Tag Archives: 2018

My Year at the Movies – 2018

Action Scenes of the Year (SPOILERS) (see below for One-on-One Fights)

10) Car chase, Ant-Man and the Wasp

9) Battle on Cybertron, Bumblebee

8) Train chase, Paddington 2

7) Chaos on the field, Black Panther

6) Parr House melee, Incredibles 2

5) Battle of Loudon Hill, Outlaw King

4) Helicopter havoc, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

3) Sicily skirmish, Aquaman

2) Thanos fight on Titan, Avengers: Infinity War

thanos fight on titan

1) Bathroom brawl, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

bathroom fallout

Best Films Based on a True Story

The Death of Stalin

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The Favourite

Outlaw King

Tag

 

Best Non-2018 Films Discovered in 2018

https://letterboxd.com/paulstanis/list/best-non-2018-films-discovered-in-2018/

 

My Favorite () Yet

Black Panther, my favorite solo MCU debut movie yet

Bumblebee, my favorite Transformers movie yet

 

Best Heroes or Antiheroes of the Year

10) Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), Bumblebee

9) Amanda (Olivia Cooke), Thoroughbreds

8) Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), Ralph Breaks the Internet

7) Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), Mary Poppins Returns

6) Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Incredibles 2

5) Shuri (Letitia Wright), Black Panther

4) Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), Solo: A Star Wars Story

3) Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Mission: Impossible – Fallout

2) The Nurse (Jodie Foster), Hotel Artemis

1) Paddington Brown (Ben Whishaw), Paddington 2

09 Paddington 2

Moments of the Year

15) The table kill, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

14) The beach, Roma

13) Legacy of Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

12) Who’s on the film?, Bad Times at the El Royale

11) Flubbed lines, BlacKkKlansman

10) Back to amber, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

9) A small measure of closure, First Man

8) Chess business, Thoroughbreds

7) The Soul Stone sacrifice, Avengers: Infinity War

6) Death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

5) Disney Princesses in the green room, Ralph Breaks the Internet

4) “Ask me who I am”, Black Panther

3) Han sees the Millennium Falcon for the first time, Solo: A Star Wars Story

2) McGregor’s freak-out at work, Peter Rabbit

1) “Shallow”, A Star is Born

Shallow

One-on-One Fights of the Year (SPOILERS)

8) Grey Trace vs. Fisk Brantner, Upgrade

7) Tobias Beckett vs. Enfys Nest, Solo: A Star Wars Story

6) Ethan Hunt vs. John Lark, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

5) T’Challa vs. N’Jadaka/Erik “Killmonger” Stevens Round 1, Black Panther

4) Tony Stark (Iron Man) vs. Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War

3) Violet Parr vs. Hypnotized Voyd, Incredibles 2

2) Red Miller vs. Klopek, Mandy

1) Arthur Curry/Aquaman vs. David Kane (Black Manta), Aquaman

aquaman david kane black manta sicily

Best Pop Culture References/Allusions of the Year

5) Box office returns, Deadpool 2

4) Hercule Poirot, Paddington 2

3) Paddington 2, The Commuter

2) The Haunted Mansion, The Predator

1) Disney Princesses and Cass Hamada, Ralph Breaks the Internet

Special awards: Blockers, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

 

Ranking Disney-Distributed Movies (worst to best) 

9) A Wrinkle in Time

8) Christopher Robin

7) Mary Poppins Returns

6) Ralph Breaks the Internet

5) Ant-Man and the Wasp

4) Incredibles 2

3) Solo: A Star Wars Story

2) Black Panther

1) Avengers: Infinity War

 

Best Romance Films of the Year

Book Club

Blockers

Crazy Rich Asians

Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again

Set it Up

 

Sequel Improvement

Ant-Man and the Wasp > Ant-Man

Incredibles 2 > The Incredibles

The Predator > Predators

Ralph Breaks the Internet > Wreck-it Ralph

 

Sequel Decline

Creed 2 < Creed

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald < Fantastic Beasts and where to Find them

Mary Poppins Returns < Mary Poppins

Pacific Rim: Uprising < Pacific Rim

Sicario: Day of the Soldado < Sicario

 

Best Sequel (#2 – Second Installment) of the Year

Paddington 2

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Incredibles 2

Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again

Ralph Breaks the Internet

 

Best Spinoff of the Year

Black Panther

Aquaman

Bumblebee

Ocean’s Eight

Solo: A Star Wars Story

 

Stray Observations

Biggest tearjerker of the year for me is Christopher Robin, particularly the first five or so minutes.

Both The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Suspiria are presented in six acts. (The Favourite has even more.)

First there was Early Man. Then there was First Man.

John Krasinski imperatively communicates through sign language in A Quiet Place. In Aloha, he shared a bizarre scene with Bradley Cooper where they have a subtitled conversation using only subtle shrugs.

Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg’s The LEGO Movie. Ralph Breaks the Internet is Disney’s The LEGO Movie and The Emoji Movie.

 

Most Underrated Films of the Year

The Predator; Book Club; I Feel Pretty; Hotel Artemis

And Death Wish wins my “Pardon One Turkey” award.

 

Best Villains of the Year

10) Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Avengers: Infinity War

9) Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Creed 2

8) Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya), Widows

7) Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), Crazy Rich Asians

6) Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), Peter Rabbit

5) David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Aquaman

4) Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), The Death of Stalin

3) Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), Paddington 2

2) Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), Black Panther

1) Thanos (Josh Brolin), Avengers: Infinity War

Thanos

Worst Villains of the Year

5) Orm (Patrick Wilson), Aquaman

4) Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), Apostle

3) Kores Botha (Roland Møller), Skyscraper

2) Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), Gringo

1) The Wydens (Malin Åkerman & Jake Lacy), Rampage

 

WTF (bad)

Most of Venom

Disingenuous sequel baiting, Tomb Raider

Character retcons, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Independence Day: Resurgence similarities, and Scott Eastwood doing his dad’s voice, Pacific Rim: Uprising

 

WTF (good)

Electric guitar beatdown, The Commuter

The Hokey Pokey, Mom and Dad

Tom Cruise stunt insanity, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Prog-rock album cover imagery, Aquaman

 

(Rough) Final Ranking of All (84) 2018 Films Seen (Best to Worst)

