Category Archives: Movies

Cinematic Paradise

A couple of weeks ago, I went and saw the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious. It was a memorable trip, even overlooking the movie itself. See, for the first time, I opted for the D-BOX experience: motorized seats that vibrate and move in correspondence to onscreen action. Fast 8 turned out to be the perfect movie for the system, as every rev, every crash, every explosion reverberated through the chair to my very core. It was so much fun. I was giddy – and sold – from the opening sequence.

I’ve loved movies ever since I was a kid. I suppose a part of that was due to me growing up in Los Angeles. I couldn’t help but be immersed in the culture of Hollywood. I’d go to the mall and it would be where they filmed Terminator 2 (Glendale Galleria) or Back to the Future (Puente Hills Mall). I’d recognize “fake” newscasters in any number of films as the real newscasters on my local television stations. When I was in middle school, my sister even took me along to be an extra in a crowd scene for a forgettable Billy Crystal movie.

But my love for the movies outstripped that of fellow Angelenos, perhaps a product of circumstance. My folks were working six, seven days a week, and I found myself with a fair amount of time to kill going as far back as my elementary school years. My cousin and I would roam the streets in our suburban neighorhood regularly on Saturdays, and we’d invariably end up either playing arcade games at Subway or stopping by the local multiplex. The employees there were lax about movie-hopping; it became a habit.

By the time I reached high school, I was a full-blown addict.* I loved everything about the theatrical experience. I loved seeing the marquees out front when we drove past, back when the only other recourse to find out what was playing was to telephone in or buy a paper. I loved seeing the giant posters and fancy cardboard displays that accompanied new and upcoming releases. I relished seeing a movie with one friend Saturday and another with someone else Sunday, or just going alone for a double- or triple-header. Once, I even stayed for four movies.

*I’d even read book adaptations of things like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Little Big League; it was absurd. I’ve outgrown that, but even now I’m still drawn to stories that become movies.

It didn’t hurt that I simply liked movies. Even as I watched my fair share of awful new releases, I never walked out on any, and just about never regretted seeing anything on the big screen (though spending $22 at the San Francisco Metreon for the abysmal Men in Black II comes to mind). Every experience offered something worthwhile – a good line, a silly laugh, a striking shot: moments of novelty and genuine inspiration I held onto. I never considered myself a movie expert and certainly not a movie connoisseur; no, I was always a fan.

It was in college that I began to gain a greater appreciation for cinematic history. I took just a single film course – “History of the American Motion Picture” – but fell in love in particular with The Gold Rush (1925) and It Happened One Night (1934). They opened my mind to the timelessness of the medium. Conveniently, this was during the heyday of Netflix’s home delivery service. I kept a steady stream of DVDs flowing in my apartment, taking full advantage of my three-at-a-time plan, all in addition to my regular trips to the theater.

There was so much out there for me to discover – films of all eras, and eventually all languages. After a friend recommended The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, I went on a long run of spaghetti westerns, then shifted over to regular westerns. I’d get to The Magnificent Seven which would lead to the original Seven Samurai which would then take me down Kurosawa lane. Or I’d crush on Audrey Hepburn and watch from her collection, then Marilyn Monroe and hers. I was learning without the structure of a classroom.

The fact that I was at UCLA also meant I was a short walk from the historic movie palaces in Westwood. It added another dimension to my fandom. On weekday afternoons when the crowd was scarce, it’d be me and a scattershot of senior citizens and the self- or perhaps un-employed in any number of beautiful, cavernous halls. The well-worn cliché of being transported to another world for a couple of hours had immeasurable value for my state of mind, being depressed in college. The theatrical experience had evolved into both hobby and therapy.

After college came graduate school, and ten minutes down the road from the university I attended in Irvine, California, there existed a real, honest-to-goodness, 70 mm IMAX theater. It changed my life. Movies had always been an event, but broadcast on a 90’ by 65’ screen – roughly the size of a seven story building, they became more. Everything felt immersive, exhilarating, simply overwhelming.* I watched summer blockbusters in awe, my brain reeling from the stimulus, my heart full. IMAX was a high of an experience that I have never been able to replicate.

*Watch any of the Transformers series on a real IMAX and try not to feel like a kid. They’re objectively terrible movies; I’ve enjoyed all of them nonetheless.

Graduate school was a fantastic time for my movie fandom overall. With a little bit of pocket change and a great deal of spare time, I averaged 80 trips to the theater a year, cranking it up to 100 as I shifted from coursework to dissertation writing. I developed a regular rotation of five or six local theaters, my individual trips determined by showtimes or discounts or membership perks. My mom swam in free tickets and concessions. I maintained a blog exclusively about movies for a year; I even created and taught a course on “International Politics and Film” one summer.

Moving from Southern California – and later, the United States – has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for film. Of course, as was inevitable, I even wrote a garbage screenplay of my own. But it has been fascinating to witness movie cultures abroad as an expat and traveler. To stand for the Thai royal anthem before the previews begin, to climb awkwardly over Japanese audiences sitting through the entirety of the end credits as a sign of respect, to wrap my head around three rows of subtitles (English, French, German) onscreen in Switzerland. They’re indelible memories.

Movies comprise a significant part of the tapestry that is my life. I can draw upon so many memories – good and bad – of childhood and adolescence, friendships and relationships, profound moments of self-realization to utterly unremarkable days, that are inextricably linked to films and film experiences. Granted, I will never in my life again movie-hop two or three screens every other weekend. But whether I’m in an uncomfortable chair in a last-run theater or a state of the art “motion system” on opening night, I will forever remain captivated by the wonder, the spectacle – the magic of cinema.

