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Top Films of 2018

This year of film had a lot of incredible originality. I’ve never been more optimistic for the future of movies than right now. Here are some movies that show movies are still one of the best ways to tell stories and dissect the human experience:

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10. A Quiet Place

It’s pretty crazy that a movie like A Quiet Place was billed as a mainstream blockbuster. It wasn’t so long ago that filmmakers had preconceptions of what audiences would accept. At the top of that list has always been the necessity for dialogue. People believed audiences were too stupid to understand a plot through pictures. Those long sequences of no-talking were for artsy films by Stanley Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson. A Quiet Place has proven audiences are up for a lot more than Hollywood may have expected. The film has a plot explanation for the lack of exposition and it commits to its own rule without circumventing it by having soundproofed rooms or an abundance of subtitled sign language [Bird Box call out goes here].

The bravery of A Quiet Place to commit to its own idea is enough for me to commend the film, but it helps that it’s actually a thrilling nail-biter as well. The sound design has an obvious contribution to the tension, but just as important is John Krasinki’s direction and decision to show the monsters sparingly (although we do get that paid off eventually). It’s also a film that takes narrative risks. The opening scene shows the lethality of the world and proves to the audience that this story could go anywhere — and indeed it does. A Quiet Place is more than an exciting thriller with an intriguing pitch, it’s a sign of how far mainstream audiences have come and how far filmmakers are now allowed to go.

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9. The Front Runner

I could probably write ten thousand words about my thoughts on The Front Runner, but most of them would be focused on politics and not the movie itself. To put it simply, the story of Gary Hart is essential to modern day America. It’s a tragic tale of an upstanding politician whose presidential aspirations are torched by shoddy reporting and a societal shift toward denying privacy to public figures. Hugh Jackman plays the lead role of Senator Gary Hart and he perfectly captures the mixture of anger and disgust Hart embodied when he was asked personal questions or suggestions he had been unfaithful to his wife. He was a reasonable man who reacted appropriately to inappropriate inquiries, but it wasn’t the reaction the public wanted and we all suffered as a result.

One of the reasons this story is so important — although it is never addressed in the film — is Hart has since been exonerated for this so-called “scandal.” A Republican strategist admitted on his deathbed that Gary Hart’s scandal was a set-up. How could such a shoe-string trick tank an otherwise popular politician? Well, that’s where the 10,000 words come in. In short, The Front Runner will force you to address how you view the purpose of the press, how we consume media, and what’s relevant to report — without getting confused by the craziness of our current president. It seems we’re living in the day Hart predicted “when we get the kind of leaders we deserve.”

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8. Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse

It’s hard to believe this is the fourth time Spider-Man’s origin story has been committed to film, but Spider-Verse’s greatest accomplishment is how new it feels despite that fact. This is a superhero film with a purpose. It has a narrative it wants to tell that exists outside of maximizing audience likability to launch a franchise of films. As a result, Spider-Verse is the most refreshing superhero film in a long time. I really loved its total embrace of the animated art style and Spider-Verse concept. The presence of multiple universes isn’t a generic roadblock for the [hero] to overcome, it’s interwoven into every aspect of the film. The multiple Spider-Mans and alternative versions of well-known villains made this particular story standout in the sea of copy-paste superhero films out today. Spider-Verse holds on its own and shows there’s more creative energy in this genre that’s starting to feel tired.

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7. Searching

You’ll often find people who claim every style of film has already been explored and all that’s left are gimmicks. I’d challenge those people to watch Searching. The film is shot entirely from the perspective of a computer screen while a father searches for his missing daughter. You might wonder, why restrict that story to a computer screen? Wouldn’t it work better if you could pull away and see the main character react to information? Well 1) you do see him react in other ways and 2) there’s an immersion quality to the main character’s search that wouldn’t be possible if you weren’t glued to the screen in the same way he is. It’s an inventive filming technique that truly utilizes its form to fortify the narrative. Searching has incredible pacing and some great twists, making it easily one of the most enjoyable film experiences this year.

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6. First Reformed

This is a strange entry on this list because First Reformed went from 0 to 100 very quickly for me. The film stars Ethan Hawke as a priest in a congregation that’s getting more irrelevant in modern times. He’s asked to help a woman’s husband, who has become nihilistic due to global warming and the fear of raising a child in a dying world. Hawke’s character goes on his own journey, but I’ll be honest and say a lot of the messaging in this film was eye-roll inducing. It’s a movie that seemed like it was going the absolute wrong way for so many bad reasons, but it all changes at the very end. Its final shot delivers a blow to pessimistic scare-mongering, and it wasn’t until that final shot that I decided I loved this movie. If nothing else, First Reformed is worth a watch for the interesting musings about what we should be doing in the face of a potential global catastrophe.

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5. A Star Is Born

It might not be surprising the fourth remake of A Star Is Born is good, but it is surprising just how good it is. This isn’t just a retelling of an old story, it’s about the realities of fame, the loneliness of popularity, how hard it is to remain authentic, and the difficulty of supporting a relationship in the spotlight. It’s a film with huge scope, but feels like a passion project. A lot of that passion comes from Lady Gaga’s performance. Her musical performances sing for themselves, but her acting matches the caliber of skill found in the array of actors she’s surrounded by.

In the review I gave earlier this year, I had some criticisms for individual scenes or how the second act loses its tight direction, but many of those critiques disappear given the full breadth of the film. A Star is Born succeeds at humanizing celebrities and getting the audience to see how the struggles of stardom are not so different from ordinary life. There may be some faults along the way, but it feels like a cultural event that deserves to be seen.

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4. Hereditary

I don’t like horror movies. I want my movies to have some value beyond jumping my nervous system so I feel alive for a few hours. I want something to think about. Hereditary gives you something to think about and maybe some mild PTSD to overcome for the rest of your life. If there’s one thing I can say to convince fellow non-horror film fans, it’s the fact that Hereditary has no jump scares. It plays it straight from beginning to end, and it doesn’t detract from the terror it inflicts. Although Hereditary inevitably becomes a supernatural hellscape in its final minutes, the majority of the film is a family drama depicting the ways people cope with death. It was the dramatic moments of the film that have stuck with me. The ants, the scream, the rear-view mirror — they still give me chills. Hereditary taps into the true fears of the human condition and sets an example all horror films should aspire to.

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3. Eighth Grade

We don’t deserve Bo Burnham. In an era where everyone is focused on the Logan Pauls of the world, Burnham understands that the majority of experiences with the internet is intense loneliness manifested in personal vlogs. For a man who benefited early from “going viral,” Burnham shows a remarkable amount of empathy for the type of person who gravitates toward web content. Eighth Grade follows a young girl with no following of any kind, and shows how her web presence contrasts with her dull life. While this alone might have been good enough to be a great film, Eighth Grade enters another echelon with the infamous truth or dare scene. In one of the most uncomfortable versions of a well-known party game, Burnham shows the complicated relationship between our desire for human connection and our frequent disappointment with other people. It’s a brave film that leaves its audience with a new sense of empathy and understanding for the oddballs attempting to navigate this strangely interconnected world we live in.

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2. The Hate U Give

When I tell people I like The Hate U Give, the number one response I receive is “Really? I thought you’d hate that movie.” Maybe that’s a low-level insult about me, or maybe I can’t blame people for that reaction since I haven’t liked Sorry To Bother You, Moonlight, Blackkklansman or countless other movies about the black experience in America. But maybe my enjoyment of The Hate U Give proves the effectiveness of its message. Regardless of your political views, it’s clear America’s relationship with black Americans and police officers is something that needs to be examined. While many pieces of art have attempted to present their worldview as the definitive solution to these complicated problems, The Hate U Give knows when it can give an answer and when it can’t. Instead of pretending to possess oracle wisdom from the future, the film anchors its conflict to how it affects its family of characters.

The family of The Hate U Give is based on a book that came out two years ago (which received similar level of praise) and the movie really feels like it’s derived from dense source material. The world feels rich with life and backstory. Numerous side characters pop in and out, all with their own history that contributes to the narrative and how it affects the main character. Starr isn’t a perfect person — and she makes many mistakes throughout the film — but all her choices are understandable given the context of her situation. She’s an immensely likable character who’s attempting to navigate difficult issues in good faith. Much of Starr’s wisdom comes from her father, Maverick, who acts as a source of stability throughout the family’s turbulent journey. I couldn’t help but wonder how many black families could have had a Maverick figure in their life, but were robbed of such an individual due to the realities of our era.

From a filmic view, The Hate U Give doesn’t have any standout production elements. It’s not a movie that’s praised for its artistic direction. Instead it’s a movie that addresses difficult issues and allows productive conversations as a result. It’s for that reason, I consider it the most vital film from this year.

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1. Annihilation

My first viewing of Annihilation was defined by awe. My initial review praised the movie for accomplishing incredibly tense minute-to-minute set pieces, but also found time for lofty big ideas to think about. There was enough left unexplained to allow for a conspiracy theory-level of obsession. I saw Annihilation twice in the theater. I bought it the first day it was available for download and I’ve since seen it a total of six times, each time with a new group of friends so we could uncover the mystery of Annihilation. In these viewings and conversations, I haven’t “solved” Annihilation — in fact some people would say movies are not meant to be solved — instead I’ve found a wealth of interpretations, all of which have their own merit. Annihilation is dense with ideas and as a result it can be about so many things.

Even if it weren’t high-concept and otherworldly, Annihilation is one of the more memorable journeys into the unknown. The film is classified as science fiction, but it’s closer to a horror film. The crew’s experiences in the shimmer run the gambit of every type of dread you can experience. Jump scares, body horror, extreme violence and gore, existential horror and psychological unease. Who can forget the alligator, the video tape, the bear or the lighthouse? They’re permanently implanted in your brain not only because of the terror they inflict, but because of the strangeness you never completely understand. How do these traumatic experiences affect who we become?

