Movie Review – The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Directed by Chris McKay

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Batman (Will Arnett) is living the life. He fights villains every night, drives and flies around in amazing machines, and hangs out in his comically huge mansion. Everything changes at Commissioner Gordon’s retirement party when the new police boss has plans to phase Batman out of the picture. Bats also meets orphan Richard Grayson (Michael Cera) who, through a series of misunderstandings, ends up Bruce Wayne’s adopted son. Alfred the butler (Ralph Fiennes) is concerned about his employer’s lack of personal relationships and hopes Grayson can remedy that. Meanwhile, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has big plans to solidify his reputation as Batman’s greatest enemy.

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Movie Review – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017, dir. James Gunn)

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The Guardians have made a name for themselves and now act as heroes for hire. They finish up their latest job, protecting the energy source of The Sovereign, a genetically engineered “perfect race” but run into trouble on the way out. This leads to Peter Quill meeting his father for the first time, a strange man named Ego. Meanwhile, Yondu and his Ravagers are hired by a party disgruntled with The Guardians and wanting revenge. Gamora is also dealing with family issues (her vengeful sister Nebula), and everyone else seems to have their own interesting arcs as well.

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Movie Review – Get Out

Get Out (2017, dir. Jordan Peele)

Get Out

Andre is about to meet his girlfriend’s parents. This is made more awkward by the fact that they are wealthy privileged upstate people and he is a young black man. While the family seems to not make a big deal out of the racial differences and the father, in particular, wants to make sure he looks “woke,” Andre can’t help but feel something is off. There are two employees of the family: a housekeeper and a gardener, both black who behave in unusual ways. As the weekend progresses, it becomes evident Andre has stepped into the midst of a dark secret and may not leave intact.

I’ve written quite a bit about horror films on this blog, and I have a very particular taste for the elements of the genre that appeal to me. While Get Out doesn’t nail it as a horror film, in my opinion, it is still creepily effective and serves as a huge statement from a first-time feature film director. Jordan Peele has appeared on the directing scene fully formed, shaped by his years in comedy and writing, to produce a movie that resonates in our contemporary setting but also has a great understanding of film tropes.

On reflecting I realized Get Out is essentially a B-horror movie from the 1960s or 70s that has been freshened up with the element of racial elements and observations about how black people are fetishized in American culture while having their individuality discarded. Black people and their culture have become fashion statements for a disturbingly large percentage of the population. The stranger elements of the horror are kept under wraps until deep into the third act which is a brilliant decision because it keep us grounded up until the last moments. As the story progresses, Andre’s experience gets weirder and weirder in very controlled and plotted beats. There is a moment in the second act where we know things are going to get bad. This sequence was the moment where my wife said, “Oh, now I know why they are looking at Peele to direct the live action Akira film.”

The film is carried on the shoulders of Daniel Kaluuya who has had some supporting roles in American films, most notably Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. Kaluuya is a British-born actor who appeared in one of the best Black Mirror episodes (“Fifteen Million Merits”) and was a writer-actor on the original production of Skins. At the age of 28, he’s one of those actors I’ve noticed in supporting roles and small lead roles that was brimming with talent. Get Out is proof that he is a fantastic lead and was able to carry this feature. I always think an actor’s ability to play nuance and subtlety is more important than big sweeping performances. Kaluuya plays the awkwardness and uneasiness right down the line but is able to seamlessly bring out those larger emotional moments. When the death of his mother becomes a subject of the conversation, he showcases some truly believably pain.

The supporting cast has three greats among them: Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, and Stephen Root. Each of them has such a strong sense of who they are playing, particularly Root whose character appears briefly, and they help build out this strange world Andre has stumbled into. Andre’s girlfriend is played by Alison Williams, an actress who I typically find annoying as hell in Girls, but is actually very effective in Get Out. Her brother is played by Caleb Landry Jones who ends up being the only distracting element in the film. On Andre’s side of the conflict is his friend Rod played by Lil Rel Howrey. Rod’s role in the movie is what feels the most reminiscent of Peele’s comedic work on Key & Peele. The banter between these two men will be very familiar if you have seen that show. The ending of the film also feels like a less humorous version of the way one of the sketches on that show would have wrapped up.

What I love Get Out the most for is that its target of satire is not a lazy one. The villains here are not backwoods Southern racists. These are people who believe they are enlightened/woke/progressive. By talking about how much they love black people and “would have voted for Obama for a third time” they believe they are accepting black people. Instead what happens is that they systematically pull individuality from the black characters in the film and essentially appropriate for their own whims of fashion. This is a much more interesting target than cliche racist hillbillies or neo-nazis. There’s no surprise in a neo-nazi being racist, but the villains here are more complicated, and thus there is a greater mystery and stronger payoff. My hope is that the success of Get Out would lead to two things: more writing/directing work for Jordan Peele and acknowledgment that less than conventional types of horror and science fiction have a big audience for them.

