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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Creative Daring Meets Dark Comedy in BoJack Horseman Season 3

bojack21) I could write and/or talk about BoJack Horseman for days and still have more to say.
2) This will probably be my last piece on TV for a while, because it looks I’ll be focusing more on film next semester (which is totally cool with me).

Anyway…

With its cynical outlook, deeply flawed characters, and frequent engagement with dark themes, BoJack Horseman is not always the easiest show to love. Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, this animated Netflix comedy/drama exudes an irreverence and an intensity that may alienate those looking for lighter fare. And yet, it remains one of the most unique and well-thought-out programs currently on television. Far from the most uplifting comedy, BoJack Horseman remains a complex, affecting, and inspired show that more than fairly rewards those willing to give it a chance.

BoJack Horseman is set in Hollywood—or, “Hollywoo” after BoJack steals the “D” from the sign in the first season—and takes place in a partially-fictionalized version of the present in which human people and anthropomorphized animals coexist, essentially as a single species. The show’s titular figure (a horse voiced by Will Arnett) was the star of a 90s sitcom called Horsin’ Around, but he hasn’t known success since its cancellation, and if he ever knew happiness, it has eluded him for decades.

When the third season begins, BoJack is promoting the film Secretariat in an effort to generate Oscar-buzz for his “performance” in its lead role. There are a few problems with this scenario however. For starters, those interviewing BoJack insist on belittling Horsin’ Around, which offends him greatly. Moreover, despite all the praise he receives for Secretariat, BoJack isn’t really in the movie. During filming, he freaked out (as he often does) and disappeared to New Mexico. While he was gone, the studio “digitally replaced” him with a CGI figure bearing his image. For the first time in nearly 20 years, BoJack is in the limelight, but any recognition he receives is for something he didn’t do; meanwhile, just about everyone he meets is keen on insulting a show he cherishes and the one thing that made him famous. Such cutting realities are all throughout the show, which blends the humorous with the upsetting wherever it can.

As Season 3 continues, BoJack Horseman depicts the various stages of BoJack’s attempts to win an Academy Award, but the show also devotes considerable attention to characters other than BoJack. Princess Carolyn (a bubblegum pink cat and BoJack’s agent), Todd (a young stoner who lives with BoJack), Mr. Peanutbutter (a bright yellow dog who was in his own popular sitcom), Diane (a writer and friend of BoJack’s who’s married to Mr. Peanutbutter), and Sarah Lynn (a former child star who was on Horsin’ Around) are all fleshed-out this season.

Bob-Waksberg also establishes several new characters, including publicist Ana Spanakopita (Angela Bassett), screenwriter (and hamster) Mr. Cuddlywhiskers (Jeffrey Wright), Princess Carolyn’s assistant Judah (Diedrich Bader), and Todd’s friend Emily (Abbi Jacobson). Even if these and other minor characters don’t matter in later seasons, Bob-Waksberg uses all of them to add meaningful dimension to those at the heart of the show. For instance, Emily’s presence enables Bob-Waksberg to gradually establish that Todd is asexual. Emily also allows viewers to observe Todd interacting in a different way; where BoJack dismisses and talks down to Todd, Emily takes his ideas seriously and treats him as an equal, which allows him flourish and to be himself much more than in Seasons One and Two.

BoJack Horseman’s deep commitment to continually developing its characters sets it apart from lesser shows. The world BoJack navigates is well-populated, and the show’s emotional and narrative possibilities are both greater for it. Where some network sitcoms and other “adult” animated shows let their characters remain static across seasons, BoJack Horseman continues to reveal more of the figures driving its story. Instead of treating BoJack and other central characters as mere vehicles for telling jokes, Bob-Waksberg takes care to ensure that that they have pasts, that they have rich interiors, and that viewers never stop getting to know them.

In line with its admixture of light and dark, BoJack Horseman also reminds viewers that getting to know someone isn’t the same as growing to like them. As BoJack declares, “When you see someone as they really are, it ruins them.” Whether such a negative statement is always true, it can be true, as the show demonstrates with its eponymous horse.

