watched Assassin’s Creed back on Christmas Eve. I’ve never played the video game, and I pretty frequently skip giant studio action blockbusters; but I’d been curious about this film ever since I first heard about it. While its impressive cast was partially to blame for my interest, director Justin Kurzel is the primary reason I was so quick to add Assassin’s Creed to my watchlist. I loved Kurzel’s dark, stylish, and sexy take on Macbeth, and I’ve been eager for another film from him since seeing it. And while Kurzel’s latest is not as good as Macbeth, there is still quite a bit of good among the bad, and he remains a director to watch closely as far as this reviewer is concerned.

I don’t love Assassin’s Creed, but for all its flaws, the film simply does not deserve the critical lashing that it’s received. Some of my reasons why are below.

Film: Assassin’s Creed
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Michael Leslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Primary Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ariane Labed, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Essie Davis, Callum Turner, Denis Menochet
US Release Date: 21 December 2016

As messy and as flawed as Assassin’s Creed is, it is far better than it’s RT score (at this moment, a 17%) would indicate. This is especially true when another 2016 action blockbuster, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, is sitting at a whopping 90%. Numbers like this would have a person believe that where Doctor Strange is a film worth watching, Assassin’s Creed is a hot mess with little redeeming qualities whatsoever. Such simply isn’t the case; in fact, the opposite would be closer to the truth.

I don’t feel great about using Doctor Strange as a scapegoat, but allow me to do so anyway (!!!). The film has received positive review after positive review, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the most boring studio films of the year. There are no fleshed-out characters in Doctor Strange. The plot is hollow and predictable. Viewers are given no reason to care about anyone or anything that happens. The villain is almost nonexistant (and Mads Mikkelsen is completely wasted). The writing isn’t great. The film is safe and features a lot of expensive CGI, but there is nothing new, compelling, or especially entertaining about it. And yet, it gets a pass. It’s fine. It takes no risks, and apparently, that is enough as long as Disney/Marvel and Benedict Cumberbatch are all involved.

Assassin’s Creed tries to do much more than Doctor Strange; and though Kurzel does not always exceed, he deserves credit for his efforts all the same. Where Doctor Strange sticks to a prescribed formula, Assassin’s Creed occassionally attempts to break the mold (if only by degrees). Kurzel’s film has more balls than any Marvel film I’ve seen, even if it isn’t a “good” movie. The fact that it has such a low RT score is not justified and obscures the fact that it’s considerably more entertaining, artful, and interesting than Doctor Strange (or a number of other, more “successful” blockbusters). Doctor Strange is an example of all that is wrong with Marvel’s vanilla-as-hell cash-cows; Assassin’s Creed is an example of some of what is wrong with bloated blockbusters and video game movies, but it’s also an attempt to be something more.

The film tries to weave a story of the past into one of the present and future. The film tries to build and entire world while side-stepping the dullness-filled swamp that most origin stories fall into. The film never uses romance as a crutch, and it tries to merge the world of cinema with the narrative-unfriendly world of video games. The film combines history and fantasy and asks large, philosophical questions. The film also has no problem embracing moral gray areas. None of this is especially ground-breaking, but none of it is easy to pull off either.

As bad as it’s script often is, Assassin’s Creed pulls viewers into its universe and invites them to make sense of the fantasy. Though it’s visuals aren’t as distinct or as enveloping as those in Kurzel’s MacbethAssassin’s Creed does present a number of visually strong moments, and the film has enough of its own style to standout from the pack. The fight scenes and action sequences are (mostly) quite good, and the costumes distinct and detailed enough to leave an impression. The film also boasts an ominous, engrossing score that adds energy and depth whatever it touches. (In fact, Jed Kurzel’s compositions may just be my favorite of the year other than those Mica Levi did for Jackie). Together, the visuals and strong score both provide a strong foundation for the rest of the film, so that even when its writing falters terribly, there’s still something there to keep viewers tethered. Assassin’s Creed is imperfect, but it also bold enough and textured enough that it’s never boring.
Order Jed Kurzel’s score for Assassin’s Creed.

As much as I appreciate Justin and Jed Kurzel, and as much as I believe that Assassin’s Creed is a far more interesting than a number of films in same category, I’d be remiss not to be more specific about some the movie’s flaws. For instance, though the film does boast a slick, stylish, and well-composed look, not all of its visuals are successful. Every so often, Kurzel inserts a shot that screams “THIS IS BASED ON A VIDEO GAME!”; such shots—which often place the viewer in a first-person POV—are disorienting and don’t add anything of value. Whether such moments are meant to pay homage to the film’s heritage or whether they are simply an attempt to do things differently doesn’t change the fact that they don’t really “work.”

Assassin’s Creed also lacks nuanced, lively performances, although the overt coldness of the entire work makes this somewhat forgivable. That said, it is a shame to see such talented actors as  Brendan Gleeson, Marion Cotillard, Michael Fassbender, and Essie Davies under-utilized so. And while the lack of well-developed characters in Assassin’s Creed can probably be tied to it’s video-game roots, even just a dash of human emotion could have helped the film a great deal.