Movie Review – Split

Split (2017, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

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It takes only seconds for Casey and her two classmates to get abducted. They wake up in a bunker, being held captive by a strange man with apparent OCD about cleanliness. Later, they overhear conversations between this man and a woman. The door opens to reveal the same man as before but now posing as a woman. Casey quickly realizes they are dealing with a man that is experiencing dissociative personality disorder. The man is also seeing Dr. Karen Fletcher, a psychiatrist who is beginning to understand that the stability she believes she has instilled in her patient may be falling apart.

Split is not a great film. It is an entertaining movie. And I find it impossible to discuss the movie outside the context of Shyamalan’s body of work. Not too long ago I did a Revisit on Unbreakable and found myself remembering how much I loved the director’s early 2000s work. It wasn’t without significant flaws. The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are pretty flawless in my opinion, but starting with Signs the “twist” element of the work begins to wear thin. However, the aesthetic and technical aspects of this film, The Village, and even Lady in the Water is strong. The shots are interesting, music adds to the movie, and (sans Lady in the Water) they are cohesive narratives that make sense.

Then we entered the next period of Shyamalan’s work The Last Airbender/After Earth. These feel like the bid to become the Spielbergian blockbuster director, and I think most people agree they are disasters. Then he shifts again with The Visit and now Split, both produced by Blumhouse. One thought I had after watching Split last night was that if you showed me this film and Unbreakable, I would never think the same director made both movies. Unbreakable shows restraint and an intentional absence of clear exposition. Split is a film with too much exposition, and it feels like it is embarrassed about itself and needs to explain that it is “really super serious, you guys.”

Betty Buckley’s role of Dr. Fletcher mainly seems like an exposition delivery device. Rather than trusting the audience to figure out what is going on, the script has her spell out exactly what the man’s disorder is and even states how to bring back the original personality if there was a need to do so. As many reviews have pointed out, the entire picture feels like a higher budget exploitation film from the 1970s/80s. There’s nothing wrong with making that sort of pastiche/homage film, but something feels off throughout the entire experience.

Anya Taylor Joy plays Casey, and it is nowhere near as interesting a role as the one she had in The Witch. She is still an excellent actress given the material offered to her. And she is the only actor in the cast who gets to exhibit an iota of subtlety. She gets a lot of silent moments to show her reactions and thoughts. The final “twist” feels horribly crass and almost seems to say “Oh thank goodness for childhood abuse and trauma, it saved the day.” There is ambiguity about what Casey will choose to do in her final scene and to leave that open isn’t terrible though.

While Anya Taylor Joy plays things subtle, James McAvoy as the mysterious man turns it up to eleven and keeps it there the entire film. His performance is simultaneously impressive and embarrassing. He does show skill transitioning smoothly between personalities in the same scene, complete with facial expressions melting from one to the other. The problems are less with McAvoy and more with the script’s handling of mental illness which is incredibly exploitative and not clever in any way.

I am never opposed to a director changing their aesthetic and experimenting, however, what Shyamalan is doing in the last decade seems not to be moving towards a stronger mastery of his craft. His current work feels more amateurish than the films that initially garnered him acclaim. It’s hard to see what the future holds for Shyamalan, and a deep part of me hopes he can find some grounding because I believe he has a great talent for filmmaking.

Movie Review – Logan

Logan (2017, dir. James Mangold)

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I remember being between by freshman and sophomore years of college and going to see X-Men in the movie theater. This was our first introduction to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Jackman almost wasn’t this iconic mutant; it would have been Dougray Scott who dropped out of X-Men to play the villain in Mission Impossible III. But now Jackman and Wolverine are constants throughout the X-Franchise, even shoehorned in cameos in First Class and Apocalypse. He is the star of what is roundly considered the worst film of the lot: X-Men: Origins: Wolverine. With Logan, his tenure as this character, and Patrick Stewart’s role as Charles Xavier comes to a close.

We learn at one point that the year is 2029 and for a little, over a year James Howlett aka Logan aka Wolverine has been in hiding with Charles Xavier and another mutant, Caliban. Some catastrophic event occurred that forced these three into the Mexican wilderness. Logan is saving up cash to purchase a Sunseeker yacht and take Charles as far from humanity as possible. Time has caught up to our protagonist. He moves slower and stumbles more often. His claws are impeded by arthritis and injuries that aren’t healing like they used to. While trying to live a quiet life Logan’s path crosses with that of a nurse and a little girl who desperately need his help. There’s one final mission for Logan and Charles where they must struggle past their physical and psychological issues to be heroes again.