(Photo by I, Sailko, GFDL, http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html, CC-BY-SA-3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Most Watchable Movie Ever Made

And now, for something completely meaningless…

In May 2015, news came out that Warner Bros. had greenlit a new version of the 1993 action-thriller The Fugitive. There was scant detail provided – whether the project would be a sequel or reboot or remake, if Harrison Ford or Tommy Lee Jones would be involved, and so forth – and that remains the case to this day. The only piece of information I could find concerns the involvement of screenwriter Christina Hodson, credited with 2016’s Shut In (owner of a sparkling 3% on Rotten Tomatoes).

There are no original ideas in Hollywood, of course. Books, television shows, video games, board games, toys, and even phone apps have made the leap to the silver screen in recent years. Everything that has been proven to sell once, in any medium, has been recycled to sell again, time and time again. By one count, there will be 43 sequels, reboots, and remakes in 2017. This includes Universal trying to refranchise The Mummy into their monsterverse, and Kenneth Branagh revisiting the 1974 classic Murder on the Orient Express (based on the Agatha Christie novel), for starters.

However, there is something about the idea of touching The Fugitive I find especially egregious. As I glance at entertainment news almost two years later, I find myself even now dreading the inevitable update that lists the director or actors involved in the project. I realize that The Fugitive itself originated on television in the 1960s, and inspired another short-lived television reboot in the early 2000s – the property is hardly an “original.” But my problem with a movie redo is simple. The Fugitive is perfect. It is immensely watchable and rewatchable. It holds up in every aspect.

For starters, the script of The Fugitive is expertly crafted. The prologue establishes its premise in mere minutes. The wife of Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford) is murdered, he accused and found guilty of the crime. Flashbacks trace the couple’s last night together, spent at a fundraising event. The scenes are casual, seemingly nonchalant, but, unbeknownst to us at this point, hints. For now though, we simply follow Kimble – to the emergency surgery he is called in to perform, then back home where he finds his dead wife, and her killer, the one-armed man. We know Kimble is innocent. But we also know how it looks.

Kimble escapes, of course, in a sensational bus-train crash sequence as memorable an action setpiece as any in cinematic history. That’s when the movie truly begins. We have Kimble on the run, desperate to buy time both to clear his name and to uncover the truth behind his wife’s murder. And we have Deputy Samuel Gerard (Jones) and his team of US Marshals, tasked with finding an escaped murderer and bringing him to justice. “I’m not trying to solve a puzzle here,” Gerard says. “Well, I am,” Kimble responds.

It is precisely the puzzle that separates The Fugitive from any number of chase thrillers, providing the narrative much depth. While the entire first act is about Kimble wrestling to stay free in the immediate aftermath of his escape (including a highway chase scene), the movie evolves deftly and begins to ebb and flow with the puzzle rather than the chase. It’s an effective shift, one necessary to maintaining the integrity of Kimble’s character. Yes, Kimble is a smart man – probably smarter than his pursuers – but it is because of his mission that he puts himself at risk of capture.

The refocus on the murder also frees the movie from any sort of monotony with the extended cat-and-mouse between Gerard and Kimble. Indeed, the script feels well-balanced throughout. Following the iconic encounter at the dam that ends the first act (“I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care.”), we have a break in the chase, as Kimble returns to Chicago and formulates his plan, while the marshals move to capture the other fugitive from the escape. These scenes work to remind us of the characters’ underlying motivations, in the process contributing to their development.

Even without the physical presence of the marshals, Kimble’s predicament lends urgency to every scene. The drug sting and arrest of his landlady’s son is a heartpounding sequence that captures the walls seemingly caving in on Kimble – in the aftermath, Ford conveys this perfect mixture of relief and exhaustion and downright terror. The hospital sequence is no less tense, as we are reminded of the threat he faces even from a suspicious lab technician or a doctor. That he is making progress in his search for the one-armed man only underlines the stakes for our protagonist.

By the time we reach the end of the second act then, it seems almost an inevitability that the two sides will circle back on one another again. That the scene takes place in the wolf’s den – as Kimble visits a jail to see if an armed robber now behind bars is his one-armed man – only ratchets up the tension tenfold (there is a fantastic visual of Kimble shrinking in the back of an elevator filled with cops). This is a purposeful encounter for the narrative. Even if they cross paths purely by accident – with Gerard looking into the one-armed man himself – we are reminded of the precariousness of Kimble’s situation, the relentlessness of the man on his tail.

It is with the subsequent fall of the first big chess piece – when Kimble identifies Fredrick Sykes (Andreas Katsulas) as the one-armed man – that the movie shifts once more. The strands hinted at in the prologue, and pursued in the second act, start to come together as the movie barrels towards its conclusion. The separate worlds inhabited by the main characters merge almost fully now as Kimble clues the marshals in on his investigation (while necessarily keeping them at arm’s length). They’re not quite on the same side, but at least now they’re asking the same questions.

As Kimble and Gerard work individually to unravel the puzzle, Sykes comes to the forefront – dragging with him from the shadows the individuals who orchestrated the murder. The movie does this naturally, effectively: we have moved from the question of who killed Kimble’s wife to why Kimble’s wife was killed. And as Kimble finally pieces everything together, we do too, culminating in a series of onscreen showdowns. Kimble with the one-armed man, then with the mastermind, then with Gerard. It is an immensely satisfying finale.

