Category: Box Office Democracy

Box Office Democracy: Sleight

I remember once hearing Peter Bagge say that he regretted naming his comic book Hate because critics couldn’t resist headlines like “I Hate Hate” or something in that vein.  I wish the producers of Sleight had heard that same thing because I can’t help myself but say that Sleight is, well, kind of slight.  For a movie about magic tricks, gang violence, and subdermal electromagnets, there just isn’t that much going on.  Sometimes that’s great and it reads as a nice little slice of life movie with some fantastic elements on the fringe; other times you can just sort of see where the effects budget ran out.  Sleight is a good movie for $250,000 but I can’t help but pine for the version that cost a few million.

I appreciate that Sleight is trying to tell a smaller story, honestly I do.  I like that it’s a simpler story of a young man trying to make ends meet for his family while chasing a dream and meeting a girl.  It’s refreshing to have some trappings of a superhero movies but without having to have the entire fate of the world at stake.  Not every movie has to be The Fate of the Furious or The Avengers to be successful.

I would appreciate it more if I didn’t see budget constraints as the reasons for narrative problems.  The hero of this story, Bo (Jacob Latimore), spends this movie in mortal terror of a criminal enterprise that consists of only three people.  You can’t tell me that isn’t about not wanting to pay more actors.  You could get away from a three-person criminal organization by moving two or three cities away.  That’s not plausible for someone struggling to make ends meet, but it seems like the best possible option when you’ve raised $40k in money to pay them off.  Rather than spend days fretting about getting the last bit of money just use that money to get well clear of the world’s smallest drug gang.  This is a nitpick, but things like this loom over the film.  A lot of stuff happens off camera or is otherwise obscured from the audience not because it makes for a more compelling story but because they couldn’t afford to shoot it.

Sleight makes me consider what makes something a movie.  I don’t think there needs to be some sort of minimum amount of spectacle for something to be a feature film.  I’ve happily watched movies that were basically just sets of conversations.  Sleight feels like it could be a TV show with no real changes.  Hell, it might be better as an ongoing series because everything would have more of a chance to breathe.  I can’t put my finger on the thing that makes it not feel like a movie, but there’s something that isn’t in Sleight.

I feel like I’m being a bit relentless with hitting Sleight for looking cheap and that might be unfair, but it was all that was holding the movie back.  It’s a completely charming film that I would absolutely see a sequel to if that’s how this is going to go (how could a film not make back a budget of $250,000).  I also think it’s a great idea for a TV show ,but maybe that’s more of a commentary on the effects than some unique call from this story.  Sleight would be the best episode of Black Mirror I’ve ever seen.  It just doesn’t quite feel big enough to be a feature film.

Box Office Democracy: “Free Fire”

Something hit me like a bolt from the blue during the third act of Free Fire: I am all the way over nihilistic action movies.  I don’t want to watch movies full of people who don’t care about anything commit violence against each other anymore.  In my teens and twenties this felt ok; that it was worth it to explore the space of cinematic violence.  Either we’ve completely explored that space or I’ve aged out of it or maybe Free Fire is just a particularly bad example of the form, but I can’t stand for it anymore.  I need my action movies to have people who care about things in them and those things can’t be violence for the sake of violence or money.  I need more than that.

Free Fire is about an arms deal that goes bad and that’s the entire plot.  We spend the first 20 minutes getting to know the 10 principal characters, and then spend 70 minutes watching them shoot at each other in a warehouse.  There are only two moments I would consider plot or character development after the shooting starts, and so we just get sequence after sequence of people mostly futilely shooting at each other.  There are no grand twists or revelations just an escalation of carnage.  Anyone that’s been to more than ten movies in their life could probably guess who “wins” from the trailer.  I kept waiting for some kind of escalation or turn and it never comes— we just get people crouching in the dirt until they run out of time.

I expected to come home and do my preliminary research for this review and discover the movie was based off of a novella or something.  It would be a fine novella, all of the characters could have internal lives and explored backstories.  It’s not often I come home from a movie wishing for more exposition or more navel-gazing, but here we are.