The Death of Stalin; First Reformed; Mission: Impossible – Fallout; Avengers: Infinity War; Black Panther; Searching; Mandy; A Simple Favor; Paddington 2; The Favourite; Solo: A Star Wars Story; Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; Game Night; Teen Titans Go! to the Movies; Aquaman; Outlaw King; Incredibles 2; Ant-Man and the Wasp; Ralph Breaks the Internet; Hotel Artemis; Book Club; Set it Up; Tully; Roma; Bumblebee; Widows; Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again; Upgrade; Mary Queen of Scots; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Blockers; Annihilation; Mary Poppins Returns; Bad Times at the El Royale; Thoroughbreds; Christopher Robin; Crazy Rich Asians; A Star is Born; A Quiet Place; Love Simon; Tag; First Man; Death Wish; Juliet Naked; The Predator; If Beale Street Could Talk; I Feel Pretty; Hold the Dark; Skyscraper; Green Book; Creed 2; Sicario: Day of the Soldado; Sorry to Bother You; Isle of Dogs; Early Man; Breaking in; BlacKkKlansman; Mom and Dad; Peter Rabbit; Disobedience; Vice; 12 Strong; Mary and the Witch’s Flower; Ready Player One; Apostle; Deadpool 2; Bohemian Rhapsody; Overlord; Woman Walks Ahead; Wildlife; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; The Commuter; Ocean’s Eight; Red Sparrow; A Wrinkle in Time; Beautiful Boy; Venom; Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald; Pacific Rim: Uprising; Rampage; Proud Mary; Tomb Raider; Gringo

 

By the Numbers

Percentage of films viewed that pass the Bechdel Test: 40%

8 Stan Lee appearances – RIP (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Venom, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse)

5 Films featuring genetically mashed-up animals (Annihilation, Rampage, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Sorry to Bother You, Venom)

4 Train crashes (Paddington 2, The Commuter, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Mary Poppins Returns) (Special mention to The Death of Stalin’s climax, which features chaos reigning with over 1000 dead because the trains start running again.) (Subverted in Incredibles 2.) (A train also features in the climax of Black Panther.)

3 Films featuring characters called Black Panther (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Gringo)

3 Films with people digging into fried chicken (Green Book, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Vice)

fried chicken

2 Crime films set in a hotel with a heavy 60s-themed soundtrack written and directed by a guy named Drew (Hotel Artemis, Bad Times at the El Royale)

2 Crime films set in Chicago (Death Wish, Widows)

2 Dog food advertisements (Paddington 2, Isle of Dogs)

2 Female villains named Proxima (Avengers: Infinity War, Solo: A Star Wars Story)

2 Films about Scottish agitators to the English throne that open on a flickering candle (Outlaw King, Mary Queen of Scots)

2 Films about secret pen pals, which also uses The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” (Juliet Naked, Love Simon)

2 Films featuring Simon Farnaby and a talking bear (Paddington 2, Christopher Robin)

2 Films featuring voluntary toilet bowl drinking (Peter Rabbit, Aquaman)

2 Films where adult superheroes are hypnotized via screens and younger superheroes have to save the day (Incredibles 2, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)

2 Foot chases in St. Paul’s Cathedral (Paddington 2, Mission: Impossible – Fallout)

2 Freak-outs taken out on a pool table (Mom & Dad, Tag)

2 Giant crabs (Roma, Aquaman)

2 Households with Julie Walters as a live-in homemaker, Ben Whishaw, and a pantry full of marmalade (Paddington 2, Mary Poppins Returns)

2 Incongruous animals rockin’ out on drums (Ant-Man and the Wasp, Aquaman)

2 Lead characters who have to climb a crane to jump onto a tall structure (Skyscraper, Bumblebee)

2 Long-lost mothers stranded in an isolated zone, wearing bespoke armor (Ant-Man and the Wasp, Aquaman)

2 Nannies who come exactly when needed and leave exactly when her purpose has been fulfilled (Mary Poppins Returns, Tully)

2 Neighbors who constantly try to join the main characters’ game night (Game Night, Christopher Robin)

2 Paddington appearances (Paddington 2, The Commuter)

2 Say Anything… boombox parodies (Ready Player One, Deadpool 2)

2 Suited office boss villains equated to sinister fantasy animals (Christopher Robin, Mary Poppins Returns)

2 Swims with dolphins (Mary Poppins Returns, Aquaman)

2 Tartigrade appearances/references (Ant-Man and the Wasp, Sorry to Bother You)

2 Tesseracts (A Wrinkle in Time, Avengers: Infinity War)

2 Uses of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” (Ralph Breaks the Internet, Bumblebee)

2 Visions of World War II with fighter planes and a mushroom cloud (Black Panther, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald)

 

Messing with the Studio Logos (A Wrinkle in Time, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Avengers: Infinity War, Rampage, Incredibles 2, Proud Mary, Peter Rabbit, Game Night, Christopher Robin, Bohemian Rhapsody, Overlord, The Favourite, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Mary Poppins Returns, Aquaman, Upgrade)

Opening Title Sequences – * = dedicated sequence (Paddington 2, The Commuter, Mom and Dad*, Isle of Dogs*, Deadpool 2*, First Reformed, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Proud Mary, Mission: Impossible – Fallout*, Christopher Robin, A Simple Favor*, Woman Walks Ahead, Set it Up, Apostle*, Bohemian Rhapsody, Overlord, Breaking in, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs*, I Feel Pretty, Roma, Mary Poppins Returns*, Vice*, Love Simon, Tully)

Wrap Party Finale (Paddington 2, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Mary Poppins Returns)

Epilogue text (The Death of Stalin, BlacKkKlansman, 12 Strong, A Simple Favor, Woman Walks Ahead, Bohemian Rhapsody, Outlaw King, Beautiful Boy, Green Book, Tag (epilogue footage) , Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Mary Queen of Scots, Vice)

Curtain Call Cast Credits (Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, The Death of Stalin, Deadpool 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Peter Rabbit, Game Night, Early Man, Overlord, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Creed 2, Aquaman, Bumblebee)

Mid-Credits Scenes – * = does not take up the entire screen (Paddington 2*, Black Panther, The Death of Stalin*, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Isle of Dogs*, Deadpool 2, Hotel Artemis*, Proud Mary*, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Mary and the Witch’s Flower*, Peter Rabbit, Game Night*, Sorry to Bother You, Crazy Rich Asians, Book Club, Christopher Robin, A Simple Favor, Set it Up*, Blockers, Venom, Tomb Raider, Bad Times at the El Royale*, Bohemian Rhapsody*, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Tag*, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again*, Roma*, Aquaman, Vice, Juliet Naked*, Bumblebee)

Post-Credits Scenes (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Venom, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse)

 

Movies like Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, and Ralph Breaks the Internet feature tons of characters and iconography crossing over in the same movie, often in tiny cameos. This has necessitated a special category of “By the Numbers” I’ll call the Intellectual Property Tally.