There is not a wasted scene or line to be found in The Fugitive. Every thread comes back around, big and small. For instance, the push-and-pull over jurisdiction is a recurring theme, with the marshals clashing with local authorities from the outset (leading to Jones’ famous “warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse” line). Thus, late in the movie, when Sykes’ murder of a cop is blamed on Kimble, there are consequences for the marshals too. “Chicago PD will eat him alive!” They’re chomping at the bit to kill a man that the marshals want captured. It adds another realistic dimension to the final confrontation.

Indeed, the film oozes of authenticity. Some of it is almost forgettable: the throwaway line that references prank calls from people pretending to be Kimble on the hotline, the internal monologue of a nurse as she attends to an elderly patient. There are small human moments: the old guard who saves himself from the bus-train crash and then tells a white lie about the circumstances of Kimble’s escape. Then there are the constants: the easy banter among the marshals that reveal their camaraderie, the doctor who cannot turn his back on the hippocratic oath even on the lam. All of it works in service of more fully-realized characters, of a more fully-realized world.

There are too many reasons why The Fugitive works as well as it does. The movie takes a situation already imbued with urgency and adds a mystery on top. It sets up the highest of stakes, with the truth encompassing not only vindication in the face of execution but vengeance as well. It paces itself, balancing its disparate elements and worlds, with three crescendos that find the main characters at very different places in their respective missions. It is rich in dialogue, and propelled further by the power of the performances. The Fugitive is as smart, thrilling, and fun a movie as you will ever see.

And it is utterly timeless.

Top 10 Movies of 2016

As in the case of the past few years, living abroad has limited my access to arthouse films in general (even if I’m not a particularly arthouse-y person). For the record, the final cuts were Midnight Special and Pete’s Dragon.

1. Arrival

Arrival is a character study at its core. It is a slow burn of a character study that manages to be cerebral and emotional and gripping from minute one. There’s a twist that reveals itself in the climactic last scenes, but it doesn’t play out as such. Instead, this turn comes naturally – a completed puzzle that you weren’t aware was even being put together. It represents a triumphant culmination of the narrative, one with Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as its steady heart and soul. And because of her, Arrival is more deeply affecting than could have been anticipated.

Denis Villeneuve utilizes all his tools to keep Adams’ performance as the anchor. We don’t see the spacecraft until Louise does, for instance. We stay with her, with a literal over-the-shoulder perspective, as she deals with sensory overload in act one. As the story develops, the movie remains effectively patient – with a labor-intensive second act in which the foundation for communication with the aliens is built, brick by brick. Meanwhile, gentle voiceovers and distinct visuals accentuate the burden of her memories. As Louise learns more, we do too – about the aliens, her purpose, and eventually, her purpose. Adams is extraordinary. Arrival is beautiful. It is my favorite movie of the year.

2. Hell or High Water

There’s purpose behind Hell or High Water. Messages about economic injustice, corporate greed, treatment of veterans. But the movie doesn’t shout about the swaths of people left behind. Instead, its themes come as part of the scenery: oil wells on the side of the road, highway billboards about debt relief, towns that have seen better days. It begins in the midst of the action: a bank robbery by brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and the volatile Tanner (Ben Foster). And as their backstory is filled in, as the bigger messages become apparent, it is their relationship and their motivations that continues to center the movie.

Running parallel to the story of the brothers is that of their pursuers, two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). What could have been a cliche – with Bridges as a character nearing retirement – instead adds poignancy and, surprisingly, much levity to the proceedings. The characters on both sides of the manhunt are rich, memorable, grounded, and the confidence of the script allows the story to breathe on its way to an inevitable showdown. Even the denouement is somehow as tense and absorbing. Hell or High Water is the quintessential modern western. It feels both timely and timeless.

3. La La Land

After La La Land’s rousing opening number (“Another Day of Sun”), I braced myself for something unabashedly wide-eyed and joyous, akin to The Muppet Movie (“Life’s a Happy Song”). Instead, it moves to deconstruct the idealistic vision of Hollywood set forth in that sequence. The movie lays bare the idea of the pursuit of stardom, kicks it around some – but does this without mockery or hostility. In fact, the ultimate fate of the characters is in many ways a deference to that convention. But by daring to walk the tightrope, La La Land ends up in a very different place from where it starts. In the process, it adds depth both to its world and to the central romance that is a microcosm of that world.

Certainly, La La Land stands as another of Hollywood’s love letters to itself. Sharing the wonder of Hugo and the playfulness of The Artist, to name some recent entries, it comes off at times as both sweet and sweetly naive. But despite its reverence for the industry, and its romanticism for the city, it nurtures a far more melancholy tone than those examples. The truly happy ending for Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (a sensational Emma Stone) is not necessarily the one that they get, the one in which their professional dreams have come true. Instead, they – and we – are left to wonder whether the achievement of the very ambitions that connected them was worth what it cost. I kind of loved that.

4. Eye in the Sky

An innocent child wanders inside the blast zone of an imminent drone strike on terrorists. The scenario seems cheap. It is cheap. But what elevates Eye in the Sky is not the Sophie’s choice itself, but the surrounding discussion along its various strands. A Cabinet Office Briefing Room debates how much collateral damage could be sold to the British public. A British Army Colonel (Helen Mirren) plays with simulations to alter the blast radius, seeking a degree of plausible deniability. An American drone pilot (Aaron Paul) finds loopholes in the chain of command in order to delay taking the unimaginable action. The situation is the backdrop. The substance is the politics.

