Isle of Dogs (2018): Woofs and Yips Abound

Wes Anderson has always been a director I wanted to see stretch out his wings into genre. The type of symmetrical and striking character based wit he exhibits works wonderfully for his character based dramedies like Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore. All of which – I should mention – I’m a big fan of. Yet, I could also see him crafting a wonderfully tense horror film or a vibrant fantasy world. Really, his closest forays into genre have been his steps into the world of stop motion animation. 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox had many of the familiar traits of Anderson (ie father issues, teen rebellion, animal death), but within a world that presented scale on a variety of levels and allowed for even more creative freedom for visual joke construction.

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Now, he takes a further step into genre with Isle of Dogs, a grounded sci-fi film that takes place in the not-too-distant future. Well, as grounded as a movie focused around talking dogs can ultimately be. Yet, the sort of dystopian sci-fi world where dogs are banned to a trash island after an outbreak of dog related diseases brought on by a tyrannical rule doesn’t seem too far off from some modern governments of our own. Making outlandish decisions rooted in spreading fear and doubt about something as innocent as dogs. These sort of influences are implied to be represented by the presence of cats as an ominous force out to destroy these dogs, which isn’t necessarily a terrible metaphor. It gives a direct causality that fits into both the ancient story that bookends Isle of Dogs and the general influence of animals over humans in this world.

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And given how much personality the titular dogs have, it’s easy to see why. Most of these dogs we follow are incredibly vibrant and fun characters. Standing out most prominently is the stray dog Chief (Bryan Cranston), who wanders the wastelands with an attitude that represents himself as a lone wolf… until young Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) arrives on a small plane determined to find his dog. All the dog characters are at the very list consistently entertaining. Even with singular, but funny or engaging traits that made this solid Anderson style fun. This is obviously helped by the massive talent pool of voice actors, many of which have experience with Anderson (Bill Murray, Jeff GoldblumEdward Norton, etc) and others who are totally new and slip in without missing a beat (Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, etc) though some are less well utilized than others. Dogs as a species have often been featured in Anderson films to varying rates of survival. Yet, their quiet disposition and moments of sudden massive energy make them perfect for the Wes Anderson type to emerge out of it. More so than most of the human characters.

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Thus is the inconsistency that is something of an albatross for Isle of Dogs. Much has been made about accusations of cultural appropriation for the Japanese aspects of the film by Anderson. Now, I’ll admit ignorance to how much this is offensively appropriates the culture on a more wide ranging level. There’s certain Japanese cinematic illusions I noticed – the theme from Seven Samurai plays throughout – and obvious general details that allude to Japanese art and historical events. Anderson seeks to make this a symmetrical collage of this country, one that’s elegantly designed and laid out. Yet, most of the human characters that speak Japanese aren’t given subtitles. This speaks to Anderson’s talent as visual filmmaker, given we do really get the gist of the plot through action. Sometimes this even works as an ability to build his characters. Young Atari in particular gets to have many moments with Chief that translate as a charming turn on the boy and his dog trope while demonstrating Atari’s assertiveness and gumption.

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Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate well to other characters. Our villains of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) and Major Domo (Akira Takayamaaren’t given much personal perspective with their actions. They constantly feel like figures for the plot, which would be fine if they themselves didn’t have a few twist and turns to them. Especially when white characters like the interpreter (Frances McDormand) or young Tracy (Greta Gerwig) translating or speaking for these characters in a way that robs them of individual identity. Even the translator characters are largely robbed of this as a result. Some may disagree if it’s culturally insensitive, but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t make them seem less involved characters than the people who are mainly saying their dialogue in a way that feels more in common with the majority of the English speaking characters. There’s a distance there that makes some moments in the climax especially fall flat, even for Atari. I’d argue this tries harder to do so than The Darjeeling Limited did in terms of given the native characters of this foreign land more voice, but the same problems are still rooted in Isle of Dogs.

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Of course, the more consistent element of Isle of Dogs has to be the animation. Anderson’s own talents as a filmmaker play into the composition, but the stop motion animators are the ones who give these characters so much feeling and depth. There are incredibly intricate moments of mechanics and small subtle moments of personality that turn these hunks of plastic into living breathing beings. Nothing impresses me more than seeing these puppets tear up in real time. It’s a true feat of cinematic magic that never fails to amaze when it is showcased. The detail work on the sets is remarkable as well, especially all the different environments on trash island. The scene where the dogs are inside a cave made of recycled glass bottles is one of the best lit I’ve seen in a long time. It immerses the audience into this world without ever questioning why or how this world operates. Even the stylistic choice of using more traditional animation for the screens shows the world being presented by the media and government is very different from the one these characters live in, strengthening the world building.

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With all of that said, Isle of Dogs is still lesser Wes Anderson fare. The enjoyment of watching most Wes Anderson films isn’t just how he shoots everything or in how he uses the kitchy soundtrack choices. It’s also just in how emotive and touching these characters can become even as he recycles certain themes. Even without the controversy put upon it, the human characters want to mean more than they ultimately do. Even some of the dogs run into onenote joke territory. Goldblum’s dog loves to talk gossip all the time and spread rumors, which is often a funny joke, but it’s not much of a character trait either. Isle of Dogs isn’t worth dismissing entirely for how it builds a curious world and story from Anderson’s perspective and the gorgeous animation. But it can be fairly disappointing to see this turn out to be lacking a bit of the interpersonal touch that makes Anderson so distinct in the process.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Pieces of Rotting Garbage

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Horror News Radio Episode 262: A Quiet Place

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A Quiet Place (2018): Strong Silent Cinema

A Quiet Place isn’t a silent film. Yes. You heard me right. A Quiet Place doesn’t turn the evolutionary wheel of film back to the early ages. Despite the gimmick that centers around this family trying to survive by staying silent, sound plays a crucial role that’s more than terror inducing. A Quiet Place uses sound the way a great composer uses the various types of instruments at their disposal. The loud bangs aren’t just there to create jump scares. They escalate tension and a sense of desperation through the limited yet powerful use of sound. It also helps to build the world without much dialogue and allows our performers to express so much in body language. Yet, sound is ever present, if just a bit faint for the most part.

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The phrase “you can hear a pin drop” is one that A Quiet Place lives and breathes on right from the opening sequence. Right from the start, we see that Lee (John Krasinski) and his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have created a language and system with their children to keep them alive. Immediately you get the sacrifice from something as simple as noticing they have no shoes. How much pain and horrific callouses can build up on one’s feet from a lack of protective footwear especially when seeing this family walk through the woods. Yet, in an instant it’s also gives the audience a complete realization of how this world operates and how dire the idea for such a minimal such a sound we take for granted would be.

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Keep in mind, this is just ONE minor detail in a sea of wonderful bits and pieces. That’s not even addressing stuff like the various ways the family communicates, the incredibly detailed basement John Krasinski has or the production design on the abandoned parts of town from this post-alien apocalypse. These are the details that Krasinski builds as a director, writer and actor to get us immersed in this situation. In all honesty, the weakest use of sound really came from the score from Marco Beltrami. It’s not a bad score, mind you. Like many a Beltrami score, it serves a purpose, but it’s one that honestly doesn’t feel as warranted in context of the more subtle moments.

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A Quiet Place is the smart kind of horror film that leans heavily on the audience figuring things out on their own. It’s a visual film that can be overt when needed but subtle when it matters most. Many horror fans will outright dismiss this merely on the basis of it being PG-13. Yes, there’s a lack of gore and overt mauling that could turn off more hardcore fans. Then again, true fans of horror would know that ratings don’t determine what makes the genre great. It’s building atmosphere and characters we care about before horrific things happen that can reign absolute. If A Quiet Place was filled to the brim with gore, it may be more visceral yet most likely not as impactful.