I don’t know what else there is to say about a movie that I reject so completely as a story.  The acting is fine.  Brie Larson is always fun to watch but she’s asked to do very little here.  Cillian Murphy is pretty good but I wish he reached in to his bag of expressions and came back with something that wasn’t “handsome pensive” a couple times.  Sharlto Copely gives a completely off-the-wall performance that I can’t decide if it’s brilliant or just completely random, but it’s probably at least 70/30 in favor of the former.  I’m not entirely sure why the movie needed to be set in the 70s other than some whimsical wardrobe choices, but it’s kind of fun seeing people dressed like that and I chuckled the first time I saw someone put in an 8-track tape.  It’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel when you’re giving a movie credit for using antiquated audio technology.

I’m honestly not sure if Free Fire is as bad as I’m making it sound.  Perhaps ten years ago I would have seen this and spent the next week gushing about it to anyone who would listen.  It’s neither offensive nor spectacular in its failures such that I could imagine no reasonable person liking it.  It’s just a bland film that never seems to aspire to be an interesting film.  Free Fire is a movie that might have seemed like a revelation in a world where Reservoir Dogs didn’t exist and we hadn’t been seeing movies inspired by it for the last quarter of a century.  But Reservoir Dogs does exist, and so I can’t see what use Free Fire has at all.

Box Office Democracy: Gifted

I feel like I never see movies like Gifted anymore.  Gifted is a smaller movie, almost completely devoid of the spectacle that snobs complain about in modern cinema.  It’s as anonymous a movie as one can get from the director of The Amazing Spider-Man franchise, the star of Captain America and Octavia Spencer.  It’s funny when it wants to be, touching when it tries it’s absolute hardest, and if you’re willing to suspend an ample amount of disbelief there’s a heartwarming message to be found here.

There’s a reasonably famous book on screenwriting called Save the Cat.  It’s a guide to crafting marketable scripts, there’s good advice in there, and it sold a ton of copies.  The title refers to the need to have your main character do something early in the film to get the audience on their side; something like saving a cat.  I’m telling you this because in the first scene of Gifted we are introduced to Fred, the one-eyed cat who was adopted by Frank the protagonist of this film (Chris Evans).  He assures his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) that while he doesn’t generally like cats, he likes this one.  It’s such a transparent use of this trope that was the title for this wildly successful screenwriting book that this is either an insane coincidence or a stunning lack of self-awareness on the part of the writer. (I know this probably won’t occur to 95% of the viewing audience who have never read any books on how to write a screenplay but it was distracting for me.)

Other than the whole cat bit (which also comes back in the third act for extra emotional stakes but I said I was moving on) the story is suitably interesting.  Mary goes to her first day of school and is clearly a prodigy, and through her being a precocious scamp who is good at math and beating the hell out of children twice her age she gets the attention of her grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) who does not like Frank.  A custody battle ensues, and the crux of the film is if Mary should be allowed to have a “normal” life or if she should be pushed to be the mathematical whiz her mother was and that she seems to have the potential to be.  It’s kind of interesting that this film just assumes that mathematical aptitude is some kind of hereditary trait that was passed through three generations.  I could see that an overbearing mother like Evelyn could make her daughter in to a mathematician through constant effort but I’m not sure how Mary, orphaned as a young child and raised by smart but not genius Frank, is on the same level.  I suppose it isn’t exactly the point but it’s a weird universe to assume.

A lot of the movie is tied up in this custody battle and I like a good courtroom scene as much as the next person, but the real joy in the movie is away from all of that.  The scenes with Octavia Spencer as Roberta, the next-door neighbor, and Jenny Slate as Bonnie, Mary’s first grade teacher, are universally the best ones.  Chris Evans is great at trading barbs with his inexplicably British mother but I’d much rather see him having quasi-meaningful conversations with Jenny Slate.  This is the first dramatic role I can remember for Slate, and while she might not be the second coming of Meryl Streep she’s fun and interesting— and most importantly, a breath of fresh air for a part that sometimes feels like it cycles between the same six actresses over and over again.  Octavia Spencer is a delight in everything she does; I don’t feel compelled to sell anyone on her.  Spencer has a small part here, but she talks the most like a real person and that’s worth a lot.

Gifted is a fun movie.  It’s nice to see Evans and Slate playing against type.  It’s a heartwarming story that never twists itself in to being a downer.  I sort of wish that the end result of all of Frank’s handwringing about whether he’s going to screw up Mary’s life was answered by someone telling him that he will definitely screw up and it will definitely be okay because that’s what parenting is.  That isn’t what this movie is though, and it’s okay.  I liked watching Gifted and I would be absolutely thrilled to stumble upon it again on cable on a slow afternoon or on an airplane, it’s the perfect movie for those contexts.

