Category: Box Office Democracy

Box Office Democracy: xXx: Return of Xander Cage

I was extremely excited when I walked out of the original xXx back in the summer of 2002.  Finally, a spy film for my generation.  Something that could mix international espionage and the X-Games aesthetic that seemed poised to take over the world.  I’ve rewatched xXx recently and it does not hold up at all.  Also, I never participated in any extreme sports or watched very much of any X-Games so I have no idea why embracing this culture appealed to me at all.  In retrospect, the original xXx was an okay action movie with some fantastic costuming and an awful lot of dated references.  15 years later xXx: Return of Xander Cage is still trying to traffic in counter-culture hipness, but it doesn’t feel like anyone involved in the production has talked to a cool person or a youth in decades.  Return of Xander Cage is jam-packed with the kind of disingenuous focus-grouped edginess the characters would claim to hate.  Too bad they’re fictional and not writing this or any other better movies.

In Return of Xander Cage everyone who is part of the establishment is bad.  I’m not against this general ethos, the establishment is generally a terrible thing— but the medium has to inform the message.  This is a film made by a major studio, so when the burly special forces soldier who doesn’t care for Xander Cage and his alternative ways taunts him saying that he must love Red Bull and Mountain Dew, I can’t help but wonder if those companies paid for that placement.  I see the two leads of these extreme spy teams being played by two actors with a combined age of 102 and I can’t help but think of that 30 Rock meme with Steve Buscemi pretending to be a high school student.

Return of Xander Cage could be so much more cool if it wasn’t so intent on telling me that it was cool all the time.  (I don’t even want to get in to how 44 year-old Toni Collette is kind of made to look like an old crone next to her older male co-stars but it’s also bad, I just don’t want to be here all night.)

There’s also a sense that Return of Xander Cage is trying to capture some of the magic of Vin Diesel’s other, more successful franchise, The Fast and the Furious, but it’s not clear that anyone involved knows what made those work.  They copied the big multicultural cast, they copied the never-ending banter, they copied the ambitious action sequence, and they copied the requirement of having a few party scenes full of beautiful people dancing to music.  None of it works as well.  Most of the supporting characters feel like quick thumbnail sketches instead of people, and for a movie that literally circumnavigates the world it feels rather small.  There’s a secret sauce in the Fast and Furious movies and it might just be as simple as star power or sharper action choreography or even just familiarity with the universe, but those movies are just as far fetched and just as ridiculous and they work.

I’m usually not on a high horse about sequels or Hollywood running out of ideas, but this feels like a spot that should have gone to a new idea.  Return of Xander Cage feels weighed down with the baggage of the two previous movies and I can’t imagine that enough people where clamoring for more xXx to necessitate this (and the box office results seem to back me up on that).  There are a couple usable ideas here, and maybe on their own they could have blossomed in to something else but instead they’re just drowned out by the baggage of trying to live up to this X-Games early-2000s rebelliousness.  Return of Xander Cage is the cinematic equivalent of the guy in his early 20s hanging around the park with high school kids— it isn’t making him seem cool and everyone there just kind of wishes he was doing something else.

Box Office Democracy: “Live By Night”

I’m sure everyone thought Live By Night was going to be a big deal—  Ben Affleck directing his first film since Argo won Best Picture, and this time a crime story based on a novel by the same guy who wrote Mystic River.  It feels like a sure thing; America loves prestige mafia stories— just ask Scorsese, Coppola, or Chase.  Unfortunately, Live by Night isn’t quite like any of those, or rather, it’s too much like those and other movies that came before that. It never quite feels like an original story, and it collapses under the pressure to be something amazing so it never settles for being just good.  It could have been a great good movie.

There’s so much going on in Live By Night, it’s an endless cavalcade of story and plot points, but I’m not sure it ever gets around to figuring out what it’s about.  The strongest attempt it makes is that it’s about how entrenched power strives to keep down the less fortunate but it doesn’t try very hard to get that across— just a couple scenes and then in the climax it all seems to be a metaphor.  The events aren’t compelling enough or, frankly, unique enough to make an impact on their own.  Everything feels lifted from something else: a better gangster movie, a better gangster TV show, even an above average video game about being a criminal from 10 years ago.  It’s a tired shtick, and while it can be done well it needs to have some kind of hook, a new take, or a transcendent performance, or something… and Live By Night just doesn’t have anything to make it special.