Still, the largest, most glaring flaw plaguing Assassin’s Creed is it’s script. While the first two thirds of the film are paced pretty well, the last section is so rushed, that it’s sure to leave viewers more than a little off-kilter. The film’s plot is also rather muddy, and those looking for precise explanations and clear character-motivations will be left terribly wanting. Meanwhile, the ending is so poorly executed, that even the most astute audience members will be left scratching their heads. At the same time, many of the characters lack anything that might be called “personality” (although, one wonders if such a thing even exists in the world the film inhabits).

Assassin’s Creed is a teeming with creative missteps and errors in judgement, but it also has enough audacity and style to very nearly make up for its flaws. As imperfect as Kurzel’s film is, it remains entertaining, and it’s far more interesting than a number of its peers. Assassin’s Creed may not be inherently “better” than a film like Doctor Strange, but it’s not much worse either.

Until Next Time
Happy New Year!

Here’s to hoping I watch and write more in 2017 somehow.

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Quick Post: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogueoneThere are two colons in my title and I hate it.

Also, it’s Christmas, so I’m going to use that as an excuse to keep this short.

Film: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writers: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (screenplay), John Knoll and Gary Whitta (story), George Lucas (characters)
Primary Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Forest Whitaker, Genevieve O’Reilly, Valene Kane
US Release Date: 16 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feels a little too much like a cinematic snack; it’ll tide viewers over as they wait for Ep VIII, but it doesn’t make for a very satisfying meal on its own. And while Edwards’s addition to the Star Wars universe is “better” than a large number of recent cash-grabby blockbusters, it’s not particularly interesting, and its flaws are hard to ignore. The film fills a gap in the Star Wars universe, but it doesn’t do so with enough charm or emotional weight to feel significant.

Rogue One taps into the existing Star Wars mythos while also attempting to strike out in new directions. The results are uneven at best, and downright cringe-worthy at worst. In its efforts to expand the franchise, Rogue One breaks from the Star Wars template in a number of ways, but none of them are especially groundbreaking. The decision to begin the film without a text crawl is hardly compelling or innovative on its own. At times, Michael Giacchino’s darker, more contemporary score works well; at others, it simply sounds wrong (such is the weight of John Williams). And while something like the lack of jedis at the center of the film isn’t a problem, it’s not really an improvement either.

After a certain point, one gets the sense that Rogue One‘s title is an excuse. An excuse for the film to do whatever it wants (which usually involves sticking to the script). If it truly rebelled and gave viewers something fresh, powerful, and interesting, that’d be one thing. But this is the land of Disney-owned-mega-franchises we’re talking about; any nods toward cutting-edge departure are merely a smokescreen and are (probably) motivated by money more than anything else.

None of the performances in Rogue One stand out much, in part because the film suffers from an overabundance of shallow characters. There are plenty of faces to turn into action figures, but there isn’t much personality behind them. That said, Diego Luna’s charisma and Riz Ahmed’s expressiveness both add some depth to a few scenes. Mikkelsen and Mendelsohn are also both memorable, though that probably has much more to do with their talent and presence than it does with anything Gareth Edwards or the writers did, and both actors are noticeably under-utilized by the film.

I didn’t have a bad time watching Rogue One. In fact, there are moments when it’s pretty fun. That said, the film didn’t leave me excited about any of the characters or narrative elements contained within it. Instead, I found myself hoping that Ep VIII will be much better. Unlike The Force Awakens (which made my ‘top 10’ last year lol), Rogue One left me underwhelmed and wanting. Edwards and the film’s script fail to give viewers new, well-developed characters for them to connect with and to care about. Its cast is plentiful and diverse (at least, where the men are concerned), but Rogue One also tries to present too many characters in too little time. Rogue One also discards some of its characters in ways that feel clumsy, cliched, and thoughtless. The result is a film that lacks emotional impact, even as its plot is overflowing with tragedy. Rogue One is more of a straight action film/war movie than its predecessors; the battles sequences and the fight scenes are fine, but its heart is too weak for a beast of its size.

The best part of Rogue One is Darth Vader, largely because audiences already know who he is. And that his short scenes have much more impact than the rest of the film isn’t a good thing at all. Vader’s presence also calls attention to the fact that Rogue One lacks a well-developed (or even threatening) villain of its own.

Rogue One also lacks the heft of The Force Awakens (and of the original trilogy), because the stakes are so low. If viewers don’t know or care about the characters in a film like this, then they need to care about the cause they’re fighting for. Unfortunately, those watching Rogue One already know how the story goes. The Rebel Alliance gets the plans to the Death Star. A lot of people die in the process. Luke eventually blows the thing up. Yay for the galaxy. None of this is news.

Rogue One doesn’t belong at the very bottom of the Star Wars heap, but that’s largely because The Phantom Menace is such a mess.

And one more thing: Grand Moff Tarkin should have been recast. Period. End of story. Giving viewers a CGI version of Peter Cushing (who died in 1994) isn’t only upsetting to look at, it’s also creepy and gross. On top of that, there really is no reason for it. A New Hope came out nearly 40 years ago. People age and die. If movie magic can convince millions to care about lightsaber battles in a fantasy-version of space, surely it can convince them that two different actors represent the same fictional character.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! If you like listening to me blab about movies, you should follow this blog on twitter. I also track my movie-watching over on letterboxd. Hooray for the internet.