Box Office Democracy: Ghost in the Shell

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell

I’m sort of curious why Dreamworks even wanted to pay for the rights to make a Ghost in the Shell movie if they weren’t particularly interested in doing anything with the property they acquired. They seemed interested in making a cyberpunk movie, a cyberpunk movie about a badass lady android with some identity issues. I’m pretty sure you could just make an original one of those, no one owns cyberpunk or androids.  If you’re going to pay for a beloved property you could try and tell a story they’ve already told, or at the very least not one that’s just like one they’ve told but much simpler and with a healthy dose of cliche.  I don’t understand why you would buy a Japanese franchise and decide that you only want the Japanese-ness to be set dressing.  If this was an original property it would be a dull movie with a draggy second act; as Ghost in the Shell it’s a colossal failure.

For the movie adaptation they decided to make Ghost in the Shell an awful lot like Blade II. The Major is the first of her kind and her special forces team needs to take out a mysterious terrorist who turns out to be a failed attempt to create the same thing that The Major is.  if you replace “terrorist” with “vampire” and “The Major” with “Blade” that is a perfectly apt description of Blade II.  I happen to believe that Blade II is a terribly under-appreciated movie; it isn’t because it has the world’s most compelling plot.  In things it does worse than Blade II the bad guy i always talking about having his own neural network and there’s a location with a bunch of what look like religious types plugged in to some machines but they never even attempt to define any of that stuff.  It appears to be an artifact from when the plot more closely resembled the animated movie from the 90s and they didn’t want to throw away any of the imagery.

There’s some fantastic visual design in this movie.  The city sequences look a little like Blade Runner turned way way up.  There are these recurring holographic fish through the advertising in the movie, and there’s a certain sense of high tech whimsy inherent in seeing insubstantial fish float all over the place.  There’s a sequence where the robot design becomes absolutely chilling as a robot clearly designed to appear normal and non-threatening becomes less and less tethered to human form as it experiences more and more distress, showing off the horror of inhumanity.  I also enjoyed the cloaking device effect when they let it shimmer and fade and much less when it felt like an excuse to not actually film some action sequence or another.  It’s also an exceptionally well scored movie if you’re as into this vaguely pulsating cyberpunk-style of music as I am.

None of this is super important though, because the biggest problem with Ghost in the Shell is that it’s profoundly racist.  The central plot is all about how to make the next step in human evolution the brains have to be taken out of Japanese people and put in to more perfect robotic bodies, robotic bodies that happen to be Caucasian.  Despite taking place in a clearly Asian city (filmed in Hong Kong but seemingly trying to invoke Tokyo) none of the starring roles are played by Asian people.  There are two Asians in Section Nine but neither has an incredible number of lines.  The evil corporation is seemingly exclusively staffed by white people.  It’s like Dreamworks wanted the Japaneseness of the story but didn’t want to use any Japanese people as anything but small parts and set dressing.  Asian writing can be in the background, Asian people can be the majority of the extras, but if anyone needs to do a bunch of talking this movie would just prefer if they were white.

Ghost in the Shell would be a bad movie even if it had perfect racial politics, but instead it gets dragged down in to being a dreadful slog of a movie.  It’s poorly paced, the action sequences run hot and cold, and there’s just too much unexplained nonsense to let the movie work even at all.  This is a movie that will look great on the resume of a visual effects artist and everyone else will spend the rest of their careers trying to gloss over it.  Ghost in the Shell is a lousy movie and a repugnant adaptation of a beloved property.

Box Office Democracy: The Belko Experiment

I saw two different kinds of ads for The Belko Experiment before it came out.  There were ads that were pitching it as a more or less straight up horror movie, and then there were ads that were selling it as a kind of comedy-horror hybrid.  It used a quote from an early review saying it was “Office Space meets Battle Royale” and while that’s a fine thing for a critic to say in a review as a shorthand to explain the movie, as an advertisement it’s completely inadequate.  The Belko Experiment isn’t funny and 99% of the time doesn’t even seem to be trying to be funny.  It’s more like Battle Royale meets a tall building or Battle Royale meets Die Hard if you want to just completely ignore anything that made Die Hard a good movie and just want to focus on the general aesthetic of the sets.