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As mentioned, A Quiet Place aims to be character focused horror and these people we are following are incredibly engrossing to follow. We don’t get a full character profile on any of them necessarily, but we still get how they operate and why they interact the way they do. Through people like the son Marcus (Noah Jupe), we understand the trepidation and worry of a child raised in the middle of this apocalypse. While on the flip side we have daughter Reagan (Millicent Simmonds) who is deaf and seeks to prove herself given not only her disability that makes her father protective but also her regret over the actions that caused her younger brother Beau (Cade Woodward) to be taken by these creatures years prior. These kids and their smaller interactions with their parents give them far more depth of character than most scenes with dialogue would. Even the few dialogue scenes that happen don’t give us as much information vocally as much as they do visually. Millicent’s actual deafness also makes her use of sign all the more authentic and determined.

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There’s a great example when Krasinski takes Jupe out to a waterfall. They get to howl out because of the noise surrounding them. A freeing moment for Jupe to be a kid that can yell as loud as he wants while his father beams proudly that his frightened child gets an oasis of freedom. It’s a wonderful small moment that gives us everything we need about the characters to set up tension for later. A Quiet Place truly understands the power of neat economic storytelling especially within this family unit. Even stuff that one may think back on and question once you’ve left the theater about the overall logic of the world – what the kids call Fridge Logic – it really doesn’t matter that much when the characters are considered. The lesser actions feel warranted when the characters are put in context of their situations and the tension that builds because of these actions.

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Krasinski has claimed he wasn’t as familiar with the horror genre prior to making A Quiet Place, but it’s honestly astonishing to think given how many times A Quiet Place terrifies on a variety of levels. The tension that builds is honestly incredible on such a limited budget. The alien monsters are always a constant danger despite rarely being seen in the overall film because of just how investing the characters are, allowing for the scares to be palpable. It’s the type of character investment that one can normally dismiss the horror genre of not being capable of, but Krasinski manages to elicit a powerful sense of suspense out of every moment. Something as small as a loose nail becomes like a Hitckcockian-bomb waiting to explode. All because the world and characters are so well built up. Even with the small quibbles, this is still further proof that effort and patience can make up for a smaller scale and budget. And PG-13 isn’t a deal breaker either. More gore doesn’t always mean a better horror film.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Nails On Stairways

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READY PLAYER ONE (2018): Superficial Spielberg Superior to Source

*Mild Spoilers for Ready Player One both book and film below*

Before going too deep into Steven Spielberg‘s film, it’s important to talk about the source material. While I’m not one to usually read source novels prior to their adaptations, Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One was an exception mainly because of the curious premise. A virtual reality world of The Oasis where people escape a dystopia via a VR extension of the Internet sounded intriguing and increasingly relevant as of late. Plus, all these pop culture characters being used as avatars brings to mind so many possibilities and as a fan of pop culture ephemera, my interest was peaked. Yet, much like a Twitter avatar featuring Heath Ledger’s Joker or an anime character, the characters of Ready Player One the novel take those pop culture icons and completely ignore what made them work only to embrace them for very shallow reasons. The novel Ready Player One is less about fan culture and more about knowledge sponge culture, taking little interest in exploring what made these pop culture figures so immensely notable as much as simply saying “I know so much about this thing and that makes me awesome” that came from a place of being bullied, but ironically comes off as a mutation of geek embracement that becomes its own form of bullying. It’s geek gatekeeping at its most obnoxious, though that’s nothing compared to the rampant examples of transphobia, female objectification and just plain moronic prose that ranks as one of the more exhausting reading experiences I have endured.

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Yet, the presence of director Steven Spielberg intrigued me with this adaptation. Spielberg was partially responsible for much of what Cline worshipped in a very superficial way in the book. Ready Player One the book understood that the very surface level reasons why Spielberg related like Indiana Jones or Back to the Future are cool because they clearly represent 80s iconography. He clearly worships the ground Spielberg partially seeded. I can’t honestly think of any other example of such an overt influencer of a product directing the adaptation. Like if Alfred Hitchcock directed a Brian De Palma script. Spielberg himself has handled material that is obviously influenced by things he loved from childhood, ranging from the adventure serials that inspired Indiana Jones to the titular comics that he directly adapted for Tintin. So, handling material inspired by him gives vibes of potential all abound.

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Keeping all this in mind, Ready Player One the film is ultimately better than the source material while still being a decently faithful adaptation. Frankly, it would be intentional self-sabotage to make a film on level with such aggressively annoying novel, but Spielberg and Cline’s script co-writer Zak Penn clearly took things like the sluggish pace and horrendous prose out in order to make this bearable on a cinematic level. One can see it just in the mere structure of this adaptation. Cline’s idea of interesting quests were recreating scenes from movies beat for beat and getting through patterns of video games in a larger space. It’s all about the rails and knowledge of pop culture minutia to a tee rather than wanting to truly explore what made it work. Here, Spielberg allows for exploration prompted by pop culture to be showcased in ways that make Cline’s ultimate point feel well thought out instead of incredibly hypocritical.

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A wonderful example is seeing an immersive action set piece at the opening and shortly after going underneath to see all the mechanics on display. There’s a kinetic nature to the original race, but then Spielberg pulls back the curtain in a way that examines both how he constructs elaborate action scenes and comments on going around the rigid structure in a way that benefits the finale later on. While not as wildly inventive as the cartoonish action sequences of Tintin, Spielberg runs laps around the original source material with something fairly simple, managing to make actual suspense around a virtual war in ways the book could never really process. Ready Player One even continues this with an elaborate homage to a famous horror film that actually has the characters immersed in the world of the film rather than rigidly platform through the mechanics of the scene in order to discover a clue for the quests. Spielberg embraces more of the flexibility of sandbox gaming in spirit rather than the rigidity of classic games that the novel promotes before suddenly shifting gears.

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Another improvement from page to screen for Ready Player One is our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). Instead of being an aggressively obsessive pop culture zealot who stalks a woman and uses his minority friends to boost his own ego, he’s just more of an average young adult novel style protagonist. Comes from meager beginnings, rises through the top mostly through convenience of plot & the talents of his friends and contributes little beyond being an audience surrogate for the average audience of straight white male nerds. Sure, that’s typical. That’s something you could walk over to an adjacent theater and see in the third Maze Runner film. That’s something that gives a supremely talented actor like Tye Sheridan little to do beyond stare blankly in awe via his Oasis avatar Parzival. But at least that’s tolerable. At least he saves Samantha Cooke aka At3mis (Olivia Cooke) from a near fatal accident at the end of a creative race rather than… a recreation of Joust.

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The frustration of Wade’s role from the novel does still ring pretty loudly when considering those he’s surrounded by get the shaft. Ar3mis for example is clearly shown to be just as capable a player in The Oasis’ main easter egg hunt as Parzival. Even better, considering her ability to take certain risks Parzival can’t right from the start. Yet, throughout Ready Player One, she constantly side lines herself for Wade because… reasons? Her dedication to saving this guy and falling in love with him felt creepy and skewed to a strange perspective in the source novel, but here it’s more arbitrary, with any sense of chemistry is in missing reels in the film. Some of that creepiness lingers when she starts becoming sexually promiscuous out of nowhere during a club scene for the sake of making rather underwhelming jokes about Wade’s VR suit being comparable to a condom.

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It’s nothing against Sheridan or Cooke as they try to have some kind of mutual appreciation that stretches beyond knowing pop culture. It’s just that neither character really advances beyond the pop culture savvy to have any kind of a genuine connection, which is especially awful given a big point of them separating from each other focuses on Art3mis saying Parzival doesn’t know the real her. Then Wade and Samantha meet in the real world… and they’re both just kind of there fighting for a rebellious cause. No other personality quirks or experience or anything is more than exposited to us. None of this is helped by removing one of the few semi-compelling aspects of the novel of Art3mis having issues with her more curvy figure. This – along with Parzival’s own weight problems – are dumped in favor of a stock trope that she has… a birthmark on her face. And not even a particularly strange or hideous one. Just a large one that she decides to cover. Not nearly as much potential for change or growth or even any genuine character depth to be mined, especially since it’s introduced briefly and then swept under the rug so the plot can move along.

