Archive for August, 2016

XOXO_(2016_film)XOXO (2016)

Starring- Sarah Hyland, Graham Phillips, Brett DelBuono, Hayley Kiyoko, Colin Woodell, Chris D’Elia, Ian Anthony Dale, Ryan Hansen, LaMonica Garrett

Director- Christopher Louie


The lives of several teens and young adults intersect at XOXO, a massive EDM festival.

Were it not for some of the interesting projects/talent lined up through 2017, I would be right on the verge of declaring Netflix original movies a failed experiment. I might be on the verge anyway. XOXO is uninspired in a way that leaves me wondering how it even got made. To be sure, far worse movies are released on the regular, but at least I know what audience is going to line up on opening day of the next Transformers movie. I don’t know who XOXO is for — it’s too low-key and artsy for general audiences and too broad and corny for the arthouse crowd (plus, that tends not to be a demographic overly enamored with electronic dance music). It’s a Richard Linklater movie, if Richard Linklater movies were basically Disney Channel originals with drugs and f-words, and also not very good.

Honestly, I’m not even sure how to review XOXO; it isn’t even bad in an interesting way. Its flaws are surface-level problems that can be quickly summed up and require no further elaboration. Its best performances are merely serviceable; the dialogue is flat at the best of times (and so much of it occurs in the form of insipid text messages that keep flashing up on the screen); character development happens in the space of two seconds and often off-screen; it’s cliched in a way that is almost unbelievable (there’s an Asian guy unknown to the rest of the characters who randomly flashes into their stories to give them exactly the advice they need at that moment, and no, the fact that the movie makes a joke about this does not absolve it). The EDM/rave scene is colorful enough to be a cinematographer’s dream, but the rich palette and lighting benefit the direction rather than the other way around. It’s not the sort of movie where I can really pick anything out and say that it needs work; for me, it’s barely advanced beyond the drawing board phase. It isn’t much more than a raw idea. Like I said — it’s a Richard Linklater movie, but one that feels as though it doesn’t fully understand what it’s depicting and therefore emerges with only the broadest insights.

I thought it over recently and realized that the best teen movies — at least, the ones that best capture the spirit of the times — are almost never released during those times. They happen 10 to 20 years later. Sure, you have figures like John Hughes, making teen movies set in the 80s despite being much older, but those movies were almost never about the culture itself — they hit upon the universals of young adulthood, the things everyone experiences regardless of external forces. Ultimately, youth culture is and always has been mystifying to those of us who are too old to participate it, and those who aren’t are too young to be making movies. And there’s no such thing as proximity — I’m only 25 and thus not so far removed from the current generation of teenagers, but so much of what I see in their world absolutely boggles me. Over the last few years, there have been a few movies trying to tap into modern youth culture, and it’s telling that I never saw them and can’t even remember their names (but do remember that they were all box-office failures). The only people qualified to share with us what informed that culture and what it felt like in the moment aren’t yet qualified to understand it maturely and communicate it effectively.

In short, the good version of XOXO will almost certainly happen eventually — look for it in a theater near you in Summer 2031. Right now, unfortunately, it’s 2016, and so there really isn’t any level on which I can recommend this movie.

Keanu_posterKeanu (2016)

Starring- Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, Method Man, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Jason Mitchell, Jamar Malachi Neighbors, Luis Guzman, Will Forte, Nia Long

Director- Peter Atencio

R- violence, language throughout, drug use and sexuality/nudity


Rell Williams (Jordan Peele) is despondent after his girlfriend breaks up with him but finds a new lease on life when an adorable kitten he names Keanu shows up on his doorstep. Two weeks later, he returns from a night out with his cousin, Clarence Goobril (Keegan-Michael Key) — who’s supposed to be rediscovering himself while his wife is out of town — to find that someone has broken into his house and Keanu is missing. He soon finds it was a case of mistaken identity — a local gang intended to break into his pot-dealing neighbor’s house. But the gang’s leader, a guy who calls himself Cheddar (Method Man), has taken a liking to Keanu and doesn’t plan to give him up. So Clarence and Rell head to Cheddar’s HQ intending to rescue their beloved kitten.

I have a longstanding tradition of arriving at the latest TV show party entirely too late — I didn’t start watching Breaking Bad until the fourth season was on the air, I took until the sixth or seventh season with Parks and RecreationArrested Development had been over for years before I gave it a go. As such, I got into Key & Peele far too late; they announced its cancellation at pretty much the exact moment I realized it was hilarious. But they were canceling it to work on a number of film projects, so that’s the next best thing, right?

Eh, maybe, maybe not.

Keanu is more or less what I feared it would be — evidence that the comedy duo’s sense of humor, despite being quite funny in moments, isn’t as effective at feature length.

Nearly all of their sketches can be summed up as follows: There is one joke, and only one joke, and over the course of four or five minutes, that joke becomes increasingly absurd. There’s nothing to “Substitute Teacher” other that Keegan Michael-Key failing to pronounce his students’ names and becoming increasingly enraged; it’s funny because of how steeply it escalates in such a short time. It’s one stupid idea framed as stupidly as possible and then repeated over and over again until it becomes funny.