The titular experiment in Belko is: they seal an office building up and demand that the inhabitants kill each other in escalating quotas.  If you’ve ever seen any movie before, you can probably get from here to the end of the story.  There’s an everyman main character, a love interest, an antagonistic coworker, a friend coworker, a boss, and a bunch of nameless drones (allegedly 75 other office workers, but I would be absolutely floored if they had 80 actors in this movie).  The beats are all telegraphed, and there are no surprises bigger than something you knew was going to happen happening a few moments before you expected it.  This is a shockingly mundane affair for a movie with so much bloodshed.  There’s supposed to be some grand moral conflict here but it never gets off the ground; at best it’s like having the movie read you the Cliff’s Notes of Lord of the Flies.

I’m a bit of a baby when it comes to horror movies, so when I tell you that The Belko Experiment didn’t scare me at all I want you to understand what a low bar that was to limbo under.  Perhaps I’ve just been too desensitized to violence over the year but sudden violence is all this film has— and while I don’t love looking at gore, it isn’t inherently scary.  There’s very little tension events just sort of smoothly follow each other.  There’s no doubt in the outcome (although I suppose I never watch a slasher movie expecting the killer to win, those can still be scary) and so the audience is left watching the movie go from scene to scene checking off boxes until the finale can start.  The marketing for this film couldn’t wait to tell you that this was a James Gunn script, but left out that it was one from seven years ago that he didn’t think was strong enough to make on his own. The Belko Experiment needed two more drafts and a compelling antagonist to be even close to a competent horror movie.

The real shame is that John C. McGinley gets a stunning star turn in a movie that no one will remember in five years.  I doubt anyone who has really paid attention to his career is surprised that McGinley has the chops to steal a movie from a cast full of TV actors and marginal film stars, but he runs away with every scene he’s in.  He’s given a wide berth and no specific tethers to any sort of reality after the first ten minutes.  He’s the closest this movie has to the Joker— which is to say not particularly close, but a shining star compared to the dull surroundings.

The Belko Experiment is a Blumhouse film, and I think that explains a lot of what’s wrong with it.  It’s clearly made on a shoestring budget, and it very clearly doesn’t have the passionate backing of a big studio behind it.  What I don’t get is how this movie got put in to theaters instead of straight to digital.  This is an okay movie for $5 on iTunes or as part of Netflix or however the other Blumhouse movies get out there.  Nothing about The Belko Experiment feels like it has the polish of a feature film except the name James Gunn in the opening credits.

Box Office Democracy: Kong: Skull Island

It’s probably a good thing that I’m not in charge of which movies get made and which ones don’t.  While we would certainly get fewer third-rate horror movies and lazy animated movies (and like three more Crank movies, what happened to that franchise?) there’s just so many movies that must sound terrible at the log line phrase that end up being good movies.  For example, if I had been in charge when someone came and said, “Hey, we want to make a new King Kong movie but it’s going to be what if King Kong met Apocalypse Now!” I probably would have passed. But someone at Legendary Pictures said yes, and we got Kong: Skull Island—a delightful, odd, horrific monster movie.  It’s a better movie than I expected, a better movie than it probably should be, and a worthy opening salvo in the 2017 action movie wars.

The second act of Kong: Skull Island was the whole movie for me.  The first act is an endless parade of set-up that I did not need, made only barely tolerable by the frequent use of John Goodman.  I don’t particularly care how or why anyone ends up on Skull Island, just that it happens— and while I appreciate that different sets of characters need to be briefed on the nature and the history of the island, I don’t need to hear everything three times.  I just need them to get to the part of the movie where there’s a giant monkey.  Similarly, the end doesn’t feel like it’s the end result of the build of the movie, more like the movie needs to wrap up— and so a bigger, badder, version of the kind of fight we’ve already seen is whipped together and done in full view of all the remaining characters.  It didn’t work for me.  The middle of the movie is where I got my money’s worth.  The characters are all split up, and each scene is them uncovering some new horror or another as the color temperature shifts on a dime.  It’s stressful, terrifying, and relentless just like Mad Max: Fury Road. It puts you on the edge of your seat waiting for the next giant spider or terrible bird or whatever and Kong himself is a rare, seemingly random, participant in the action.  When he appear on screen he’s riveting (he’s King Kong— he’s been doing this since 1933) but he doesn’t drive the action per se.  It’s a wonderful segment, some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen in years… they just couldn’t keep it up.