3 Aquaman appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Aquaman)

3 Iron Man appearances (Avengers: Infinity War, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Bumblebee [toy])

3 Millennium Falcon appearances/references (Ready Player One, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ralph Breaks the Internet)

3 Stormtrooper appearances (Ready Player One, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ralph Breaks the Internet)

2 “Back to the Future” main theme needle drops (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)

2 Batgirl appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)

2 Batman appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)

2 Deathstroke appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)

2 Eeyore appearances (Christopher Robin, Ralph Breaks the Internet)

2 Flash appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)

2 Groot appearances (Avengers: Infinity War, Ralph Breaks the Internet)

2 Infinity Gauntlet appearances (Avengers: Infinity War, Ralph Breaks the Internet)

2 Lara Croft appearances (Ready Player One, Tomb Raider)

2 Mera appearances (Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Aquaman)

2 Mobile Suit Gundam appearances (Ready Player One, Pacific Rim: Uprising)

2 Optimus Prime appearances (Ready Player One, Bumblebee)

2 Original Jurassic Park Tyrannosaurus Rex appearances (Ready Player One, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom)

2 Peter Pan representations (Ralph Breaks the Internet, Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

2 Proxima Midnight appearances (Ready Player One, Avengers: Infinity War)

2 Red Skull appearances/references (Avengers: Infinity War, Ralph Breaks the Internet)

2 Supergirl appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)

2 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles appearances (Ready Player One, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies)

2 TIE Fighter appearances (Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ralph Breaks the Internet)

2 X-Wing appearances (Ready Player One, Ralph Breaks the Internet)

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My Film Awards – 2018

Best Supporting Actress

Andrea Riseborough Death of Stalin

Andrea Riseborough, The Death of Stalin

Molly Kunz, Widows

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Annihilation

Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Michelle Williams, I Feel Pretty

 

Best Supporting Actor

Hugh Grant Paddington 2

Hugh Grant, Paddington 2

Simon Russell Beale, The Death of Stalin

Josh Brolin, Avengers: Infinity War

Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther

 

Best Original Song

Shallow

Shallow”, A Star is Born

“Always Remember Us this Way”, A Star is Born

“My Superhero Movie”, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

“A Place Called Slaughter Race”, Ralph Breaks the Internet

“Upbeat Inspirational Song About Life”, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

 

Best Cinematography

Alfonso Cuaron Roma

Alfonso Cuarón, Roma

Rob Hardy, Annihilation

Rob Hardy, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Benjamin Loeb, Mandy

Bradford Young, Solo: A Star Wars Story

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Christopher Markus Stephen McFeely

Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, Avengers: Infinity War

Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther

Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, & Peter Fellows, The Death of Stalin

Paul King & Simon Farnaby, Paddington 2

Christopher McQuarrie, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

 

Best Editing

Nick Johnson Will Merrick

Nick Johnson & Will Merrick, Searching

Eddie Hamilton, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Peter Lambert, The Death of Stalin

Yorgos Mavropsaridis, The Favourite

Pietro Scalia, Solo: A Star Wars Story

 

Best Original Score

Lorne Balfe

Lorne Balfe, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Christophe Beck, Ant-Man and the Wasp

Ludwig Göransson, Black Panther

Rupert Gregson-Williams, Aquaman

Justin Hurwitz, First Man

 

Best Production Design

Aquaman Black Manta David Kane

Bill Brzeski, Aquaman

Hannah Beachler, Black Panther

Ralph Eggleston, Incredibles 2

Paul Harrod & Adam Stockhausen, Isle of Dogs

Neil Lamont, Solo: A Star Wars Story

 

Best Animated Feature

13 Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Incredibles 2

Isle of Dogs

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

 

Best Original Screenplay

Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader, First Reformed

Diablo Cody, Tully

Bill Holderman & Erin Simms, Book Club

Drew Pearce, Hotel Artemis

Leigh Whannell, Upgrade

 

Best Director

Christopher McQuarrie

Christopher McQuarrie, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Ryan Coogler, Black Panther

Panos Cosmatos, Mandy

Alfonso Cuarón, Roma

Paul King, Paddington 2

 

Best Actor

Domhnall Gleeson Peter Rabbit

Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Rabbit

John Cho, Searching

Tom Cruise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Alden Ehrenreich, Solo: A Star Wars Story

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed

 

Best Actress

Olivia Cooke Thoroughbreds

Olivia Cooke, Thoroughbreds

Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns

Jodie Foster, Hotel Artemis

Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Emma Stone, The Favourite

 

Best Picture

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin

Avengers: Infinity War

Black Panther

First Reformed

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

My Favorite Films of 2018

15) Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

15 Teen Titans Go to the Movies

One of the advantages of Corporate Synergy™ is the ability to poke fun at your own characters even as you stack them all up in a movie for basic-math super-marketability (see also Ralph Breaks the Internet). In Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, DC satirizes their own stable of superheroes and the broader context of superhero cinema, in a constantly clever and subversive kid-friendly family comedy. (My jaw hit the floor after the Thomas and Martha Wayne gag. How did they get away with this?) The conflict of the movie, which exists in a world where every DC hero imaginable has been given a starring role in their own blockbuster, comes from Robin and the rest of the Teen Titans trying to get a film of their own, with hilarity, and songs, ensuing. Yes, this is stealthily the best musical of the year on top of everything else.

 

14) Game Night

14 Game Night

2018 has actually been a damn solid year for studio comedies (a genre that I have sometimes associated with dread), with Blockers, Tag, and I Feel Pretty all sticking the landing. But none of those films reach the heights of Game Night, a high-concept murder-mystery-party-turns-real setup that’s basically shot like a straight thriller and performed with knee-slapping gusto. Jason Bateman kills his line readings, but the standout performances, getting big laughs in two totally different ways, come from Rachel McAdams and Jesse Plemons.

 

13) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

13 Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse

This psychedelic animated delight fractures reality in service of a coming-of-age tale for alternate Spider-Man Miles Morales. But in addition to its humor, excellent voice acting, and universal themes, Spider-Verse is notable for its formal experimentation. When a radioactive spider bites Miles, his inner monologue and the animation style of the world around him change to closely resemble a comic book. And when alternate reality versions of Spider-Man converge in his world, different animation styles co-exist seamlessly on the screen: the modern CG of Miles, Peter Parker, and Gwen Stacy, the Looney Tunes-esque shading of Spider-Ham, the anime Peni Parker, and the black-and-white Spider-Man Noir. These unfussy mash-ups represent a special thing: the medium of animation taking a step forward. Also featuring perhaps the best Stan Lee cameo.

 

12) Can You Ever Forgive Me?

12 Can You Ever Forgive Me

A film of sharp wit and strong sense of place, Can You Ever Forgive Me? stars Melissa McCarthy in the true story of biographer Lee Israel, who is motivated by cash-strapped finances to forge and sell counterfeit letters from authors and actors she knows so well from research. This literary crime movie is bolstered by fully committed performances from McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. But just for the record, one of the bookstores in this film set in the early 1990s carries an anachronistic book that wouldn’t be written for another 25 years! Clearly, now the whole movie is a wash.

 

11) Solo: A Star Wars Story

Qi'Ra Han Solo

As the young Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich gives at once a movie-star performance and a remarkably subtle technical one. And as an excuse to spend two hours in the company of fun characters, in a crime movie in a galaxy far, far away, the movie named Solo comes up aces. Reflecting Star WarsFlash Gordon roots, the film so nails the feel of an adventure serial. As far as the spinoffs go, while Rogue One’s highs are higher, Solo is more functional as a movie. And when Han sees the Millennium Falcon for the first time, I cry every time.