Through BoJack, Bob-Waksberg and his team of writers and directors put their own spin on the anti-hero. Today’s televisions are brimming with dark, imperfect, even immoral protagonists (Claire and Frank Underwood, Walter White, Gregory House, and about half the people on Game of Thrones are but a few examples). In the age of postmodern relativism, characters without disturbing flaws seem to grow scarcer by the day. While BoJack Horseman isn’t invested in reversing this trend, it does push it in new directions. BoJack doesn’t have any special skills that make up for his lack of moral fiber (as the show repeatedly establishes, he’s not even good at acting). He isn’t working toward anything larger than himself. He doesn’t make laws or save lives or do anything particularly important. At the same time, his flaws run deep. BoJack is a pessimistic, self-sabotaging narcissist to the highest degree. He’s a selfish addict, and he regularly damages other people—sometimes, beyond repair.

Taken together, BoJack Horseman’s first three seasons declare that BoJack may not be capable of change, and that any admirable qualities he does have don’t make up for his larger issues. In what is an unusually heavy moment for his character, Todd says to Bojack, “You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol or the drugs or any of the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid. It’s you.” It takes a great deal to get the lovable Todd to turn on someone, but BoJack deserves every barb he throws at him. As Todd continues to insult him, BoJack doesn’t argue or make excuses as he usually would. As he tells Diane in the season finale, he knows he’s “poison,” and viewers know it too. BoJack is hard to like and even harder to respect, but Bob-Waksberg asks audiences to connect with him and to look on him with sympathy all the same.

As central as its well-rounded characters are to BoJack Horseman’s success, they are hardly all that places it in television’s top tier. For instance, like so much of the show, it’s visuals are bold and unique. BoJack Horseman’s distinct animation embraces the inherent strangeness of a world populated by animals walking upright; it also supports the show’s quirkier sensibilities and its offbeat tone. The show features a light and vivid color palette that contrasts with its near-constant depiction of depression and failure. BoJack Horseman is a balancing act between the silly and the sad, and it’s lively, upbeat visuals play an important role in keep the whole thing in the air. This somewhat unconventional show also experiments with different artistic styles whenever possible—no dream or drug-induced state is wasted.

Even as it features some of the richest comedic writing and some of brightest animation on TV, BoJack Horseman is also profoundly devastating. The show consistently tackles dark topics—including everything from suicide, war, and addiction to sexual assault, terminal illness, and the horrors of Sea World. Nothing is off limits for Bob-Waksberg and company, and the show repeatedly challenges audiences to confront and to carefully consider parts of life they might prefer to ignore. Importantly, when BoJack Horseman presents sensitive subjects, it doesn’t do so carelessly and its writers don’t merely exploit the taboo for a cheap laugh. Whether its depicting its mentally ill protagonist on a drunken rampage, delving into a character’s disappointing past, or structuring an entire episode around a pop star who has a hit song about killing fetuses, BoJack Horseman approaches every topic with a signature blend of intelligence, humor, and heart, and the show is as adept at moving people to tears as it is at splitting their sides.

Three seasons in, BoJack Horseman is far from mundane—one important way the show maintains a sense of novelty is through narrative experimentation. Many episodes are told in a conventionally linear manner, but many more break free from such molds to present something more interesting instead. Possibly the best installment of Season 3, “Fish Out of Water,” is a nearly silent episode that takes place underwater and almost completely ignores most of the show’s main characters. This whimsical episode is noticeably emotional, and its lack of dialogue highlights the strength of the show’s visual storytelling. Season 3 also interweaves a large number of flashbacks and features an entire episode set in 2007. Meanwhile, another episode is centered around a series of phone calls in which BoJack (unsuccessfully) attempts to cancel a newspaper subscription, and yet another has a “disjointed blackout structure” full of ellipses and “fourth-wall-breaking meta jokes.”

BoJack Horseman demands a great deal from its audiences. This heavily metatextual show constantly references popular culture, internet culture, and quite a bit else besides. Many of the show’s jokes require a certain amount of knowledge and assume that viewers are paying attention to current issues and media. The show is also overflowing with easy-to-miss visual details that defy distracted viewing. Someone who “watches” BoJack Horseman while looking their phone will miss a good portion of its comedy. No background surface or bit of text is wasted; all are maxed out to their full potential. Viewers can watch the show numerous times over and still find themselves being delighted by jokes they didn’t see before—a “Bat Bat Mitzah” sign that says “yes two bats because she is a bat” is just one example. The show never runs out of ways to induce a laugh (or an amused chuckle). And while it doesn’t call attention to many of its background jokes, they remain one of its most unique and endearing features.