It works well within the medium of sketch comedy — three or four minutes of setup, then the punchline. And you can probably see why it might not work at the length of a theatrical film.

And that’s where I am with Keanu, the duo’s first movie with longtime Key & Peele director Peter Atencio. It’s a great idea for a sketch, and there’s a lot of hilarious stuff in it, but at one hour and forty minutes long, it’s very, very overstretched.

Like their sketches, it really only has one joke — “black nerds must act ‘blacker’ and get involved in increasingly horrifying situations in order to rescue an adorable kitten.” So, you get a lot of bits wherein the leads mutilate slang terms, pretend to be violent psychopaths, and try to explain their iPods full of George Michael songs to a van full of skeptical gangsters. It’s generally amusing, but because their style of comedy is based in repetition, it takes the movie a long time to really get going.

The good news is that it eventually does arrive at the punchline it needs — the final third is exactly the kind of entertaining mayhem I wanted out of this movie. The bad news is that it spends the other two-thirds grinding its heels. The jokes are fine but somewhat low-impact. They’re always building toward something bigger that takes much too long to arrive. That buildup isn’t a bad thing; the best comedies tend to be the ones that up the ante throughout, constantly getting bigger and wilder and funnier (compare the size of the bits in the first hour of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, one of my personal favorites, to the bonkers set piece that ends it). You always want to maintain the feeling that the audience hasn’t already seen the best of it, that something even funnier is just around the corner.

Keanu comes up a bit short in this regard in that it struggles to maintain the sort of narrative propulsion that makes that approach work. Too many scenes stagnate, losing sight of their purpose and meandering around the same point until they run out of funny stuff to do and limp across the finish line. There’s a scene where Key and Peele have to assist with a drug deal in order to ingratiate themselves with the gang that stole Keanu that embodies this problem — it cuts back and forth between two different bits, neither of which are going anywhere narratively, and just kind of falls asleep until the time comes to end it. Other than the jokes, which, once again, are funny enough, the scene accomplishes nothing, and the movie feels like it isn’t going anywhere.

Unrelated problem, but worth mentioning before this review is through — the movie occasionally struggles to find its tone, and as a result, the violence of it can become uncomfortable in a way it doesn’t seem to intend. It treats the violence with the cavalier, exaggerated tone that implies it’s supposed to be darkly funny, but it films it all too realistically, with one or two exceptions. By the end, you feel like the characters ought to be carrying all kinds of mental scars, but the movie still plays things with a light touch. It’s the one respect in which the movie needs to be a little more over-the-top, more akin to the Black Knight sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail than the death scenes in The Departed.

It isn’t until the third act, when the movie finally feels free to unleash all of its craziest ideas, that the pace finally picks up — things happen, they seem like they matter, the humor crackles, the tone gels, the film bursts with energy. Having such able performers behind it surely helps, as does Atencio’s direction, which has always been surprisingly cinematic for television sketch comedy.

I’d rather a movie end on a strong note than start on one and then slowly deflate for the rest of its run-time, which may explain why I’m still somewhat positive-leaning about Keanu. It doesn’t fulfill the promise of Key and Peele movies, but it doesn’t kill the potential either. Call it a bit of difficulty translating the material to a new medium. I’m more than willing to find out what happens on the second try.

eye-in-the-sky-poster-lgEye in the Sky (2016)

Starring- Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox, Monica Dolan, Armaan Haggio, Aisha Takow, Richard McCabe, Michael O’Keefe, Carl Beukes, Kim Engelbrecht, Gavin Hood, Laila Robbins, Babou Ceesay, Vusi Kunene, Ebby Weyime

Director- Gavin Hood

R- some violent images and language


A surveillance mission designed to bring about the capture of British and American citizens in Nairobi to join the terrorist organization Al-Shabaab escalates when it becomes clear that the individuals are staging an imminent suicide bombing. Unable to get troops on the ground, military officials and technicians in Britain, the U.S., and Kenya are faced with a difficult decision — potentially allow the the terrorists to get away or conduct a drone strike, even though a little girl is sitting within the projected blast radius.

In 2014, it was Noah; in 2015, it was Steve Jobs. Now, Eye in the Sky has entered as a frontrunner for the annual Movie Matt Likes Way More Than Everyone Else Award. It’s flawed, to be sure, but there’s a spark of brilliance in everything it gets right. It’s only a few wrong decisions away from being a contender for the year’s best. The platform of an all-timer is in place; it just has a few hangers-on that bog it down a bit. But the core of it is one of the most riveting — and challenging — movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Part of it is, as always, a question of personal taste — i.e., what speaks to me most directly and what I’m able to overlook in light of what’s done well — and everyone draws that line differently. Personally, I love procedurals — movies that compellingly capture how things happen, how decisions are made, what people have their hands on the wheel. I also love small, contained thrillers with limited scopes, which is exactly what Eye in the Sky is — it’s an hour and forty minutes long and takes place largely in real time, with only a handful of time skips.

Eye in the Sky is fantastic in both senses.