 

10) The Favourite

10 The Favourite

Not your typical regency drama, this love triangle/three-way power play between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and newcomer maid Abigail (Emma Stone) features lots of drive-by backstabbing, pointed barbs, and more shade being thrown than is around co-star Nic Hoult’s eyes. The latest askew dramedy from Yorgos Lanthimos after the visceral satire of The Lobster and the stygian horror of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite is an acting showcase with a well-bred caustic wit.

 

9) Paddington 2

09 Paddington 2

This sequel to one of the greatest family movies ever made continues to spread joy like marmalade on celluloid. Ben Whishaw reprises his charm offensive as the voice of Paddington Brown, the bear in the blue duffel coat, and this time he’s in opposition to Hugh Grant’s delightful villain Phoenix Buchanan, a washed-up actor turned criminal. In service of maximum entertainment per square minute, director Paul King deploys every filmmaking trick conceivable, including Wes Anderson-esque symmetrical storytelling and a detour into the pages of a pop-up book.

 

8) A Simple Favor

08 A Simple Favor

A total blast from start to finish, A Simple Favor is one of the crop of Gone Girl-alike thrillers, but filtered through the nimble no-frills lens of Paul Feig’s comedy. Anna Kendrick is the single mom food vlogger who gets caught up in the overwhelming larger-than-life existence of Blake Lively’s fashion company PR director, who seems like she should be in a Bond movie! With his run from Bridesmaids to this amusing mystery, Feig has become one of my favorite journeyman directors. If you’re humming along on its wavelength, A Simple Favor is a simple pleasure to watch.

 

7) Mandy

07 Mandy

An elevated exploitation movie with otherworldly cinematography, a demon biker gang, and Nicolas Cage in a chainsaw-on-chainsaw fight, Mandy feels less like a movie and more like a 1970s prog-rock album cover brought to life. It almost feels wrong to put it on a list of my favorite films of 2018, because it almost exists in a pocket dimension out of time. Is it a cliché to say that Mandy will become a modern midnight movie classic if it’s true?

 

6) Searching

06 Searching

A thrilling mystery anchored by a raw nerve performance from John Cho as a father desperately looking for his missing daughter, Searching hits a home run with its formal experiment of 100% computer screen-sourced visuals. The film deftly shows both the positive and negative aspects of the Internet, in service of a tightly coiled twist-filled narrative that keeps you on the edge of your seat. And the thing is, John Cho’s character is on the edge of his seat too, as Searching achieves a rare synergy between audience and lead character.

 

5) Black Panther

Veldt

Recently, superhero movies are adding “exotic fantasy epic” to the list of genres they can patch into their framework. Wonder Woman takes us to Themyscira, Aquaman to Atlantis and beyond, and in a move that has struck a chord throughout pop culture, Black Panther gives us Wakanda, a hidden afro-futurist über-technological nation. The film mixes spycraft, racial and interregnum-based political debate, and Shakespearean inheritance drama with apparent ease. And it all plays out through a deep bench ensemble of fascinating characters, from Chadwick Boseman’s dignified T’Challa to Letitia Wright’s scientific genius prankster Shuri to Michael B. Jordan’s magnetic villain Erik Killmonger. Overall, 2018 has been the strongest year yet for Marvel Studios. Speaking of which:

 

4) Avengers: Infinity War

Tony Stark Emotional Wringer

Marvel’s Avengers movies come fitted with a goldmine of action, character, and humor. But on a storytelling level, all three of them are deeply impressive. The 2012 Avengers effortlessly fires on all cylinders of its big-for-the-time ensemble. Age of Ultron has one of the firmest commands of theme that I’ve seen in a movie, let alone an action movie. And now, Infinity War miraculously balances its Biblically huge cast, all while arguably raising supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin, in a standout motion capture performance) to the status of lead character. The film excels at applause moments and brutality. And when seven superheroes combine their power sets to fight Thanos on his home planet Titan, that’s the stuff comic dreams are made of.

 

3) Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Ethan Hunt Helicopter

A pure crash course in the language of cinema, the sixth Mission is a nexus of filmmaking craft operating on the highest level: stunts (many of which, near-impossibly, are performed by Tom Cruise), editing, scoring, acting, directing, cinematography, and more are all award-worthy. While I adore Fallout’s predecessor Rogue Nation even more, watching either film is like going to my happy place. I’ve listened to writer-director Christopher McQuarrie talk about this movie for six podcast hours, and with the audio commentary still ahead of me, I’m ready for more.

 

2) First Reformed

02 First Reformed

A serrated crisis-of-faith movie, First Reformed stars an electric Ethan Hawke as a priest despairing the existential threats that humanity has visited on itself. So, a feel-good romp, then. There’s the sense that 72-year-old writer-director Paul Schrader has put everything he has, themes of prayers like open wounds that he’s wrestled with his entire career, into this epistolary ecological thriller. Such a personal infusion runs the risk of railroading the audience with macho flagellation, but First Reformed breaks out of that box and just cooks.

 

1) The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin

This list has included cornucopias of dark humor bled out of historical politics (The Favourite) and virtuoso cinematic balancing acts (Avengers: Infinity War). The Death of Stalin embodies both, as it walks a delicate tightrope: finding the absurdist humor in the bumbling villainy of fascistic statesman. Leavening evil with wry laughs enhances the sense of both, and director/co-writer Armando Iannucci has created a culmination for his practiced room-where-it-happens satire (The Thick of it, In the Loop, Veep). The screenplay takes characters like Simon Russell Beale’s monstrous Committee member and Andrea Riseborough’s grieving daughter and pinballs them around in a farce of national proportions. Adapted from a French comic, The Death of Stalin is incredibly the year’s best comic book movie. And we do live in an age of comic book adaptations, don’t we?

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) Film Review

At one point in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Newt Scamander, Leta Lestrange, and Porpentina Goldstein sneak around the French Ministry of Magic and are literally trapped in a moving labyrinth of family backstory. It’s almost too perfect a metaphor for an insular narrative obsessed with the storytelling primacy of lineage, and which flirts with impenetrability even for students of the franchise. Comprehension aside, however, the story being animated is dull. The film shows us all sorts of magic, but never the magic of a cohesive or engaging story.

Albus Dumbledore Mirror of Erised

After the arrest of would-be wizarding tyrant Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in Fantastic Beasts and where to Find them, guess who escapes during a prisoner exchange. Now the hunt is on for both Grindelwald and the enigmatic young Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is seen as the key to Grindelwald’s plans. With British and American aurors on the trail, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) sends Newt (Eddie Redmayne) to find Credence as well. But all the while, Grindelwald’s rhetoric of power fantasies and magical dominance over the muggle world seduces many.