If BoJack Horseman has high standards for those who watch it, it is even more exacting when it comes to those who make it. The show’s voice cast—which includes Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Tompkins, Aaron Paul, and Alison Brie—give performances that are affecting and brimming with personality. Its animators pay attention to every detail and create a world that never feels dull or incomplete. And its writers continually think outside the box. Just about anything can happen in BoJack Horseman. Whether its poking fun at a Tumblr restaurant “critic,” depicting a devastating bender, or showing a giant mass of spaghetti descending on an underwater city, the show continually supports its creativity and madness with a winning combination of smarts and sincerity—one can’t ask for much more than that.

Until Next Time
If you haven’t watched BoJack Horseman, get on Netflix and give it a chance. The show gets better as it goes, and it does take a little getting used to, but it’s really fucking good if you ask me.

I’ll be finished with my first semester of grad school next week. The plan is to catch up on some movies and post about them over Christmas break. As you may have noticed, posting blogging during the second half of the semester didn’t really happen.

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Quick Post: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

fantasticI’ve seen a number of films since my recent short post on The Handmaiden. But I’m also slogging my way through the busiest time of the semester right now. And so, I bring you yet another truncated review. Up today: some of the many problems plaguing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Film: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Director: David Yates
Writers: J.K. Rowling
Primary Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Colin Farrell, Dan Folger, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Samantha Morton, Carmen Ejogo, Jenn Murray, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Ron Perlman, Johnny Depp
US Release Date: 18 November 2016

I love Harry Potter as much as anyone, but no degree of fondness for the Wizarding World can cover up the fact that Fantastic Beasts is simply not a good movie. For what it’s worth, I went into Fantastic Beasts with little to no expectations whatsoever, but I still emerged from the theater disappointed. Between the god-awful fanfic that was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and this new, dull film, it would seem that Rowling isn’t too concerned with preserving any aura of quality around her brand. And that’s too bad, because—as I already mentioned—I really, really love her original series.

Highpoints: Colin Farrell’s face, Katherine Waterson’s face, and the residual Harry Potter emotions stirred by the opening music. Dan Fogler’s muggle character, Kowalski, is also an occasionally amusing stand-in for viewers, and Eddie Redmayne wears a nice coat. Beyond all that, there really is very little to latch onto in Yate’s and Rowling’s latest creation. Generally speaking, Yates gradually improved during his stretch of Harry Potter films, but Fantastic Beasts is a lackluster effort.

One of the biggest problems with the film is the way that it handles its characters. None of the heroes are given much of a history or developed beyond the surface. Viewers are not given a chance to feel any sort of intimate connection the film’s magical trio; unfortunately, the most interesting things about Newt, Porpetina, and Queenie are their (predictably) off-kilter first names. I’m extrapolating from personal experience a bit here, but the Harry Potter books and films have been incredibly successful, largely because they present audiences with well-developed characters that they care about and feel deep attachment to. Fantastic Beasts never does this. One expects that Rowling and Yates will imbue their protagonists with more backstory in the franchise’s future installments, but why waste the first one?

Fantastic Beasts boasts a talented cast, but they are rarely given a chance to do much with their abilities. As Porpetina, Waterson has a few decent moments, but she’s noticeably underutilized, and while Redmayne’s performance goes a long way toward making Newt Scamander at least mildly likable, he is still let down by Rowling’s script. Not only does Rowling fail to flesh-out Newt or do anything to make him particularly memorable, she also ham-fists something that smells terribly of forced heterosexual romantic attachment into his character arc (which is more of an almost imperceptibly curved line, but you get the idea).

That said, the actors who receive the worst treatment are Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller. Without spoiling certain (clumsily handled) plot details, each actor’s character ends up playing an (apparently) important part in the film’s story. However, neither actor is allowed to do much at all, and Rowling’s poorly-paced and frustratingly haphazard story renders both of them terribly forgettable.

Flat, poorly handled characters aside, a number of the problems with Fantastic Beasts can be traced back to the beasts themselves. Newt’s magical creatures are only tangentially connected to the film’s main plot and conflict, but Rowling and Yates devote so much time to them that viewers might be wrongly tricked into assuming they actually matter. Throughout the film, numerous long sequences are dedicated to a beast of some kind, but only one them feels anything less than unnecessarily forced into the film. Such sequences waste precious time—time that could have been used to add depth to characters or to tell the main story in an effective manner. Importance to the story aside, the beasts are also boring, which is an unacceptable offense in a film like this.