I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times and I’m still in awe. Annihilation is an unbelievable achievement. It’s the most inventive science fiction film in a decade, an unforgettable experience and easily the greatest film from this year — perhaps one of the greatest of all-time.

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TV Log: A qualified case for watching Deep Space Nine

I watched Star Trek for the first time in 2016. Following Max Temkin’s guide for The Next Generation’s essential episodes, I fell in love with the series and ended up going back to watching most of the episodes. The experience became an important part of my life. I had never seen a show like The Next Generation before and I’m pretty certain no other show like it exists. When I reached the end of the series I wanted to keep the Star Trek train rolling so I sought out the other series. I found Temkin’s follow-up list, a passionate case for why Deep Space Nine is worth watching, and I gave it a shot.

For those who haven’t been in a room with Star Trek fans before, Deep Space Nine is sort of the ugly duckling of the franchise. In my experience, there are three types of Star Trek fans, each defined by the first series they saw. The Original Series veterans who loved its goofiness and big ideas; The Next Generation fans who followed the franchise’s revival in the late 80s/early 90s and make up the bulk of the fandom; and the Voyager fans who are the youngest and latched onto the more modern approach to Star Trek. In my experience, these are the three camps I run into when talking about Star Trek. I’ve never met a fan of Deep Space Nine who didn’t give a huge amount of qualifiers before stating their enjoyment of the series.

So — I come to you now — a Next Generation fan, who actually likes Deep Space Nine a lot, but I have many qualifiers. I recommend reading Temkin’s guide, but below I’ve added some additional thoughts that I think are necessary when considering Deep Space Nine in a modern context. For Temkin and other fans, Deep Space Nine may have been their first exposure — or most memorable exposure — to long-form storytelling with gritty realism and plot twists, but to compare the show to Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones is setting up expectations the show cannot possibly live up to. That said, there is something valuable in Deep Space Nine’s storytelling but I want to qualify what that value is.

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Gul Dukat, one of the more complicated characters in Deep Space Nine.

How it’s different from Next Generation

As Temkin says in his thoughts, Deep Space Nine has fundamental differences that separate it from other Star Trek shows. For starters, there’s no ship. Deep Space Nine is the name of a space station that sits outside a stabilized wormhole that connects the Alpha Quadrant and Gamma Quadrant of the Milky Way galaxy. Additionally, this wormhole is located near the planet Bajor — a planet that only recently gained its independence after multiple decades of military occupation from another race known as Cardassians. The Federation has been installed on Deep Space Nine to keep the peace between Bajorans and Cardassians, as well as oversee expeditions to and from the Gamma quadrant. Whereas most Star Trek shows can be serialized as a variety of different missions given to their respective captains and crew, Deep Space Nine stays in one place. Whatever conflict occurred last week, or last season, continues in the future episodes. This also means the show tends to deal with political debacles rather than scientific ones.

These conflicts often exist outside of the politically neutral Federation, which leads to the other significant departure from other shows: most of the cast is not affiliated with the Federation and by extension most of the stories are about life outside the Federation. The crew is helmed by Benjamin Sisko, and he’s assisted by chief science officer Jadzia Dax, chief engineer Miles O’Brien (returning from Next Generation), and chief medical officer Julian Bashir — but the majority of the senior staff and reoccurring characters have their own backgrounds and storylines. First officer Kira Nerys is a Bajoran officer who fought Cardassians during the occupation of Bajor; chief of security Odo is a shapeshifter who operated under Cardassian rule but views himself as purely committed to justice; Quark is a Ferengi and the only bartender on the station; and Garak is a Cardassian tailor who seems to have an intriguing former life. In addition to these reoccurring characters, Deep Space Nine quickly adds more characters into the mix. Benjamin Sisko’s son, Jake Sisko, and Quark’s nephew, Nog, form a friendship early in the series and that relationship develops more than you might expect. There are many side characters including Gul Dukat, Martok, the Grand Nagus, Winn Adami, Rom, Leeta, Shakaar and of course Morn.

Why so many characters? Next Generation showed through its storylines about Worf that the show could achieve more meaningful depth if its intergalactic conflicts were tied to a crew member who had a personal connection to the issue at hand. Worf’s tumultuous family history and his identity as Klingon warrior versus human security officer were persistent storylines throughout the entirety of the Next Generation — many of which are the greatest episodes of the series. Deep Space Nine expands that approach by enveloping multiple races and tying them to specific characters. This allowed the show to tell more stories and fill in the universe of Star Trek that made it feel real. In Deep Space Nine, you get a deep view on the culture, identity, aspirations and problems of the various races that wasn’t possible in Next Generation.

With that in mind, the biggest departure from previous Star Trek shows is Deep Space Nine lacks the optimism that made the series iconic. Star Trek had always been about existing in a utopia and combating the problems of the next millennia. There were no material wants that left people hungry or sick. It was a society of abundance that left people to pursue their deepest desires for the betterment of mankind. In line with this utopian vision of the future, the writing team of Next Generation wasn’t allowed to have the characters be in conflict with each other. If you watch episodes such as Measure of the Man or The First Duty, you’ll see how episodes with obvious interpersonal conflicts are resolved respectfully. Since Deep Space Nine exists outside of the ideals of the Federation, all of that is thrown out the window. Characters yell at each other a lot and many of the solutions don’t follow Federation regulations.

So to review: a Star Trek show with no ship, deeper character backgrounds, more world-building and moral ambiguity. Sounds pretty interesting, right? It is. But there’s some things I have to prepare any viewer for:

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Deep Space Nine has way more goofy episodes compared to other Star Trek series, such as this episode where the station plays baseball against Vulcans, luckily most of these comedic episodes are quite good.

Some qualifiers to keep in mind.

There is a lot of mysticism.

In the first episode of Deep Space Nine it becomes apparent that some type of lifeform exists within the wormhole. The crew attempts to communicate with this being but its messages are bizarre and ambiguous. Any fan of Next Generation will remember plenty of episodes where a strange lifeform appears to have supernatural ability (crystalline entity in season 5, for example). While Next Generation was committed to treating these entities as unknown beings that could be studied, a lot of Deep Space Nine deals in prophecies, belief and faith. Specifically, the Bajorans see the wormhole entities as “prophets,” and refer to them as such. There are a few episodes where Bajoran leaders have religious experiences with “the prophets.” In some ways, this approach of recontextualizing what religion and faith can be is fascinating. However, the show isn’t always consistent with how it treats religion and folklore. Could you imagine an episode of The Next Generation ending with two spiritual deities firing red and blue lasers at each other to prevent the apocalypse from occurring? Well, that exact scene happens in an episode of Deep Space Nine. If you’re someone who’s big into the SCIENCE part of Star Trek’s science fiction, these episodes can induce some eye rolls. There are a lot of them.

It is very inconsistent.

Temkin says in his write-up that if you’re enjoying the show by season 3 or 4, it’s a good point to start watching the episodes sequentially. I have to strongly disagree. Deep Space Nine has multiple massive step ups in quality in season 4, season 6 and season 7 — but I wouldn’t say the show is “good” until season 6. If I were to compare it to another show, it reminds me a lot of Angel, a spinoff series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Angel was a decent show for four seasons, but it received a big reboot in its fifth season that radically changed its format and quality for the better (it was then promptly canceled). Deep Space Nine follows a similar trajectory. The majority of the show has good ideas, but the whole thing doesn’t come together until season 6 or maybe season 7. I knew when the show got good because all of its attempts became successes. The humor was funny, the character motivations mattered, the drama was heartfelt and I cared about the stakes. A lot of the early seasons are sloppy executions of good ideas, but when Deep Space Nine works it really works.

On the topic of inconsistency it’s worth noting many of the characters of Deep Space Nine can either be well-rounded complex characters or loathsome clichés. I find it difficult to rank my “favorite” characters from the show. Part of me wants to make a passionate defense for Odo’s character and his arc, but there are plenty of episodes where he’s written like a sitcom grandfather who yells at kids to get off his lawn. Some of the characterizations of Odo in earlier seasons hang over the character’s development later in the show which makes it difficult to accept some pivotal events. On the flipside of that problem, many characters who start off as empty husks get an immense amount of development by the end of the show. Jake Sisko and Nog start off as comedic relief, but each character has a hugely significant arc in the show. All of this is to say, there will be moments where you love Deep Space Nine and there will be moments where you want to give up.

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Some characters, such as Doctor Julian Bashir, don’t receive any significant development until the later seasons.

Some of the world-building doesn’t make a lot of sense.

We live in an era where massively complicated worlds such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Witcher or Westworld exist for mega fans to devour. They have multilayered storytelling, with fictionalized economies and cultures that are detailed in textbooks and other supplemental writings. The description of Deep Space Nine may suggest that this is Star Trek’s biggest foray into explaining the universe that had only been hinted at by the serialized format. Unfortunately, the results don’t always hold up.

The biggest standout is the Ferengi race, a culture built on absolute free market capitalism. Every Ferengi commits to memory a long list of “rules of acquisition.” These rules can sometimes be sound advice (“Greed is eternal,” or “Good customers are as rare as latinum. Treasure them.”) but they usually serve as comedic relief (“Never place friendship above profit,” or “Never have sex with the boss’ sister”). You get the sense that the rules of acquisition are mostly used as a gag rather than a mechanism to fill-in how Ferengi society operates.

Many overarching racial attributes for the various backgrounds in Deep Space Nine seem to be decided in a writer’s room for one specific episode, only for them to struggle to write around it in later episodes. For example, at one point in the show it’s revealed that Bajorans lived in a caste system not too long ago. This becomes very relevant for exactly one episode, but then the caste system — and its legion of supporters — are never mentioned again. In the context of a serialized show like Next Generation, this short-term memory loss about fundamental foundations of how a society exists could be forgiven. In the context of Deep Space Nine’s continuous storytelling, the forgetfulness can seem overly convenient and detracts from the reality of the world. You never get a sense of what matters and what doesn’t.