Eye in the Sky is an incredibly tense, smart, thought-provoking thriller that confronts head on the moral grayness of modern warfare. It is one of the best-written war movies to come along in a while, with its boardroom discussions effectively interspersed with scenes on the ground – centered on an undercover agent (Barkhad Abdi) – that help to ramp up the tension of the central scenario in key moments. The performances, including one of the last from Alan Rickman, are all-around fantastic. And the script pulls no punches with an ending that reinforces the impossible choices that those involved in war are forced to confront.

5. Don’t Think Twice

At a certain age, we begin to assess our lives relative to those of others, particularly to those of friends. They experience a milestone, personal or professional, and we can’t help but take a step back and consider our own achievements, our own progress and shortcomings. This natural tendency is vividly captured in Don’t Think Twice, which centers on an improv troupe in which one of its members (Keegan-Michael Key) ascends to a Saturday Night Live-esque spotlight. And for all the unique specifics of the situation – with the depicted social circle chasing the same dreams of stardom as the couple in La La Land – the movie resonates by being about friendship at its core.

As with Mike Birbiglia’s previous directorial and writing effort (Sleepwalk with Me, which made my 2012 list), Don’t Think Twice is quietly exceptional in its treatment of characters and relationships. Everyone in the troupe feels real, human and imperfect, and it is in one small moment after another – some cringe-worthy – that each confronts his or her unique mixture of aspiration and desperation, selflessness and selfishness. The dynamics of the group as a whole are particularly interesting, leading to a confrontation that exposes the inherent contradictions of a team in which every member seeks something more for himself or herself as priority.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings

The first scenes of Kubo and the Two Strings, with Kubo’s mother helpless against a thunderous ocean, then Kubo telling origami stories to the village children, set the tone for the film: the sequences are captivating, full of drama and tension, while its stop-motion animation is jaw-dropping. They help to build a mythos immediately, providing a gravitas that elevates Kubo to a place of seriousness. As the movie continues, it constructs an immersive world that expertly balances multiple elements, developing its family drama and coming-of-age tale, seamlessly interweaving supernatural elements, and offering respite with big laughs (largely in the character of Beetle, with Matthew McConaughey channeling Patrick Warburton). It’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s touching. As a full product, Kubo is remarkable.

7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

You fall in love with the characters in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s a movie that easily could have collapsed in cliches, with the rebellious child (Julian Dennison), the kind foster mother (Rima Te Wiata), her reluctant partner (Sam Neill), and the no-nonsense social worker (Rachel House). But from the very first scene, from the very first interaction, Hunt feels unique. There’s an authenticity that is not betrayed by the colorfulness of its characters or its setting. The relationships at the center of the movie never feel too precocious, too maudlin, too easy or too much. No, it’s quite perfectly well-rounded, with a ton of heart. And far more laughs than I could have imagined.

8. Weiner

There is a scene in Weiner – one that is prominently and smartly featured in the trailers – when the titular subject, disgraced former congressman and now mayoral candidate, on his way out of a Jewish bakery, hears a man call him a “scumbag.” Anthony Weiner, with just a moment’s hesitation, responds. He walks back to the doorway and gets into a verbal confrontation with that man. It’s tense. Later, after the scene has dispersed, a rabbi asks the cameraman, almost chuckling, “Why didn’t he just walk away?” And that’s what this documentary is about. A man who cannot get out of his own fucking way. It’s a fascinating movie, tragic and comedic and captivating, one that has come to take on even more layers after the recent presidential campaign because of the way it depicts his marriage with top Clinton aide Huma Abedin.

9. Blood Father

Examining familiar themes – estrangement, isolation, salvation – with sharpness and nuance, Blood Father rises well above the conventions of the standard action-thriller. The performances are strong, especially with Mel Gibson playing Link as a wearied man who comes to recognize he has little to offer his daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) beyond violence upon her pursuers, with skills from a life he has long renounced. The supporting cast (William Macy, among others) enrich the film with hints of Link’s lives, new and old, liven it as Lydia’s circumstances close in around the two of them. Replete with tense confrontations and taut action sequences, Blood Father essentially out-Takens Taken.

10. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Popstar throws a ton out there, and so much of it sticks. It sharply satirizes the music industry and celebrity culture. It squeezes unique gags out of the well-treaded mockumentary format. It – in the tradition of The Lonely Island – contains a soundtrack filled with songs both immensely listenable and absolutely hilarious (“Equal Rights” being the standout). It utilizes a ton of non-sequiturs and one-liners and cameos to great effect. And it has several memorable comedic set pieces, including the best prolonged full frontal gag since Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Like that film, one of the overlooked comedies of the past decade, Popstar works because it treats all of its absurdity seriously. Everyone commits. As a result, Popstar is hilarious start to finish.

And my most disliked movies of the year.

Florence Foster Jenkins

It is rather difficult to muster any sympathy for a woman – even one played by Meryl Streep – whose singing career appears to be little more than a vanity project, and whose husband and closest confidants act as enablers to her narcissism, for reasons the screenplay fails to convey. Florence Foster Jenkins tries to depict its titular character as a study in courage and poignancy, but the ridiculous central conceit of the movie (even if based on real events) is one that I found impossible to get over. It seems apt that Hollywood – too often self-important, self-congratulatory, and obliviously elitist – would herald this woman who just seems completely ridiculous to the rest of us.