Together, Warner Brothers, Rowling, and Yates plan to shove four more Fantastic Beasts films down the public’s throats. From a financial standpoint, it’s hard to blame them. However—and while I acknowledge that the series could improve—I can’t help but worry that the clumsy, hollow drudgery will only continue. Yes, I’ll see the films (because I’m trash and Rowling owns me), but I don’t expect to enjoy them.

And I didn’t even talk about Rowling’s cringe-worthy attempt at a magic-as-queer metaphor OR the absolutely garbage moment in which Johnny Depp is introduced.

Why, Fantastic Beasts? Why? Please, don’t let this be The Hobbit movies all over again.

Until Next Time:
As of today, the films I’ve watched for the first time this November are Doctor Strange, Mad Max, Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, Jackie, Moana, The Eyes of My Mother, Nocturnal Animals, and Evolution. Of those, Jackie is by far the best, and Hacksaw Ridge is probably the worst (although I certainly did not enjoy Doctor Strange and was noticeably underwhelmed by Moana).

I’m hoping to catch up on a lot of year-end movies during winter break. Ideally, I’ll post more regularly then too.

The best way to keep up with what I’m watching in is by following me on twitter and letterboxd.

Quick Post: Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden

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Life is frustrating sometimes. For instance, I recently wrote and posted full reviews of such disappointments as Recount and The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, because doing so overlapped with my grad school curriculum. At the same time, I haven’t been able to devote much time at all to thinking or writing about some of the films I’ve seen recently that are actually worthy of energy and attention.

In an effort to navigate this situation (without killing either this blog or my graduate career), I’m going to start allowing myself to occasionally make much shorter posts than I usually would. These posts won’t be fleshed-out or full reviews, but they should still give you a sense of why I do (or don’t) like the film(s) in question. Up today, we have The Handmaiden

Film: The Handmaiden
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writers: Chan-wook Park, Seo-Kyung Chung, Sarah Waters (novel)
Primary Cast: Min-hee Kim, Kim Tae-ri, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, So-ri Moon, Hae-suk Kim
US Release Date: 21 October 2016

You either like Chan-wook Park or you really don’t. And if you’ve seen even one of his movies, you know which camp you fall into. Though I still need to watch a number of Park’s films—most notably, Thirst and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance—I can confidently say that I enjoy his work. I love his excess, I’m comfortable in his twisted darkness, and I frequently find his nasty sense of humor to be quite delightful. I imagine that most who feel similarly will revel in the many mad joys of The Handmaiden. Meanwhile, those who can’t find anything to like in the film probably can’t stand Park to begin with, are rather dull, or both.

The Handmaiden is lush. Its visuals are sensual, bold, and beautiful. It’s period-influenced sets are lavish and richly detailed. The Handmaiden’s aesthetic is not subtle, but Park commits to a particular style so fully that viewers who are responsive to its touch will be so captivated that they never even think of noticing the film’s 145-minute running time.

The Handmaiden is a movie and a half—visually, narratively, and thematically. There is no lack here (which is not to say it’s without restraint). There are flaws—quite a few actually—but even they manage to add to the depth and the character of the total image. When The Handmaiden fails, it does so boldly and without hesitation. When it succeeds, it’s overwhelming in the best of ways.

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.

Despite its period setting, The Handmaiden is more fantasy than history. It’s 3-part narrative reveals itself in a slow, deliberate manner that resembles a strip tease. Its saturated colors are too loud for reality. Its characters are all turned up to 11 (at the very least). And (thankfully) it never takes itself too seriously.

The Handmaiden might not be for everyone, but it’ll prove essential for many. 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.

Also, Min-hee Kim is absolutely gorgeous.

Until Next Time
In an effort to make grad school more bearable and to (hopefully) start feeling a little less out of place in LA, I’m trying to make a habit of going to the movie theater at least semi-regularly. I also recently signed up for FilmStruck, in the hopes that spending money motivates me to watch more films outside of my school-related duties and class syllabi.

For what it’s worth (and as much as I hate comparing films), The Handmaiden reminds me a bit of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (for obvious reasons, I suppose).

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What I’ve Been Watching: The Girl on the Train and The Accountant

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I watched two disappointing movies, so you don’t have to. Feel free to thank me later.

Since I can’t write up full reviews on both of these at the moment, here’s a few thoughts on why each of them isn’t worth your time.