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It’s a shame it didn’t move along to focusing more on some of the more enjoyable supporting players of Ready Player One. A big factor of Wade’s supposed Oasis adventures is that he has the companionship of his friends – or “clan” cause vidja games, amirite? – to guide him along the way. This ropes Aech (Lena Waithe) into the best friend role that plays on Wade’s realization that things aren’t what they seem in reality vs The Oasis. Yet, when we see the real Waithe… she’s not given much to do beyond simply help the main character. Her one big spotlight is the above mentioned horror film homage sequence, but even that doesn’t give us any further insight into her as a person. She just… helps out Wade. Then again, she’s at least not sidelined with a stereotype like Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), the two Japanese characters that exist as a ninja and a samurai warrior in The Oasis respectively… and plot devices who help out the lead elsewhere.

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More fun and character is honestly given to a scenery chewing villain performance fromBen Mendelsohn. While this character was more of a bland stand in for generic corporate greed as originally written, Mendelsohn imbues him with an arrogant confidence and inept ability to manipulate that makes for an affable villain with actual personality. One can’t help but chuckle at Mendelsohn’s ability to clench his capped teeth that authentically makes him come off as more of a phony than the script ultimately does. Mark Rylance‘s work as the Oasis creator Halliday is also an surprisingly charming. There’s an awkward charm to this version of the character that gives off the impression that Halliday has some sort of social disorder that sells his escape into pop culture and The Oasis as well as his ultimate loneliness. The hero worship of a character who has a programmed version of a girl he went on a date with once is still creepy, but mainly because it turns into a weird gear shift toward suddenly being about his partnership with Ogden (Simon Pegg) and forgetting that woman all together.

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Clearly, there’s a tug and pull between source and adaptation with Ready Player One. Really, it’s hard to divorce the two and even judging the film on its own, whether you’re a fan or not. No matter how much Spielberg fights to make this interesting, there’s ultimately a very clear emptiness to what’s going on that is deeply rooted in the original source material. Not much soul or heart mixed within this and a very underwhelming relationship at the center that never feels like it’s commenting on the tropes it’s stealing as much as it just does them wholesale out of a pure sense of mimicry. Still, Spielberg puts in enough creative bits of action and enthralling sequences that helps even things out along with some committed performances. Accusations of it being this generation’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? have been greatly exaggerated, especially given Ready Player One has so much less respect for what the pop culture characters actually are in comparison to Rabbit‘s love and respect for cartoons. If anything, Ready Player One only strengthens the realization that the best version of the story of a typical hero fighting a typical corporate villain while surrounded by intellectual properties that had far more to say about creativity and sandbox gameplay of larger worlds… was 2014’s The Lego Movie. It helps that there was actual jokes and a satirical take on the corporate culture it was adapting from. Shame that small plastic toys had more character than a single human featured here. Let’s just hope we don’t get an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s poetry any time soon from another acclaimed director.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 VR Gloves

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UNSANE (2018): Sanity Is Relative

Director Steven Soderbergh has had brushes with the horror genre, but only in side glances. His 2011 film Contagion sought to showcase the disease outbreak genre from a more grounded perspective. Side Effects was a rather Hitchcockian thriller that twisted and turned in varying directions. Unsane is his first true horror, though it definitely fits into the same psychological shades of something like Side Effects. Yet, Soderbergh is quite capable of showing off as much range as he usually does in terms of taking on a small scale experiment that stretches him cinematically. After all, the most consistent thing about Soderbergh is his lack of consistency with topics. Large scale ensemble pieces like Ocean’s 11 and intimate relationship dramas like Sex, Lies and Videotape are both within his wheelhouse, so who’s to say a character focused horror film wouldn’t be either?

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Unsane fits more into the intimate angle of Soderbergh’s perspective. Famously, this feature was shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus using an app called FilMiC Pro. This detail may seem like a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that benefits the enclosed nature of this story. Given that our lead character Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is recovering from an all too close and terrifying experience with her stalker David (Joshua Leonard) makes the shots of trees and people getting in the way of Soderbergh’s angles bring us straight into Sawyer’s paranoia. Soderbergh even switches up the color gradient at various points to indicate the different moods at hand. Dark blues for uneasy danger. Bland sepia tone to indicate the doldrums of the hospital routine. Even the natural light abrasiveness to give us the natural feel of being in public. With the latter, we’re sitting from the potential stalker perspective watching a woman cower while trying to live her life, which gives us a full look into her mindset.

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Now, Sawyer as a character is a bit more conflicting. Unsane – like many a horror film centered on an unreliable narrator of a character – is definitely trying to make us feel suspicious about how much we can trust Sawyer’s ability to process reality. Even up to the point where that seems pretty definitive, without spoiling anything specific. This aspect results in many points where she makes radical decisions, many of which feel like they come from a place of paranoia. Yet, several key ones also feel more convenient for the sake of the plot. It’s a lingering problem that pokes and prods as Sawyer makes some underwhelming decisions, particularly as we get the transition to the climax of Unsane that seems to contradict so many of her wiser decisions leading up to that moment. Trust me, even with spoilers it wouldn’t make much sense. Same goes for an epilogue that didn’t really seem to be needed and also shows off that she may be willing to make some unfortunate decisions in the future.

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Still, these decisions don’t feel as harmful to the end results with Unsane as they could be. Claire Foy still injects a lot of powerful emotion and building dread that makes up for some disappointing decisions. She has a determination and a tough spirit that is at odds with her past trauma that makes her compelling to watch. She wants to get out of this nightmare scenario yet is constantly enraptured with her struggle. This is a woman who is trying to move on with her life after a man attempts to turn her into a possession disguised as a romantic partner. Joshua Leonard’s presence also gives us an immediate sense of unease, as even his attempts to be normal confuse Foy and the audience as to whether she’s seeing something or he’s really there at any given moment. This especially comes to a head as Foy has a tour de force scene in a solitary confinement cell that’s honestly remarkable. Foy and her scene partner are in constant back and forth as they move around the room. The camera moves around them. It literally makes the camera a true character and keeps you in the moment. One of the most propulsive moments of 2018 so far.

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The other cast member that truly astonishes here is Jay Pharoah. Most would know Pharoah from his work on Saturday Night Live mainly doing impressions, making one line in which he states he does “a good impression” of a good person quite interesting. Yet, Unsane proves that Pharoah is a tremendously charming and naturally charismatic actor to watch. He gives the vibe of someone who’s been through a rough life, but not in a way that pigeon holes him into a stereotype. He comes off as a human who has had a rough go at life and wants to keep himself cool in a tight situation, yet is is still wanting to help out someone else clearly in need. The chemistry between him and Claire Foy borders on romantic, but mainly centers on two people from a vulnerable place finding comfort in each other’s company. It’s the type of empathetic performance that shows just how much Lorne Michaels and company wasted Pharoah on SNL.

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Steven Soderbergh’s use of horror in Unsane comes from character. The Oceans movies use human interaction for the sake of charm. Behind the Candelabra uses human interaction to show off the inner sadness beneath the glitz of show business. Here, he wants to use the wide ranging cast – which also features Juno Temple in dreads in an unrecognizable role – to show off the horror of human interaction. The idea that how one perceives a situation can ultimately lead to intense duress or even the downfall of someone. In that way, it’s an intriguing encapsulation of the paranoia that builds due to the worry that you can’t control an individual situation because of your own feelings of inadequacy, especially after being treated as an object by others. Yet, even though such thoughts can linger, one still has to fight for survival in an insane world. Or an Unsane world in any case.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Accidental Doses Of The Wrong Medication

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THOROUGHBREDS (2018): Pure Without a Hint of Inbreeding

Thoroughbreds in horse breeding are known for their hot headedness. Crossbreeding between major specimens of horse that leads to high prowess, but also emotions that are thin and easy to upset. This matches at least one half of our two hander of a film here with Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily, a rich Connecticut high schooler who makes her money tutoring people like Amanda (Olivia Cooke), cold icy matter of fact young lady who borders on sociopathy. The pair used to be friends in their younger days, having shared many a horse ride together. So, Thoroughbreds as a name has a pretty clear one to one relation on a basic plot level, especially as rumors swirl about what Amanda did to her own thoroughbred horse as an act of mercy. It’s a connecting thread that tethers these two characters who seem so distant from each other despite years of prior friendship.

