- LIFE is not a bad movie, but it’s a B-movie. #LIFEmovie #rental
- So yeah, if you liked the trailer that’s what the movie is. No more, no less.
- There IS a long, lovely single-take intro that’s maybe the best zero-g scene ever in a space movie
- There’s also a major action scene toward the end that just doesn’t work very well, IMO
- But there’s tension/suspense, gross-outs & scares. Things zip along in a 10-little-Indians way that can’t help but remind you of ALIEN.
- The ending (SPOILER!) reminded me of the ’70s when big studio pictures more often than not went “tails” at the end instead of “heads”
I’ve kept an annual list of films, TV and books every year since 2014. This year I’m going to add a ranked list of my favorite films of 2016 as well. My list is better than all the other “top 10” lists, because… mine goes to eleven.
1. Hell Or High Water
2. Manchester By The Sea
5. American Honey
6. Certain Women
8. Toni Erdmann
9. Don’t Think Twice
The above ranking obviously doesn’t include pictures I haven’t seen yet, and that’s a list of its own that includes THE HANDMAIDEN, SILENCE, SING STREET, PATERSON, HIDDEN FIGURES, FENCES, and JACKIE. I’m working on it.
Below is a complete list of everything I saw in 2016. As always, the list only reflects things seen for the very first time. If I came across JAWS or GROUNDHOG DAY or YOU’VE GOT MAIL already in progress on TV and sat there like a zombie through ’til the end, well, that’s not considered worthy of note. What is worthy of note: ZOOLANDER 2 is so very, very bad it makes you feel stupid for having liked the first one. THE LOBSTER is the other movie I regret having made the effort to go see in the theater. I’ll give it points for originality, I guess. Then I’ll take those points back for being a miserable, cruel, misbegotten thing.
Linked titles will take you to either my review or more information on a particular film.
MOVIES ON THE BIG SCREEN
My Name Is Doris
Don’t Think Twice
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
Star Trek Beyond
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Hell Or High Water
20th Century Women
MOVIES ON THE SMALL SCREEN
What We Do In The Shadows
Amira & Sam
Captain America: The First Avenger
Shaun The Sheep Movie
The Libeled Lady
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels
Lassie Come Home
The Shop Around The Corner
Swiss Army Man
The Mindy Project
Odd Mom Out
Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
The Good Place
Game of Thrones
BOOKS and OTHER READING
Devotion – Dani Shapiro
60 or so screenplays for the Austin Film Festival competition
- Obviously ZOOTOPIA is allegory for race/crime issues that are very top-of-mind in America right now.
- Gutsy to take on this theme in a “kids’ movie.” If this film is even that.
- I squirmed during the confrontation after Judy’s speech; Nick (the fox) leaning in: “are you afraid of me?”
- If you haven’t seen it, here’s the scene. It’s kind of amazing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbbdW4wVo6o
- So yeah, prejudice… But, using animals to tell the story puts a whole ‘nother layer on ZOOTOPIA, doesn’t it?
- Just kind of astonishing seeing a Disney movie using talking animals to take on nature red in tooth and claw.
- Here’s a global media empire built largely on drawing cute animals that act like people. Imagery so commonplace in our culture we hardly think about it.
- And now they make a movie that says, “think about it.”
- “Think how we sentimentalize animals, and how that insulates us from the natural world.”
- “Also: think about what they eat. And what you eat.”
- Apparently everyone in ZOOTOPIA lives on berries, ice cream, and donuts. There must be a lot of hungry, malnourished lions and bears there.
- ZOOTOPIA doesn’t address the topic of vegetarianism overtly. in fact, they carefully avoid the issue. But it’s there.
Star Trek, we need to talk. We’ve had a lot of good times. But we’re both in such different places now. I’ve grown. You’ve shrunk.
I never saw INTO DARKNESS. After STAR TREK (2009) I decided to save myself the aggravation. But I was one of the hopeful fans who’d heard STAR TREK BEYOND would be the course-correction the series needed. I got burned again.
Initial reports that this one “got it right” were probably based on a few quiet scenes between McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). The casting has always been the best thing about these reboot movies, and indeed, here they kinda get the dynamic: Spock and McCoy bicker but underneath we can tell they respect each other. Fine. The bar is pretty low if we’re pleased with 10 minutes of chit-chat amid two hours of frenetic nonsense.