Newt Scamander Kappa

It’s an easy-but-true, first-base criticism that this film is irrevocably torn between serving two storytelling impulses: the fantastic beasts, and the crimes of Grindelwald. From the title of the series to the tie-in toy line, there is an emphasis on empathetic magizoology. But this is constantly leavened by a dark streak that takes in baby death, and even worse, infanticide; “love potion” manipulation, and even worse, magical rape. Neither extreme of this wildly swinging pendulum amounts to anything satisfying.

Newt Scamander Zouwu

“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Zouwu.” “Zouwu who?” “Zouwu made a bad Fantastic Beasts sequel?”

A mystery structure has served the Harry Potter films well in the past, but in place of a functional narrative J.K. Rowling gives us tangled family histories and skeletons in the closet, which come to a head in what feels like ten minutes of backstory infodump with red herrings (those herrings being un-fantastic beasts). It feels painfully novelistic, Rowling still unused to the screenplay format.

Gellert Grindelwald

The proliferation of characters is not particularly well handled by the screenplay. Newt is an intriguingly introverted lead, but only has the odd moment of charm or clarity. Tina (Katherine Waterston), the female lead of the last film, has next to nothing to do, and apparently can’t read a newspaper in a romantic subplot that wouldn’t sustain a sitcom subplot. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), to be fair, is decent comic relief and has a couple good moments in the climax. Jude Law puts some of Richard Harris into his Dumbledore voice and the movie gains more of a pulse when he’s on screen. Grindelwald, looking like if Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was electrocuted, leaves a middling impression when he should be punching a hole through the screen. By far my favorite character thread here is Queenie Goldstein’s (Alison Sudol); the movie does interesting things with her character that I won’t spoil here.

Queenie Goldstein

The biggest miscalculation lies with Credence. He was a relatively effective character in the previous movie, as his foster mother’s repression of his magic led to him turning into a metaphorical and menacing monster. Now that the entire narrative revolves around him in a “who are my real parents?” plot, he’s ironically way less compelling. Rowling might as well have watched the Rey’s parents arc from Star Wars: The Last Jedi and said, “Let’s do that, but wrong.” Stripped of specificity and personality, Credence becomes a MacGuffin.

Credence Barebone

The film is most effective in moments of little magic, like when one man is heavily windblown on a sidewalk and everyone else is unaffected, or when Queenie’s telepathy becomes a problem, or seeing the mother of all English basements. However, these grace moments are suffocated by room temperature decisions. Director David Yates plays a lot with POV and extreme close-ups, with not much skill or point. The opening setpiece aims for spectacle but lands on muddiness. Where’s the man who gave us such amazing imagery in the latter four Harry Potters?

Gellert Grindelwald Prison Exchange Escape

Composer James Newton Howard’s main theme is appropriately elegant and haunting, but the rest of the score doesn’t stand out. He does pull out “Hedwig’s Theme” for one big moment of fanservice. Indeed, there’s a bunch of “call-forwards” to Harry Potter. My favorite is Leta Lestrange looking into the Hogwarts Great Hall that her descendent Bellatrix will later ransack. (And look out for the film being so apparently desperate for beast material that it reaches into the well to provide origins for a couple important Harry Potter beasts.)

Leta Lestrange Hogwarts Great Hall

This is a movie of grey cinematography, flat pacing, character-less characters, opaque incidents, and laborious reveals. It’s workmanlike when it should be wondrous, the product of a tired creative team. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a house of cards, not necessarily collapsing but with just as much of a thin foundation. It’s a lifeless, borderline incoherent movie that asks a lot of the audience and gives almost nothing in return. 3/10.

Inasmuch as this film uses delaying tactics in favor of a third installment, I would suggest: Get fresh blood behind the camera, maybe have another writer mold Rowling’s worldbuilding into a stable screenplay, and don’t gloss over the intensely personal stakes between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. But maybe by committing to both beast showcases and apocalyptic political stakes, this series is already stuck with a losing formula.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) Film Review

For an actor, “business” in the scene gives the performer something physical to do to complement their acting, whether verbal or nonverbal. For most people, this is something like fiddling with a water bottle, or shuffling through papers. For Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, he has to act as Ethan Hunt while also… for real, solo flying a helicopter. As you do. It’s a fitting act for this lead character, as in the two latest Mission movies writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has weaponized Hunt’s “main character powers” as a key element of the story. Hunt’s success is textually and metatextually inevitable, but a great strength of Fallout is that it constantly generates incredible suspense for this impossible hero. Accomplishing this unlikely task, Fallout is another exceptional entry in perhaps our greatest modern action series.

Luther Stickell Benji Dunn Ethan Hunt Ilsa Faust

When “the Apostles” of incarcerated anarchist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) threaten the world with nuclear attack, Ethan Hunt and his IMF crew (Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell and Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn) must prevent catastrophe. But with the CIA insisting on the imposing agent August Walker’s (Henry Cavill) involvement, and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) still in the spy game, the chessboard is harder than ever to master.

August Walker

To keep things fresh, Fallout trades in a variety of action scenes, from vehicular chases to foot chases to brawls. There’s a fantastic standout fight in a bathroom that has shades of The Raid, and features what others have referred to as Walker reloading his arms for a round of punches. But there are two stunning IMAX-format showstopper sequences that steal the spotlight: the HALO jump, and the helicopter chase.

Ethan Hunt HALO Jump

The HALO jump required Cruise to perform it nearly 100 times, reaching speeds of 200 mph. After scaling the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, Cruise here jumps out of a plane that’s over 100 times higher. (In the film the jump is above Paris, but it was filmed in Abu Dhabi; you can see the original ground-level location in the trailer.) The level of verisimilitude and pure human-in-the-void unease is only comparable to the space walk sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but of course filmed with palpable realism. The helicopter sequence required Cruise to, you know, learn how to fly one, and to hairpin specifications. Visually, the scene resembles Go Pro footage; it’s that immersively real.

Ethan Hunt Helicopter

Even apart from these Buster-Keaton-on-a-mission accomplishments, Cruise gives a movie star performance. There are scenes where Ethan is acting, and Cruise’s intensity is enough to fool even the audience. There’s even a classic Jerry Maguire-esque moment of total befuddlement, plus an amusing showcase for the famous “Tom Cruise run”. And yes, the stunt that broke Cruise’s ankle is in the finished film.

Ethan Hunt Jump Buildings

“Ouch.”

Plot-wise, McQuarrie weaves a tangled web of standard spy movie material as a framework. But on a moment-to-moment basis, he and editor Eddie Hamilton generate a huge amount of tension. The buildup is just as precious to the movie as the relief of tension, whether it’s a flash of brutal violence or an aggressive kiss. The film delights in reversals. Not the expected espionage story double-crosses, but just smart cinematic storytelling. Scenes are set up a certain way, then subverted and flipped in a different direction (one early example really had me convinced it was steering the film in a certain direction then pulls the rug out). Moments from the trailer that you take at face value are given unexpected twists in the film. McQuarrie just knows the alchemy of movies; he speaks the language.