Film: The Girl on the Train
Director: Tate Taylor
Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson (screenplay), Paula Hawkins (novel)
Primary Cast: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennet, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Lisa Kudrow
US Release Date: 7 October 2016

I haven’t read the Paula Hawkins novel on which Taylor’s film is based, but I was still incredibly let down by The Girl on the Train. I knew virtually nothing about the movie’s source material when I first saw its trailer, but I was excited by the prospect of a dark and sexy psychological thriller starring Emily Blunt. What I hoped for from The Girl on the Train was something powerful, artful, heavy, and even subversive. Ignorant as I was of Tate Taylor’s filmography, I even dared to dream of something Fincher-esque.

How foolish of me.

Put simply, The Girl on the Train is little more (and nothing less) than a big-budget Lifetime movie. It’s all pulp and no substance. All spectacle and no elegance. It’s a reminder of just how much restraint and control goes into making a film like Gone Girl, which walks the line between trash and art with much more success than this one.

The film starts well enough as it relies on Blunt’s voice-over narration to draw viewers in; but once it starts introducing other characters and unravelling the spool of mystery, it all falls apart rather quickly. Taylor’s previous films include The Help and Get on Up, neither of which ever piqued my interest. I can only guess why Taylor choose to stretch himself by tackling a psychological thriller like The Girl on the Train, but in doing so he has revealed some considerable weaknesses on his behalf.

And he isn’t helped at all by the fact that Wilson’s script is garbage.

The screening at which I saw The Girl on the Train was filled with laughter, virtually none of which was intended by the film or its writer. This film wants to be psychologically complex and thematically mature. It wants to be a heavy and decidedly adult thriller that rivets audiences. Instead, The Girl on the Train devolves into simplistic and poorly executed exploitation, is over-the-top and under-developed in the wrong places, and features a number of clumsy lines that throw its tone off-balance. The film is far more ridiculous than it is harrowing, and it’s hard to take any of it seriously as a result.

Though it’s basic premise invites daring ideas, Taylor’s film is lamentably lacking in depth. This tale of violence, substance abuse, psychological trauma, and obsession is terribly one-dimensional. This is partly because none of the characters other than Rachel (Blunt) are developed in a compelling and coherent fashion (and even then, she remains misused). That said, it’s also because the script is simply not smart enough to say anything interesting. The Girl on the Train repeatedly prioritizes spectacle over characters and message, and the result is a work that would make more sense as a made-for-TV movie.

For all my complaints, I’m compelled to acknowledge that Emily Blunt is not the problem with this film. Her attachment to the project may have helped the shitshow get produced, but she pulls her weight regardless of the movie’s flaws. Unfortunately, The Girl on the Train’s script and its particular approach to the subject matter are both beneath her. She brings Rachel’s shredded nerves and damaged state to life vividly and viscerally, but that’s not enough to save the hot mess that is Taylor’s film.

After watching The Girl on the Train, I am reminded that forgetting to factor in the director of a film when forming initial expectations for it is a mistake. I’m also left wondering whether Luke Evans will ever be in a movie worth-watching.

Save your money. Don’t pay for a ticket to The Girl on the Train. Just rewatch Gone Girl instead. In the meantime, I’ll quietly mourn for the dark and subversive feminist revenge thriller that could have been. (Maybe Nocturnal Animals will fuck me up enough that I’ll forget all about Tate Taylor’s mess. Please don’t let me down, Tom Ford.)

Film: The Accountant
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writer: Bill Dubuque
Primary Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal, J.K. Simmons, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor, Robert C. Treveiler
US Release Date: 14 October 2016

The Accountant is not good, but it is marginally better—and considerably more enjoyable if you just turn your brain off—than The Girl on the Train.

The main issue with The Accountant is that it lacks identity. O’Connor’s (Warrior) latest tries to be multiple movies at once, but it doesn’t execute any of them particularly well. Clearer purpose and a heavily revised script could have improved The Accountant a great deal; as it stands, the film is too scattered, and its attention is spread too thin to give rise to anything that might justify the price of a movie ticket. Thanks largely to Ben Affleck’s presence and to good number of fight scenes, The Accountant has the potential to be a middling crowd-pleaser, but it remains forgettable, ineffective, and half-baked.