I won’t waste anyone’s time with a plot synopsis, but BEYOND kicks off with Kirk whining into his Captain’s log that he’s basically bored (what) with the routine (WHAT) of his 5-year mission. Exploring strange new worlds and boldly going has apparently become a big drag. I wanted to slap Chris Pine. Imagine original series Shatner/Kirk expressing this. It would never have happened. Here, the reboot (or “Kelvin timeline,” if you must) gets fundamental traits of both Kirk and the franchise wrong. This scene was Star Trek putting itself on the psychiatrist couch, trying to diagnose its own malaise. It’s not you, Jim: it’s the scripts.
But J.J. Abrams (director on the first two reboot pics, producer on BEYOND) has never respected the source material. He’s never treated Star Trek like anything more than a gig. He said he tried to watch the original series but “couldn’t get into it.” So he ripped it to shreds and picked out the bits that looked shiny to him. The end result is some kind of assemblage that only vaguely resembles Trek. In this metaphor I think Abrams is either some kind of primitive folk artist or maybe a crow.
But if you like movies made by crows, there’s plenty of shiny bits here to keep you busy. Kirk rides a motorcycle! The Enterprise gets smashed (again), and then the crew blows up the bad guys with an old Beastie Boys tape! Neat! And director Justin Lin never, ever, ever stops moving the camera.
In a rare quiet moment near the end of the film, Spock pulls out a picture of the original cast (from WRATH OF KHAN, I believe) and silently gazes upon it. More soul-searching, maybe: “where did we go wrong?”
Star Trek, I came back to you. I thought you’d changed. I thought maybe it could be like it was before, when we were both younger. But I got hurt again. So this is goodbye.
At least until May, when Discovery debuts.
I’ve long favored films that feature smart, articulate characters battering each other with words. I like screwball comedies. I like Judd Apatow. I adore BROADCAST NEWS and I’m a sucker for an Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk.
It’s not hard to understand the hegemony of dialogue-driven, plot-heavy films. Movies begin with screenplays, and screenplays come from writers. But to proceed from the written word can push a visual medium towards acting like literature. Or radio theater.
These days, I’m finding myself more exhilarated by films that act like something else. Movies that move less, and linger more. Where characters may follow smaller dramatic arcs, but they are more finely observed. Films like Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT, Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (or last year’s AMERICAN HONEY), and Kelly Reichardt’s CERTAIN WOMEN.
I will admit to some see-sawing in my seat during CERTAIN WOMEN. The film teetered on the line for me at times, probably crossing it during Michelle Williams’ arid little segment. But then Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone came along and more than redeemed things. Their silent horseback ride may be the most sublime thing that happened at the movies last year.
AMERICAN HONEY is probably an hour too long, and it doesn’t have an ending. But I kind of loved it. Even if at some points I felt like I was trapped in that van with those kids. Road trips require patience, and a taste for staring out the window just watching things go by. Your mileage no doubt may vary. But really, any film unspools as a collaboration between the filmmaker and you, the viewer. The less that happens onscreen, the more time there is to ponder what does. The question is, how much work do you want to do? How active a collaborator do you want to be?
In the past year I’ve also been catching up with the work of the late Chantal Akerman. After JEANNE DIELMAN (3 hrs 45!) and JE TU IL ELLE, I’m thinking Akerman may have gone too far toward rarefaction. With her long, static takes and prolonged silences, her narratives advance in such tiny increments they sometimes feel like a dare. I watched both films in a state of amazement, commingled with boredom and antagonism.
Enduring a three-minute shot of woman’s back as she scrubbed a bathtub, I wondered if I’d be a hopeless philistine if I called bullshit and turned the damned thing off (I didn’t, and made it all the way to the meager, if startling, climax of JEANNE DIELMAN). Akerman’s films are like homeopathy, there’s so little there. And like homeopathy, if you feel like they are working, it’s probably all in your mind.
This post contains spoilers for ARRIVAL.
ARRIVAL is one of those rare birds, a sci-fi movie for grownups. It’s aesthetically and conceptually elegant and at the same time very moving, and if you haven’t already, you should see it before you learn too much. Not that there is a huge and sudden reveal: there is no SIXTH SENSE moment. At least, there wasn’t for me: it was more a gradual, growing awareness of the story’s main premise and all its implications.