Ilsa Faust

A while back, when Tom Cruise was attached to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as Napoleon Solo, Henry Cavill auditioned for Ilya Kuryakin and didn’t get the job because he looked too much like Cruise. Now, Cruise and Cavill are an electric double-act in Fallout, with Walker as a brick-muscled foil for Hunt. Ilsa Faust’s wild card status is preserved, while still respecting the character (though she’s maybe underused). Luther and Benji are excellent sidekicks, Solomon Lane works as a villain on the back foot, and Vanessa Kirby as “the White Widow” brings an amused-by-it-all quality to her scoundrel character, along with a connection going back to the first Mission: Impossible. The only real off moment for me comes in an emotional scene between Luther and Ilsa, which starts off great, but ends up slightly baffling.

Ethan Hunt Tom Cruise Run

The Tom Cruise Run™.

Fallout resoundingly closes another chapter in this storied action franchise. Through smart filmmaking that stokes both suspense and payoff, a likable ensemble, and another obstacle course for the human ragdoll Ethan Hunt, the sixth Mission: Impossible (M:I 6, which does factor in the agency MI6) chooses to accept its mission and delivers the goods. One wonders how long Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, now 56 years of ago, can continue topping himself. But for now, you will leave the theater exhilarated, exhausted, exquisitely tense, and extremely impressed. A strong 9/10.

Thoroughbreds (2018) Mini-Review

Thoroughbreds

Is a sociopath a showy role? Maybe if you’re Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock Holmes it is, but on the other hand it implies the lack of emotion. In writer-director Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, Olivia Cooke gives an excellent sociopath performance, and shows that lack of emotion does not equate to lack of expressiveness or lack of engagement. Importantly, Finley’s screenplay never gives the character an off-key note. This tale of two affluent but alienated high school “friends” makes for a solid debut for first-time filmmaker Cory Finley.

The film concerns two young women who bring out unexpected things in each other. Lily Reynolds (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an uptight student who offers to tutor former childhood friend Amanda (Cooke) for the SAT, after certain acts have made Amanda a social pariah in addition to being a “weirdo”. Each character learns from the other’s worldview and a modest criminal proposal comes out of their partnership. So Thoroughbreds finds good company with female-friends-in-a-bubble movies (Heavenly Creatures) and teenage black comedies (Heathers) while skewing less comedic and methodically charting its own course.

Both actresses bring the sparring character dynamics vividly to life, but Cooke steals the whole movie. After setting up the incident that has made Amanda somewhat infamous, we get the scene where she lays out her perspective. It’s her Jaime Lannister moment, where the backstory is recontextualized. Because Cooke does not play the scene for sympathy, but rather with a matter-of-fact delivery, sympathy comes naturally. On top of navigating the dramatic side of things, she also has to deal with the actorly business of playing a passable oversized chess game against herself! As great as her scene partners are, it feels like they’re just feeding the beast that is Olivia Cooke.

While this performance is magnetic, the film hums along on a solid wavelength without achieving true flight. Finley’s dialogue is sharp, but the wider satirical point being made is only developed with vague brushstrokes. This is primarily an issue because it ties in directly with the in your face, suburban-crime-story driving force of the plot. The film has been compared with the aforementioned Heathers, but that Winona Ryder vehicle is operatic while Thoroughbreds is intimate. Slight qualms aside, it owns its space well.

Perhaps the film’s greatest success is the talent it showcases. In the past, Olivia Cooke has been the best thing about a bad movie (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), impressed in a pixelated Spielberg flick (Ready Player One) and lit up the screen in The Limehouse Golem. This is her best showcase yet, and there’s more to come. Anya Taylor-Joy is similarly an actress at the start of what should be a standout career. Thoroughbreds is indeed the final screen appearance of Anton Yelchin. With his open face and shakey voice, he will be missed.

Finley’s assured debut is recommended for anyone who enjoys high school-age movies with bite, and look for it to likely be remembered for Best Actress come awards time (by this blog, not the Academy). In an early scene, Amanda teaches Lily “the Technique” for fake crying. I played along with the instructions, as you do, and by George, it works!

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) Film Review

Many action movie plots revolve around a McGuffin that everyone’s chasing after. It can be a hard drive (who can forget the NOC List?) or a precious stone. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp gives the old trope an upgrade; everyone’s playing hot potato with Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) shrunken office building, conveniently wheeled like a suitcase. It’s one of many amusing sight gags in this heartfelt superhero romp starring Marvel’s most variably sized heroes.

McGuffin Lab

Between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Scott Lang/Ant-Man’s (Paul Rudd) successful sojourn to the subatomic Quantum Realm gives Hank and newly-Wasp-costumed daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), well, hope that Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), mother of Hope, may be alive there. But as a rescue mission is prepped, working around Scott’s house arrest in the wake of Civil War, the “ghostly” Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen) has other designs on the Quantum Realm.

Hello Kitty Pez

Now that the shrinking and enlarging premise has been established, the filmmakers constantly play with scale, to delightful effect. This visual inventiveness carries Ant-Man and the Wasp a long way, and past its predecessor (which is solid but at least visually, more on the TV movie end of the MCU scale). Incongruous items are enlarged, vehicles are carried in pants pockets, and a buggy suit gives Scott some height issues (Deadpool 2 also has a bit that mines comedy out of the hero being the size of a toddler). The 3D is also excellent, right at home with the shrinking gimmick and Ava’s phasing abilities.

Ava Starr

All this flashiness is in service of a basic plot: Save Janet. A bunch of subplots and character arcs orbit around it, but that’s the spine of the story. So both Ant-Man movies are about reconstructing family units. Not saving the world, but building and rebuilding relationships. These are unique stakes for a superhero movie, which is not to say there isn’t room for plenty of antics and action. The film does a better job than most of “faction plotting”; a lot of groups with conflicting agendas crash and separate and dovetail well (Scott, Scott’s family, Luis’ (Michael Peña) X-CON security agency, Hope and Hank, Ava, Sonny Burch’s (Walton Goggins) criminals, Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and the FBI). Even so, room to breathe is hard to come by. It’s very busy, but with the jokes flying, one doesn’t mind so much. In particular, there’s a killer payoff for a joke about part of a car.

Hope van Dyne Scott Lang

The film has you from the beginning. One of the opening scenes shows Scott and daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) on a Marvel meets Michel Gondry DIY adventure, fueled by cardboard and imagination. This is the movie establishing a contract with the audience; we’re in safe hands. Scott and Cassie’s bond is immediately strong, the resourcefully tactile production design is pleasing, and the film will have a lot of fun with Scott’s house arrest. Warm, charming, and deftly entertaining.

Cassie Lang Scott Lang

The cast is a deep bench of talent, so much so that I wonder if Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale shot their parts in one day (two tops). Rudd and Lilly hold the screen as likable leads, Hannah John-Kamen impresses in a tough part that calls for intimidation and desperation, Park is endearing, returning player David Dastmalchian gets unexpected laughs, and Goggins has fun with his slimy black market profiteer. But it’s Michael Peña who’s still the comedic MVP, and just wait for him to be let loose.