As a procedural, it’s gripping, working its way through the process in its entirety, constantly introducing new complications and characters and motivations, giving the viewer a palpable sense of how decisions are made in circumstances like these. It’s an examination of drone warfare, and it has an anchor in every possible perspective — the military officials and politicians making the calls, the surveillance teams trying to keep everything moving smoothly, the soldiers with their fingers on the trigger, and the people on the ground with no idea of what’s about to happen. As a result, the movie has a ton of characters to manage, spread out across a variety of locations — a group of politicians in a boardroom in London, a pair of Americans in the control room, a general in Kenya, a spy on the streets of Nairobi, all communicating with one another and contributing to the evolution of the situation. And like all of the best procedurals, each of these characters comes across as a realistic and interesting person; no one gets lost in the noise.

The excellent casting is certainly a primary, if not the primary, reason for this. Helen Mirren has played roles like this before, so it’s difficult to call attention to anything in particular about her work here, but she’s nevertheless predictably stellar in the part. The late, great Alan Rickman makes the absolute most of his last live-action film appearance — it’s fitting that his final words on the big screen are among the most powerful and cutting he has ever delivered. It goes without saying that he nails them. Barkad Abdi, finally getting to be in a movie again after his Best Supporting Actor nomination for Captain Phillips, proves that he’s the real deal, slipping as easily into the compassion and humanity of a spy on the streets as into the unsteady menace of his big-screen debut. I could go on about pretty much everyone in this, but I’ll call attention to one more — Aaron Paul, at long last, being used correctly in a major motion picture. Whether it’s Need for Speed trying to shape him into an effortlessly cool James Dean type or Exodus: Gods and Kings allowing him to stand near other actors, directors have struggled to play to his talents since he wrapped on Breaking Bad. He’s not so much the cool leading man as a character who wants to be the cool leading man; he has a rough edge, but there’s a brokenness and humanity underneath it. He’s perfectly suited to this film, as the soldier whose job it is to pull the trigger, essentially a working stiff who admits he only joined for the paycheck. In that role, he becomes the film’s conscience and possibly its most compelling character — out of everyone debating the ethics of the strike, he’s the one who will have to assume the direct responsibility and all of the baggage that goes with it; you feel the weight of his superiors’ orders in every scene. He’s definitely a highlight.

And even though all of these characters are spread from London to Nevada to Nairobi to Beijing, the movie somehow manages to cut their interactions into an editorial flow that maintains the sense of distance between them without compromising the breakneck pacing. The ethical debate and its consequences exist in the safe space, so the tension never lets up and the stakes maintain their gravity.

But what I love even more than a quality procedural or a well-crafted thriller is a movie that creates a plausible moral dilemma and forces its audience to work through it. Eye in the Sky is the best sort of political thriller in that it leaves its viewers with no choice but to work through the themes on their own. All it’s here to do is capture the human cost. And it says a lot about the care that went into this movie that I left it knowing exactly as much about director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s opinions on drone warfare as I did going in, which is to say nothing at all. The movie creates a complicated situation with potentially hundreds of lives hanging in the balance and offers no easy way out. Every character in this film has a point. Some are likable; some aren’t. Some come to their decisions more easily than others. But no one is wrong. And the movie keeps their various flaws in play to an extent that only deepens its political commentary — it’s very much invested in our efforts to maintain distance from our own wrongdoing or wrongdoing committed by someone else on our behalf in order to avoid feeling as though we’re doing something wrong; there’s as much passing the buck in this movie as there is genuine conscience, characters knowing what they think is right but trying to make someone else say it so that their hands stay clean. I don’t know that Eye in the Sky will change anyone’s mind, but I’m not sure it means to. All it’s trying to do is remove that distance — to force us to confront what it is, to understand why it happens, to make drone warfare something more than an abstraction appearing in our headlines. War isn’t simple, and that’s only one of the many reasons why it ought to be avoided at all costs.

Would that I could leave it there and say that Eye in the Sky is unquestionably one of the year’s best. Its flaws add to my fascination with it, actually, in that I think the version of this movie that crowns a thousand year-end Top 10s already exists. It doesn’t need to do certain things better or to fill in certain gaps. All it needs to do to satisfy the majority of my criticisms is cut a few extraneous elements.

Its flaws tend to boil down to one thing: The movie doesn’t trust itself. It tells an engrossing, thoughtful, morally challenging story and then worries people won’t get it. So it cheats here and there (there’s one obvious solution to the moral dilemma, so the movie invokes a massive coincidence to take it off the table). And it embellishes — it uses too many distinctly Hollywood tricks to ratchet up tension or to really hammer in an emotion it thinks hasn’t gotten across. This particularly manifests in the way the movie treats the civilians on the ground; it doesn’t trust that their humanity will be enough to set the stakes and so goes out of its way to establish that they’re the Good Kind of Muslim to ensure that everything is extra-tragic. (I would actually cut everything happening on the ground that doesn’t involve Barkhad Abdi’s character. I understand why it’s there, but the distance is part of the film’s point; allowing us to see what’s happening on the ground gives us information the people making these decisions in real life don’t have and thus compromises the film’s exploration of the politics and principles behind them. I think Eye in the Sky is a movie that would benefit from never leaving its main characters’ perspective.)