X-Men: Apocalypse

For all the flaws of the vastly overrated X-Men: First Class, both it and the excellent Days of Future Past successfully centered their narratives on ideological conflict. Apocalypse has none of that cerebral debate: it’s schlock about global domination, bad shlock at that. There’s no effort to explain the villain: why he needs horsemen, the boundaries of his powers. The movie is sloppily directed and edited, looks like garbage, wastes its acting talent, and partakes in stupid fan service. Even the few parts that work – Michael Fassbender’s Magneto – quickly lose gravity. Meanwhile, the laughable last scene attempts to reimpose the status quo, but in the process renders all the developments of this movie completely meaningless.

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War is simultaneously the best Avengers movie and the worst Captain America movie. It seeks to reconcile the global, over-the-top scale of the former with the gritty, grounded nature of the latter – doing so with only marginal success. While the movie effectively continues the saga from The Winter Soldier, the inclusion of the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe strips it of nuance and moral complexity (perhaps more inevitably, also the quaint, assured, and self-contained feel of The First Avenger). My highest compliment is the movie juggles everything about as well as it possibly can. I just wish it didn’t have to.

As in Batman v. Superman, the dilemma of Civil War concerns the consequences of superhero action. Yet, the script does no better than its DC counterpart in tackling the issue, or in making the titular conflict any less contrived.* The audience is asked – quite tediously at times – to consider a clearly flawed solution: The Sokovia Accords, which would essentially render the Avengers a UN peacekeeping mission. Problem is, there is no alternative presented. This isn’t oversight but castration, removing all initiative and free will from the Avengers. Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) choice to reject the proposal seems obvious, because it is.

*For whatever reason, one side withholds key information from the other

Further stripping the debate of its power is that the lack of stakes has always been a shortcoming of the Whedonverse. Previous movies have been quippy, lighthearted, popcorn fare, with an endless supply of redshirt robot villains, minimal human deaths, and no lingering aftereffects. Thus, when Civil War asks its characters to reconsider the fallout, there really isn’t any to speak of. I almost laughed when it was revealed that there were only about 300 civilian casualties stemming from the events in Manhattan, Washington D.C, and Sokovia.* Are you kidding me? This is negligible given the global catastrophes averted.

*Created presumably because Marvel doesn’t have the balls to kill even fictional citizens from a real country

Even the movie seems to realize the argument from the other perspective is weak, as it overlays Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) calls for oversight with a personal motivation linked intimately to Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). This aspect is nicely handled in spots, particularly in the way their conflict folds both into the larger story about Bucky’s past and that of the mysterious villain pulling the strings. Still, this is also a storyline telegraphed from the beginning. The revelation that leads into the final fight feels almost like a chore because of how obvious it has been made to the audience.

Ultimately, that’s the fault of too many things going on in the movie. Every character and plotpoint is intertwined to prevent wasted screen-time; Chekhov’s gun sped up to the nth degree. The introduction, motivation, and origin of the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) are combined into one overly convenient scene; it might be digestible but it’s still a rush job. Exacerbating the issue is that the Russo brothers seem to insist all the characters deserve individual moments. This works well with some – Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) becomes the heart of the movie, while Antman (Paul Rudd) steals his spare moments – but not so much others (sorry, Jeremy Renner and Paul Bethany).

The most egregious offender of this is the extended Spider-Man (Tom Holland) bit, truly the equivalent of Wonder Woman at a laptop. Admittedly, he’s great in action at the airport scene, but his presence fundamentally makes no sense. The movie doesn’t reveal how Stark learns his secret identity, doesn’t explain why he would seek out a 16 year-old for a war, doesn’t question the ethics of recruiting a child to likely death without informing his guardian. Peter Parker’s presence comes off as self-congratulatory for the MCU.* Honestly, how novel is it to see a character who has been in five standalone movies in the last 15 years?

*And enough with the unwatchable Stan Lee cameos. Jesus Christ.

Overall, Civil War is a bit all over the map. Everything featuring the Captain America characters – Rogers, Barnes, Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Carter (Emily vanCamp), Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) – work incredibly well: those plotlines feel real, affective, following directly from Winter Soldier. The introductory sequence is riveting, lending itself well to the Scarlet Witch-centered storyline. When the rest of the Avengers get brought into the picture however, the results are more mixed. Sure, the action sequences are high-flying. But everything is busier, messier, and painted in broader strokes. With that, the core of the movie becomes a little harder to hold onto.

Batman and Superman versus the Dawn of Justice

Batman v. Superman is a solid movie, oftentimes even a really good movie. At its core, it feels like Man of Steel 1.5. While it doesn’t make Man of Steel any better in hindsight, the much-discussed retcon actually works well in creating a foundation for this clash of the titans. Indeed, the first ten minutes is a revisiting of the Superman-Zod battle, only with real consequences. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) serves aptly as our window into a world in which Superman (Henry Cavill) appears, and we understand the concern, the fear (“the fever, the rage…”) that manifests in a much more jaded Batman onscreen than ever portrayed. That sequence sets up the themes for the most interesting aspects of Batman v. Superman.

Dawn of Justice, in contrast, is absolute garbage. The tone of the Justice League-themed aspects of the movie is inconsistent, yet unsubtle to the point of distraction. To plant the seeds for the presumable plot of the next installment, there is a dream sequence of the Flash in a time vortex, a scene disconnected from the entirety of the 2.5 hour movie that surrounds it. To reveal the Justice League roster, there is literally a three minute shot of a laptop showing Youtube-quality videos – both in terms of production value and acting ability. These are the equivalent of Thor’s magic pool sequence from Age of Ultron, the Red Skull disappearing into thin air part of The First Avenger, the unwatchable Nick Fury donut shop bullshit in Iron Man 2.