Luis

Composer Christophe Beck’s earworm fist-pumping Ant-Man theme is back, both in the movie and in my head. It’s the centerpiece of a retro jazzy caper score, now with new emotional cues, and a blunt-force Wasp theme. Perhaps his standout work in this sequel is the electrifying car chase music, which helps to make that already deliriously amusing sequence sing.

Car Chase

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a frothy and fun confection. Because of the density of incident, watching it is a bit like being enmeshed in cotton candy, but in a good way. The Ant-Man franchise continues to be a good place to visit after a world-shattering Avengers movie, with themes of family and whimsical visual jazz carrying our heroes to victory and the audience out of the movie on a high. Not to mention, this is the first MCU movie where a female superhero gets billing in the title. As Hope says, it’s about damn time. But next time, maybe give Michelle Pfeiffer more to do. A weak 8/10.

 

P.S.: *SPOILERS* The mid-credits scene is effectively shocking (Hope, Janet, and Hank are all snapped out of existence by Thanos), but it’s also undeniably deflating after watching a whole movie about saving Janet. The movie earns the construction of this family, but a three-minute scene doesn’t have time to earn its deconstruction. I guess it’s a case of everyone reacting differently. I think this scene requires specific compartmentalization from the audience, to see the movie they just watched, and this scene, as two separate entities.

P.P.S.: As Scott, Hope, and Hank decide to hide out at X-CON, how in the world did Luis hear about Ava stealing Hank’s lab before they told him?

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) Film Review

In your typical Jurassic movie, the first sighting of a brachiosaurus is a moment of pure wonder. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, this moment is framed differently. On Isla Nublar, in the ruins of Jurassic World, Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) jumps out of a jeep to observe this majestic herbivore, and the whole moment is minor key, both in terms of Michael Giacchino’s score with its sorrowful motifs and the backdrop of an island in natural chaos; we’re then shooed along to the next scene by another character. The uncharitable reading of the scene is that it’s an obligatory reference to past films in the series, presented with a confused tone, trying to invoke a sense of wonder and subverting it at the same time, and rushed through anyways, so what’s the point? You don’t know which thread to hang onto. Fallen Kingdom is a movie that struggles to cohere its ideas together, even as it remains competently entertaining in the moment.

Brachiosaurus

When Isla Nublar’s now-active volcano threatens all dinosaur life on the island, Jurassic World executive turned committed dino preservationist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is recruited by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall, doing his best Ryan Reynolds impression) to help get the dinosaurs to a stable ecosystem. But darker plans, and GMOs (genetically modified organisms), are afoot.

Isla Nublar Eruption

Dinosaurs are great (and the film puts them through the wringer, to an extent that will make some viewers uncomfortable), but we need a connection to human characters to fully engage with these movies. The characters given to us from screenwriters Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow are difficult to invest in, both in this film and previous entry Jurassic World. The biggest problem for the returning players is that it seems like almost everyone’s character has been retconned.

In World, Claire sees the dinosaurs only as “assets”, then learns to respect them as animals. That’s a character arc. In Fallen Kingdom, Claire recalls the first time she ever saw a dinosaur, recalls it as a miracle, and says she “still believes that”. So the writers frame her as retroactively being a dinosaur lover from the beginning. Connolly and Trevorrow, you wrote this character. This isn’t going to fly. Owen Grady’s (Chris Pratt) personal connection with the velociraptors is key, and mined for emotion, but at the top of the movie, he acts like he couldn’t care less about the dinosaurs (seemingly for the sake of a half-baked tough-guy arc). The late John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) is quoted as saying, “these creatures need our absence”. This is consistent with his characterization in The Lost World, after seeing his theme park/glorified zoo turn disastrous. But according to corporate heir Simon Masrani in World, Hammond’s dying wish was that the park be finally open and thriving. So when Connolly and Trevorrow need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of the theme park in full swing, it’s one thing. And when they need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of dinosaur rights, it’s another.

Claire Dearing

Something I have to give the writers credit for is not forgetting that it’s Claire, not Owen, who is the lead of these movies. But then again, there’s so little character real estate for either of them, it’s almost arbitrary at this point. New supporting characters don’t improve the ensemble much either. Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) is tech support comic relief, grating more often than amusing. Zia fares better; but the whole scared man and cool, calm, collected woman in the wild double-act felt obvious even earlier this year when it showed up in Dwayne Johnson vehicle Rampage.

Owen Grady Franklin Hall Claire Dearing Zia Rodriguez

When the good guys are such ciphers, once again I gravitate to the scoundrel: Vincent D’Onofrio in World, now Ted Levine’s Ken Wheatley in Fallen Kingdom. Levine is a lot of fun to watch, albeit playing a supremely clichéd mercenary character, and doing a better job twirling his mustache than the other villains of the piece. But the writers have to spoil the fun of his villainy by giving him an obvious President You-Know-Who line. Now I can’t even enjoy him being bad! Character is not this movie’s strong suit.

Owen Grady Tyrannosaurus Rex Claire Dearing

If Fallen Kingdom has a strong suit, it lies in the visuals. I haven’t liked director Juan Antonio Bayona’s other films, but it’s not because they looked bad. World’s gunmetal blue visuals are blown out of the water here, and Bayona adds some flair to some of the money shots. Hands-down the best moment of the movie comes when the dinosaur evacuation is ending. From the dock, a lone brachiosaurus gazes at the retreating boat. The ravaging eruption at her back, smoke billows around her and takes on an orange tinge, suggesting the amber from which the dinosaur was created. Back to amber, dust to dust.

Back to Amber Dust to Dust

The finale at the Lockwood Estate offers a variety of action (in contrast to the uninspiring disaster movie material beforehand). The pleasingly grotesque auction; the stygimoloch rampage (tragically, the name of that dinosaur is never spoken on screen. Throw us a bone!); the most elaborate one-on-one fistfights of the series. Bayona’s flourishes come most into play here, playing up the surreal “haunted house” quality of a raptor on the loose in a domestic setting.

Ankylosaurus Auction

But it’s the missteps that stand out. The T-Rex card is played in the first scene, a sequence in which the stakes aren’t clear. A token animal rights story is more-or-less shelved early on, and I don’t know what central point the movie is trying to make. The “it was all a lie” moment from the trailer doesn’t land with the proper context or motivation. There’s a very dumb twist late in the game; the worst part is that it’s there just to facilitate one inane, facepalm moment. The ending is attention grabbing, but poorly thought-out, an epithet that applies to most of the screenplay.

Indoraptor Lockwood Estate

For all its sins, Jurassic World hangs together more than its sequel. Fallen Kingdom offers some decent visual styling and two likable leads (as a consequence of being smoothed out with a rolling pin), but is also hamstrung by a confused screenplay. While passably entertaining, the film is also no more than the sum of its genetically hybridized parts. After the previous installment slashed a swathe through filmgoers’ wallets the whole (Jurassic) world over, Universal spared no expense here. It was in service of a movie that’s just okay. A weak 5/10.