The protagonist of ARRIVAL is linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited to communicate with alien visitors who have appeared in our skies. As the story begins, language is seen by all the characters in the film as a means to an end. Slowly and simultaneously, you and the characters on screen come to realize language itself the point.
Central to the film is the notion that language shapes perception. As Louise learns to parse the aliens’ looping pictographs she also acquires their ability to perceive time in a non-linear way. Exploring this concept, ARRIVAL does that amazing thing science fiction can sometimes do: it re-situates you, offering a unique vantage point from which to consider the conscribed parameters of your human experience. After seeing it, your own inability to perceive events before they happen may feel to you a sorry limitation, like a kind of blindness.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer employs non-linear story structure to represent Louise’s expanding perception. As directed by Denis Villeneuve, it’s a fairly daring tactic that tosses the audience without warning or cues into key scenes in Louise’s future. A sequence in which Louise and a high-ranking Chinese general collaborate to avert global catastrophe is breathtaking, cross-cutting between Louise’s present and future while defying notions of cause and effect.
But the film is not just a think piece: in ARRIVAL, the intellectual and the emotional are unified, inseparable. For Louise’s newly expanded perceptions also allow her to foresee a great personal tragedy. Ultimately she embraces the choices that will lead to that tragedy, fully aware of the terrible cost. I found myself turning her decision over and over in my mind for days afterward. That says everything about the strength of the film.
Currently I’m watching two very different TV shows: SyFy’s The Expanse and CBS’s Supergirl. The differences between them, and how I find myself reacting to them, is making me think a lot about what’s really important in storytelling.
The Expanse is SyFy Channel’s prestige programming. It’s complex. It’s dark. It looks expensive. It takes itself very seriously. It tries very hard, but often to little effect. Supergirl, on the other hand, doesn’t hardly seem to be trying at all, but the emotional payoffs have been surprisingly powerful.
The storylines in Supergirl are your basic, primary-colors comic book stuff. No gritty re-imagining here. It’s not a perfect show: dialogue can be clunky, and effects and production design are often pretty cheesy as well. The stories are quite simple. But they resonate, because the writers are working basic, relatable themes: family loyalty, prejudice, anger vs. self-control.
The character of Supergirl (aka Kara) illuminates how important backstory can be to creating a relatable character. Like her more famous cousin, Kara was rocketed to Earth in a little space capsule by parents who stayed behind to die on doomed homeworld Krypton. The big difference between the two of them: Kal-el (Superman) was a baby when he left Krypton. Kara was 12. This simple fact makes Supergirl a much more interesting character than Superman, and has been driving the best story moments all season. Kara remembers her home, and her parents, and she misses them terribly. At times, torn between her human and Kryptonian identities, she literally feels alienated from the human race. She has anger issues. Think about that one for a minute: Supergirl has all the powers of her cousin. If she really came unglued, she could do a lot of damage.
We got a glimpse of that in the episode where Supergirl was temporarily turned bad by some red kryptonite. It revealed an inner life full of resentments, and made me think about her in a way I never had with Superman. (This hour also featured some of the best acting ever seen on the show, and yes, this is the one that made me cry.)
Ultimately, Supergirl’s corn and goofiness don’t matter: I understand the characters and I want to know what they’ll do next. I am entertained.
“Entertainment,” I imagine, is probably not a word that comes up much as often as it should in The Expanse writers’ room. To their credit, it feels like they are smart people working very hard at the 10,000-foot level to honor the big story arcs of the books (I haven’t read them).
The show plays a long game, over the course of the first season setting up political tensions on an interplanetary scale between Earth, colonial Mars (now an independent state), and the Belters, roughneck denizens of the industrialized asteroid belt. But big things are made up of little things. And The Expanse is rarely compelling at the smaller scale, the scale of viewer engagement – that is to say, individual scenes and episodes. (See Game of Thrones to observe how a show develops big story arcs while simultaneously making things work moment-to-moment. Personally, I’m not much into swords-and-sorcery stuff, but I’ll make an exception for GoT because… well, because that shit is undeniably gripping.)