Bill Dubuque (The Judge) wrote The Accountant, and the film’s script seems to be the source of nearly all of its problems. First, the film has too many supporting characters. Those played by Simmons and Addai-Robinson both add nothing worthwhile to the film; in fact, their storyline distracts from main plot and prevents O’Connor from developing Chris (Affleck) as much as he should have. Simmons and Addai-Robinson could have been cut from the film entirely; they are kept in, because The Accountant can’t decide if it wants to be a character-study, an action film, a family drama, a love story, or a crime procedural.

Those scenes dedicated to its (largely) flat and ineffective supporting characters also weaken the film, because viewers are given very little to care about or to hang onto whenever Affleck isn’t around. Chris is by far the most interesting part of the The Accountant, and yet it repeatedly abandons him for dull plot points and clichéd, underwritten shadows.

With the exception of one scene near the end, The Accountant also fails to portray any strong connection between any of its characters. Dana (Kendrick) appears in the film as a companion who can bring out a softer side in Chris, but she is so underdeveloped that any emotion he seems to feel for her comes off as hollow and forced. The film also effectively abandons her for such a long stretch that viewers may forget she exists at all.

Murky plot points, a number of cringe-inducing lines, and some horribly misguided use of flashback don’t help The Accountant much either.

I won’t say much about The Accountant’s portrayal of autism, simply because I am not educated enough on the matter to discuss in any detail whether or not it’s responsible in that regard; however, I will say that my instincts tell me it isn’t. Shortly after watching the film, I half-jokingly tweeted that its message seems to be that “even if you’re autistic, you can still be as cool as Ben Affleck as long as your father is abusive.” The more I think about the film, the more I feel uneasy about its use of autism. Dubuque and O’Connor’s intentions were probably good (or at least, not malicious), but the result misses the mark.

There are bits of good stuff in The Accountant, but none of them are properly developed. O’Connor’s film constantly redefines itself without ever really becoming anything in the first place. Affleck’s screen presence and his character’s idiosyncrasies could form the foundation of a compelling film, but neither is properly utilized. The film’s attempts to blend occasional humor with dark character study and violent action could have resulted in decent film. The Accountant desperately needs someone to take control of its story; to distill it down to only its best ideas and to then build it back up again. Unfortunately, it’s far too late for that now.

At least Ben Affleck remains as sexy as ever…

Until Next Time
Other films I’ve recently watched for the first time include I Confess, The Wrong Man, and Robot Stories. To keep up with me when I’m not posting, head on over to my twitter or letterboxd.

Thanks so much for reading. If you think I’m wrong about either of these films, feel free to let me know with a comment (comments are moderated by the way). There are brief flashes of potential in each film, and I have a feeling that a lot of viewers will more or less enjoy The Accountant at least. However, both movies take far too many missteps to overlook, and neither ends up where it wants to go.

Also, for those interested, here are some of the articles/book chapters I’ve read in the last few days (because grad school):
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s “Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race”
Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology”
Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”
Vivian Sobchack’s “The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film” (and a few other short chapters from the anthology Alien Zone, because I’m currently figuring out how I want to combine film theory with Ex Machina)

A Review of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven: Nothing New Under the Western Sun

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Film: The Magnificent Seven
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto
Primary Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Haley Bennett, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer
US Release Date: 23 September 2016

Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is not a very good movie. It could be much, much worse, but that doesn’t mean millions of people should pay to go see it. They will, but that’s another matter.

Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard) and his villainous mustache only care about two things: money and power. On his quest for them, he seizes control of the small town of Rose Creek so he can mine the area for gold. Bogue rules through fear and intimidation, and after a local meeting erupts into violence, his reign seems all but secure.

Enter Emma Cullen (Bennett). Desperate, devastated, and angry, Cullen turns to bounty hunter Sam Chislom (Washington) to save Rose Creek. She offers him all the money she has, and he agrees to take the job. To this end, Chislom recruits six other men—all of them violent, most of them criminals. Chislom’s motley crew of gunslingers includes alcoholic gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooting ex-Confederate soldier Robicheaux (Hawke), knife-wielding Asian Billy Rocks (Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo), Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier), and racist tracker Jack Horne (D’Onofrio).

Together, these seven men infiltrate Rose Creek, where they then take up the seemingly impossible task of preparing its residents for battle with Bogue.