Baby’s first morally ambiguous hero.

Deep Space Nine is often pitched as a “darker” Star Trek. That’s probably true on paper, but when the franchise is defined by its ethos of optimism, going darker than that isn’t very difficult. Deep Space Nine tackles many grim storylines such as genocide, slavery, war wives, futile resistance, biological warfare, torture, post-traumatic stress disorder, racism, mental breaks and much more — but it’s all in the context of being a Star Trek show. There are moments where the bad guys do something truly horrific, and other times where they come off as Disney villains who have safety bumpers on their malice (because what the character would actually do doesn’t fit Star Trek’s tone). When Deep Space Nine commits to its purpose, it nails it. More often than not, it feels like a corny Nickelodeon show trying to feign villainy.

With all those qualifiers it’s easy to get down on the show, so here’s some good things about it:

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Often times the best episodes exist outside the Federation, such as this Ferengi episodes that’s modeled after The Magnificent Seven.

Why Deep Space Nine is worth watching.

Season 1’s Duet encapsulates Deep Space Nine’s potential.

Temkin notes in his guide that it’s difficult to recommend a single episode for new viewers since the continuous storytelling requires context for every episode. While this is true, the closest estimation of Deep Space Nine’s identity comes from its Season 1 episode Duet. You need a bit of context, but if you watched Next Generation and can answer: “Who are the Cardassians? Who are the Bajorans? What is their conflict?” You can follow the story of Duet.

In Duet, a traveler docks at Deep Space Nine reporting they have a terminal illness that needs treatment. First officer Kira Nerys recognizes the name of the illness as the side effect of a biological weapon that was used in a labor camp during the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. This implicates the traveler as someone who was either a Bajoran laborer or a Cardassian war criminal. The story combines Kira’s past with the universe’s sentiments toward Cardassians and Bajorans. It’s one of the best episodes of the series and acts as a sneak peek to what the show will eventually become.

Some of the world-building is incredible.

With so many characters, there are a lot of options for Deep Space Nine to dive into various races and cultures to liven things up. Typically these are done with the appropriate cast member delving into their own society. For example, Quark has to deal with a trade or commerce dispute on Ferenginar or Worf goes on an expedition with Klingons to achieve glory in battle. As I mentioned above, the lore around these stories can seem a bit silly, but the storylines themselves offer an amazing opportunity for characters to exist outside of the traditions of Star Trek. Some standout episodes include: Tribunal, O’Brien is put on trial through the Cardassian justice system; Prophet Motive, Quark learns that the Rules of Acquisition have been rewritten; Indiscretion, Kira looks into a missing Cardassian prison ship; Rules of Engagement, Worf is put on trial through the Klingon justice system; The Quickening, Bashir studies the effects of biological warfare against a planet in the Gamma Quadrant — and many more. These episodes standout because they would have never existed if it wasn’t for Deep Space Nine’s interest in exploring stories outside of the Federation.

An optimist’s approach to pessimism.

Often in anti-hero stories, there’s a strange fetishism with “being bad.” A series like The Punisher will focus on a protagonist who is supposedly a good person, but they use excessive violence against their enemies. You can see a similar dynamic in modern shows such as Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. Everyone will talk about Walter White’s descent into villainy, but the audience still cheers when he blows up a hospital or runs over a gangster. There’s something weird going on in when characters are written this way. What are we really celebrating? The hero’s good intentions or their revelry in evil? The “heroes” who perform these actions don’t see a contradiction in what they do and how they do it. They don’t question their goodness despite many actions that could suggest the contrary.

Deep Space Nine has moral ambiguity, but it doesn’t celebrate it. More often than not, the tough decisions are agonized over by characters and their decisions have consequences via their fellow crew members who draw a hard line between good and evil. There are obvious examples where these relationships can be complicated — such as Kira’s past as a resistance fighter, or Odo’s role as a source of order during wartime — but some of the more surprising examples are when it comes from characters you don’t expect. One of my favorite episodes follows Jake Sisko as he tries war reporting. He begins the assignment with ambitions of being a brave correspondent who gets the gritty story, but he walks away from the experience scared and ashamed of his glorification of war. Many of the characters in Deep Space Nine struggle with these problems and the show handles all of these cases with grace.

Far Beyond the Stars.

When I tell people why I like Star Trek, I tell them to check out The Next Generation episode The Inner Light. It’s an episode that explains the importance of Star Trek. Deep Space Nine has its own version of that idea, although its execution is radically different. Far Beyond the Stars is the best episode of Deep Space Nine. It’s practically a standalone episode, but the episode requires the show’s context to understand its significance. It’s an episode about the importance of stories and how Star Trek isn’t a series of whacky hypotheticals about the future, it’s a collection of insight to understanding our current moment. For anyone who’s had a story change their life, or anyone who’s a writer that wants to believe their work is important, Far Beyond the Stars speaks directly to you. It’s powerful.

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This blog may have been more convincing for reasons not to watch the show than to give a chance, but I hope it gave insight into the strengths of Deep Space Nine. I’d recommend following Temkin’s list and liberally skipping episodes if they don’t interest you by the teaser. I personally wasn’t a huge fan of the Bajoran conflict storylines. They felt overly complicated for no real purpose. I also wasn’t a huge fan of Garak’s storylines because they were too corny. But even with those general guidelines, there were exceptions and I eventually found myself watching almost every episode rather than skipping most of them. By the later seasons, I found myself investing time in every episode just in case there was something worthwhile hidden away. That’s Deep Space Nine in a nutshell. There’s a lot of digging, but when you find something good it’s worth the effort.

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REVIEW: Annihilation delivers big ideas and nightmare fuel

Sometimes science fiction is like reading conspiracy theories. A big idea catches your interest and before you know it you’ve consumed a Wikipedia page’s worth of information. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t but you’re holding out to see if the big picture comes together. Many times, it falls apart long before you get to the end. You realize the people behind this theory are out of their minds and it’s not worth thinking about. Other times everything you’ve examined seems rational enough, but you’re missing the smoking gun – the piece that brings it all together. Every now and then you come across a theory that’s devoid of insanity or ulterior motives, something that makes you really think about it for a few moments or maybe weeks. Do we exist inside a simulation (The Matrix)? What would happen to earth if we were all infertile (Children of Men)? How does memory affect our decisions and who we love (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)? Films capable of posing these thoughtful questions are few and far between in an industry filled with pretentiousness and half-baked ideas. When you finally come across a film with depth to its ideas it’s unmistakable. You can’t get it out of your head. Annihilation is the latest movie I can’t get out of my head. It’s a gripping film that balances tension-filled moments with lofty big ideas. Accomplishing either of these goals would make it worth of recommendation. The combination of the two solidifies it as one of the best films in the genre.

Before stepping foot in the theater, the origin of Annihilation triggered some of my personal red flags. This is the second film from Alex Garland, the screenwriter/director who proved his sci-fi chops with Ex Machina (one of my favorites from 2015) previously wrote other worthwhile entries in the genre such as 28 Days Later or Sunshine, but unlike those films, Annihilation wasn’t conceived by Garland. Annihilation is based on the first book of a trilogy written by Jeff VanderMeer. Garland began adapting the book before the sequels were released and when they eventually came out he chose not to read them. Additionally, a common criticism of VanderMeer’s material was its lack of direction with some Amazon reviews using words like “undercooked” or “gibberish” to describe its bigger ideas. Everyone has their breaking point for when highfalutin ideas prove unsatisfying and I can recognize that my personal threshold is significantly lower than others. In other words, Annihilation looked to be going the way of some science fiction that uses dazzling spectacle and mystery boxes to hide shallow substance.

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Paramount Pictures and Skydance

Contrary to my concerns, Annihilation is one of the more grounded stories in science fiction. The story is anchored around Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist in mourning due to the unexplained disappearance of her husband Kane after he accepted a secret mission for the military. Lena is surprised to find her husband return home unannounced, but something inside him has changed. He’s distant, barely recognizes Lena, and soon begins coughing blood and falls into multiple organ failure. Kane’s declining condition drives Lena to discover what happened to her husband. It’s quickly revealed that Kane was sent to investigate an area known as “the shimmer,” a growing anomaly that appeared on earth three years earlier. Lena volunteers to enter the shimmer, along with four other specialists, to uncover the shimmer’s purpose and what happened to Kane.

Annihilation doesn’t waste the audience’s time with misdirection or loose ends. The film is presented as Lena’s retelling of events in the shimmer after she has returned from the expedition. This framing enables the story to skip to the good parts and allows for infrequent exposition when additional information is needed without slowing down the pace. Lena’s retelling allows the film to distinguish between mysteries that require the audience’s attention from typical story beats that reach their own conclusion. For example, the beginning of the film has Lena quickly explain the fate of her fellow crew members. With each character’s conclusion established, the audience doesn’t have to spend time speculating on the ends of each character. Each character is given a definitive conclusion that doesn’t require any amount of speculation. Instead the audience can focus on how each person’s fate provides context and understanding to the bigger question: what is the shimmer?

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Paramount Pictures and Skydance

It is worth noting that if you are not one who enjoys crafting theories for high concept films, Annihilation has strong fundamentals anyone can enjoy. Lena is a strong character on her own, supported by Portman’s realistic portrayal of a highly intelligent, physically competent woman, who makes mistakes like any other ordinary person. The other crew members have their own personalities and backgrounds that explain why they’re on a suicide mission and what they contribute to the expedition. In today’s era, a main cast headlined by five women could be seen as a novelty, but the film treats its cast’s identity indifferently. There’s no reference to how women are more or less equipped to handle the dangers of the shimmer and the personalities are as varied as can be, ranging from aggressively insecure to quietly confident.