I still loved it, because despite its heavy-handedness and tendency toward manipulation, Eye in the Sky is compelling and smart. It’s a humane yet non-judgmental look at a hot-button political issue, one that could be seen as one of the great moral quandaries of our time, one that every responsible citizen must consider thoroughly. Eye in the Sky provides the near-perfect platform to begin doing so, taking the abstract and distant and making it real and deeply felt. Usually, when someone tells me a movie “makes you think,” I know what they really mean is “it agrees with me, and I hope it’ll make you agree with me, too.” Eye in the Sky truly makes you think, presenting both sides of an issue alongside their consequences and forcing its viewers to debate what’s right after the credits roll. It’s a real discussion-starter, and those are all too rare. It may be a bit clunky, but Eye in the Sky is nevertheless an emotional tour de force and a truly provocative work of art. Best of the year, no, but one of my favorites? Quite possibly.

kuboKubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Starring- Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey

Director- Travis Knight

PG- thematic elements, scary images, action and peril


Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) lives in a cave by the sea, making a living telling the local villagers stories with his magical origami and caring for his mother (voice of Brenda Vaccaro), whose damaged mind only allows her a few hours of lucidity every night. On the occasions that her memory returns, she too spins fantastic tales of Kubo’s long-passed father and his heroics in protecting his family from the evil Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes), who supposedly stole Kubo’s eye. There’s only one problem — the stories are all true. There is a Moon King, and he is determined to find Kubo and steal his remaining eye. 

When Kubo breaks one of his mother’s seemingly arbitrary rules, the Moon King’s underlings, the Sisters (voice of Rooney Mara) find him. The boy ends up stranded in the wilderness, pursued by the sisters, his only chance at salvation a quest to reunite a magical suit of armor. Along with two new companions — Monkey (voice of Charlize Theron), a fiery spirit guardian of sorts, and Beetle (voice of Matthew McConaughey), a half-man/half-insect with few memories other than that he used to serve Kubo’s father as a samurai — Kubo sets on a journey across the world to save his family.

The trailers that played in front of Kubo and the Two Strings were for Storks, which seems as though it may be more aptly titled Stuff Happening: The Motion PictureMonster Trucks, which does not appear to have been developed any further than the pun that inspired it; Trolls, which looks like standard DreamWorks in all the worst ways; and The Wild Life, which I’m not convinced is even real. (And Queen of Katwe, but that doesn’t fit my narrative, so shut up.)

In short, the first fifteen minutes of my theatrical experience was a tour of Children’s Cinema 2016 in all its manic, shouty, awkward slang-heavy, “hip,” pop music-infused, subversive glory. And it provided quite the stark contrast to the feature film, as well as a potent reminder of how badly we needed it.

After all of that, Kubo and the Two Strings, its gravity, its poetry, its sincerity and full-heartedness, its tactile and lovingly hand-crafted visuals, its intelligence, its story focus, was nearly jarring. Remember when children’s films were taken seriously? They weren’t always great, or even good, but they tried to tell stories, tried to build worlds, tried to stoke the imaginations of their young audiences, tried to impart lessons that would follow them into adulthood. Remember when a story for children could have stakes and consequences? When they could be a little scary or emotionally intense sometimes? When they had faith in the ability of children to engage with them on a deeper level?

Kubo and the Two Strings sure does. And that’s a big part of the reason why it’s far and away the best summer movie of 2016, and one of the year’s best films more generally.

As someone who’s been following the evolution of Laika as an animation studio with some interest but an increasing worry that its movies were getting progressively worse, Kubo and the Two Strings comes as great relief. I’m not at all prepared to decide whether it’s better than Coraline, and it seems that neither is film culture as a whole, but the fact that we can even have that debate is reason enough to recommend it wholeheartedly. If nothing else, Laika here continues advancing the art of stop-motion animation to the point of sheer madness — the visuals here are complex, fluid, detailed, textured, and beautiful; it’s incomprehensible to me that all this was done by hand. I’ve heard that Laika used twenty-thousand — twenty-thousand! — detachable pieces to create Kubo’s facial expressions. I’ve heard complaints that the studio has reached the point where its animation is now almost indistinguishable from CGI, but I disagree. I would say the studio has achieved the strengths of computer animation — chiefly, its fluidity in motion — without running into its major weakness — its tendency to look sterile when the design isn’t working (and even, sometimes, when it is). Kubo and the Two Strings is graceful like computer animation, but it feels lived-in, like the world is a real place with real houses and trees and mountains and dirt. The texture isn’t an approximation; it’s real. It’s essentially stylized live-action. It’s gorgeous, and an absolute must on the big screen for that reason alone.