It might help if there were more characters in the film that mattered.  Joe Coughlin (Affleck) matters, of course, the whole movie flows through him in his quest to, I don’t know, generally make Tampa Bay a worse place through criminal activity.  Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper) matters too, he’s the police chief that makes deals with criminals and thinks himself above everything.  We get to see both of those characters struggle and change, but everyone else in the film just sort of exists to move one or both of these characters through to their next thing.  Elle Fanning is a delight in this movie, she plays a complicated character with a tour de force personal arc played to perfection, but her character doesn’t matter, she’s no more important than the casino Coughlin is trying to build, just another obstacle to overcome.  It goes on like that— there are fine actors in this movie like Zoe Saldana and Chris Messina but they’re ultimately reduced to occasional maguffins doing accents.

Ben Affleck has acting, writing, directing and producing credits on Live By Night, so while film may be the ultimate collaborative medium it’s hard not to feel like this is on him.  Ben Affleck the actor does a fine job (although accents continue to mostly elude him) but he’s let down by Ben Affleck the writer.  The movie is based on a novel and I suppose it’s only sporting to give the benefit of the doubt that the source material was bad, but doesn’t that responsibility fall at least partially on Ben Affleck, producer?  Director Ben Affleck must be credited for the cast delivering some standout performances, but with the exception of an early car chase there are no particularly compelling visual sequences, and it lacks the tension of The Town or Argo.

Maybe we need some sort of commission to review any new attempts to make gangster films—to monitor them to ensure that they add something worthwhile to the genre which has been mined so aggressively over the years.  Live By Night had some nice moments, but if you put the DVD on my shelf next to The Godfather and Goodfellas it would never get picked up.  (I don’t happen to own Goodfellas but you’ll have to take me at my word on this one.)  Live By Night is an above average movie that demands to be compared to excellent movies, and it suffers for it.

ComicMix Six: Box Office Democracy’s Worst Movies of 2016

Last time, I covered the best movies of 2016— and now it’s time for the flip side. Brace yourself.

#6: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – In my top list I praised Captain America: Civil War for being a kind of triumphant pinnacle of fan service in comic book movies. Batman v Superman might well be the dark mirror of that idea: fan service run completely amok.  Characters are crammed in this movie every which way along with vague concepts, half-formed ideas, and every frame of iconic superhero artwork Zack Snyder has ever seen.  Batman v Superman is depressing both in tone and failed potential.  The Superman that Snyder puts on the screen is the worst interpretation of the character I’ve ever seen, impulsive and violent without a trace of warmth.  Only the moderately badass Wonder Woman sequences save this movie from higher placement on this list, and they desperately need to right this ship before they consider putting a Justice League movie on the screen.

#5: Allegiant Allegiant is barely a movie at all.  It’s supposed to be setting up for some grand finale, but it has so few plot points to actually dole out that we end up just endlessly spinning.  There’s probably a way to do a movie like this in a better way, perhaps by diving deeply in to the characters or by some distracting world building, but even writing that I realize I’m talking about a filler episode of an hour-long TV show and not a feature film.  Allegiant was a shallow cash grab by a cynical studio and they seem to have torpedoed the entire franchise with their greed.  A more optimistic version of me hoped that this would be the end of splitting books in to multiple movies, but that doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards now that one Harry Potter reference book is poised to be turned in to five movies.

#4: Independence Day: Resurgence – I’m eagerly awaiting the other shoe on Independence Day: Resurgence to finally drop and to learn that the en tire movie was some sort of experiment in programming a computer to write a summer blockbuster.  I would much rather that be the solution rather than a human being (or several teams of human beings as credited) sat down and wrote a movie that so transparently tried to tick every box on some sort of magical checklist.  Sequel to a beloved film of the primary moviegoing populace’s childhood?  Check.  Jettisons the most expensive actor but brings up the character enough to try and get that secondhand rub?  Check.  Crucial character is Chinese to appeal to the essential audience there but don’t give her a big enough part to scare off the more xenophobic among the domestic audience?  Check.  Bigger badder explosions, damn the reduced emotional impact?  Check.  While it’s certainly possible a group of people made a movie this bad I would certainly prefer to find out it was a rogue AI trying to bring down humanity or something.

#3: The Angry Birds Movie – I was delighted by many animated movies.  Two made my top six list and if we did ten over here at ComicMix I likely might have had space for two more.  Children’s entertainment is at a fantastic place as most of the studios seem to have learned not to talk down to kids and to put effort in to their work in exchange for almost unheard of responses.  The Angry Birds Movie is a movie that shows that not all lessons are learned by all people.  Angry Birds is a barrage of ideas that presents no internal consistency or emotional stakes.  Everything is 10 seconds away from being a poop joke and in 2016 that simply isn’t good enough.  The fact that the movie ends with an endlessly long sequence reacting the mobile phone game everyone was sick of five years ago Is the final nail in the coffin.