If you don’t make a connection with the characters, the film’s expertly crafted moments are enough to keep your attention. Annihilation may be classified as science fiction but many encounters with the strangeness of the shimmer establish fear so effectively it’d be easy to label it a horror film. The terrors of the expedition occupy the entire spectrum of dread, from violent tension and body gore to extensional dread and nihilism. While many science fiction films may see mystery and discovery as a fun adventure, Annihilation depicts the debilitating fear of the unknown more effectively than any other film in recent memory.

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Paramount Pictures and Skydance

The mysteries may hold a traditional audience’s attention but the true achievement of Annihilation is its third act that goes all-in on the inexplicable but still crafts a coherent conclusion. Which isn’t to say that the ending is straight-forward. The final encounter has a bevy of mind-blowing nightmare fuel, but the film treats its audience with respect by cluing them into what characters know and being upfront with what they don’t know. Lena’s final encounter is presented uninterrupted through traditional film techniques (no 10 minute light show sequence accompanied with operatic vocals as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and we even get her interpretation of the encounter. But the answer to the question of the shimmer is found through studying the film’s themes rather than directly addressed by the narrative. These themes include the nature of cell reproduction, biology’s disposition for reproduction and self-destruction and the reoccurring visual of the infinity symbol. I won’t say I have a confident grasp of the nature of the shimmer, but I felt the film gave me enough clues to piece together a satisfying interpretation.

Of course, if Annihilation is anything like Garland’s previous work, there may be an endless number of interpretations. I’ve personally had multiple heated arguments over what Ex Machina is “really about,” and I anticipate similar conversation about Annihilation. Unlike many other vague high-concept tales, the discussion surrounding Annihilation is motivated by the film’s complexity and the density of ideas worth reflecting on. The tragedy of each character’s fate, the scientific possibility of the shimmer’s hellscape creations or the purpose of the shimmer’s existence. Whether the conversations around Annihilation are limited to guttural reactions or expand to dozens of conspiracy-ridden Wikipedia article entries, it’s a movie going experience that you won’t be able to get out of your head, and one of the finest in the genre.

5/5

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Movies

REVIEW: Dunkirk, a film without a purpose

I remember hearing a friend argue that Christopher Nolan was a one-note director. They didn’t say that there was anything wrong with the note he had played wonderfully for years, but Nolan seemed incapable of stepping out of his comfort zone. In my mind, a Nolan film is based on two core components: a darker more realistic film universe and an interest in asking the audience puzzling questions. This has stayed consistent across his career. Memento, one of his earlier films, asked if memories created meaning and poked at if satisfaction through revenge is legitimate. His most recent film, Interstellar, probed at the concept of destiny and asked if human emotions play a part in our species’ intergalactic survival. Across every film, Nolan always grounded the fictional universe in possibility. Inception’s dream infiltration is depicted as an established practice, Interstellar is rooted in quantum physical theories, and even the Batman trilogy explains the eccentric villains’ superpowers with scientific or psychological truths. Nolan’s ability to make fantasies seem possible mixed well with his interest in asking bigger questions. His films have created some of the best movie magic in the past decade. He could stick to his one-note because he was the only one playing it.

The problem with Dunkirk is it abandons what Nolan is good at. There’s no spectacle in grounding a historical event in reality and there are no bigger questions asked to the audience. This vacancy isn’t replaced with other ideas or skills, they’re left void. Unsurprisingly, Dunkirk feels like an empty film. It has no real purpose or justification for its existence. It’s easy to keep occupied with the action set pieces and convince yourself that good production equates to a good film, but the only question you’re left with after the film is: Why did he want to make this?

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Historical films can be great because they give context and connection to events from the past. Some things cannot be conveyed in textbooks or lectures. You can read all the source material there is about the Colosseum, but seeing gladiators fight inside of it is a completely different experience. The best historical films act as a type of virtual tourism. You’re visiting a time in history that no longer exists. You get a glimpse of what it was like to be there and intermingle with the people who were part of the event. The best historical films take the dead relics of the past and bring them alive.

By this metric Dunkirk is an absolute failure. The empty husk of Dunkirk is embodied by the lifeless characters in the film. There are three different narratives followed: one on the ground, one at sea and one in the air, each are anchored by a specific character but none of them provide any meaningful connection to the audience. There are no personal stories shared, no character flaws, no character strengths, no consequence to any action and I don’t even remember hearing any of the characters’ names. Creating a distinction in soldiers who all wear the same thing and have military regulated haircuts can be difficult, but other World War 2 films achieved this through charismatic actors or notable traits and decisions. Dunkirk doesn’t use either of these strategies. The characters have nothing to distinguish them and they don’t do anything worth remembering. Nolan has hinted that his goal for the film was to focus on the events themselves but as it turns out, it’s hard to care about people you know nothing about.

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Not every movie has to be a character study, but Dunkirk offers nothing else to intrigue the audience. The personal stories are obviously not the focus, but the grand narrative is also ignored. A movie like The Big Short or All The President’s Men can let the character development take a backseat because the plot is more interested in telling the grand narrative. What caused the 2008 housing crisis? What led to Nixon’s resignation? Or in Dunkirk’s case: What was it like to be part of the Dunkirk evacuation? But the film isn’t interested in the greater context. There’s no explanation for why the evacuation was important. Who orchestrated it? How did it get to that point? Why was it successful? I won’t argue that Nolan was obligated to answer these specific questions, but without characters to latch onto — what is the point of the story?

It appears the point for Nolan was to practice crafting action set pieces and organizing large scale shoots. The best parts of Dunkirk are when the characters are faced with extreme peril. The sound design is exceptional and the editing effectively demonstrates the true horror of war. Enemy bombers swoop into scenes with loud engines getting louder until they nearly deafen the audience. Various scenes of scrambling soldiers clawing their way to safety show the chaos of survival. This is the biggest (and only) strength of the film and it’s evident from the first minute of the film, but it gets tiresome.

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The entire movie feels like a prolonged montage of action sequences without a rest. Early on in the film two characters decide to masquerade as medics to gain passage on a ship that’s leaving. This scene starts with a fast-paced score in the background as they race to get aboard the ship but they’re slowed down by crowds of soldiers and bomber attacks. It’s a tense sequence, but I got the sense that it never actually ended. There are peaks and valleys in the drama but the entire film is dedicated to keeping you on edge. There’s never a moment to pause and even when one of the three narratives have a quieter moment, these scenes are dizzyingly interwoven with other characters fighting for their life. Unfortunately for the film’s pacing, tension works like any other emotion, if you feel it for too long it loses its meaning. Which is why despite being a two hour action sequence, Dunkirk is one of the more boring films I’ve seen lately.

Perhaps the greatest sin of Dunkirk is its complete failure to convey the historical importance of the Dunkirk evacuation. Before the film was released I tweeted about a clueless audience member who saw the Dunkirk trailer and was convinced the movie was about the Normandy invasion. I suppose I shouldn’t judge that person too harshly, since not everyone knows about every battle and event in World War 2. But as the credits for Dunkirk rolled, I overheard another couple of adults in their late 20s discussing their confusion: “When did Dunkirk happen? Was it before Normandy? After Normandy? During Normandy?” They had no idea.

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In actuality, the Dunkirk evacuation occurred in 1940 after the Battle for France (and four years before the Normandy invasion). The allies had decisively lost that battle. With Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and now France eliminated from the war, with the Soviet Union signing a non-aggression pact, Britain stood alone against Germany, Italy and soon to be Japan. To add to the problems — 400,000 soldiers of the British army were still in mainland Europe. With the English Channel stuffed with minefields and covered by German U-boat patrols and Luftwaffe bomber raids, the evacuation seemed impossible. But the British pulled it off. An accomplishment the Prime Minister Winston Churchill called a “miracle of deliverance.” You don’t get any of that historical weight or significance by watching Dunkirk. You get a two hour movie of guys standing on a beach.

Dunkirk is the story of Christopher Nolan stepping outside his comfort zone to disappointing results. There are moments of Nolan’s big-idea questions sprinkled throughout various scenes, but he never commits to them. It’s as if he wanted to prove that he could do something different and dove into the deep end without using his established talents to help keep him afloat. The man may have a remarkable crew, access to quality talent, and can craft a meaningful set piece but without a bedrock of purpose to support itself Dunkirk flounders and inadvertently proves the criticism against its director.

2/5

02/25/18 – cut out some sentences that weren’t necessary

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Movies

REVIEW: It’s Dim for The Light Between Oceans

I still remember the first time I saw Blue Valentine. The romantic tragedy film directed by Derek Cianfrance that shows the final days of a doomed marriage intercut with the couple’s auspicious first few dates. That film made such an impression on me that I’ve felt indebted to Cianfrance. He clearly had a perspective on relationships that I valued. Even if the rest of his career was filled with duds, I felt I owed it to myself to give them all a fair chance just in case they had an inkling of his first film which I consider one of the best. So far Cianfrance has only made two other films– The Place Beyond the Pines in 2012 and now the newly released The Light Between Oceans and it appears a theme is emerging. All three films focus on families, doomed characters and specifically relationships that can’t be sustained. In an academic sense, I can dissect and understand why Cianfrance might have been drawn to The Light Between Oceans (originally a novel written in 2012) but it becomes immediately obvious that a lot was getting lost in translation. The film feels like a book adaptation where you have to hope the original text was written well, because it’s clear the plot wasn’t what drew readers’ interest. Which is to say The Light Between Oceans is a terrible movie. It’s so bad, I can’t remember the last time I hated a movie this much.