And even then, it’s not so much the animation as what it captures. Kubo and the Two Strings is a spiritual successor to the films of Hayao Miyazaki in its visual imagination, from Kubo’s deft and colorful origami performances to the weird and incredible monsters our heroes encounter on their journey. The movie is filled to bursting with extremely striking images, chief among them the Sisters, who for sheer presence are the creepiest and most intimidating movie henchmen since the Ringwraiths of The Fellowship of the Ring.

In every respect, Kubo and the Two Strings is a total original, capturing not only sights that have never been seen before but a fully realized and interesting mythology and a daring story that adheres to no easily identifiable formula — a story where what happens matters, where consequences can be permanent, where the status quo exists to be shattered, where the characters will inevitably find themselves somewhere other than where they started. It’s the only movie this summer to have surprised me in any meaningful sense — the lengths to which it goes and the intensity that it sometimes reaches would have been risky even the age when Disney was releasing animated films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I don’t know whether Kubo and the Two Strings will scare children — it’ll depend on the kid — but it will definitely confront them with some difficult concepts. And that’s okay — to a child, the world is difficult, and the stories we tell them are among the ways in which we help them deal with that.

Kubo and the Two Strings gets mighty philosophical from time to time, and I’m so glad it does. It enters dark territory but doesn’t dwell there and approaches it with a measured sort of optimism. It’s really a film about mortality, particularly the way we cope with the loved ones we’ve lost, but it also approaches death from the perspective of children just now beginning to understand the concept and realizing that it will happen to them someday. It’s about the here and now and what makes it special, even though it doesn’t last forever.

And it’s about the power of storytelling, not only as a means by which we contextualize our experiences and the experiences of others but as a way that we preserve the memory of those who have passed on before us. In so doing, it gets into territory that I find very subjectively fascinating — the abstract nature of the past and what a memory is (outside of the biological reality, I mean) and the way it so thoroughly defines everything about our world without actually existing in a tangible sense. It’s the idea that maybe we’re all living in Dark City and aliens programmed the totality of our experiences into our brains while we were sleeping last night — we wouldn’t actually know this had happened, but it would still define us. I’m fascinated by the idea of a man who committed murder and then hit his head and forgot everything that ever happened to him — without the experiences that shaped him into a person who would commit murder, would he still do it? In a philosophical sense, would he even still be himself? By addressing the subject in that way, Kubo and the Two Strings is able to end on a moral like “a memory is the most powerful magic there is” without it seeming like fluffy kids movie BS. To the extent that memories define our world, make us who we are, and can change absolutely everything when understood in a different life, I suppose they are a kind of magic.

Basically, Kubo and the Two Strings doesn’t have an unoriginal bone in its body. Right now, it’s on track to be little more than a ripple at the box office, confirming once again that the number of people who complain about the film industry’s lack of original movies far exceeds the number of people who actually go and see the original movies it does make. Please, don’t allow Kubo and the Two Strings to pass without a sound — not only as a public service, to send a message that we want more of this, but because it’s worth seeing. It’s beautiful, visually and emotionally; it’s brilliant; it’s creative; it’s moving; it’s memorable; it’s one of the best movies of the year so far. Don’t miss it.

AllegiantfilmposterAllegiant (2016)

Starring- Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Jeff Daniels, Zoe Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Keiynan Lonsdale, Daniel Dae Kim, Maggie Q, Bill Skarsgard, Jonny Weston

Director- Robert Schwentke

PG-13- intense violence and action, thematic elements and some partial nudity


Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her band of friends/people who will inevitably betray her but are allowed to hang out anyway for some reason head over the wall when it becomes clear that Chicago’s new boss is the same as the old boss. There, they find an advanced civilization that monitors the city’s faction system as part of an experiment designed to restore life to the war-ravaged planet. It seems ideal, but is it?

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a franchise so consistently remain at the level of “not as bad as it could have been” without managing to get better or at least become a fascinating trainwreck — quality-wise, I mean; financially, it’s an almost unprecedented trainwreck (the current plans for the final entry in the series are to cut its budget and release it as a TV movie). If nothing else, this is hopefully the nail in the coffin of the “split the final book into two movies” approach.

I wish I could summon the active hatred so many seem to have for these movies. That reaction would be a lot more interesting. Instead, they just kind of happen in front of my eyes and don’t get absorbed into my brain at all; I finished watching this maybe seven hours ago, and I’m already forgetting the substance of my reaction to it, if there even was any.

Mostly, these movies just hit some basic level of competence. I can’t really point to any specific area where they go particularly awry (other than the confounding premise), but I can’t point at anything they do especially well either. In explaining my mostly ambivalent reaction to Allegiant, all I can really say is: “I liked the fun, dopey sci-fi nonsense, and everything else was whatever.”

It might be a little bit better than Insurgent. Strangely, despite being an incomplete piece of a book that was sliced in two, Allegiant somehow works better as a standalone film. Bizarrely, it’s one of the few Part 1s to actually feel like it could be an adaptation of an entire book. It addresses most of its immediate concerns before the credits roll, and the ending doesn’t feel like it comes out of nowhere. Most of its setups, meager though they are, are paid off here.