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Though these young ladies are more than horse enthusiasts. Both have grown up in white Connecticut and show off a clear sense of apathy that one could find disturbing. The most overt indifference is seen in Olivia Cooke, who displays this lack of concern with a frank charm that would be hard to pull off in lesser hands. Cooke takes what could be a cold and detached role & makes it authentic. Gives personality to the inability to get a read on the character. Every move Amanda makes feels deliberate from someone who knows how people operate, but is learning to accept herself for the humorless apathetic creature that she is. All her moments show off Amanda thinks of life like the giant chess game she plays at one point; a game that offers brief distractions from the empty void of life. It’s both empowering and kinda creepy all at the same time.

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Yet, despite Amanda’s sociopathic apathy, the true monster in Thoroughbreds is Lily. She thinks highly of herself compared to Amanda because she can feel emotions, but her emotions are guided in such a fashion that makes her truly morally bankrupt. While Amanda’s actions are more neutral, Lily has blatant motives that she often fails to disguise. She is a creature of habit and unadulterated ego who thinks what she wants will benefit others. Her selfish tendencies are given more importance because she assumes her worldview is the correct one. One that can save her mother (Francie Swift) from her emotionally abusive step-dad (Paul Sparks) and give Amanda a sense of purpose all while fulfilling her desires. Sparks in particular has a tough role to play in a much as he has to give off creepy vibes within her perspective yet also come off as human when he dresses down Joy’s behavior in a harsh yet not entirely off base assessment. Joy wants everything and aggressively pushes for it in that Thoroughbreds fashion, to the point where it may impede Sparks’ safety.

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Joy and Cooke portray so much of this relationship while juggling perceptions and the differences between blunt sincerity and simmering emotional anguish. The two find a line at which to meet between both with Thoroughbreds. Their friendship is fascinating to watch as the playful back and forth of writer/director Cory Finley evolves into a tragic look into unsupervised minors giving in to their base instincts. Their either highly emotional or inhumanly pragmatic and when those two meet it often results in horrific implications. The jostling personalities is perfectly illustrated through Finley’s camera. The long takes and elaborate moves from one room to the next could be seen as showy or distracting, but actually do a fantastic job of contributing to bubbling tension of these two plotting something awful. All while showcasing the vast empty halls of these large upper middle class Connecticut homes.

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Of course, these two aren’t the only cast members to spotlight. Unfortunately, Thoroughbreds marks the final screen appearance of Anton Yelchin following his death in 2016. I don’t say this as a way of saying that Thoroughbreds is in any way a weak way for Yelchin’s sadly short career to end. Yelchin’s portrayal of a young college dropout with high aspirations and low work ethic is one that’s equal parts hysterical and pathetic. There’s a danger in his desperation that makes the comedy all the more hilarious when it pops up. He’s so hopeless that one minute he could shoot you in the face and in the next he could go down with a lamp to the head. He shows our two leads the otherside of the street in terms of how far gone their lives could go, but instead of taking his story as a warning they wish to exploit it. Yelchin plays the role with such a perfect mix of comedic idiocy and tragedy that he unveils one of the more hilarious comedic reaction shots in history.

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Thoroughbreds is very much a film for its time, but isn’t at all inaccessible to audiences who are older than the young co-stars. Our titular leads take the idea of teens being left to their own devices and take it the most modern cynical place, but there’s still a sense of cyclical familiarity to their behavior. Despite the times, nothing is more universally uncomfortable than a young person without the ability to stop themselves from giving into their larger impulses. Cory Finley has developed a thriller that moves at a deliberate pace, but one that is constantly fascinating to see unravel. Despite mainly being a satirical black comedy, Thoroughbreds is also at its heart a tragedy about two former friends coming back together for reasons that neither want to be straight about. One secretly enjoys companionship yet doesn’t want to share it while the other is using this person for personal gain yet thinks she’s giving that person a goal. It’s a tangled web of intricate tragicomedy that may not be for everyone, but will secretly have a tinge of relatability to anyone. Even if you don’t want to admit it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Broken Horse Legs

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Other Works:

 

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018): More Slasher Than Sequel

2008’s The Strangers was not a slasher film. The slow burn tension of the original made it an effectively sleek and subtly creepy home invasion film had more in common with ur-texts of the slashers like Wait Until Dark or Black Christmas than Friday the 13th. It immersed the audience in the quiet atmosphere that sent chills down spines far more than the over the top gore one would usually get from the slasher genre. Director Bryan Bertino made one feel like they were stuck in a house that looked very familiar. One that you could have grown up in. And then plopped in these simple yet highly disturbing moments of tension by simply having some guy in a mask walk in the background. Especially in a situation where our leads were a couple that had their faith in trusting each other tested. Seriously, there’s a reason why the scene where Liv Tyler is drinking water while one of the masked murders lurks in the corner. There’s a deliberate pace and compelling emotional character dynamic going on that makes some of the jump scares and boring moments feel far more tactful in retrospect.

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That all being said, the long long delayed sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night isn’t really that type of film. There are plenty points where director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters DownThe Other Side of the Door) tries to ape Bertino’s style of direction, mainly in the first half that tries to build up that same type of tension. Yet, there’s a real repetition there that doesn’t feel as impactful. I lost count of how many times Roberts uses the same type of close up action that Bertino doled out far more gracefully and purposefully with the original film. There seems to be more of an impatience to get to the horrific elements here, which betrays much of the spirit of what worked about the original in a disappointing fashion. It doesn’t help that composer Adrian Johnston also utilizes an incredibly repetitive score that also blatantly lifts from many a synthesized score of the 80s. There were several points where I wondered if Johnston was directly lifting from John Carpenter’s The Fog score.

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The one thing that The Strangers: Prey at Night gets from the original is decently compelling characters. The family dynamic here is one wrought with an intriguing tension, which is mainly exploited by Bailee Madison as the trouble maker daughter and her parents Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson. The three have a believable chemistry that fractures the family unit early on due to Bailee’s impending boarding school appointment because of her reckless behavior. She has a reasonable amount of angst that Hendricks and Henderson are fighting against but understandably feel guilty about. This even manages to fix the obvious issue of updating the characters in a modern world context by  solving the obvious ubiquitous iPhone problem in a swift yet effective manner. Lewis Pullman as the brother is a bit more of a mixed bag. On one hand, he and Madison have a few nice moments of brother/sister chemistry. Yet, Lewis goes back and forth between being a believable character in a horrific situation and a flat out slasher protagonist stereotype. One minute, he’s making believable mistakes & righteous moves. The next he’s blatantly doing things no one would for the sake of the scares, though the other characters aren’t totally immune to this.

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This dycodemy really represents The Strangers: Prey at Night as the tug and pull follow up no one asked for and the filmmakers kind of gave up on doing. Yet, once the film honestly abandons being a sequel to The Strangers… it becomes a pretty damn satisfying slasher. This is a gradual progression that takes one off guard, but in a way that makes you compelled to see how this will turn out. The ridiculous set pieces that come about don’t fit in the world of the original film, but fit perfectly for an over the top slasher that ups the ante in terms of madness. Opening up the scale from one house to an entire trailer park also helps open up the possibilities to ludacris yet oddly entertaining proportions. The use of tunes like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Taylor doesn’t quite fit with the more indie influence soundtrack of the original. Yet, the swimming pool clash the song is used for is a damn enthralling sequence that showcases some impressive editing and skillful hand to hand combat.