The Light Between Oceans is about a lighthouse keeper named Tom Sherbourne who returns from World War I to work in isolation on an island off the coast of Western Australia and think about his life. Before traveling to the island, Tom has dinner with the owners of the property who just so happen to have a daughter named Isabel who is beautifully single and annoyingly attracted to him. After a few months of doing the job, Tom returns to the mainland to accept a multi-year contract. While on the mainland he goes on a date with Isabel where they establish that the only persons allowed on the island are the lighthouse keeper and his family. So in order to progress their relationship and the plot they decide to get married immediately. Tom and Isabel begin living on the lighthouse island and try to start a family but Isabel has difficulty maintaining pregnancies which strains their relationship. This all comes to a head when a small boat washes ashore with a dead man and an infant child. The couple are conflicted with the choice of keeping the infant as their own or reporting it to the authorities.

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The most obvious issue of The Light Between Oceans is its glacier pacing made obvious by the fact that the summary paragraph you just read takes over an hour to unfold in the actual movie. Make no mistake, I didn’t skip over some details or leave out subplots that you’ll learn to appreciate when you see it for yourself. There’s really nothing going on. The film fills the time with its obsession for long fading transitions, stoic shots of landscapes and generally employs the rule of thumb “the less that’s going on, the more time spent on it.” Though even the scenes with some amount of drama or point go on for way too long. As the film unfolds it’s hard to pinpoint, because the entire thing is so dreadfully boring that any semblance of emotion feels like the pulse of a fading loved one, but in retrospect it’s all bland. Did they have to spend fifteen to twenty minutes to establish one piece of information? How much time was spent looking at landscapes? How long has this movie been going on for? When will it end? All of these questions filled my head constantly.

It’s almost possible to forget that you’re suffering through a tortuous creation exempt of the passage of time but at some point Rachel Weisz pops up on screen and you remember that her name was third in the opening credits. The hopelessness I experienced when I saw her character and realized the movie was nowhere close to being finished would fit right in with the gloomy melodrama that permeates The Light Between Oceans.

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It doesn’t help that the two main characters don’t carry the time very well while they’re filling the first half of the film. Tom is a taciturn, man of few words. This might make an excellent book character where there is descriptive language describing sceneries or internal thoughts on various issues, but in a film all we get is a lot of blank stares. Isabel is more expressive, trying to make up for Tom’s lacking emotions, but there’s not enough there to generate an interesting moment. This is yet another romantic film where you can’t list a single character trait of either character or even why they like each other. You can’t even characterize anything about their relationship. It merely exists as a means to tell some nonsensical story. Films about relationships are frequently dense with relatable experiences or jumping off points to discuss other tangential topics. This film is devoid of any of those. It spends its time setting up individual plot points to propel the story forward, but its destination isn’t a place anyone wants to go.

I’ve never had a crisis of wanting to take someone’s baby as my own, but if I did I can’t imagine I would act like any of the characters in The Light Between Oceans. Isabel’s desire for a baby of her own is perhaps the most understandable. The film dabbles in showing how Isabel justifies her actions and it might have been interesting to see how far she’d go with that, but the films goes full soap opera instead. Individual characters flip their views completely from one day to the next for no real reason. Parents of various years of attachment decide interchangeably that they absolutely must have a child or maybe they don’t need a child. It’s very dramatic, but none of the emotion sticks because you’re drowned in the idiocy of it all. It’s impossible to believe that anyone can discard their attachment for a child the way they would an ugly hat.

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To make matters worse, the film ends with a picturesque fairy tale ending with an accompanying montage that I would call insulting to the viewer’s intelligence. The entire film is an onslaught of high emotion and life-changing ramifications. Every single scene runs with undertones of bleakness and loss. If you could describe The Light Between Oceans in one word “sad,” “depressing,” or “miserable,” would do. Then the film recuts the very scenes that were dreadfully depressing the first time around, but slaps a shiny filter and happy music on them, as if the audience forgot what movie they just watch, pretending it was all a fun time.

It would be very easy to repeat sentence summaries of scenes that occur in The Light Between Oceans and reveal it as the most moronic film in recent memory. Its plotline is guided more by emotion than thought and its characters’ views are dictated by convenience rather than what they’d actually think. It’s a smoothie made with the emotional intelligence of daytime soap operas and the pacing of a Terrence Malick film. The film has no themes, no depth and no point. There are technically moments of this film that are not complete trash but to mention them would detract from the fact that this film is valueless.

1/5

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Movies

REVIEW: X-Men Apocalypse Ends The World Of Good X-Men Movies

To the average movie-gover, X-Men: Apocalypse is probably an okay movie. If you’re the type of person who found the quality between X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: First Class indistinguishable, than this is the film for you (especially considering the former made more money than the latter). For anyone who takes a more critical approach to their film-watching experience, it’s easy to be down on X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s a film that ended, and although I wouldn’t say I immediately disliked it, I’ve found I have nothing but bad things to say about it. Most criticisms come from watching better action movies, or if you want to get more specific, better superhero movies. But since we’re at the ninth X-Men film, a lot of these thoughts come from watching better X-Men movies, and the truth is Apocalypse ranks closer to X3: The Last Stand than any other installment.

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The first issue with Apocalypse is that the plot is all over the place and there’s no main character to center your focus. Magneto is trying to live a normal life, Mystique is saving mutants, Charles continues to have his school, a young Cyclops discovers his powers and gets introduced to Charles, and while all this is going on there’s a villain being discovered by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) in Egypt. This isn’t even all of the dangling threads and I can’t possibly explain in a succinct paragraph how they all converge but the short answer is: poorly, and it takes well over an hour for things to get moving. Whereas previous films like X2 or First Class were typically centered on Charles and company, or Days of Future’s Past was uniquely anchored by Wolverine, Apocalypse has no such center point. There was an outcry in some circles that Mystique, a typical “villain” character in the franchise, would be headlining as the hero of the film due to Jennifer Lawrence’s popularity, but even her character struggles to remain relevant. There’s no one leading the charge to get the band back together. The film floats from scene to scene without a real purpose. At the same time it feels like every character’s moment is rushed so we can get to the next one, but none of them end up getting significant developments.

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If any character gets a huge amount of screen time it’s the villain Apocalypse, which is to the detriment of the film since he’s easily one of the lamest villains in superhero history. His backstory is explained as a mutant whose ability is transferring his consciousness into other mutants. When he transfers he keeps all his old powers and gains whatever power the new host possesses. He apparently did this for thousands of years back when the date ended in “BC,” so he has quite a few now. This might sound cool for comic-book readers but in terms of dramatic storytelling it amounts to Apocalypse singing “anything you can do, I can do better,” the entire movie. Every confrontation with him is dull specifically because Apocalypse is so overpowered. Apocalypse can warp across the globe in an instant, he has a bubble shield that protect him from every projectile that could possibly be thrown at him, he can deflect all forms of telekinesis, and he can repair damaged limbs. The X-Men never come close to making a dent. Until they do of course, but by that point it just feels like movie is saying “well, it’s been two hours, we better wrap this up.” It doesn’t feel like a natural conclusion, but rather one done out of necessity.

In fact, most of the subplots feel forced. X-Men: Apocalypse sees most of the cast of characters more divided than ever before, but they come together faster than previous films, likely because the film didn’t know how to naturally make that evolution occur. Characters like Magneto start off on a dark note, probably the darkest in the entire franchise. You’d think they’d have to dedicate the rest of the film to pull him out of the hole he’s sunk into. Instead, he’s handled half-assedly. Repeating themes from the previous films, without introducing anything new. He’s barely an element in the final few scenes, and in fact the conclusion to his “arc” (if you can call it that) isn’t even handled by new footage, but rather archive footage from First Class. They literally couldn’t be bothered to develop his character with this new film. It really is a joke.

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This can also be said for Moira MacTaggert and her relationship with Charles. It’s mentioned that her memory was wiped since the previous film, so even though she’s interacting with the X-Men again, she doesn’t actually know who they are. Although there’s some dodgy mentions of their past relationship at the beginning of the film, the subplot is dropped, and then suddenly brought back up again at the very end. The whole thing feels like an afterthought, as if to say “Oh crap, we forgot to have a romance storyline in this movie!” The character arcs and plot has always been the best part of the X-Men franchise, as proven by its installments such as X2, First Class, and Days of Future Past. Apocalypse undoubtedly suffers the most because its storyline is half-baked at every level.

If you’re coming to X-Men for anything but story, I think you’ve already messed up, because the action sequences in this film are lackluster at best. Compared to films like Captain America: Civil War, which I was a huge fan of, X-Men: Apocalypse looks like amateur’s work. None of the sequences feel like they take advantage of the mutant powers. Even the fights between Nightcrawler and Angel, which have every reason to be some of the most thrilling experiences in cinema history, are simply satisfactory at best. I don’t know how you make a fight between a teleporter and a flying-guy who throws blades seem mediocre. X-Men: Apocalypse was directed by Bryan Singer, the same director that did X2 and brought us this Nightcrawler sequence which I would argue is the precursor to the fantastic action choreography we see in all the marvel films today. He has the capability and resources to create the spectacle that superhero films are all about. If a film can’t deliver on an effective storyline, the least they can do is make an action sequence that’s worth a damn.

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With all this in mind it’s important to keep perspective. Most of these complaints could also be leveled against X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and most people didn’t have a problem with that movie. Really, I didn’t even mind X-Men: Apocalypse that much, but I find it hard to say anything good about it. Even the good things are marred by further critiques. Take for example one of the best moments of the film: the Quicksilver sequence. Quicksilver arrives on scene and zips around saving people from an explosion. It’s a humorous and fun sequence… but it’s bookended by a character’s death and a dramatically draining scene. The choice to put the Quicksilver scene at that moment reminds me of the tonal issues in Thor: The Dark World, another lackluster superhero film. If that type of criticism means anything to you, than X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t worth your time. Otherwise, it’s an average film that you probably won’t think that much about.