The problem is that none of it is particularly interesting. The story is predictable and mostly involves Tris sitting around while things happen around her. The world is pretty generic despite being considerably expanded in this installment. We finally get a mostly reasonable-sounding explanation of how the faction system came to be, but we still don’t get the interesting characterization that would lend any weight to the exposition. Some of the new characters are on the verge of becoming interesting, at least in terms of the worldviews they represent, but the movie never properly develops the themes that emerge at the edges. The series has reached a place where the various parties in conflict have a halfway understandable point, but it’s still playing the action sequences “fun,” or at least failing to give them the weight they need. Knowing what they know, the fact that the heroes never pause to reflect upon all of the violence leaves the movie feeling a bit cold.

It’s all very fine, and it’s also very forgettable and a little bit boring. At the end of the day, I think the most damning thing I can say about this series is that I probably won’t get to see how it ends, and that doesn’t frustrate me one bit.

Batman_v_Superman_posterBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Starring- Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy

Director- Zack Snyder

PG-13- intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality


Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) get mad at each other because Batman was all like “I’m the toughest” and Superman was like “nuh-uh.” Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) does sinister things for reasons. Stuff fights other stuff, and everyone is very angry about it.


I wouldn’t say that I had high hopes for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (giggle snort) — between that all-timer of a title and trailers that were ninety-five percent superheroes glowering at each other, I had a feeling this was a project no one really knew what to do with. But I also had a sinking suspicion that it would be the kind of disaster Suicide Squad ended up being, where enough of it was interesting that I had to suck it up and defend it anyway. It seemed like something that might turn out to be a guilty pleasure.

That is not what happened.

Batman v Superman is the regular kind of disaster, the kind that well into its second hour becomes totally unwatchable. I love movies — even the bad ones. When they’re bad, I at least have fun analyzing them, seeing what they tried to and might have been. I don’t enjoy them on their own terms but enjoy the experience of them. Batman v Superman broke the barrier. It’s an absolute chore to sit through — monotonous, emotionless, seemingly endless. When it isn’t chasing a million tangents attempting to set up an entire shared universe in the space of one movie, it’s approaching every single one of its own narrative threads wrongheadedly.

It’s hard for me to remain interested in the future of the DC Cinematic Universe now that it’s stuck with grills Joker, jackass Superman, and psychopath Batman — they’ve already screwed up their most iconic characters beyond the possibility of any simple fixes. I’m not interested in a series of films about an egotistical, aggressive Superman who pays no heed to collateral damage and, when called on it, gets defensive rather than reflective (upon being told that people died as a result of his most recent operation, he basically says, “Hey, I didn’t do that,” which is something I can’t imagine any other iteration of this character doing). I’m even less interested in the ongoing adventures of a sadistic, monstrous Batman who kills (sometimes indiscriminately), tortures, and brands his symbol onto his victims before turning them over to police (and also has a smaller but still quite noticeable disregard for collateral damage). Even the people he saves are absolutely terrified of him.

That’s a larger problem with the movie and part of why it feels so heavy. There’s an aspirational quality to superheroes; the fantasy behind them is derived from the idea that there’s someone out there who will save us in our time of need. The best superhero movies are fun because they tap into that — their heroes are relatable because they connect with our positive, altruistic instincts. That’s especially true of figures like Superman, who was essentially created as a symbol of hope. But Batman v Superman is much more interested in the violence and treats its rescue scenes with this sense of obligation — and undergirds them with too much of its protagonists’ ego and self-regard. It finds no joy in saving a life; there are no moments here like the train sequence in Spider-Man 2 or the plane rescue in Iron Man 3. Batman v Superman generally seems hostile to altruism as a concept; it struggles to plausibly root its heroics in anything else. To an extent, that’s appropriate for Batman, though there still needs to be a balance — the intrigue behind the character has always been his struggle to understand how much of what he does he does because he’s a good man and how much of it is just him trying to deal with his past. This Batman is more like the Punisher; he rarely shows meaningful glimmers of anything more than a desire to avenge his parents. But Superman is so far outside of that — as a character, he’s fundamentally altruistic. This version is totally alien to me. And it’s a problem for the movie as well, which has “superheroes as symbols of hope” as very much a part of its thematics.

But much ado about nothing, right? I don’t subscribe to the idea that a movie has to align with its source material in order to be independently good — though part of the fun of a comic book adaptation, particularly a shared universe, is to see characters people have loved for generations larger-than-life on the big screen, interacting with one another. I may not like jackass Superman and psychopath Batman, and I don’t think the movie gives any indication that it plans to be a deconstruction or alternate take; nevertheless, I’m open to the possibility that this was the intent. In that case, how is it as a movie? If I’d never heard of these characters before, what would I think?

I’d think the same thing. Its mystifying take on its characters isn’t a problem solely in the adaptational sense; it’s a problem for the movie itself. Here’s the thing: I absolutely hated these characters. And since the movie presents itself as a major emotional event — two beloved heroes coming to blows — that’s a big, big problem. I legitimately did not care who lived or died or even who won. I had no stake in their battle of ideologies, because there really isn’t one. They’re both massive hypocrites; every criticism they offer of one another is just as true of them. Batman is intentional about his wrongdoing, and Superman just doesn’t particularly care — that’s the only major difference here. Neither of them really grows as a person; they just slowly come to recognize that they’re actually very similar. Their conflict seems to stem solely from their inability to trust anyone other than themselves to sit at the top of the totem pole. You could make an interesting movie about a couple of hypocrites who realize that the things they hate in one another are simply projections of themselves, but Batman v Superman isn’t that movie.