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Now, this turn definitely betrays the iconic masked killers. The once tactful yet grounded murders have essentially become Terminators out to destroy our leads at any cost. This makes their more grounded moments early on largely fall flat and feel underwhelming. Yet, when they drop the shenanigans and become high octane slashers, The Strangers: Prey at Night kicks into a higher gear that surprises and entertains far more than one would expect. It does help that the characters who face off against these killers have gone through enough hell to make us want to see them succeed… and they succeed more than one would anticipate for a variety of reason.

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In all honesty, The Strangers: Prey at Night would have worked far better if it wasn’t a sequel to the original The Strangers. Part of me wonders if this film originated as a separate slasher film on its own before being curtailed into a Strangers follow up. The farther is strays from failing to replicate the taut nuance of the original and turn into a goofier 80s slasher, the more The Strangers: Prey at Night succeeds. In that way, the film in and of itself is a microcosm on the evolution of the slasher genre. Poorly attempting to capture the grounded creepiness of the genre to bountiful siller slashers in order to spice up the formula. Thus, it is a film in conflict with its origin that works best when it steps out of it. Still, the one thing I wished The Strangers: Prey at Night kept from the original was a sudden It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia cameo. Was really hoping Danny DeVito would come out in a mask at the end screaming “I’M THE AXE MAN!”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Well Used Golf Clubs

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Other Works:

Game Night (2018): Are You Game For This Night?

I’ve previously spoken to the issues with visual comedy in modern cinema and it’s unfortunately still a prevalent problem. Many comedies will tend to sub out well crafted visual jokes with stagnant improvised chemistry that rarely achieves top Judd Apatow highs they seek to. No matter how many end credits blooper laughs they try to squeeze in as the audience leaves. So, it’s ironic that an early graduate of the Judd Apatow style of comedy John Francis Daley would – along with his co-director Jonathan Goldstein – manage to craft one of the shining examples of a visually creative and consistently funny studio comedies of the last several years with Game Night.

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The concept of Game Night plays very much like David Fincher’s The Game as a comedy on a mere premise level. Though instead of a regretful rich man, the premise revolves around a group of adult friends who love the thrill of competition with a realistic game of kidnapping that goes wrong. This couple – played with a realistic chemistry by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams – is dead set on winning in a way that wonderfully spreads throughout the couples on display. Writer Mark Perez crafts dynamics to make all three of the couples that serve as Game Night‘s protagonists squirm in worry that seems petty in the eyes of the situation, but produce a relatable grounding for a zany crime comedy of errors that keep all these characters investing. Bateman and McAdams meet over a super competitive trivia night that turns romantic, but spur a competitive spirit that makes Bateman worry about the masculinity of his brother (played with charming oppressive gusto by Kyle Chandler) which impedes his sperm reproduction. This gives us a major thread to tangle with as Game Night goes on. We’re giving a realistic struggle that spurs into a larger than life conflict as the couple worries about their ability to reproduce while the ability to stay alive hangs in the balance.

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While McAdams & Bateman’s baby production drama and Lamorne Morris & Kylie Bunbury‘s debate of celebrity cheating result in mixed to positive results, the shining beacon of consistent hilarity is Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan as a couple on a first date sparring over the lacking equality in levels of intelligence. Considering Magnussen’s previous dates being bimbos, this subversion in status between him and Horgan is full of spectacularly giddy laughs. Still, all three couples trying to solve a mystery that ends up entangled in a brutal violent escapade that makes for highly entertaining comedy. Keep in mind that Bateman and McAdams’ next door neighbor Jesse Plemons incurs so many laughs as he blankly stares at our duo while giving off super creepy vibes. 

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All of this mirrors the visual language of Game Night full stop. So much of the way John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein capture the madcap energy of a competitive night of challenge with the brutal callousness of a criminal enterprise. Many times, the transitional moments between scenes show off the idea that these settings look like models that resemble the pawn-style board game pieces that reflect the idea that these characters are ultimately pawns. Whether they’re actual models or CG mock ups, the look of these transitions help to move along this madcap escapade. It gives off the idea that our main characters are overall pawns in a large game, which makes their antics all the more pathetic and hysterical at the same time. There’s even a rather lengthy one shot-moment that gives the impression of comradery, yet still shows off the idea that these characters are small potatoes in a world full of underground crime.

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The twistiness of Game Night allows for plenty of laughs as things go awry. Initially, our characters feel like they can cheat the system better than their compatriots can. This hubris compared to a general inability to comprehend the situation that they are all in gives us just the right amount of hilarious contrast. There’s a one shot moment where our characters are working together that gives off the idea that comradery has built up to the point where each couple is working in sync with each other. Yet, there’s still plenty of opportunity for dangerous conflict. This builds to a head in a gory context that involves a perfectly healthy dog and Bateman. The whole crux of this comedic scene involves Bateman hiding the sinister underbelly behind the gag which leads to hilarious results. Admittedly, after this point, the twisty nature of this story reaches levels that unnecessarily extend Game Night beyond where it needs to be. Even to the point of making this three act structure story into a four act one. Yet, the laughs still manage to continue as Daley and Goldstein subvert our expectations at every turn.

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Ultimately, Game Night is the type of twisted fun that makes the doldrums of domestic life seem grounded in their fun by comparison. The situations here build up to dangerous degrees that our characters aren’t initially aware of. Yet, the build up doesn’t take so long to the point where we don’t engage with our lead characters. After a certain point, our characters realize the terror of the situation that they’re in and it gives off so many brutal vibes that affect our characters. It’s a comedy that actually earns the fact that our characters go through so many horrific events. Where the complete bewilderment of our characters allows for comedic subversion that hits at every angle. While the jokes are entirely consistent and the pacing dwindles during the finale, Game Night ultimately serves as a comedy where the laughs help build the thriller mystery our characters are involved with to engage us just as much as our characters even if their initial interest is in a more petty comedic fashion. The overall results are pretty hilarious.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Game Pieces

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Other Works:

BLACK PANTHER (2018): Proud Panther

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe edges ever closer to its ten year anniversary, it’s a great time to see growth. Growth in terms of storytelling, thematic depth and representation of the heroes involved. Admittedly, we’ve had prominent side characters of color in the MCU before. Hell, Black Panther himself Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) was one of them in Captain America: Civil War. Along with Tom Holland’s take on Spider-Man, Boseman stole the spotlight with oddly the least wisecracking character of the main MCU characters so far. A proud prince of a technologically advanced African nation who quickly had to step up his responsibilities after his father T’Chaka (John Kani) is assassinated. Black Panther continues T’Challa’s steps forward as king of the hidden African nation Wakanda, inheriting all of the baggage that comes with it. Whether it be the precious mineral of Vibranium that made the country so advanced or the lingering secrets that will seed the potential tumbling of that government, Black Panther is very much a film about succession and the cost of carrying on legacy, especially in a power vacuum.

black-pantherThese complicated themes allow for Black Panther to exist both as a rousing crowd pleaser and an intelligent look at the conflicting ideals one is raised with vs. how we adopt how we were raised to a modern context. When Wakanda is introduced, many would immediately ask why this African super power doesn’t spread the wealth a bit more evenly and help out struggling black people on both a micro and macro level. This is a key question that keeps the various different tribes of Wakanda at odds with each other. Black Panther divides this country in traditional ways between war mongers and diplomatics in ways that feel universal, but keep in mind the ever changing landscape of globalism. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) – the leader of security for the Border Tribe that is the first line of defense for Wakanda – notes that the ways of diplomacy have worked in the past for Wakanda, but the world is evolving and taking charge of defense. It’s a position that seems barbaric & quick, yet isn’t without merit. The ways of the past initially guide T’Challa during his frustrating time, but even he must question how his father lead his people. All of it is firmly steeped in the chaos of our modern world that’s reflected even in this Marvel/Disney sanitized version of our reality.