The problem is that the Dawn of Justice elements are not compartmentalized. They bleed deep into Batman v. Superman. Diana Prince’s (Gal Gadot) sporadic appearances stand as more distracting than essential, despite director Zack Snyder’s best efforts. What makes her character especially jarring is her own rockin’ theme song that accompanies every mention – the Jumanji drums would have been more subtle. Meanwhile, the character of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, in a Zuckerberg-like portrayal I enjoyed immensely) suffers hugely because he must also serve as a vessel for the eventual appearance of Darkseid. Luthor’s beef with Superman would have made for a much better parallel to Bruce Wayne’s without the Doomsday stuff.

Tantalizingly, so much of Batman v. Superman works. Like the better parts of its predecessor, the script creates a complex Superman, a Superman who makes choices and mistakes and questions his place in the world. Again, it’s Man of Steel 1.5. Moreover, because Zod and planetary genocide are off the table this time, Batman v. Superman is forced to confront all the gray areas that Man of Steel merely teased then summarily discarded. This is a Superman who the world has mixed feelings about, who some worship, others resent, and still others simply want to use. The script does well to focus on Batman, as his every conversation with Alfred (Jeremy Irons) projects these debates about the mercurial god-figure, underscoring Superman’s role as unknown quantity.

I found the first hour and a half enthralling: scenes moved with a sense of purpose, deftly managing and developing multiple characters and storylines, reminiscent of – dare I say – The Dark Knight. We have an introductory Lois (Amy Adams) sequence that establishes her tenacity while underscoring her central role in Superman’s life; indeed, it is his blind devotion to her revealed in that opening scene that plants the seeds for his undoing in this movie. We have Bruce Wayne’s building resentment, leading the billionaire to cross paths with Luthor, at the same time pushing his vigilante alter-ego to a brief but effective first encounter with Superman. We have the leadup to the committee hearings, and a stunning second act twist at the Capitol that should change everything.

Only, it doesn’t. The Justice League universe-building takes center stage. Everything then goes from 0-60 because the third act – inextricably linked to the next film – demands galactic stakes, far beyond the relatively grounded motivations that this movie has sought to establish up to that point. In the process, the sense of purpose the script demonstrated quickly devolves. It plows ahead almost blindly: carefully crafted storylines now intersect in clunky ways, character motivations are completely jumbled. Lex shifts from looking for a safeguard against Superman to bizarre (and nonsensical) genetic experimentation. Batman turns from suspicious detective to unrelenting psychopath. The titular battle somehow manages to come out of nowhere; the immediate situation contrived.

Even the actual, entertaining-as-hell fight between Batman and Superman – and the thrilling solo action sequence that follows (though that lacks proper motivation) – are overshadowed by an instantly-forgettable CGI slugfest that inserts Wonder Woman dead center and relegates Batman to the sidelines. It’s symbolic. We have Wonder Woman because the movie is ultimately a Justice League origin story. We have Doomsday because it needs a villain that warrants help from Wonder Woman. And we have huge leaps of logic that far outstrips Lex’s established motivations to get Doomsday. Indeed, following the Capitol events, the movie shifts from a very human story to a very non-human story, from Batman v. Superman to Dawn of Justice. I enjoyed it. I just wonder why Batman and Superman (and Lex) weren’t enough.

Top 10 Movies of 2015

The usual caveat about living in Japan applies especially to The Revenant, one of the few award contenders I haven’t seen, and to a number of well-received documentaries and foreign films. Brooklyn, The Martian, and Spotlight were the final cuts.

1. Two Days, One Night

Off-screen and almost as a prologue, the straightforward premise of Two Days, One Night is established: following a personal leave, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has been made redundant at her factory job. As the weekend starts, she’s informed that management would reconsider if the other employees decide to forgo their bonuses in favor of reinstating her position. Thus, she goes around for individual visits, attempting to convince enough of her now ex-colleagues not to act in their own self-interest.

The screenplay is terrific, but it is Cotillard’s transcendent performance that allows the audience to alternately feel her anguish and determination, her doubt and defiance. This is a psychological study, of a woman forced to deal with her circumstances, but also – importantly – of the people around her who have to decide what “doing the right thing” even means. It’s one brutal conversation after another, one gut-wrenching encounter after another. The experience is exhausting. Two Days, One Night is my favorite movie of the year.

2. Creed

The Rocky movies got progressively more cartoonish with each installment. Even the pleasant, if unremarkable, send-off Rocky Balboa featured an opponent named Mason “The Line” Dixon – marking a TKO over subtlety, at least. Creed immediately changes that. Its opening scene is gripping, harkening a return to the grounded underdog story that gave the original Rocky its identity and heart. Those first five minutes serve as a fast reminder of how good the underlying material was and remains; I got chills when the title card came up.

Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan make the Rocky story their own. But their reimagining works also because it willingly tackles the mythos head-on. Rocky’s shadow looms over the movie, but in a realistic way, as faded heroes might in the cities that once revered their achievements (Stallone is sensational as a vulnerable Balboa). Against this backdrop, Adonis’ struggles – his identity crisis, his fraught relationships, his training – gain greater depth. And as a result, the fights, already visceral and beautifully shot, mean more. I had high hopes for Creed. I never expected to clap and cheer spontaneously in the theater like a lunatic.

3. Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a strikingly smart movie. It has the feel of a constant chess match – both between Caleb the programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) and Ava the android (Alicia Vikander) as the former administers the Turing Test on the latter, and between Caleb and his host and employer (Oscar Isaac, who can do no wrong) as the former seeks to divine the latter’s true intentions. The majority of the screenplay is comprised of thought-provoking one-on-one conversations that explore the nature of consciousness, morality, life and love.

That the philosophical and intellectual aspects of Ex Machina are seamlessly interwoven into an engaging mystery is a total credit to the movie. The unsettling backdrop infuses an eeriness throughout the proceedings, with tension and momentum building towards an explosive third act that finds Caleb forced to confront his humanity and his relationship with Ava. There are a couple of remarkable scenes in that vein. That those scenes feel like they can go either way is a credit to the intrigue of Ex Machina.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

Fury Road is essentially the last ten minutes of Road Warrior, except on steroids. It’s a feature-length chase scene that manages to be consistently enthralling and inventive, upping the stakes as the action progresses. What begins as a simple tale of survival for the titular captive (Tom Hardy) transitions into something more as Max finds himself in the middle of a feminist revolt; it is in fact through the Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) storyline that his character develops, oftentimes taking a secondary role in the process. It’s a neat narrative trick.

George Miller and editor Margaret Sixel accomplish the near-impossible in piecing together visually stunning, awe-inspiring, and plain fun sequences from chaos and mayhem. So much happens onscreen, yet the action is not only striking but coherent and digestible. The short breaks in between contain more meaning simply because they are so rare, and because they allow us to see these characters in vulnerable spots. For brief moments at least. Then they snap back to it, because they have to: the chase continues.

5. ‘71

The “soldier behind enemy lines” conceit is well-trodden cinematic ground, but rarely is it as brutal and uncompromising as in ’71. The movie seamlessly fits the individual fictional account of British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) into the historical narrative of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The open warfare involving multiple paramilitary groups, the resentment between plainclothes soldiers and undercover counter-insurgency agents, the citizenry caught up both amidst and into the conflict – all represented faithfully through Hook’s story, effectively as part of the chaotic environment that threatens his life.

The structure of ’71 is simple: a brief prologue, a brief epilogue, and nonstop intensity in between. It’s reminiscent of one of my all-time favorites, Black Hawk Down, and if the message of that movie was expressly simple (“It’s about the man next to you… and that’s it. That’s all there is.”), so is the one here: the old adage that war is hell. There’s a subplot involving a local youth (Barry Keoghan) that the movie could be more subtle about, but that does build towards a gripping climax that is perfectly executed – and one I watched largely between my fingers.

6. Still Alice

Still Alice might be Oscar bait, but it’s good Oscar bait. This is a movie whose every frame rests upon Julianne Moore’s capable shoulders. Her every word, every expression, every movement conveys so much, reflecting the entirety of her struggle, physical and psychological, as her Alzheimer’s takes hold. It is remarkable the transformation that is depicted through the course of the movie, which doesn’t shy away from the total impact of the disease across all aspects of her life. The dynamics with Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin) and kids (Kate Bosworth and a standout Kristen Stewart, shockingly enough) in particular deepen the film’s already considerable impact.

7. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

The Mission: Impossible series has become a well-oiled machine, arguably getting better with each successive installment, Part II excepted. The stunts in M:I5 are characteristically fantastic, if perhaps not as flashy as those of its predecessors. The script however is remarkably strong*, with the conflicts sharper and more grounded, thanks in part to several noteworthy additions to the cast – an intimidating villain (Sean Harris), a capable partner (Rebecca Ferguson), and a bureaucratic foil (Alec Baldwin). There’s a climactic showdown that actually feels like Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is walking into an impossible situation, and the manner in which that scene plays out helps to solidify Rogue Nation’s status as the best of the series.

*for a lazy, disappointing Cliff’s Notes version, see Spectre.

8. Dope

On the surface, Dope is a movie that’s been done to death. It’s a coming-of-age high school dramedy, for starters. Even the plot twist of a teen forced into a ridiculous, law-breaking scheme after getting involved with the wrong crowd is reminiscent of Risky Business or The Girl Next Door. Despite this, Dope comes off as stunningly original, largely because of the unique mixture of its protagonist (Shameik Moore), an African-American nerd, and its setting, the hood (Inglewood, CA). Sharply written, insightful, but also consistently funny, the movie is unafraid to be an amalgam of things that have come before. In doing so, it presents a perspective unlike any captured in recent memory.

9. Sicario

As with Incendies, Enemy, and Prisoners, Sicario is gripping start to finish. Even without the prominent mystery that his remarkable past efforts contained, Denis Villenueve essentially maintains their spirit – and plays to his strengths – by utilizing perspective and structure. Sicario traces a mission by a task force to hunt down the leader of a Mexican drug cartel, through the eyes of an agent (Emily Blunt) who has no idea what she’s gotten herself into. It is Kate Macer who thus acts as an unwitting detective of sorts, untangling story threads, confronting moral quandaries. Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro are all sensational, the set pieces are unbearably tense, but it is how the mission – and that world – impacts Kate that the movie finds its brute force.

10. Jurassic World

Jurassic World is a silly, silly movie. But if you can overlook some egregiously spotty CGI (at times), and acknowledge that Vincent D’Onofrio’s character basically has the word “villain” stamped on his forehead, it is a surprisingly and massively exhilarating, fun, even inventive ride. The characters aren’t too one-dimensional, the kids aren’t too annoying, and the twists aren’t too obvious… not to say those things aren’t any of that. But because of the script’s self-awareness, the chemistry between the leads (Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard) and some breath-taking action sequences, its flaws are forgiven. Jurassic World was one of the most fun experiences I had in a theater in 2015.