I understand that everything needs to be a franchise these days and that shared universes are the new hotness, but we might be expending too much effort to lead up to a crossover movie with Kong and Godzilla.  We don’t need six years and four films to connect the rebooted Godzilla with the rebooted Kong.  Either audiences are smart enough to not need their hands held the whole way to get them interested in the monster showdown, or they’re so dumb you risk losing their attention entirely. I refuse to believe that people fall in to the narrow band of needing all this exposition to understand that they what to watch two giant creatures level a city.

You can never quite tell what’s going to work in a movie.  The B plot of Kong: Skull Island is essentially Moby Dick retold with Samuel L. Jackson playing Captain Ahab (and with Kong playing the whale, of course) and it’s ludicrous and a bit predictable and it steals shots from a dozen other movies and it’s delightful.  One of the reasons the third act didn’t work for me is that this plot has run its course and we’re given a less satisfying antagonist for the finale.  I might have just been in an uncommonly good mood, or maybe I was blinded by the spectacle of an IMAX screen but I found all the ridiculousness in Kong totally charming.  I also liked the 2005 Kong Kong more than my peer group at the time, so maybe I have a soft spot for giant apes.  Kong: Skull Island is, at its best, an oppressive, horrifying film and it’s a triumph.

Box Office Democracy: Logan

It’s kind of funny that the inferiority complex that has plagued comic books for decades has migrated on to comic book movies.  Every time you read an article with the headline “Bam! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore” you get this kind of desperate need for some of the less secure in the industry to justify their life’s work when they really don’t need to.  Good work is good work regardless of who reads it, and most importantly regardless what people who don’t read it think of it.  Comic book movies are getting to the same place with this death spiral race to the bottom to make the movies more and more gritty to prove that they’re more and more adult.  It made me nervous when I heard the final Wolverine movie was going to be rated R; that we would get a joyless slog of a movie more focused with blood and body counts than with making a good movie.  Logan is a great movie, a violent movie to be sure but also a thoughtful one, it’s a movie that gives you time to think— and while it is bleak, it has joy and it has hope.

Logan has a thin story, but I mean that in the most flattering way.  The whole movie is essentially a road trip where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) takes an aging Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and a young clone (Dafne Keen) , that the film only refers to as X-23 once but we all know is X-23, looking for a mutant sanctuary in the North Dakota wilderness.  The good guys are being chased by some awfully nebulous bad guys who never get much more motivation than wanting to mess with the heroes.  I’m also not 100% sure that the emotional center of the entire X-Men franchise has been the relationship between Wolverine and Professor X, but it doesn’t matter.  Jackman and Stewart have the chemistry and the sheer magnetism to drive the whole movie as long as you don’t stop and fixate on what happened in any of the previous films.  Keen is a star in the making, she has a quiet intensity and seems great at ripping bad guys to shreds.

I’m thrilled that Logan is a superhero movie that doesn’t feel compelled to tell me that the world is ending or a city is in peril.  The central conflict of the film is one with a very small footprint.  That’s not to suggest I’m somehow okay with the corporate exploitation and then extermination of children— but there’s no ticking time bomb, no cosmic threat.  I’m honestly not sure the wider world would have noticed if the good guys had failed in this one; everyone who seemed to know what was going on was either directly involved or dead by the end.  This is just a character arc for Wolverine (and to a lesser extent X-23) and everything in the movie is just in service to that.  It shouldn’t be every superhero movie (or even most; I bet this would get old very quickly) but it’s refreshing to see a movie that could be wall-to-wall action stop for a second and appreciate the quiet moments.

I know I literally just finished praising Logan for being willing to linger on quiet moments, but this movie is also just too damn long.  I want small character moments, but I don’t need quite so many of them to be just another way of reinforcing the notion that Logan drinks too much, I got that pretty quickly.  I also think a harsher editing eye could have been taken to some of the action sequences.  I know the rule is an action beat every ten pages, but so much of the middle of the movie is different variations on Wolverine with or without X-23 just crazy murdering a bunch of evil redshirts, and what does that really accomplish the fifth time that we didn’t get on the third?  There is nothing like seeing Wolverine go nuts on people, even more so now that we got an R-rated version of it, and the first few times seeing X-23 go at it is a delight— but at a point it’s just blood and falling bodies and isn’t revealing anything about character or pushing the story forward, it just seems to be there because that’s what a studio executive thinks good pacing is.