Even viewers who are unfamiliar with the film’s antecedents—John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954)—will leave Fuqua’s film with the sense that they’ve seen it all before. With the exception of a diverse cast, this The Magnificent Seven brings very little to the table. Thanks largely to its actors, the film remains mildly entertaining, but even its more enjoyable moments begin to crumble under close scrutiny. The Magnificent Seven is just fun enough for a late-summer blockbuster. It’s also empty, poorly executed, and lamentably average.

The Magnificent Seven opens with a shootout, but not with any dramatic weight. The film’s first moments are supposed to be dark. Their tragedy is meant to lend heft to the narrative and to give a sense of importance to all that follows. That isn’t what happens. Instead, The Magnificent Seven takes its first steps on what is clearly shaky ground. Thanks to a combination of poor writing, caricature-like characters, and a clumsy presentation of violence, the beginning of Fuqua’s film tilts in the direction of parody. Where they should feel emotionally invested and utterly captivated, many viewers will feel the urge to laugh. For some, that feeling will last for the entire film.

The biggest problem with The Magnificent Seven is its writing. Fans of True Detective will be disappointed to learn that Nic Pizzolatto’s contributions to the film—whatever they actually are—do nothing to elevate it beyond the ordinary. They may even be part of the problem.

Instead of coming across as either an homage to the western or as a statement about what the western can be, The Magnificent Seven is more of a soulless ensemble action movie than anything else. Or a vanilla-as-hell superhero one. Ideas, focus, purpose, and character are often nowhere to be found. Instead, so much of the film feels derivative, that it’s actually distracting. Somehow, Legolas, Boromir, and Eowyn all make appearances in the film, and not with any subtlety. For a moment, the ghost of Daniel Plainview seems to take over (which is less interesting than it sounds). Despite Fuqua’s more serious aims, Blazing Saddles creeps in. There is even a scene which is so similar to one in Django Unchained, some viewers may wish they were watching Tarantino’s film instead.

The Magnificent Seven is also filled with thin, underwritten characters. Denzel Washington is clearly a talented actor, but writers Wenk and Pizzolatto do little to take advantage of this fact. The same is true for Sarsgaard, who is so underutilized by this film its almost criminal. In fact, the entire group at the center of the film never becomes more than a set of figures on horseback. For the most part, The Magnificent Seven shows little interest in making its heroes three-dimensional. When it does show such interest, it is too quickly distracted by something else—bullets, usually involved. Luckily for Fuqua, the film is buoyed by a solid cast. They are capable of much more than this film allows them to do.

When the film hints at something like character exploration and development, it seldom delivers. For instance, Hawke and Lee play a pair of characters who, if treated appropriately, could form the center of a compelling film all on their own. Their relationship is complex and unorthodox, and one gets a sense that each has darkness in his past. Unfortunately, The Magnificent Seven fails (or forgets) to do much with them. With Hawke’s Robicheaux in particular, the film hints at emotional depth while inching toward an acknowledgement of the sharpshooter’s interiority. But Fuqua doesn’t deliver on such promises, and none of his characters are really given the time and attention needed for meaningful development.

Viewers of The Magnificent Seven don’t get know any of the figures on screen, which robs the film of anything like emotional weight. For all the struggle and strife, the film has little impact. Even when portraying death, Fuqua fails to stir any feelings of loss.

Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore chose to shoot the film on 35 mm, in part as a way of honoring the tradition of westerns. There are some good-looking shots in the film, but overall, its visuals also fall short. The images in The Magnificent Seven do little to evoke any western history or magic. An over-use of quick cutting and a lack of shots that truly take advantage of the scenery are both partially to blame.

After opening in less-than-stellar fashion, The Magnificent Seven ends on a cringe-worthy note. Again, a moment that is meant to be taken seriously simply fails to land. The last few seconds are almost laughable, and they send a shock wave back through the film that threatens to retroactively weaken even its strongest moments.

The Magnificent Seven has charisma and charm. It’s also disappointing. There are some good ideas sprinkled throughout, but they get lost in the generic. Star presence and big-budget production value aside, Fuqua’s latest is all surface. Grit and grandeur are nowhere to be found.

If Hollywood produces another star-studded western any time soon, let’s hope it better than The Magnificent Seven. This often old-fashioned genre needn’t fade away, but it might if isn’t given new life. An original script, a clear purpose (other than money), and fully-formed characters would all be a good place to start.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading! Follows on twitter and letterboxd are much appreciated. Questions and comments are always welcome.