#2: Sausage PartySausage Party would be a solidly above average sketch on Funny or Die if it ran for seven minutes.  They have an interesting premise, three mediocre jokes, and an hour and a half of garbage.  There are times when it’s offensive and that’s awful, but also there are interminable stretches when it’s just unbelievably boring.  I felt like Sausage Party was holding me hostage in the theater until they had a chance to spit out every terrible idea they had, culminating in the orgy sequence that felt more like a desperate attempt to seem edgy than to blow off any narrative or comedic steam.

#1: Norm of the North – I have never seen a movie in the theaters as bad as Norm of the North.  Honestly, that might be giving it too much credit as it certainly has to be in the conversation with cult classics of terrible cinema like The Room and Troll 2 when we discuss the worst movies ever made.  It’s an incomprehensible film that changes narrative focus randomly and without justification and seems to just be hoping we don’t notice.  There isn’t a single joke that hit with me.  The character design and animation are so bad that I have to believe that dozens of student films this year looked better.  I’m angry that someone paid for Norm of the North to get made while so many talented people must be struggling to get by in the animation industry.  It’s offensive that this exists in the same medium as Frozen or Zootopia or even ShrekNorm of the North is the worst of the animation industry, the film industry, and the worst piece of entertainment I’ve ever seen marketed to children.

ComicMix Six: Box Office Democracy’s Top Six Movies of 2016

6. Captain America: Civil WarThere are so many fantastic moments in Civil War.  The easy one is the fight at the airport where we finally get that big super hero battle we’ve seen in a thousand different comic books (and acted out with action figures at least that many times) put on the silver screen in all its glory.  The three-way fight at the end might be even better because it’s a crisp action beat full of emotion that is rare anywhere these days, and is honestly pretty uncommon even in print.  It’s not a perfect movie, but it might be the perfect application of fan service.  Every other Marvel movie has to either top this in terms of fan service (and they honestly probably shouldn’t try) or do something new and exciting.  The gauntlet has been thrown down (this is not an Infinity Gauntlet pun I swear).

5. Moana This is the pick I am most concerned is recency bias messing with me.  I saw Moana recently, and while it completely delighted me, I’m concerned in a few years time I’ll look back at this pick and think it should have been The Accountant or Kubo and the Two Strings or really anything else.  I loved Moana, it’s a sweet movie with a good heart, a great set of characters, and a soundtrack that I can’t stop humming to myself.  When we spend the next two months marching towards the Oscars falling over ourselves to talk about what a historical accomplishment La La Land is, I hope people remember it wasn’t even the best musical released within two weeks of its release date.

4. Rogue One This might seem a little high for a movie I reviewed two weeks ago and was kind of hard on but while it was easy to harp on the stuff that didn’t quite work I’m still quite fond of the stuff that did.  Rogue One brings a bunch of new stuff to the action vocabulary of the franchise and while it might not have wowed us as an independent sci-fi film, as a Star Wars film it feels like a revelation.  There’s an honest-to-goodness war happening in Rogue One for the first time in eight movies with “War” in the title.  Weak central characters may keep Rogue One from joining the top tier but in a soft year for movies overall a compelling B+ can make the top list.

3. ZootopiaZootopia is a great movie.  It’s funny, touching, and with a decent bit of intricate noir-inspired plotting for a kids movie.  It is worthy of being a standard bearer in the Disney Revival era and standing next to Frozen and Wreck-it-Ralph.  That would probably be enough to get it on this list but what makes me actually proud is that Disney decided to use their giant influence on the youth of America and make a movie about institutionalized prejudice.  They’ve done “don’t judge a book by its cover” movies before but Zootopia is about how the whole system can be against people because of what they look like and that makes it a more special movie and one that I would be proud to show my own children.

2. The Nice GuysI did not review The Nice Guys for ComicMix this year (I watched The Angry Birds Movie that week) and it’s rare I go see a new release movie on my own anymore— but for Shane Black I was willing to do it and it was worth it.  The Nice Guys is very funny, certainly the best comedy of the year, but more than that it was so inescapably fun.  That’s a strange thing to say about a movie that is sort of about a string of murders in the seedy world of the 1970s porn industry.  The chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe is delightful— I would watch that pair do seven buddy movies like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.  I think a premium cable network should commission a junior detective show staring the daughter character.  I want to live in the world of The Nice Guys as much as I can, and that’s such a fantastic thing to get from a movie.

1. Arrival For the second year in a row my top movie of the year is a non-franchise science fiction film with a third act that’s a little out of left field.  I guess we all have a type.  Arrival is a movie that establishes a high degree of difficulty with its concept and then crafts a simply perfect film to go with it.  It’s tense and thought provoking and beautiful and cripplingly sad.  I went in to Arrival with no idea what I was getting or what to expect and then spent the next three weeks recommending it to literally every person I spoke to.  In 2017 I would consider myself beyond lucky if I saw another movie that completely delights me like Arrival did; I would settle for the new Blade Runner being a passable attempt.