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They – along with the immaculate costume and production design – help make Wakanda feel like a vibrant world. One we still only see the mere surface of yet feel like we’ve lived in for so long. All of the different tribes of Wakanda give off the vastness and centuries lasting culture that provides a unique look for Black Panther for both the MCU and modern blockbusters in general. The contrast between the regal technologically advanced visages of Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and the mountainous Jabari as lead by M’Baku (Winston Duke) alone show that the varying climates both socio political and literal within the atmosphere of this nation. Even the herb keeper Zuri (Forest Whitaker) has his place that is shown to be of vital importance to the world of Wakanda, but is treated as a necessary function than something to be over explained. One gets the sense that all of them have been functioning alongside each other with respect yet clear underlining animosity that breathes authenticity in this society and structure that feels lived in.

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However, there are further factions that add dimension and complex emotions to the decisions characters make. Both spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and leader of the all female special forces for Wakanda Okoye (Danai Gurira) butt heads over how to continue under traditional Wakandan rules despite extremely dire circumstances. Both are character’s we’ve grown to side with thanks to their quick wit and loyalty in wonderful action moments, such as a particularly James Bond-esque casino sequence. Both show off their superior combat skills, espionage capabilities and general chemistry as spiritual sisters who seek to protect their homeland. Thus, when they’re divided by the conflicting loyalties of the situation, it truly hurts to see the two of them argue. Co-writer/director Ryan Coogler balances these conflicts with remarkable mastery over a massive cast. Even a character like Shuri (Letitia Wright), who could easily be a watered down Q giving T’Challa tech has so much personality, intelligence and life in her that gives her sibling back and forth charm with Boseman authenticity in a way that raises the stakes when she joins in for the third act stand off.

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However, Black Panther gives its night sky individual glow off brightest with the best character of the entire piece and perhaps the best example of a villain in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe; Killmonger as played by Michael B. Jordan. Now, MCU baddie isn’t a high bar to skirt over. That’s well explored territory. Yet, Killmonger succeeds where others fail in that his motives aren’t shallow “take over/destroy the world” one dimensional goals. No, the heart of his quest is one that seeks to even the scales by brutal force. He’s a young man who grew up alone and angry in crime riddled streets of California. A boy who grew into manhood in a world that looked down on his kind and expected little of him beyond what one would viciously expect of a poor black youth. So, he grooms himself into a killing machine capable of destroying and weaving himself into the criminal underworld alongside Klaw (Andy Serkis) for more sinister purposes that directly affect Wakanda.

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Without spoiling much further, Killmonger is simply the most compelling MCU villain to date… because his motives are completely understandable and even ones that our hero as well as the audience can be sympathetic to. He seeks to fight oppression in the only way he was raised to believe would work; by force. He was shaped by the system that failed him and he only seeks to destroy that system by turning its methods against them. This conundrum of logic that tugs at varying emotional quandaries is incredibly fascinating to see unfold. Particularly as Michael B. Jordan handles them. There’s a nonchalant matter of fact nature to the way Jordan plays the character. With the type of confidence any young man could access, but with a dark twist that gives off both tragedy and terror. He’s charismatic and even convincing at points, but shows off enough brutal rage that gives off worry as he challenges our lead and ultimately changes his perspective.

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Even with all these heavy themes, Coogler never forgets to keep his eye on making Black Panther inventive and entertaining. All the action sequences in Black Panther – with the possible exception of a dodgy rough start following the cold open – immerse the audience in the world and its characters while kicking all sorts of ass. The same type of breathtaking beauty and spine tingling chills constantly bombard the senses. Yet, the main goal of keeping T’Challa’s internal character struggle alive while incredible action takes place. The South Korea chase is an incredible example of this, as even when wonderful character comedy and visually eye catching visuals are dazzling on a superficial level, T’Challa’s quest to capture the man who killed his friend’s father and stole his people’s resource is never out of purview for anyone watching.

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In those ways, Black Panther is the best distillation of a solo movie within the Marvel spectrum.There are points where the Marvel formula is simply framing together the muscle for an action romp in the same way the Vibranium magnets keep the trains of Wakanda moving along. Yet, unlike a few other less than stellar Marvel solo outings that mildly elevate themselves above the track with a few quirky beats and decently likable characters, Black Panther breathes far more life and energy that feels grounded in a specific perspective of black culture both ancestral and modern. From an overreaching pop culture perspective, it’s nice to see such a perspective reach a worldwide audience and show a strong black figure that can be allowed to breathe life into a blockbuster on equal footing with Captain America and Thor. At the same time, from a completely selfish base entertainment level, it’s just simply refreshing to see this different fresh stamp on a cold formula that could easily get tired. Either way, it’s a win-win scenario that can hopefully spark the seed of inspiration for young men and women of color to aspire to. Even if it is fictional, Wakanda and the characters that populate it can give hope to the future scientist and social leaders who seek to make it a reality in the same way scientists grew up admiring Star Trek. Only… ya know… this one has more than just a few token minorities. What’s the harm in that?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Vibranium Fibers

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Other Works:

Top 20 Films of 2017

2017 came and went. A year that had its many ups and downs. Mostly downs. But I’ve come to realize that writing an extensive Worst Of list isn’t something of interest any further. After a year as filled with horror & mean spirited bickering in real life, listing out bad films in elaborate detail isn’t something I care to spend much time on… though for the record, The Mummy had the most hot garbage packed into a feature film possible this past year. Now that the year has passed and we’re well into 2018 with at least a sliver of hope and a fighting chance, it’s time to finally do a Top 20 list after doing some final catch up. Before we do that…

Honorable Mentions:

DUNKIRK:

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Christopher Nolan’s war epic that put the event first over the backgrounds of the characters around it, while giving us enough in event drama to get invested. The drama doesn’t come from Titanic-style backstories around the event, but the soldiers & civilians existing within that event from varying perspectives. Nolan sucks us into these perspectives and allows the drama to unfold with heart wrenching action that gets us truly immersed in the horror of a situation like the battle of Dunkirk. Also, that One Direction kid can actually act quite well.

GIRLS TRIP:

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Massive surprise on every level. The winning ensemble, genuine heart & consistent laughs make Girls Trip stretch beyond the stereotypical broad comedy it could have been and become something worth investing in between the big laughs. Tiffany Haddish needs to become the next big comedy star, becoming a breathless comedy machine that rarely stops to let you breathe. Still, the emotional grounding of Regina Hall and Queen Latifah is what really made this surprisingly emotional, as two women try to find their place in a world dominated by men who give them little individual opportunity.

GOOD TIME:

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Good Time is a near brilliant addition to the “one crazy night” genre. Robert Pattinson delivers a nuanced performance that shows desperation at its most authentic. One can tell from his John Cazale-level amounts of sweat on his forehead that he’s only thinking far enough ahead to get him a few steps ahead. And even then, those steps could easily lead him to a far bigger problem. The Safdie Brothers show off true visual panache that transcends crime cliches as directors, writers and even musicians. Seriously, Benny Safdie’s music may be the best original soundtrack album of the year. I do wish he was a better actor, though.

PHANTOM THREAD:

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Perhaps the kinkest of the Best Picture nominees. Obviously gorgeous costumes aside, the true intrigue comes with the back & forth between Daniel Day-Lewis & Vicky Krieps who are on far more equal footing as things progress than one might fear. Phantom Thread could have been yet another “love an abusive genius” story. It’s far deeper than that. The power dynamics that shift in increasingly engrossing fashion (pun maybe-not-so-but-totally-intended). By the end, there’s no one to really side with. One must take this strange couple as a whole, to the point where it walks the line between adorable and parasitic.