Incredibles 2 (2018) Film Review

In the fourteen-year span between The Incredibles and its sequel, Pixar has revved up three Cars movies.

While you’re thinking on that, consider how CG animation has improved by leaps and bounds in those fourteen years. Incredibles 2 looks, how shall I put it, incredible. A Pixar action movie is a rare beast, and watching the kinetic quality of the animation is a pleasure. Tending to character first and foremost, writer-director Brad Bird delivers a more than worthy installment in his saga of a super-powered family coming into their own, together.

The Parrs

After the Parr family foils a bank robbery but not without some collateral property damage, Incredibles matriarch Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is recruited by a sibling-run corporation to be the face of superhero (or “super”) legalization. Meanwhile, her husband Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) faces the daunting challenge of domestic duties, juggling responsibilities toward three powered kids. And while Elastigirl stretches out and gets positive press, the mysterious “Screenslaver” is reaching out with a much more invasive type of PR.

Spy-Fi Aesthetic

This sequel to The Incredibles feels more like a “traditional” superhero movie, and maybe with all that’s happened since 2004, that was inevitable. This franchise resembles 1960s spy-fi more than anything else (see the production design aesthetic and Michael Giacchino’s jazzy score). Incredibles 2 retains that context, but also deals heavily with the politics of supers and accords being drawn up (familiar territory both from Captain America: Civil War and Holly Hunter’s own role in Batman v Superman). In the first movie, this was there, but more a backdrop for super-sneaking around a supervillain’s lair built into (of course) a volcano.

Dashiell Parr Portal

That’s really a key difference between the two films overall. The first movie starts from a place of sadness and eases gradually out of a greyscale world. The sequel is then free to be more of a colorful romp. As Tony Stark once said, “You’ve been tip-toeing, big man. You need to strut.” So Incredibles 2 runs on a more traditional engine – action scene, emotional drama, politics, comic relief, rinse and repeat. Once the film is done building momentum, its pace is an asset; however, the climax doesn’t match the imagination on offer elsewhere. Also, my audience was doling out applause, but the climax rather rushes through these applause moments. On the whole, the movie gets right to the business of being good without reaching the stratosphere of being great.

Elastigirl Elasticycle

Character-wise, the film is a fantastic showcase for Elastigirl. Putting her center stage brings the character into focus, both the idealist and the cynic. Plus her stretching powers continue to be a great showcase for the animation. Her son Dash (Huckleberry Milner) gets short shrift, but that leaves more room for Violet’s (Sarah Vowell) delightful romantic subplot. The Deavor siblings (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener) are a welcome addition to the cast, Odenkirk in his typical huckster mode and Keener taking on a particularly dynamic role.

Violet Parr Romantic Subplot

Funniest subplot in the movie!

The villain this time around is the Screenslaver, and it’s pretty frightening for a family movie, laying down a lengthy manifesto monologue as everyone looking at a screen is hypnotized. A legitimately unsettling one-on-one fight between Elastigirl and an avatar of the Screenslaver puts our heroine on the back foot. The villain also weaponizes a criticism of Brad Bird’s movies. Dozens of thinkpieces have gone looking for Randian themes in Bird’s work, specifically relating to the superior entitlement of “special” people over the mediocre masses. Here, the Screenslaver argues that relying on superheroes makes the rest of humanity weak and complacent. If the Screenslaver saw Tomorrowland, we’d hear some choice words.

Screenslaver

“There’s nothing virtuous about selfishness. Is creativity at all human cost rational?”

The production design by Ralph Eggleston is outstanding, from the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Parr house to the sleek Elasticycle. Giacchino’s score is spicy, but perhaps could have made more triumphant use of the main Incredibles theme. For most of the running time, the film cuts between Elastigirl’s action/political story, and Mr. Incredible’s amusing domestic story, and both engage the audience equally, in different ways. The baby Jack-Jack’s powers take advantage of the wild abandon of animation (and get the iconic Edna Mode into the story), while his mother faces an insidious but intriguing threat. The joke is that it’s been fourteen years since these characters last lit up a cinema screen, but it’s been more like fourteen seconds for them. Incredibles 2 bears that out. Everything is in its proper place in as solid a continuation by Pixar’s cape-free First Family as could have been hoped for. A strong 7/10.

Hotel Artemis (2018) Mini-Review

Hotel Artemis

“No water in L.A., but it’s raining assholes in here.” So says the Nurse (played by a whirlwind of Jodie Foster), head of the Artemis, an exclusive hospital for contract criminals. The film Hotel Artemis follows the Nurse, her earnest orderly (an on-point Dave Bautista), and her colorful clients, on one fateful 2028 night marked by blazing water riots on the streets of Los Angeles.

A members-only hotel for killers governed by a strict set of rules – so far, so (John) Wickensian. But Hotel Artemis carves its own identity (occasionally on a human neck). Writer-director Drew Pearce keeps things contained within the evocatively designed Hotel, making the movie a chamber piece that unfolds like a finely tuned play. In a play you need characters it’s a pleasure to watch bounce off of each other, and the film delivers. Sterling K. Brown is a likable, solid-as-a-rock heist mastermind, offering a humane bedrock among the clients. As an effortlessly magnetic French assassin, Sofia Boutella finds maybe her best role yet (and she has pretty good taste). Best of all is the Nurse, animated by a bravura performance from Foster. She injects world-weary humor into this ideal protagonist, forever shambolically running to fix up the next patient, put out the next fire.

Pearce’s screenplay overflows with punchy neo-noir dialogue, enhancing the feeling of Hotel Artemis as a writerly movie. (Another sort of stagey conceit is that all the characters are referred to by codenames; for instance, Bautista’s hulking health care professional is Everest.) Pearce’s near-future world-building is nicely on the fringes; lived-in technology at the Hotel, breadcrumbs of backstory, and the not-so-subtle setup of an L.A. heading for dystopia.

If there’s a hang-up with the film, it’s that the screenplay is a little too eager to call back to itself and pay off previous moments and lines of dialogue. (This is a weird complaint, like the movie… fits together too well?) Also, there sure are a lot of life-changing things coincidentally happening on this one night. In the end, it’s safe to call these nitpicks.

Hotel Artemis is a rare beast in that it’s one of those movies that simply radiates “cool”, but it’s also got a lot of storytelling meat on the bones as well as humanity. It’s hard to overstate how marvelous Jodie Foster is in the movie, and Drew Pearce’s script is sharp enough to draw blood. In Pearce’s career prior to checking into the Artemis, he’s been paired with marquee writing talent on excellent blockbusters (with Shane Black on Iron Man Three, with Christopher McQuarrie on Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), and now his directorial debut establishes him as a significant talent in his own right. I highly recommend this hotel on Expedia, Yelp, or your booking site of choice.