Logan is the end of an era— it’s supposedly the last time we’ll see Jackman play Wolverine or Stewart play Professor X.  Stewart was the best casting decision in the 2000 X-Men film, and while they’ve been transitioning to James McAvoy for a while now it’s sad to see the actual curtain call.  Jackman has been the bedrock for the entire X-Men franchise up until this point, and while it’s sad to see him go I’m sure he’ll appreciate being able to gain 15 pounds without it being a complete life-altering disaster.  I firmly believe at some point someone will wonder why they’re giving up all the money they could be making by having Wolverine in movies and the part will be recast… and I’m both scared and excited by that prospect.  Scared because Jackman leaves huge shoes to fill, but excited because I want to see more of these roles turn over as a matter of course.  Actors should be able to leave these roles without needing giant continuity resets that tire out the audience.  We should accept a new Wolverine or Iron Man the same way we accept a new James Bond or a new John Connor.  The actors are important but the roles need to be timeless.  There’s an exciting opportunity here, and I hope Fox does as good a job with it as they did in making a movie as brave as Logan.

Box Office Democracy: The Lego Batman Movie

I wonder if there’s a pop culture franchise I wouldn’t be excited to see turned in to a Lego production at this point.  The Lego Batman Movie could have so easily been an uninspired cash-in to take advantage of how profitable Batman is as a character and the good will we all still feel from The Lego Movie but instead we have a movie chock full of funny jokes, intriguing themes, and most importantly a monumental amount of effort.  This is such a strong children’s movie that I saw it in a packed house on a Saturday night with basically no children, and it was the most boisterous crowd I’ve been a part of in recent memory.  Lego Batman is a triumph, a shining beacon, that every other DC movie should be trying to reach the same level of competence or at least figuring out how to fake it to the studio executives.  Perhaps Ben Affleck is not actually trying to get out if his obligation to play Batman not because of creative differences but because he’s worried about being overshadowed by Will Arnett.

There’s nothing to the plot of The Lego Batman Movie that you haven’t seen elsewhere— it’s just kind of unique to see these elements in a superhero story and, perhaps more importantly, in a movie about a hero so associated with hypermasculinity.  This is a story about Batman needing to connect with people, to construct a family out of the people in his life to replace the one he lost.  Interestingly, instead of making this a source of external conflict, it’s only a source of internal conflict; almost every important supporting character is falling over themselves to become an essential part of Batman’s life, from the obvious examples of Alfred and Robin to the quasi-adversarial Barbara Gordon who might not approve of Batman’s methods but wants to be close to him, and even the Joker wants to destroy all of Gotham City but more than that he wants Batman to acknowledge that he’s important in his life.  The actual plot elements are a little thin, many elements of the evil plot seem designed to shoehorn in as many other licensed characters as possible, and while those are some fun cameos it doesn’t make for a complex story.

One thing that kind of bugged me about The Lego Batman Movie is that it doesn’t play with the idea of being toys the way The Lego Movie did.  It’s clearly supposed to be the same world and all the weapons make “pew pew” sounds like a child is making them, but it never pulls back to the “real world” layer to see Will Farrell’s kid.  I’m not sure what it would have been— the obvious answer seems to be about the death of a parent and that may have been a little dark, perhaps giving this story a chance to reflect a slightly more real situation would have helped it land a little harder.  As it is we get a great movie, but one that fails to land with quite the same impact as The Lego Movie.  Not that “slightly worse than The Lego Movie” is a particularly stern critique; I just wanted a bit more depth.

Will Arnett is an absolute treasure as Batman.  I’m not entirely sure how strong any of the material he was given was in an objective sense because it feels like he could reenact the end of Old Yeller in that voice and it would get huge laughs.  I would watch a live action Batman movie starring Arnett and I would promise to ignore the fact that he would never be in the kind of shape you expect to see The Caped Crusader in.  Rosario Dawson is a pleasant surprise as Barbara Gordon making a deep character at what could have been a thankless role.  Michael Cera is great at awestruck and overly affectionate, I wonder if we couldn’t have seen a little more range from him as that bit can wear a little thin.  It’s so thrilling to hear Billy Dee Williams voice Two Face that you can easily overlook that the part has fewer than five lines.