2/5

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Movies

REVIEW: Captain America Civil War Ends With Marvel Winning, Their Best Film Yet

Looking at box office numbers, it’d seem like Marvel reigns from the top of the world, breaking their own records every year. Personally I’ve been checked out from the studio’s films since Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s not that I have a specific criticism that can take down the quality of Guardians of Galaxy, or Ant Man, or Age of Ultron. They’re all fine, but that’s kind of the problem. “Fine” isn’t a word that energizes me to spend $15 dollars at the movie theater. These movies have become carbon copies of each other and are the very definition vanilla, inoffensive moviemaking. It’s a far cry from the genuine excitement that we felt when Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk stood next to each other for the first time in 2012 and assembled The Avengers. I’ve been wanting something to change in the formula for a while now. Which is why the concept for Captain America: Civil War immediately caught my attention. This wasn’t the typical sell of “good guys fight the bad guys and go home,” there was the potential of something more. Sure enough, Civil War proves a genuine progression The Avenger’s storyline. It acts as a dark middle chapter in the arc, and plants seeds for both the future of the heroes, and the cinematic universe as a whole.

Captain America: Civil War is unique because it pits the good guys against themselves. Following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, where the Avengers drop a city on the earth with a huge amount of collateral damage, the global community has turned against the Avengers. In response, The United Nations and America push through a proposal that would bind their activities unless they were specifically government sanctioned. This also means that the Avengers themselves are seen as “government property,” similar to a nuclear bomb. Their gear and equipment, such as Cap’s shield or Iron Man’s suits, wouldn’t belong to them anymore. This issue divides the crew, with some believing government oversight is necessary to reel in their recklessness, and others thinking only Avengers know what’s best.

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This plot point of government oversight is ingenious because it not only allows an easy diving-in point for each character’s back story, but is also easily applicable to any audience viewer. Especially in today’s political climate, the concept of private organization versus government operation is something hotly debated in public discourse. Granted this is still “just a superhero movie,” but I applaud Marvel’s efforts to push the franchise into more mature themes. I couldn’t help but think about all the High School essays that might be written about this movie. As for how government oversight affects the characters themselves, each character has their own take on the concept.

Of course the biggest two egos in the room end up being Steve Rodgers (Captain America) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) who end up ideologically opposed, but the film is smart never to depict their disagreement as a cartoonish rivalry. In fact, both characters desperately want to work with one another. Stark has his own reasons for agreeing with the proposal, but he also believes it’s best that the Avengers stick together and is willing to meet Rodgers’ requirements to accomplish cohesion. For Rodgers, he’s close to signing on but his involvement is complicated by the reemergence of Bucky Barnes, the Winter Solider. Barnes’ past as a sleeper agent for Hydra makes him a target for the governments of the world, and Rodgers is set on protecting him. This forces Rodgers to betray the government’s trust, and pits him against Stark and other Avengers.

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With Rodgers and Stark making up the heads of the two sides there are obvious characters who go along with them. For example, James Rhodes (War Machine), a staple of the Iron Man franchise, sides with Stark. Sam Wilson (Falcon), a regular in the Captain America series, sides with Rodgers. Again, the film is smart not to portray these allegiances as obvious phone-ins. Rhodes and Wilson come to their decision before Stark or Rodgers utter their feelings on the matter. Although it inevitably ends up as “Stark and friends versus Rodgers and friends,” it feels like natural independent characters making their own decisions. This is summarized best by Clint Barton (Hawkeye) who sides with Rodgers for seemingly no explainable reason, but keen viewers of Age of Ultron will deduce that Barton’s choice is likely due to his loyalty to Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) due to her brother saving him in that film. This attention to detail is present at every level of the film. Every scene feels necessary, and with such a large ensemble cast, every bit of information is a gift. No character’s motivation is left unattended to, even if it’s the first time we’re meeting them.

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Speaking of which, there are two new characters in Civil War. I was pessimistic about the introduction of new heroes after how they handled blatant marketing throughout Age of Ultron. Miraculously, Civil War seems to have taken the opposite approach with the introduction of Black Panther and Spiderman. Both characters seem to be introduced as the solution to a narrative roadblock in the film. Black Panther acts as an elusive third party to the conflict between Stark and Rodgers. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s been harmed by the events that force him to act. His involvement is a wild card that adds another layer of tension, reminding the audience that even if Stark and Rodgers made friends, the story isn’t over. Spiderman is a less necessary addition, since he doesn’t serve a plot purpose, but he’s used to even out the sides of the conflict which otherwise would heavily favor Rodgers. His short scene glances over the “I got my powers, my Uncle is dead,” which hopefully means when Marvel reboots Spiderman in the future we won’t have to sit through that for the third time. Spiderman’s introduction is aptly done, and more importantly his inclusion in the action sequences make the set pieces all the more thrilling.

And the action of this film cannot be understated. Marvel has developed a reputation for quality set pieces, but this is by far the best so far. The choreography is something worth studying and copying until the end of time. Every gun shot, punch thrown, jump made, or hit taken, is easy to follow and the sum of each sequence leaves you bedazzled. Of course the highlight is the inevitable showdown between each side of heroes as they use their full deck of powers against each other, but the rest of the film has equally electrifying moments. The stakes are very high in this film. With an ensemble cast, and the knowledge that a few actors are at the end of their contract, it’s easy to believe that any number of these conflicts could conclude with the end of one of the Avengers. The action certainly sells the lethality of the encounters, and grips your attention for that reason.

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In fact, the whole film is exactly that: gripping. While 2012’s Avengers may have survived on likability and comedic relief, Captain America: Civil War relies on a captivating central plot and exciting set pieces. It’s for this reason that for my tastes, I’d say Civil War is the best film from Marvel. It contributes something to your life and creates a conversation point. If you were an Avenger, how would you feel about government oversight? Was Stark or Rodgers right? The film goes in a certain direction to give you a conclusive answer, but the question remains as an interesting hypothetical. Even outside of that central plot. The character developments with Stark’s guilt, Rodger’s duty, or Black Panther’s views on revenge, are more mature than any of Marvel’s previous films. It’s for all these reasons that I left Captain America: Civil War not only impressed with its quality, but energized to see what they’d create next. Consider my faith restored, for now.

5/5

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Movies

Review: It Follows May Be The Last Horror Film

Is there anything scarier than having sex for the first time? The world is filled with fear-mongering messaging of what might happen when you have sex. The devout claim sex before marriage will forever taint your purity, damning you to hell. Social advice says introducing sex too soon into a relationship can irreversibly change the dynamic, altering how your partner thinks of you. Even after you escape the peer-pressure trials of virginity, there persists a worry throughout adult life of the consequences of sex. In the post-AIDs world we’re aware of the possibility of transmittable STDs and things that can hang over you for the rest of your life. If you’re one of the unlucky ones to contract a disease it might feel like a force of nature is following you, bringing imminent doom along with it.

It Follows is about a force of imminent doom literally following a girl named Jay, after she has sex with a guy named Hugh. After their sexual encounter, Hugh knocks Jay out with chloroform, ties her to a wheelchair, and explains the rules of the curse: It will always follow her, it only moves at a walking pace, but it’s “not dumb.” It can take any form, but only people who have the curse can see it. If she has sex with someone else it will follow them instead of her, but if they die it will follow her again, and if Jay dies the curse will start to follow Hugh again. Hugh drops Jay off at her house and vanishes from town. Jay’s left to deal with the consequence of this curse with the help of her sister and their friends Paul and Dara.

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It Follows has been summarized as being about “a walking STD,” which even director David Robert Mitchell has said “when you say it out loud, it sounds like the worst thing ever,” and I would agree that any synopsis of It Follows makes it sound dubious at best. In reality, It Follows has to be one of the cleverer horror films in recent memory. Slasher films, which are characterized as some menacing creature or person going around killing teenagers, have been criticized for tropes such as slow walking villains, useless companions, and sex-eager teenagers. It Follows embraces these tropes and wraps them around a concept that justifies them.

For example, law enforcement is typically useless in horror films and It Follows embodies this trope through Jay’s friends, helpless to assist her, despite their willingness to. This is because only people who have the curse can see the curse, which is an extension of the “supernatural STD” concept where no one really understands what it’s like unless you have it. On that note, a common joke for slasher films is teenagers’ insistence to take their clothes off, but for It Follows it’s actually a plot point, since the only way for the curse to be passed on is through sex. They’ve actually managed to write-in gratuitous nudity (although there isn’t any among the teen protagonists). Most impressive of all is their handling of the “slow walking villain trope.” I’ve always thought it was silly when a villain like Jason Voorhees casually strolls his way over to his victims who are sprinting away at breakneck speeds. However, the curse of It Follows is more terrifying specifically because it is so slow. The decreased tempo contributes to the impression that it will never stop, and indeed it never does. It’s a curse that haunts Jay ceaselessly, and a horror concept that’s just as effective in the daytime as it is at night.

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In fact, It Follows doesn’t rely on cheap horror tricks that would only work in a dark theater with booming audio. The film doesn’t have jump scares, or horrifying gore imagery (outside of one death at the beginning). It’s just a concept that eats at you. A persistent being that follows you, forever. You get to see the supernatural force multiple times in the film, and it’s always just a regular person. An old woman, a tall man, a naked woman, or a naked man. It’s never anything unusual, outside of knowing what will happen if it actually touches you. This made the movie easy to watch, but I noticed immediately after finishing the film that it royally messed with my head. I began to associate people walking in my direction with life-ending doom. Walking to work in the middle of the day, I’d be wary of people making direct eye contact, walking toward me. I’d remind myself it was just a movie, but the fact that the movie stuck with me during the daylight was impressive. It takes a fair bit of cinematic craft to accomplish that.