My most disliked movie of the year.

Tomorrowland

There is so much off about Tomorrowland. Its core relationship centers on the middle-aged Frank (George Clooney) and two teenage girls, one an android he has quasi-romantic feelings about. It comes off as strange (or worse) that he remains obsessed 40 years after their pre-pubescent relationship, especially when she still looks like a child. Even putting that side, a good 80-90 minutes elapses before the movie develops any sense of purpose. Everything is vague prologue, as though to create an aura of intrigue, but it comes off as disingenuous sleight of hand at best, vacuous at worst.

Indeed, when the reveal finally does come, when the characters reach Tomorrowland, it feels like an “emperor’s new clothes” situation. The mythology never crystallizes, the vision somehow remaining half-baked as the movie devolves into a generic conflict between two men. The relationship between the land, its people, and our world is never made abundantly clear. The ending comes off as supremely cynical as a result, with “dreamers” stolen while the rest of us are left to rot because we were deemed not worthy. Tonally, structurally, narratively, Tomorrowland is an utter mess.

Mockingjay, Part 2

It’s easy to dismiss Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series as teenage fodder – a poor man’s Harry Potter, or Twilight-lite. Certainly the books fall squarely into the burgeoning young adult genre: they’re written quite basically; the prose effective but pedestrian. Substantively, there’s a love triangle, a big bad, a dystopian backdrop: the usual suspects. But the unoriginality of the concept belies a richness that helps to account for the series’ status as global phenomenon, to its widespread popularity among millions who are decidedly not teenage girls (including the likes of me). Themes of power and justice, war and control, political ideologies and so forth, pervade the books, with no easy answers.

At their very best, the movie adaptations have reflected that depth. This was Catching Fire, the sequel that was everything the first Hunger Games should have been. That second installment maneuvered adeptly around the dominant presence of the games, managing to world-build without blatant exposition. The screenplay quite naturally carved out identities for the districts, traced the blossoming rebellion, and developed the villainy – and overall character – of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). By devoting time and space to the historical context of the tournament, to the surrounding political and social upheaval, it infused weight in the games themselves beyond the immediacy of survival. In so doing, it infused more meaning to Katniss’ (Jennifer Lawrence) journey. It was what Collins had done to perfection in the books.

At their worst, the movie adaptations have meandered. The first Hunger Games, for instance, got lost in the games. Although the first half of that movie takes place entirely outside the arena, it still feels like the screenplay barely broached life in Panem. Instead, much of the attention was focused on Katniss after her life had already changed, after she had volunteered as tribute in place of her sister. The larger geopolitical context is summarily dismissed when the action shifts to the games. The rich world from the source material is thus reduced to mere background noise; the screenplay narrowly focusing in on one woman’s physical survival: The Running Man redux. The Hunger Games felt like a standalone: an entertaining and well-executed one, but a diversion nonetheless.

Thankfully, Mockingjay Part II falls closer to the Catching Fire end of the spectrum. I suppose the nature of the concluding chapter provides it an unfair disadvantage in that regard. After all, it has to be more substantive and wider reaching, being tasked to wrap up not only Katniss’ story but the whole universe’s. Notably, it does not do either of these perfectly. Much of this rests on the messy shoulders of Mockingjay Part I, the worst of the series and comprising enough material for half a movie at best. Part II has to take on the resulting burden – it is at times overstuffed and underdeveloped. Rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, gamely) in particular suffers as a character, and the path to the climax and denouement feels awkward in spots; the legwork to get there not entirely weak, but lacking nonetheless.

Still, the movie does benefit tremendously from its focused structure, in particular the intertwining of Katniss’ mission and the rebels’ as they take the Capitol. This is something none of the previous installments had the luxury of, with the games the central entity in the first two movies, and Mockingjay Part I marking essentially a recovery and scouting period. To its credit, Part II runs with that action. The traps on the Capitol streets effectively recall arenas past, even as the open warfare there and underground offer novel backdrops for the series. Even during the down moments, the group – and Katniss in particular – is forced to deal with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been manipulated by Snow. The movie is by far the most intense of the series, one of the most intense PG-13 movies I can recall. It all gels.

Of course, none of it would work without the titular Mockingjay. For all the flaws of the series, the Katniss character has remained the one constant, and Jennifer Lawrence has been every bit up to the task. She is captivating in every scene. The resolve as she makes her decision to go after Snow, the lingering but implicit good-bye to her sister Primrose (their relationship still the heart of the series), the flicker of frustration when she’s reduced to a propaganda tool. Her anguish, her guilt, her anger: it’s a remarkable performance that gives Part II its center, and one enhanced by the terrific Sutherland as her counter. Only the movie’s occasional lapses into young adult mode – with the love triangle surfacing with Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) – detract from the character. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often.

Thus marks the end of the Hunger Games series then. It’s strange. I enjoyed three of the four movies, and thought Catching Fire in particular was a phenomenal effort. They were all incredibly well done, blockbusters but grounded, with heart. The series was impeccably cast, surrounding Lawrence with a host of terrific if underutilized talent – Sutherland, Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, among others (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s presence was greatly missed in the final scenes). But I still can’t help but get the feeling that there’s something missing. The lackluster world building in the original, the decision to split Mockingjay up – the series became a bit more disconnected than it should been. Somehow, the Hunger Games series seems less than the sum of its parts.