I know that comparing this to Captain America: Civil War is That Which People Reviewing DC Comics Movies Must Not Do, but how often do we get two movies in one year trying to do almost exactly the same thing? In Civil War, we like both characters, and each of them has a decent point in the conflict of ideologies. As a result, when it finally escalates into violence, it’s absolutely crushing — we care about both of the characters, fear for them, and simply want them to stop fighting. In Batman v Superman, both of the characters are loathsome and wrong about everything, and it really doesn’t matter who wins. Without the proper context, it just isn’t interesting as drama.

Throw in the rest of the movie’s problems, and the whole thing just becomes soul-deadening. It’s artificially dark and never, ever lets a little light shine in. This doesn’t mean that the movie needs jokes or whiz-bang action sequences or a boyish sense of glee. I just want the darkness to be organic and the characters to experience a full range of emotions. People always point at The Dark Knight, but it isn’t as relentless as its reputation. That movie is very dark, yes, but it has light, ordinary moments — scenes where characters hang out, where friends joke around, where normal, everyday stuff happens. It goes to dark places, but it still establishes a standard of normalcy — which only heightens the emotion as the tone degrades.

It sometimes seems as though Batman v Superman was filmed under a rule that every scene had to be as dark as possible — take whatever’s going on and sharpen the edges until it reaches peak grittiness. Batman cannot simply be breaking up a drug ring; it must be a sex trafficking operation. Batman cannot simply beat up the bad guys; he must torture, terrify, and then brand them. A villain cannot simply attack, it must be a terrorist attack with hundreds of identifiable victims (and an extremely uncomfortable amount of 9/11 imagery). The movie seems to be working hard to make every scene as edgy as possible until none of it matters anymore and you just want to see characters doing something other than monologuing softly or growling at each other.

Only one character is an exception to this, and it ends up more a curse than a blessing. I think Jesse Eisenberg is an extremely talented actor; his performance in The Social Network is one of my all-time favorites. But his take on Lex Luthor is just awful, arguably the worst thing in a movie that’s already pretty bad. For some reason, Zack Snyder drove the rest of the movie into the deepest possible darkness and then directed Eisenberg to play its villain like a character from a bad 80s cartoon. Luthor is half Heath Ledger’s Joker and half Doc Brown from Back to the Future. Loud noises, twitchy gestures, constant giggling, forced eccentricity, bizarre speech patterns — the character is just plain annoying.

Then you’ve got the narrative missteps, most of which feel like studio mandates. A big part of DC’s struggles getting its shared universe project off the ground is that it’s trying to do in one year what Marvel did in eight. Batman v Superman feels as though it exists at the intersection of a half-dozen movies that haven’t been made yet, and it’s trying to summon the emotional weight of significantly more than that (most of the comic book lore it relies upon is fairly common knowledge, but it nevertheless counts on its audience having a pretty significant pre-existing investment in its characters — characters that are, I remind you, very, very different from their comic book incarnations). The presence of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in this movie is absolutely baffling; it’s such a non-event that it mostly serves to rob her upcoming solo film of the opportunity to memorably define her first big-screen appearance. I’d believe you if you told me she was added in reshoots.

Here’s the Say Something Nice section of the review — Zack Snyder is a decent technical director (though I still don’t understand why he holds the camera stock still during the action sequences and shakes it around when characters are just talking), so at least Batman v Superman avoids the ongoing trend of superhero movies looking like garbage (I’m a fan of Marvel’s movies, but I really wish they’d start looking like actual, big-screen films). I also like Ben Affleck’s performance; the character’s anger is always simmering just beneath the surface, constantly threatening to emerge. Jeremy Irons’ take on Alfred as a more bitterly sarcastic character is fun, too; he does away with the fatherly warmth Michael Caine brought to the role and fills it with a distinctly British sense of loathing.

But none of the movie’s strengths give me any hope for the future of the series. We may only be three films in, but this already feels like a sinking ship. Even if Warner Bros. nails Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and The Flash, it’s going to have to deal with a Batman and Superman that retain very little of their classic heroism and that a lot of people, judging by the severely diminished second-weekend box office returns, seem not to like all that much. Batman v Superman is only the second entry in the franchise, and it’s bad enough that it might also be the movie that kills it.

Midnight_Special_(film)_posterMidnight Special (2016)

Starring- Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks, David Hensen

Director- Jeff Nichols

PG-13- some violence and action


Roy Tomlin’s (Michael Shannon) son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) was born into the same religious cult in which Roy was raised. When Alton manifests mysterious abilities and the cult leaders’ intentions for him take on a nefarious edge, Roy and wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) recruit childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and take off with him, heading for a set of coordinates the boy decoded, where they believe they will learn what he is and where he came from — and possibly how to save him.

Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ worst film yet and as such demonstrates why his career is so exciting — because it’s still really good, albeit more as proof of his skills behind the camera than as a writer.

Midnight Special has what all too many sci-fi blockbusters lack — conviction. Confidence. A sense that it was not made by committee. This didn’t come from a board room; it came from someone’s imagination.

It’s patient and has a lot of faith in its audience. That isn’t too surprising; Nichols specializes in slow burns. But Midnight Special is stripped down even by those standards and contents itself with ambiguity where appropriate. Nichols is ordinarily a detailed filmmaker; the success of Take Shelter, in my opinion his best movie, is that it allows you to so perfectly understand its characters that every step in their development makes complete sense and can almost be guessed in advance. Fortunately, the ambiguity of Midnight Specialsuits him nearly as well. The movie doesn’t strain to explain everything and is comfortable letting its viewers fill in the blanks themselves. It doesn’t take on any more information than it needs to — the chase is already underway before the movie starts, and it never strays far from that threat. Nichols excels at weaving character and story arcs into one another, which makes Midnight Special propulsive despite its slow pace (by the standards of the genre). The movie has faith that its emotional undercurrents will connect; it isn’t particularly heavy on action or spectacle, which makes the big moments all the more hard-hitting when they arrive. Nichols has never shot visual effects on this large a scale, and he proves to be pretty good at it; the few spectacular sights the movie indulges are spectacular indeed.

In general, Nichols’ direction is everything that works about this film. It’s funny that his first movie targeting the 80s Spielberg feel (as filtered through the lens of a slow, tense indie thriller) also proves him to be a bit of a Spielberg himself, someone whose belief in the material and visual and tonal approach to it smooths over even the biggest flaws. His primary directorial talent is his complete mastery of atmosphere. From the beginning, Midnight Special is filled with mystery and wonder as ordinary people encounter strange goings-on; it resembles nothing so much as — here’s Spielberg again — Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s dark without being too heavy and touching without being cloying. The cast helps quite a bit. If nothing else, at least we can thank Nichols for ensuring that Michael Shannon is in our movie theaters at least once a year. He’s one of the greatest actors society at large has yet to realize is great, and Midnight Special finds a bit of a movie star quality in him as well — his character is, admittedly, underwritten, but Shannon completely sells everything that’s happening on-screen. His presence alone is compelling; he owns every scene he’s in. A solid supporting cast backs him up — Kirsten Dunst doing something similar, taking a thinly written part and making it feel real anyway; Sam Shepard as the shady but charismatic cult leader; Adam Driver as a nebbish NSA agent who accidentally ends up leading the FBI’s investigation of Alton. I think Hollywood has struggled to figure out what to do with Joel Edgerton, but his recent turns as the friendly roughneck sort of character suit his screen presence very well.

They work together to make Midnight Special feel a heck of a lot less flawed than it is. Its flaws strike me as a bit of an anomaly, in that they arise in respects that have not been a problem for Nichols before now. Usually, I love him as a writer, but Midnight Special’s script feels a touch half-baked, like a decent premise that went into production before it was developed into an actual story. The film’s emotional center is the family — Roy, Sarah, and Alton — and they’re pretty undeveloped on the whole. The script doesn’t provide them with nuance beyond the most basic emotions: The mother and father love and want to protect the son. There’s no life or sense of history between the characters, just the standard tropes of the parent-child relationship. The actors bring something true to the parts, but they can only supply so much. These characters walked away from a cult in which they lived nearly their entire lives — that should bring something very interesting to the table, but it just isn’t there.

Unlike Nichols’ other movies, which are, for the most part, very tightly scripted, Midnight Special tends to feel like a conglomeration of random scenes that often don’t affect one another. It seems as though nearly every scene is setting up something interesting or dramatically that subsequently isn’t paid off at all — the most obvious example being a tense scene where the family decides to try to run a military barricade after Alton promises he can help that’s followed up with a scene where they just crash through it ingloriously, Alton doing nothing whatsoever. There are a lot of bits like that — important characters suddenly vanish out of the plot, never to return; the villains’ sinister plotting often goes nowhere; characters stumble into important information that makes no sense, changes nothing, and is never mentioned again. The central mystery suffers the most from this, feeling as though not a lot of thought went into it — it resolves itself somewhat obviously, dredging up old sci-fi plots that have been done a million times. It isn’t very satisfying either, since the stakes aren’t well-defined and the ending ignores a lot of the build-up that went into it. The movie ends on a shot of a character’s face, staring into the distance in a moment of thoughtful spirituality, and it’s completely impossible to guess what he’s feeling or why — the conclusion of the arc simply isn’t set up well enough.

Midnight Special ultimately feels like a very good rough draft that inexplicably wasn’t touched again. What really went wrong here, I have no idea. But I digress — plenty goes right, and in the sort of way that makes me think Nichols and the others involved a capable of a lot that we haven’t seen yet. This one’s a bit shaky, but it’s nevertheless a solid addition to an already impressive body of work.