Of which there is an abundance of in It Follows. From the opening sequence alone, when the destruction of the curse’s force is established, you can tell there is some real talent both behind the camera and in the audio booth. Director David Robert Mitchell reportedly used a lot of wide angle shots to give the film an “expansive look,” but that doubles as making the audience peer to the edge of the frame, constantly looking for the next slow-moving pedestrian that could be the next bringer of doom. Frequently the terror of the scene is introduced with no real grandeur. It unceremoniously shows up far in the background and slowly creeps in as the scene plays out. These moments are gut-wrenching, to say the least. This is all assisted by the memorable soundtrack done by Disasterpiece, who mixed up a unique combination of 80s chiptunes with screeching horror synths. The blend of 1980s style with new horror made it feel like the film was constantly paying homage to the horror films the filmmakers watched when they were younger.

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And that’s where I really marvel at It Follows’ execution. The Slasher film genre became hugely popular for a lot of reasons, but one thing that stayed consistent was young teenagers who had sex always died. There’s a theory that the reason for this was because the conservative filmmakers who made those films were trying to convince young teens not to be so promiscuous and that was their way of sending messages to the youth they couldn’t connect with. It sounds insane, but there’s actually a lot of film theory articles written about that topic, and an even more insane amount of evidence supporting the theory. Which makes It Follows’  sex-focused plot even more ingenious. It’s another layer of folding all of the genre’s past into one film. Across the board It Follows encompasses everything the genre is about, takes every flaw, and turns it into a positive, even the bizarre ulterior motive of encouraging abstinence (or at the very least, being prude).

There are certainly things scarier than having sex for the first time. A murderer chasing you in the woods, or an alien hunting you on a spaceship, or being lost in the jungle while a predator stalks you, or having a mischievous Englishman haunt your dreams. Hollywood has spent decades thinking of scary concepts, and some are more terrifying than others. What all of those concepts have in common is that none of them are very likely to ever happen to you. It Follows is unique because it preys upon a fear that many people actually have: trusting people enough to have sex with them, and worrying about what will happen afterwards. I’m sure the filmmakers weren’t intending to send ulterior messaging like their forefathers before them, but It Follows’ creativity ascends over its predecessors, and the filmmakers’ ability to reanimate a decades-decaying genre riddled with criticisms is astounding. With that in mind, It Follows is arguably the quintessential horror film.

5/5

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Movies

Defending Your Movie: Mystery Men

It appears 2016 might be the biggest year for superhero movies yet. However, with the less than stellar reception of Age of Ultron and the possibility that those Justice League movies are going to be terrible, if Man of Steel is anything to go off of, it’s potentially the year the superhero stardom might finally collapse in on itself. Of course quality of content won’t actually mean anything until people stop going to the theaters in record numbers and making these movies earn billions of dollars. Either way, since we’re entering what might be the peak year of superhero films, now’s the perfect time to revisit one of the best movies that nobody likes: Mystery Men. This movie came out a little bit before its time, since 1999 wasn’t exactly the best time to release a parody film about superhero films. Then again, the movie has transcended whatever purpose was originally intended for it and reached cult status for a few different reasons that I think are worth revisiting this year.

What Is Mystery Men

Mystery Men was released in 1999 and stars several actors you actually know quite well. Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, and Hank Azaria are the three main characters. They play three normal guys who are trying to be superheroes because they want to be somebody important. The thing is, they’re really not that great and their pseudo-powers are obvious shams. It also doesn’t help that in their universe there’s already an acclaimed superhero named Captain Amazing, played by Greg Kinnear. Captain Amazing doesn’t seem to have any powers outside of being a capable fighter and having some useful gadgets, but the opening scene of the film is the trio getting their asses kicked in a brawl and Captain Amazing saving the day. This leads the trio to question whether or not they should even be doing this hero stuff.

A turn of events occurs when nefarious villain Casanova Frankenstein, played by Geoffrey Rush, is released from prison and captures Captain Amazing. The trio realizes that there’s no one to save Captain Amazing but them. So they reunite, resolve to recruit more members, save the Captain, and the day, and become heroes once and for all. Well, sort of.

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What Makes Mystery Men Any Good?

1) Somehow it’s the only superhero parody film that you’d actually want to watch. Outside of Superhero Movie (a film as inspired as its title), Mystery Men seems to be the only film that’s ever poked fun at the absurdity of the story of superheroes. The analogies between Superman and Captain Amazing are obvious and the film really runs wild with how much of a megalomaniac a crime fighter would become when they have a 100% success rate. Captain Amazing’s outfit is adorned with logos from companies that he endorses. At a few points in the movie you can see him appearing in commercials advertising for products like Mighty Whitey Toothpaste “because I want my teeth to look… amazing.”

Even my plot summary above doesn’t do justice to the sheer audacity of Captain Amazing’s ego. The “turn of events” that leads to the villain Casanova Frankenstein being released is after Captain Amazing has a meeting with his publicist, who informs him that people don’t think they need him because he’s already defeated all the bad guys. In an effort to rebuild his brand, Captain Amazing puts on his lawyer alter-ego “Lance Hunt” to argue an early release for Casanova, just so he can beat him again. Just in case you’re wondering: “Lance Hunt” looks exactly like Captain Amazing, except he wears glasses. A clever ruse that fools most people. There’s plenty of other quality jokes in each scene but at a certain point I’m just re-telling you the jokes.

2) It has one of the best casts in movie history. I don’t just mean that in the “go to IMDB page and be wowed by all the names you recognize” kind of way. I mean the casting of this movie has taken a life of its own. Let me frame it this way: In the movie Moneyball, a baseball movie about the general manager of the Oakland A’s changing how he managed his team, there’s a small scene where Brad Pitt’s character talks to the owner of the team. The owner is very business orientated, talks about meeting expectations with the resources you have, and other businessy stuff. The person they got to play the owner in that scene was CEO of Activision-Blizzard and multi-billionaire Bobby Kotick. Pretty good casting right?

Almost as good as getting William H. Macy, the most accomplished actor of the cast, to also be the fatherly mentor of the group. Or for Paul Reubens, mostly known for being Pee-Wee Herman and later for his weird public masturbation arrests, to be cast as the weirdo whose superpower is deadly farts. Or having Kel Mitchell cast as “Invisible Boy” in conjunction with his career absolutely evaporating (while his co-star from Kenan and Kel took off). You’ve also got Tom Waits showing up toward the second half of the movie practically playing himself as a guy who messes with weird instruments and gadgets. Eddie Izzard also plays some demented version of himself as one of the leader of a disco boys, not to suggest that Eddie Izzard likes disco, but he’d probably be down to dress up and be weird for a day. Finally every time I see this movie I find Geoffrey Rush’s involvement more and more hilarious, since his career as a “serious” actor is such a strong contrast to this absolute moronic movie.

A lot of people rag on Mystery Men for being a “bad” movie. Some of my friends have called it “one of the worst movies they’ve ever seen.” I chalk this up to hyperbole every time simply based off of the actors alone. These are quality actors and most of them are essentially playing themselves. They’re not playing roles that they had to study or “get into.” It’s also a comedy film and half of the cast is comedians, it’s not like they’re missing punchlines. The other half seems to know what’s expected from them. After all, this is the movie that casted Michael Bay as a frat boy.

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3) It is unbelievably stupid. Everything about this movie, the events, the characters, is really dumb, and I’m saying this in the most positive way possible.

Take this scene from early on in the film when Captain Amazing gets the idea to release Casanova Frankenstein from prison to revive his brand image. At first glance it seems like a throwaway scene to set-up essential plot, but it encapsulates Mystery Men. The visual image of a superhero throwing a fit because he lost his sponsor, a character who says “I’m a publicist not a magician,” being played by a well-known magician, and finally the simplicity of a silly joke like “get Death Man!” “Death man is dead.” Because what else would death man be?

That last joke might seem corny but I think it points to how Mystery Men may have been before it’s time because of the type of humor it was going for. It helps to know that Mystery Men is based on a comic series called The Flaming Carrot where the “heroes” of the story are not known for their cunning but for their mortality rate. The titular character’s main ability was entering a state of “Zen Stupidity.” Although the actual carrot was replaced with Captain Amazing, and all the heroes in Mystery Men were created for the film, the adherence to “so stupid it’s funny” remained. In 1999, comedy films were still focused primarily on jokes and punchlines in the most traditional sense. The highest grossing comedy that year was Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, a very different type of comedy. Mystery Men’s comedy isn’t best when there’s a joke set-up by the script and delivered well by the actors, it’s when your mind is overcome with bewilderment at the absurdity that you just have to laugh. I’d even argue there are moments made funnier when you think “did they really write that joke?” That type of humor has become more popular since 1999, especially on the internet to the extent that there are entire channels dedicated to it. Which seems to indicate that Mystery Men may have only gotten better with time as our collective tastes have adapted to it.

So this might sound too good to be true, but the fact remains that many people don’t like Mystery Men, so let’s air that out.

Why Might You Hate Mystery Men?

1) They didn’t trust the stupid. There’s a scene where the crew decides to hold formal recruitment of more heroes, which is the movie’s excuse to show off their ideas of other crappy heroes. There’s a little montage that includes cameos from Dane Cook, and other actors, and they introduce themselves as heroes like “The Waffler,” a guy who carries around a waffle iron and burns his enemies. Or PMS girl who’s very irritable and gets disinterested in the audition halfway through. Then a man approaches the audition in all black, with a dark hood, and after dramatically unveiling his cape he introduces himself as the ballerina man. I hate this part of the movie. It plays out like the typical comedies of the 90s and it’s not consistent with the adherence to idiocy like the rest of the movie. A lot of the movie tries to fight its way back to normal and these are almost always the weakest part of the film. It’s as if the early days of shooting they had a vision and at some point everyone realized they were making something weird and wanted to pump the breaks and make something marketable.