I  will eventually post a ‘top 10’ for 2016, but I need to see a few things in January first. As a sort of sneak preview, here are a few films that I expect to be on the list: The LobsterJackieAmerican HoneyMoonlightHunt for the Wilderpeople, and Toni Erdmann. Maybe.

What I’ve Been Reading: Life as a Cinema and Media Studies Grad Student II

readingMy first semester of graduate school is now over! And since I’m currently trapped in the Denver airport—thanks for nothing, snow!—here’s another post on what I’ve been reading. Life has been pretty hectic since my last piece like this, and I haven’t read (or written) nearly as much as I would like, but we’re doing this anyway…

Also, assuming I do eventually escape this airport and make it home to Tulsa, I hope to review at least a few movies over Winter break.

When I’m not writing, you can easily keep up with what I’m watching on twitter and letterboxd.

Hollywood Film 1963-1976: Years of Revolution and Reaction – Drew Casper (2011)
Like Casper’s Postwar Hollywood 1946-1962, his book on 1963-1976 focuses on mainstream American cinema and prevailing industry practices. Casper also touches on cultural and historical context, though to a limited degree. The book is serviceable as an introduction, but it starys pretty close to the surface, and it left me with a strong sense that I need to read much more before I have a handle on its subject matter. Moreover, the (rather frequent) moments in the text when Casper essentially reviews films he deems important are rather frustrating. That said, the sections that begin and end each chapter are usually worth a read. Such is the way of survey texts…

Overall, the book is well-suited to skimming, and there are moments when it does provide a potentially useful overview of its topics. I personally read the book, because it’s an assigned text for my program and because I’ll be taking a class that teaches it next semester. I don’t mean to say that reading it was a waste of time (it wasn’t), but I have a hunch that there are probably better texts on similar topics and that they may have proved more enlightening. At the moment, my plan is to supplement what I’ve learned from Hollwood Film 1963-1976 with other scholarship on the period. Assuming I follow through, I’ll let you know how that goes in a later post. I also have a feeling that spending time watching movies that the book touches on will help bring it to life a bit (but that too, will have to wait).
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Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography – Roland Barthes (1980)
Of the books I discuss in this post, Camera Lucida is certainly my *favorite.* Barthes’s ruminations on the essence of photography and his ideas concerning how and why photography affects him as it does are beautifully written. A personal, subjective work, Camera Lucida manages to be both emotionally stirring and intellectually inspiring. Given its subject matter—still photography, something I don’t care much about—I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable the book was to read. Also, while Camera Lucida is quite short, the ideas in it are far from small. Even though I do not share all of Barthes experiences or agree with all of his claims, I’m glad I read Camera Lucida, and I’m sure I’ll be revisiting it at least once before my graduate career is over.
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Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide – Henry Jenkins (2006)
As someone who hasn’t read much at all in the realms of cultural and new media studies, I enjoyed Convergence Culture, and I found Jenkin’s scholarship to be engaging, educational, and thought-provoking all at once. The books explores our new (and ever-transforming) media landscape and pays special attention to the fan cultures and “knowledge communities” that interact with such media. Sites of collision, overlap, and confusion are all throughout the book, and their existence is often as thrilling as it is scary.

Instead of taking a purely theoretical approach to his complex subject, Jenkins grounds his work in specific examples of media convergence; these include Survivor’s fan spoiling, American Idol’s product placement, The Matrix’s transmedia storytelling, Harry Potter fan-fiction, and quite a bit more. While Jenkin’s choice to ground his arguments in specific case studies may limit the scope of some of his arguments, his book remains a solid foundation for thinking about fandoms and the interactions between various forms of media. At this point, Convergence Culture is over a decade old, and there are a number of passages in the work that show its age, but (for the most part) their relevance remains intact. In fact, one of the book’s final sections—which tackles the effect of emerging media on American politics—may be even more important now than anyone reading it in 2006 would have realized.
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Alien Zone: Culture Theory and
Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema
 – ed. Annette Kuhn (1990)
I have not yet read all (or even most) of Kuhn’s anthology, but I’m including it today to help lend this post a faint air of substance. I will be spending more time with the book over the coming months, as I will be completing an independent research assignment focused on gender in 3 contemporary sci-fi works (namely, Mad Max: Fury RoadEx Machina, and Under the Skin).

As with many anthologies, I get the sense that Alien Zone is a little uneven in terms of writing quality and overall usefulness, but as someone who is planning to spend several months studying, watching, and writing about science fiction films, I’m hopeful that it will at least prove to be worth the $25 I spent on it.

The text mixes cultural studies, genre studies, and cinema studies. So far, the essays in the book that stand out to me the most are The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film by Vivian Sobchack and Gynesis, Postmodernism, and the Science Fiction Horror Film by Barbara Creed.
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Until Next Time
Grad school is gross.