In contemplating this film, I realized that we haven’t had a big screen superhero send off like this ever. If we look back at the iconic comic book movie franchise, they more often than not fizzle out and just end with a whimper. Christopher Reeve ended his tenure as Superman with a dismal fourth installment. Michael Keaton left Batman due to creative disagreements. Tobey Maguire danced his way out of Spider-Man with Ted Raimi’s third installment. Christian Bale’s Batman seems to be the only movie superhero I can think of with a proper ending to their iteration, and that is not regarded too well. For close to two decades Hugh Jackman has played this character, even after some films that any of us would have forgiven him from not returning after. So there is a special sentimentality to Logan.

There’s no doubt I loved this film. Will it be on my top ten of the year at the close of 2017? Probably not. But if I were to make a list of best comic book films this is up there. What helps Logan transcend the weight of the convoluted X-Franchise is that it doesn’t need the other films to work. You could switch out the X-Men with any generic superhero team, and the allusions to past events still work just a well. Instead of looking at this as a piece of a larger franchise, writer-director James Mangold smartly chooses to make the film a character piece. I have much stronger memories of the character moments than the action set pieces and that is quite an accomplishment these days in big-budget studio fare. The relationships between the three core characters (Logan, Charles, and Laura) feel honest, and choices they make are affected by these relationships. Logan’s hesitance to take Laura in and embark on her quest is true to his character.

The acting from the three most important cast members is phenomenal. You likely won’t see better performances in another 20th Century X-Picture ever again. Jackman is very comfortable in the skin of Logan and adds more layers with the affliction of age. It would be interesting to go back and watch the action sequences in X-Men and X2, comparing them to the awkwardness and lumbering of Logan in this film. Killing is taking a physical and emotional toll on the protagonist, and we see it how he slows down, how he falls. I have to say I don’t think I have ever seen Patrick Stewart in a role quite like this. The staid, headmaster of previous films is gone, and now we have a very broken, crass, angry Charles Xavier. He floats between states of consciousness due to medication, and when he does gain clarity of mind, it brings up tragic truths Logan sought to bury from his mentor. Dafne Keen as Laura delivers a very powerful performance. She is forced to hold her own against Jackman who is giving probably his best work, and she never flinches. For the majority of the film Keen is non-verbal and how an actor does in a role that asks them to act through reacting is a great litmus test. She has the makings of someone very special because she understands Laura isn’t just an angry Lil’ Wolverine. There is history beneath the surface, and she chooses to reveal that in interesting ways.

There are strong allusions to other films. The most obvious is the 1953 Western film Shane which Charles and Laura watch in a hotel room. The ending monolog of Shane is quoted in Logan’s climax, and it pretty much spells out the themes and ideas Mangold is aiming for. I don’t enjoy this element of comic book films, where at some point characters or the director put up big neon signs that point at what we’re meant to learn from the picture. I’d prefer to infer theme from watching the story unfold, and this element is a big part of why Logan isn’t going to end up as one of my top favorites of the year. Just a personal preference, but one that has always had me keep comic book films at arm’s length. There is also a moment in the third act that is blatantly nodding to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and I loved that film acknowledge it was taking a lot of inspiration from the structure of those films.

If I could just end the X-Men franchise with this film, I would. 20th Century Fox has other ideas it seems. I hope that they look at Logan not for what it is on the surface, but for what it represents in the way comic book properties can work beyond just four color summer tentpole action. In the hands of the right creative people, these characters can be elevated and be central to stories that go much deeper than audiences expect.

Documentaries Watched in 2017 (So Far)

Bright Lights (2016, dir. Alexis Bloom & Fisher Stevens)

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In the Maysles Brothers’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens we’re introduced to Edith and Edie Beale, a mother-daughter duo that is beyond simply dysfunctional. There are many parallels between the Beales and the focus of this film: Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. However, the Fisher-Reynolds are the Beales if they had the humility to seek out mental health care and begin the process of repairing their lives. Bright Lights was released in the wake of Fisher and Reynolds’ deaths and refrains from being a somber affair. It is full of life and hope and those sort of dreams of Hollywood you’d expect from one of Debbie’s old films. Fisher provides the biting, snarky wit while also being so open and frank about her trials. There could not have been a more perfect tribute to the late mother and daughter.

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Movie Review – XX

XX (2016, dir. Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama)

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Okay, horror anthologies. I keep wanting to love you but, dammit, you keep fucking it up. I was looking forward to this one quite a bit, much more than the last few anthologies I’ve sat down to view. It had only four films meaning we should have some good quality control, not flooding the picture with too many. You had Kusama has your big headliner and a first time director in the form of Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent). One of the shorts was based on a great story by Jack Ketchum. The trailer had me hooked the first time I saw it. So what went wrong?

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