WONDER WOMAN:

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The film that gave the modern DC films hope. Gal Gadot really lead the charge for an origin story movie that advanced far beyond the gloom and doom of the previous films in universe. Her empathy mattered just as much as her prowess and she wasn’t going to sit idly by and mope when her people were in trouble. Truly, the hero we need in a weary world.

And without further ado, the list:

20. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

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The most controversial Star Wars film of late is still far better than sterile familiarity. Aside from issues with the Canto Bite subplot & Finn’s lack of a solid arc, this is the best Disney produced Star Wars film so far. The subversive twists on Star Wars aren’t there simply because. They are there to bring characters to intriguing new places. The ways director/writer Rian Johnson plays with elements of The Force and where people like Luke can be after so many decades breathes life & conflict into a galaxy that seemed in danger of growing stale. Hope to see this spirit continues into Episode XI.

19. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

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Call Me By Your Name is slow burn to a fault at moments. The first 45 minutes or so definitely keeps the listless attitude of an 80s summer in Italy that ranges from charming to slightly insufferable. However, Call Me By Your Name transcends meandering as Timothee Chalamet & Armie Hammer make a potentially questionable age gap romance tender & heartbreaking. Their gradual building chemistry and Chalamet’s budding sexual exploration serves for a quiet yet engrossing look into someone finding themselves in a third act for the ages. Michael Stuhlbarg – a major player throughout 2017 – also rings out plenty of tears as the new standard for cinematic father figures.

18. BLADE RUNNER 2049

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Blade Runner is a great piece of science fiction filmmaking on a world building level. Blade Runner 2049 took that world and spun a more enthralling slowburn neo noir story than the original. Mainly in terms of having a lead character with far more compelling motivations and a subversive bent on the traditional chosen one narrative. Roger Deakins’ luminescent cinematography and Denis Villeneuve’s large scale shot composition give this world a realistic coldness, especially for a world as compartmentalized and impersonal as this one.

17. CREEP 2

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With the original Creep, the main issue really was writer/director Patrick Brice as the lead audience surrogate. He was such a scipher that never engaged us nearly as much as Mark Duplass’ incredibly charismatic yet off putting character. Creep takes the concepts of the original & adds a far more engaging protagonist into the mix with Desiree Akhaven. The duo of her and Duplass allows for a far more engaging dynamic based in gender roles and a murky sense of revelation for who is telling the truth or not. Duplass is chilling yet believably sad in ways that make watching him consistently mesmerizing while Desiree serves as a strong rock that knows things are going downhill.

16. THE VOID

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The Void is the type of waking unending nightmare that made 2017 a great year for horror. The monsters on display are like something out of a an endless hellscape that even John Carpenter wouldn’t want to see come to life. It’s the type of recurring undying horror that makes dark corridors awful to walk down from fear of falling into a black abyss. The characters are broad, but only in the sense that they are ones we can connect to as some tether to the endless cosmic frights on display.

15. THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

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The Girl With All The Gifts is a film about accepting the future. Treating zombification as more of an evolutionary step that those in power can’t accept. Young Sennia Nanuna goes toe to toe with great actors like Paddy Considine & Glenn Close in ways that display fierce passion and righteous rebellion with a violent animalistic edge. All of which is harshly relevant during the political discourse we’ve had over the last 12 months. Also, if anyone is still trying to make a Last of Us movie… just stop. We have a winner. Shut ‘er down, boys.

14. SUPER DARK TIMES

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Spoilers: The title is very accurate. Super Dark Times is a brutal and intense look into erosive power of toxic male insecurity. Charlie Tahan and Owen Campbell deliver incredibly grounded performances that are as chilling as they are painfully relatable. They capture the complete lack of supervision that can slowly breaks impressionable young men into ruining their futures through dumb decisions meant to impress others. Director Kevin Phillips gives this a moody  look that results in one of the best lit films of the year. Super Dark Times is the brutal inverse of a Stranger Things, taking away the sci-fi and showing the horrific growing dread of youthful abandon.

13. THE DEVIL’S CANDY

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The Devil’s Candy is an underrated gem screaming to unleash itself from horrific painting depicting cries of pain. The ensembl here is spectacular, including Ethan Embry as a family man desperately grasping for reality, Pruitt Taylor Vince as a deranged killer trying to quell his own mind and Shiri Appleby is just an honest to goodness young lady trying to keep her tether to her father. While boasting one of the most metal moments in cinematic history during the climax, the use of metal doesn’t feel inauthentic to the horror or devalue the drama. If anything, it strengthens both by binding a family while also trying to break them into pieces.

12. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

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The new Apes trilogy cements itself as the modern blockbuster trilogy most worth celebrating. With rebooting a classic franchise, it’s hard to find the same type of ability to inject into the zeitgeist the same way. Luckily, Apes perfectly feeds into the type of socially relevant pessimistic edge, though War finds a bit of hope at the end of the tunnel… yet not really for humanity. This franchise is so damn good it makes us root against our own kind. It’s a summer blockbuster where the spectacle really comes from the subtle, quiet & heartbreaking character interaction between motion captured apes. There’s a few moments of action, but they’re reserved and compliment how the characters are built up by Andy Serkis & his fellow motion capture actors, along with director Matt Reeves’ intimate introspective gazes into those interactions.

11. COCO

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Pixar’s knack for building up joy and crushing your soul into tear soaked ash is a skill surprisingly on the backburner at times. With Cars 3 and Finding Dory level mediocrities, one can forget the true power of their animated crafts. Luckily, Coco manages to bring that back in full force with a vibrant environment in the Land of the Dead that carries the charm of a culturally grounded human realm with it. There’s massive amounts of respect lobbied toward Mexican culture here, while also juggling incredibly relevant statements of celebrity worship and respect for one’s heritage. Helps to have a few songs that lift the spirit and turn one into a whimpering ninny.

10. MOTHER!

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The intense divisive nature of mother! doesn’t just have to do with its deceptive marketing campaign. Many have made the fair argument that it is Darren Aronofsky at his most self indulgent and blunt. The man has never been much for subtlety, but what translates from this is a roller coaster of fear, tension & surreal imagery that challenges perceptions of both Biblical times and our modern world all at once. It’s basically a Halloween Horror Nights maze of humanity’s atrocities. One that I couldn’t stop finding new details in with every corner I passed by.

9. THE FLORIDA PROJECT

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This one has grown on me since the original review. Maybe it’s my own Florida upbringing, Brooklynn Prince’s mesmerizing performance or Willem Dafoe shooing away birds. But it’s such an intimate portrait of white trash that’s both horrible and oddly fascinating. These kids living this life of freedom and lacking parental supervision shows off their potential being squandered by a lack of nurture. It’s tragic, but compelling to see as this girl escapes an environment where she’s loved but not taken care of. Making the ending a big mixed bag of emotions, right down to the divisive final shot that signals the world around this young girl losing the last lingering tether to her old life.

8. LADY BIRD

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On its face, the down to earth yet highly enthralling coming of age tale Ladybird is a film that can’t be spoiled. Every beat is familiar to anyone who has grown from high school to college. Yet, it’s a worthy reminder to those who are familiar with that awkward strange that it isn’t as simple as we perceived. Looking back at all the horrible behavior and realizing later how much one can take a constructive environment for granted. Laurie Metcalf & Saoirse Ronan are top tier here, portraying all the on-the-dime changes that make their interplay hilarious yet completely truthful.

7. BABY DRIVER

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While not Edgar Wright’s best work, Baby Driver is still an energetic thrill ride that’s still better that 99% of the action films released this year or in recent years. Each action scene is orchestrated like a beautiful musical number. The kinetic energy has a wonderful choreography to it that makes every tire screech feel like a tap dance to the beat, full of obscure hits that are familiar to those who remember the songs that sample them. The characters can be broad, but all the actors, particularly with Ansel Elgort’s silent yet charismatic main turn and Jon Hamm’s surprisingly intense villainous turn. Glad to see this made as much money as it did, giving hope for small scale yet handsomely crafted genre efforts can win over generic schlock during the summer.