If you don’t already know, a lot of movie-making is the technical aspect, or the physical “showing up to work” aspect, but there is also a degree of politics and convincing people to do things that they said they were going to do. Believe it or not a lot of members of the cast have been asked about Mystery Men long after it’s been released, and Stiller, Azaria, and Janeane Garofalo (also in the film) have all said there was various fights on the set about the tonal direction. You can tell just by looking at it because the type of humor present in the film is all over the place. There are fart jokes, stupid humor, traditional punchline orientated, bickering chemistry focused, it’s very strange. It seems whichever humor is present in a scene is whoever won the argument that day. The director of Mystery Men, Kinka Usher, would never direct a film again, saying he rather work on “cool one-minute shorts than all this nonsense.” Usher would go on to direct commercials for the rest of his career, which are known to be experimental. As much as I love the cast for the film, it seems they were actively fighting against the soul of the project while on-set. These problems get worse in the second half.

2) The movie gets worse as it goes on. Closely tied to the previous point, Mystery Men becomes more traditional the longer it goes on. This means it becomes more ordinary, more bland, and not worth your time. A lot of the climax of the film is the crew dispatching lesser villains than Casanova Frankenstein, and they’re all one-bit jokes using gimmick gadgets that have cutesy jokes tied to them. Each gag is the equivalent of having a wink and a nod attached to them. Not that things get much better when the crew finally confront the main villains themselves.

Action sequences in a movie like Spider-Man can be exhilarating with the assistance of CGI, but do you really want to see Geoffrey Rush use a coke nail to combat Ben Stiller’s fists as “Mr. Furious?” What about seeing scene after scene of Paul Reuben as “The Spleen” farting to taking down enemies? These scenes feel like a writer’s room finding an answer to a script’s problem but not an audience’s These sequences are boring, and the entire last act is nothing but these moments. Eventually the film ends on a conclusion that brings the story to an end but it’s not the finale of lunacy that you may have hoped for.

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3) The set design and music is really strange. There’s a (overwhelmingly disproved) rumor that this movie was actually directed by Tim Burton and he hated the final product so much that he made up a pseudonym. This isn’t true because there’s footage of Kinka Usher directing Mystery Men on set. However, many people believed the rumor because a lot about this movie feels like Tim Burton. The music is bizarre, the city is gloomy and filled with smoke and lights, and the few CGI effects in the film are nightmare inducing, although that was mostly brought about by rushed deadlines rather than design.

Usually for me, and I think most people, set design and music wouldn’t be enough to hold it against a movie but the mixture of elements in Mystery Men is so diverse and so at odds with one another that it really stands out in the worst way possible. This is literally a film that uses the same sets as Batman Forever and throws in guys with disco outfits. Later in the film they’re in a suburban backyard with a swimming pool, there’s also a junkyard, the middle of the jungle, an apocalyptic looking abandoned theme park, and Casanova’s mansion itself which is completely different style by itself. Contrasted with the outfits of the all the characters, the design captures how production on Mystery Men must’ve been like: “I got no idea what’s going on.” But if you’re not keen on these elements of movies then you might not notice it at all, but I have heard this complaint a few times.

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Honestly the most frequent complaint I hear about Mystery Men is “it’s just bad.” So maybe you’ll hate Mystery Men because “it’s just bad,” but I disagree pretty strongly with that. There was clearly a vision in mind with what the film wanted to be, but there seems to have been some forces working against that. There was also a time and place when the movie was released, and that may not have been the best time to release the movie which is why it did so poorly. I’ll put on my crazy hat and say: THE WORLD JUST WASN’T READY!

Really though, our tastes as an audience have changed a lot since 1999. Our spectrum of comedy has been expanded, there have been a lot more superhero movies, our fatigue for them has increased, and even our appreciation for niche/cult films has arguably been expanded thanks to communities on the internet. I think the time is prime for a new found appreciation for Mystery Men. I saw this film in the theater when I was eight years old. My family bought it on DVD. I’ve seen it well over twenty times. I don’t know a single person who legitimately loves this movie as much as I do, and that’s a real shame. I believe if it’s a film that still holds up today, in fact it’s probably better today than it was in 1999. With the exception of that Smash Mouth song at the end, which I think I could go the rest of my life without ever hearing again.

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Movies

Top 5 Films of 2015

Earlier today I saw a lot of “Top Lists” for the year of 2015 and this led me to throw up something on Twitter. Then I quickly realized I should dedicate more time to my favorite films from the years. There’s not many times I get to be wholly positive, so instead of posting a clumsily thrown together list I made in Notepad, here’s a detailed explanation of five of my favorite films from 2015. I would have gone for a full top ten, but I really didn’t see that many movies I liked enough to put on a list. By the way, Sicario (with Emily Blunt in FBI gear up top) is not on this list, although it makes for a great feature image.

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5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I’ve written a little bit about how one aspect of this movie bothered me, but that doesn’t do justice to how pleased I was with the overall result. J.J. Abrams and company managed to bridge the gap between the old fans and new fans and gave us the “Episode 1” that everyone wanted. It’s almost like we can pretend the prequels never happened. Unfortunately, there’s already a movement among big-time Star Wars fans that say the film had “too much fan service,” but I think these complaints can only be had after leaving the theater and realizing you liked the movie. The Force Awakens is the first time that audiences cared more about new characters than old ones, but the creators didn’t know that we’d like Rey, Finn, or Poe, so we got a little glimpse of who they are instead of focusing on them completely. As someone who has never been a huge Star Wars fan, this film has gotten me onto the hype train, to the point that I’ve reinstalled Knights of the Old Republic and I’m considering a replay. It’s easy to feel good about Star Wars right now, as long as I push back the thought that the “marvelification” of the franchise will happen any minute now.

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4. The Gift

I wrote on social media immediately after seeing this movie: “The Gift is a great movie because it advocates all my world views. Don’t get married. Don’t have relationships. Don’t have friends. Don’t invite people over. Don’t meet people. Never trust anyone.” Four months later, I think this still accurately represents why I liked The Gift. If not for that reason, I think it’s one of the best “It’s good, just watch it,” experiences you can have. I went to see The Gift on the premise that it was about a “creepy neighbor,” and that’s it. It’s a film that plays with your expectations more than once. The less you know about the movie the better. In other words, it’s good, just watch it.

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3. Kingsman

As far as I’m concerned there were three James Bond movies released this year: Spectre, Kingsman, and Missions Impossible: Rogue Nation. I could go into the details of why they latter two are totally James Bond movies but you’re better off skipping Rogue Nation and just watching Kingsman. A kid gets drafted into British secret service and has to infiltrate an evil lair and save the world using gadgets. All he needs is a double 0 in front of his name. Kingsman had the benefit of being released earlier in the year, several months before Spectre brought “being fun” back to Bond, so at the time it was a breath of fresh air to the formula that had been bogged down by the self-seriousness of Skyfall and Quantum of Solace. Kingsman is funny, charming, but also smart. All of this is made clear by the inclusion of Colin Firth in the main cast. When you read about a movie like Kingsman, and see someone like Firth being in the cast, you’d usually think “I wouldn’t think Firth would do something so brain-dead,” well that’s because it’s not. Like with many British films, there are layers of classism stitched into the fabric and Kingsman is no different. You walk away wondering if there was something more going on. Even if there wasn’t, it was the most fun I had at the theater all year. P.S. Love Samuel L. Jackson’s costume design.

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2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie that’s story is told almost entirely through pictures. That’s a statement that can’t be said for most movies, and that’s okay. We have writers, actors’ performances, witty dialog, and ways of conveying information that’s pleasing to audiences outside of just pictures. In reality how many stories could you tell with just pictures? Still the novelty of watching Fury Road and realizing how much I knew about the world just by watching it had a big effect on me. Take for example this fight scene between Max and (the real main character) Furiosa. We learn key things about both characters: Furiosa is willing to kill Max, Max is not willing to kill Furiosa or the Wives, Max will work with Nux, but only to the extent that he has to, Nux has a deluded sense of friendship, and it appears that both Max and Furiosa want to use the truck to get away from the incoming horde. There’s no “we’re on the same side here Max!” scene between Furiosa and Max, because the audience already knows. The entire movie assumes a level of intelligence from the viewer. The low bar that they have seen the visuals on screen and were paying attention. But this isn’t some pretentious nonsense from film class. It’s an action movie made by an old guy who’s been making action movies since the 70s, and it is fucking rad.

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1. Ex Machina

Ex Machina automatically had to be in my Top 5 after I realized it had started not one, but two, heated debates between friends and family over the implications of the ending of the film. It’s nothing incomprehensible like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a fundamental understanding of what you believe “life” to be and if you think that definition translates when it’s being applied to biology versus synthetics (or to use simpler words: humans versus robots). Ex Machina is a film that sparks conversation and I envy any work of art that can accomplish that. That alone would force me to give it a recommendation but the rest of the film is also a marvel. It’s small in scope, with only four characters and “one” location, but it covers huge ideas like artificial intelligence, human connection, and the definition of “life.” It’s short in runtime, barely making it past an hour and a half, but you learn so much about the characters, their motivations, and quickly learn about complicated concepts. It’s a tightly written film, every second has a purpose and various moments have the potential to stay with you long after it’s over (I know which one has stuck with me the longest). On top of all that it’s undeniably charming thanks to the best performance from Oscar Isaac I’ve seen from him yet, as the super-genius super-self-centered Nathan. His character is a joy to watch and he jives well with co-stars Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander who do their part to service the film.

There isn’t a weak point to Ex Machina and every aspect of it I try to think about just inspires another sentence or two of praise, and I haven’t even mentioned the set design or soundtrack. Top 10 lists (or Top 5 lists) are always subjective and graded on nothing, but Ex Machina is the film that affected my life the most and made me love the medium more than I already do. I think that’s justification enough to praise it as my favorite for 2015.