The weaknesses of The Expanse are instructive to me because as a sci-fi guy I’m enamored with all the things it counts as virtues: the detailed world-building, the realistic hardware, the getting the physics of space travel (mostly) right. Yet, all through season 1, I struggled to stay with it because I didn’t much care about what was happening. There was a glimmer of hope in episode 2, when space-freighter guy Holden logged a distress call in direct violation of captain’s orders, forcing them to change course & try to help. Stakes! Conflict! Characters are what they do, and I saw Holden make a hard choice to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. So now I’m in his corner. As the show has progressed, it’s been interesting to see Holden become the de facto leader of the Rocinante crew, despite the fact that they all rightly blame him for the pickle they’re in. I hang onto Holden and his gang to stay afloat in a sea of I-don’t-care.
But those scenes aboard the Rocinante are only about one-third of the show. The UN/Earth scenes are all talk. I just wait for them to end. The Ceres scenes are tough going too, but for different reasons. Sorry, maybe I’m a bad person, but I don’t care about the downtrodden people of Ceres. Oh, hey, you know who I cared about? Those mutants on Mars in Paul Verhoeven’s TOTAL RECALL. The Ceres scenes kinda bring those guys to mind. Again, stylistically far goofier than the grimness of The Expanse, but in TOTAL RECALL the basic requirements of drama had been met: I got to know the mutants. Early scenes introduced some of them to me as individuals, so when their oxygen got cut off, it hurt. The people on Ceres, by comparison, are an undifferentiated bunch of rabble. They are a symbol. And because they are a symboI, it doesn’t much matter to me whether they have air and water.
Furthermore, I didn’t care about the missing girl – the other part of the Ceres storyline – because again, I’ve been given no reason to care. Onscreen for maybe 10 seconds, at the beginning of episode 1, what we were shown of her was totally cryptic. I understand we were building a mystery, but if I can’t be told any info about the girl because it’s a mystery, I better damn well care about the guy who’s trying to solve the mystery for 10 episodes… but I come up empty there too. I don’t know why he’s working on this case except that his boss told him to. Oh, and I think he fell in love with a snapshot of the girl. Really?
There’s also the problem of uniformity of characters. Personalities in The Expanse range in disposition from “tough-but-fair” to “mass-murderer,” so inevitably we’re steeped in hard-boiled dialogue, all delivered with unblinking stares. It gets old. To differentiate the characters, some of them have accents, and a few of them are women (UN lady and mohawk girl*). This is the same flaw – wall-to-wall second-rate tough talk – that very nearly made me bail on season 1 of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, before that show was redeemed around mid-season by virtue of its terrific villain.
There are other things about The Expanse that make watching something of a chore. There’s a triple-whammy of accents, slang, and an invented language, compounded by characters who mumble, or whisper, or struggle with English pronunciation (UN lady). I’m not sure how much a crummy stereo mix has to do with it, but I for one am constantly rolling the DVR back trying to tell what’s being said. I should just turn on the subtitles I guess.
Finally, The Expanse is sometimes hobbled by what seems like indifferent direction. There are fumbled opportunities to build suspense and pay it off with action. Setups are poor, so when action comes, I’m surprised or confused. Moments that should have visceral impact slip by because I’m trying to interpret them. Hey, somebody in a spacesuit (can’t tell who) just did something! A gun went off! Whose gun? Which way was it pointed?
Happily, there are exceptions to this. Most notably, a terrific scene in the season’s final episode, set in the lobby of a seedy space hotel. Pretty much every character in the show arrived there at once, all of them looking for the mystery girl. What transpired next was a long, wordless scene as the suspense built, and built, and built… and was finally paid off with a shootout that was absolutely bananas. I was grinning.
The Expanse is telling a complicated story. For that, it should be applauded. I’ll bet I’ve been more patient with it than your average viewer, but, like an average viewer, I am tuning in for entertainment. I want a payoff. So far, The Expanse’s payoffs have been kind of meager. I’m hanging in there, hoping it will get better. Rooting for it, really, because on many levels The Expanse is just what I always wanted in a sci-fi TV show. It’s been renewed for a second season, and I’m glad. It would be a shame to see it go away. There’s a lot of potential there.
*After an entire season I can’t remember anybody’s name except Holden’s. For that I’m not going to apologize… or Google, for that matter.