6. THE SHAPE OF WATER

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Last year’s La La Land was a celebrated tribute to Old Hollywood that charmed the awards crowd quite a bit. Yet, The Shape of Water is far more of a tribute to Hollywood on a wide scale level. There’s a bit of that La La Land song and dance. However, there’s also a romance of star crossed lovers. A film noir spy plot that looms in the background. Monsters who end up being tragic heroes to admire. Guillermo Del Toro loves all these aspects of older cinema, but channels it into a beautiful story that speaks to modern concerns about the disenfranchised minorities in America trying to find their way. Whether they be disabled, black, Russian… or a fish man.

5. LOGAN

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Logan is both an end as well as a new beginning for superhero films. The old ways seem to be dying out as the evolution continues past the very spotty X-Men franchise that ushered in this craze at the start of the new millenium. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart deliver beautifully tragic performances that showcase men far past their prime learning how to pass things on. Writer/director James Mangold creates a not-too-distant-future dystopia that uses superpowers for character driven pathos and allows newcomers like Dafne Keen to go toe to toe with experience vets in a brutal yet powerful way that sticks with you far more than most the numerous superhero films that also came out this year.

4. COLOSSAL

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Toxic masculinity comes in many forms. It could be the Nice Guy™ who thinks he deserves more simply because he has outward decency. Or it could be a giant weapon of mass destruction controlled by a wreckless asshole. Either way, these varying forms are presented by Colossal, with a creative spin on the kaiju concept that blurs lines between comedy, drama, sci-fi and even horror to incredible effect. This is Anne Hathaway’s most dimensional turn and gives Jason Sudeikis the chance to unveil the darker sides of his usually affable performance. In a year full of exposing the horrendous actions of many famous men, Colossal is truly the most relevant monster film of its time.

3. THE BIG SICK

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Hilarious and emotionally honest romantic comedies that comes from the heart are rare in these days. Luckily, star/co-writer Kumail Nanjiani and his co-writer/wife Emily V. Gordon gave The Big Sick the type of genuine moments that made this transcend the genre. And not just moments of romantic joy. Real fights and awkward moments that make a relationship a struggle at times help flesh this out into something beautiful, along with cultural clashes that only make the midway turn for the medical drama that much more engaging. Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon shine on screen, but Ray Romano and Helen Hunt are the MVPs. Their long lasting relationship breathes with natural conflict and heart that gives Kumail something to strive for and consider in continuing his relationship. Making this story that’s very personal incredibly universal.

2. GET OUT

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The social relevance of horror is always something brought up when people dismiss the genre. In a year when we lost George A. Romero and have a country in such divisive territory, a film like Get Out can and did flourish. Even considering the fact that writer/director Jordan Peele put this together during the “post-racial” Obama administration, the declaration of lacking racism while an underlining fetishization of their culture fits our modern racial climate in a very brutally honest way. Of all the very strong horror films from the past few years, Get Out seems the most poised to stand the test of time as the most crucially relevant piece of horror cinema for the next few decades.

1. A GHOST STORY

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The horror genre can often rest on old laurels. Often times, it takes recontextualizing the tropes to appreciate how inventive he genre can be. With A Ghost Story, the typical elements of the haunted house genre are told from the perspective of the ghost doomed to haunt the house they once loved in life. David Lowery paints the afterlife not as a hell full of torture, but an endless staring contest with the living that can’t be won. You’ll just look as they progress past your presence and move on as you dwell on the past. A Ghost Story asks the question “Are we meaningless in the vast vacuum of existence?” and answers with “Maybe… but just try to enjoy your life instead of living past it” in a touching an quiet fashion.

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PADDINGTON 2 (2018): Charming As a Marmalade Sandwich

Paddington is the personification of British charm. The polite though clumsy bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) has always been a bastion of empathy and kindness, something so desperately needed in our divided world. While Paddington has been a staple of international children’s literature since author Michael Bond first published the character sixty years ago, the character saw a resurgence in 2014 after the initial Paddington film became one of the highest grossing independent films in British box office history. Now, we have Paddington 2, in which our titular bear is framed for a crime he didn’t commit and must journey to prison where he makes a few friends while his family seeks to clear his name.

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Paddington 2 carries over the adorable charm of the unflappably kind bear journeying through a storybook depiction of modern London, spearheaded once again by co-writer/director Paul King. King’s work in British television gives way to a series of cartoonish yet grounded sight gags that show off our bear’s determination, right from the start as he tries several odd jobs to save up for his Aunt Lucy’s (voiced by Imelda Staunton) birthday present to mixed results. King’s knack for childhood imagination visuals gives us a window into the optimistic lavish world Paddington sees on a daily basis, one where people and places are able to give off warmth and color even in the starkest of places. Probably the best example is how Paddington restructures the gloomy Victorian era style prison he ends up in into a warm bustling place of good behavior, with diverse scary looking convicts frolicking to the easy listening calypso tunes of Tobago and d’Lime, who return to provide more endearing songs from the original film.

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Paddington‘s prison buddies show off just a small slice of the incredibly endearing supporting cast surrounding our main bear character who – despite being CG – interacts without any seams showing with his various familiar British co-stars. Brendan Gleeson‘s “Nuckles” is a hardened bitter criminal whose heart melts as Paddington shows him the charms of marmalade sandwiches and helping others, which translates over to his prison buddies Noah Taylor and Aaron Neil. The entire prion sequence is a great example of showing how extensive the adorable bear’s reach is, as his boldness in facing the much fear Nuckles or accidental discoloring of the laundry by putting a red sock with the white uniform leads the initially peeved prisoners to wearing pink uniforms and harmoniously be rehabilitated over one hell of a charming montage.

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Paddington‘s family is also clearly warmed over by his generosity as they search to clear his name, with Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as the patriarchs taking it upon themselves to find out the mysterious culprit who framed the poor bear alongside their children Samuel Joslin and Madeleine Harris & family friend Julie Walters. Each has their own hang up established near the beginning of wanting to escape the doldrums of suburban London life but are either too afraid to admit their desire or haven’t quite gotten the chance to grab at it until the elaborate if overlong climax gives them an opportunity. Even most of the neighbors can’t help but be invested in the bear clearing his name… well, except for the angry self instate neighborhood watch guard Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi) who keeps the neighborhood as safe as he can from the bear he hates just because he’s a bit klutzy and different.

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Actually, there’s another new neighbor in town whose outward warmth towards our furry friend is hiding a distant apathy. Hugh Grant plays Phoenix Buchanan, a self obsessed actor who serves as our villain, donning disguises while following clues from an antique pop-up book he stole and framed Paddington for the theft. Grant’s portrayal of an actor so unable to work with others he only desires a one man show is devious in an aloof insane way. His thespian roots lead him to have conversations with his costumes in character, carrying on with Hamlet and MacBeth in his attic while hatching schemes that shows Grant’s incredible comedic timing and hilarious commitment to his various disguises. Truly, he’s a step up from the admirable if forgettable turn from Nicole Kidman as the taxidermist in the first film, who had more of a threat yet less of a wit amongst the cast. Here, Grant’s threat is in his indifference to the needs of others, which contrasts wonderfully with the type of empathy Paddington constantly strives for.

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With both live action films, Paddington has really managed to create the rare type of live action children’s films that never hit false notes or talk down to their target audience. Even the worst children’s films out there have toilet humor for children and passing pop culture references for adults. Yet, Paddington 2 and its predecessor set themselves apart by never being crass or bottom of the barrel with their observations of how exhilarating kindness can be. Something that Paddington 2 manages to advance further with more elaborate scenarios and comedic delights. There’s a laid back sensibility here that makes them adorable comfort food, but with a simple message that honestly needs repeating in our modern climate. To quote Aunt Lucy herself, “if we’re kind and polite the world will be right.”

Rating: 4 out of 5 Marmalade Sandwiches

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