It is so refreshing to get a DC Comics movie that isn’t taking itself so seriously.  The Lego Batman Movie is fun before it’s anything else.  It isn’t obsessed with continuity (although it does reference in some way almost every other on-screen depiction of Batman to date), or with having a dark tone, or with proving the comics are for grown-ups.  This is a movie that just wants to be fun— and that’s so refreshing after two Superman movies that seemed fixated on generating the biggest body counts.  I need some childlike wonder in my superhero movies; I can get gritty nihilism from the real world.

Box Office Democracy: Rings

Most of the time when a studio looks to revive or remake an old property it’s a desperate grasp for more money, but I’m willing to give the people behind Rings a little more credit than that.  The Ring is about a shared video, and the ways in which we share and consume videos has changed so much in the 15 years since the original came out.  Rings exists to carry the franchise into the YouTube era, and it pays off on a lot of the promise offered by the new technology (although not actually YouTube which was strange).  Rings is a clever movie, but clever isn’t enough on its own— and unfortunately, clever is all Rings has.

I absolutely adored the use of new technology.  There’s a sequence where Samara emerges from a flat screen TV that has fallen face down on the floor that never would have happened 15 years ago and looks amazing.  I’m sure the actual technology to do that effect has been around for decades (at least since Thing in The Addams Family I reckon) but it looks like a million bucks and it feels new.  While not exactly showing off new technology, there’s a shot right before the credits where a character looks fearfully out a window while it’s raining, and when the lightning lights up the window it becomes the well shot from the cursed tape and that was my favorite shot of the whole film.  Again, there are good ideas here through the haze of mediocre filmmaking.

The story is convoluted, and while it contains interesting ideas it ends up right back where every other Ring movie has been.  We start out with this interesting idea about studying the tape as a scientific phenomenon with an infrastructure built in a college to keep passing the curse along so it can be studied.  This idea is tossed aside at the end of the first act and we get to more exploring the circumstances of Samara’s life in an attempt to break the curse just like we did in The Ring and The Ring Two.  There’s a mildly interesting twist, but it all ends up about where one would expect and that’s not even taking in to account that much of the end of the movie is contained in the trailer.

Through all this narrative malaise the entire enterprise is almost saved by two bigger name actors slumming it through Rings.  Johnny Galecki is playing a creepy version of his character from The Big Bang Theory and he simply outclasses the array of marginal TV actors and performers I’ve never seen before that he’s put with in this film.  It’s not a huge part but Galecki looks like a movie star, which might serve him well if he ever gets tired of sitting around on his giant pile of money after his TV show wraps up.  Vincent D’Onofrio is given the most leeway by the script and he turns in a powerful performance.  D’Onofrio is capable of switching from unassuming to terribly menacing in the blink of an eye.  It’s almost like he never stopped playing Wilson Fisk; he’s the best thing about the film even if his mere presence feels like a bit of a spoiler the first time you see him.

We have to be willing to accept that just about half of movies will be below average, and Rings is certainly in that half, but that that effort separates the mundane from the awful.  Rings isn’t a good movie, perhaps because the two lead actors are amazingly boring, but it’s trying.  It knows what it has to add to the mythos and it tries to weave those additions seamlessly in to the established formula.  The result is a bland retread, but one with moments and performances that will endure— hopefully as inspiration for a better movie down the road.

Box Office Democracy: Split

Box Office Democracy: Split

Split is over a week old and that’s usually enough to disqualify a movie from coverage here.  (This is the policy that keeps me from reviewing Blade 2 every six months in a vain attempt to force it in to the conversation for best superhero movie of all time.)  But Split had a secret, and that secret didn’t get out until the movie had released and I had already watched the movie for last week.  I’m going to talk about this secret right off the bat so if you have somehow avoided this piece of information I will tell you that Split is an excellent horror movie that might be a bit tame in the sheer terror aspects but is totally worth watching especially if you’ve liked M. Night Shyamalan’s works in the past.  From here on it’s spoilers on; stop reading if you want that undisturbed experience.

We’ll wait for you below.