Box Office Democracy: Passengers

One of the easier ways of showing that you’re a sophisticated consumer of entertainment is to lament that nothing ever changes in Hollywood.  It’s true that the entertainment machine doesn’t particularly care about artistry as much as it cares about profit, and that the easiest way to make that profit is by giving people what they’ve already enjoyed, but that doesn’t mean things don’t change.  A movie released today isn’t like a movie released 30 years ago, or 20 years ago, or even 10.  Passengers is a movie that was written in 2007 and took nine years to produce… and in that time it’s become as much of a time capsule as the frozen people the movie is about.  Passengers wants to be about the far future but instead is a relic of the past.

I’m just going to go full on in to spoilers from here on out.  I think you should probably skip Passengers but if you want to go and if you want to be surprised this is your exit.  Thanks.

I could never get over the fact that our main character Jim (Chris Pratt) essentially murders the other lead Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) when he purposely wakes her up from suspended animation to spend whatever portion of the 90 year journey they survive through.  I get that we’re supposed to feel Jim’s desperation and later in the movie they slap an analogy about how a person that’s drowning will pull other people down with them, but it never satisfied me.  The catalyst for the entire events of the movie is an incredibly selfish act.  They try to wave it away with rationalizations and by giving them a big thing to fight against and the characters get over it, but I never did.  Our main character is an obsessive stalker who escalates until he irreparably changes her life without her knowledge or consent.  I would watch this as a thriller or a horror movie but it falls flat as a quirky romance.

After the story fails to hook you, Passengers doesn’t have a lot to offer.  The looming menace lingers on the edge of the story so gingerly that it feels like it’s afraid to pull focus, so when it becomes the big deal in the third act it seems thrown together.  We go from little glitches and malfunctions to one catastrophic breakfast to the whole ship is going to explode right now.  It felt like they knew they needed a big third act and that they couldn’t make it come out of nowhere, but they never much cared to make it all make sense.

Perhaps it’s just because the rest of the movie never quite clicked for me, but I felt like I had so much time to nitpick the lazy construction of the universe.  Why would an essentially unmanned ship filled with people in suspended animation not simply fly around the giant asteroid field?  Why is this ship not programmed to wake up a mechanic or something when systems start to fail?  Why are the crew members we see older men?  If you consider that a round trip takes 250 years and the crew is only out of suspended animation for a few months on either side wouldn’t that mean that after a few voyages they would be thousands of years old?  250 years ago we were riding horses and lighting candles, how are these technologies relevant enough to do multiple centuries-long voyages?  Why was the observatory programmed to give facts about a part of the journey that no one would be awake for?  Every movie has these problems, no script will ever be tight enough to escape silly questions, but Passengers was slow enough and irritating enough that I spent a lot of time sitting there in the dark asking how any of it made sense.

I keep coming back to the idea that it took nine years to make this movie.  Maybe in 2007 I would have found this movie cute or romantic or even non-horrifying.  I’m much more weary of romance stories starting with fucked up behavior than I was then.  I’ve simply gotten used to a higher caliber of Hollywood science fiction over the last few years.  Passengers is a movie that I’m not sure anyone is asking for, so it lingers like an unwanted guest.  It’s overstayed its welcome and it needs to go.

Box Office Democracy: Rogue One

It’s very clear that barring some sort of production-related catastrophe, we will get a Star Wars movie every December until they stop being profitable.  For the foreseeable future it seems that on the even years we will get “Star Wars Stories”— little asides not directly connected to the main movies but providing some backstory or context or simply fleshing out the edges of a galactic civil war.  Rogue One is the week or two directly before the original Star Wars and showcases the work that had to happen to get Luke Skywalker in position to fire a torpedo into an exhaust port.  It isn’t as flashy or grandiose as what we’ve seen before, but they’ve made a grisly little space war film here.  Well, as little a movie as you can make for $200 million anyway.

What we’re getting in Rogue One that we haven’t gotten before in Star Wars is a grittier look at the Rebellion war effort fighting against the Empire.  In the seven films we’ve gotten so far, all of the characters are larger than life heroes who are largely above the fray of the day-to-day war.  Han, Luke, and Leia are so far above the fray for 90% of the original trilogy they only operate at the highest levels.  Rogue One gives us characters who operate at the lower levels of the war.  Our main character is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a fugitive/criminal sort of forcefully conscripted in to the Rebel Alliance to assist intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial assault droid (Alan Tudyk) on a rather convoluted mission (there are six steps and they probably could have gotten away with three) to get the plans to the Death Star.  Along the way they pick up a defecting Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed), a wannabe Jedi (Donnie Yen), and his mercenary protector (Jiang Wen) to make up a ragtag band of resistance fighters.  There are times when they feel a little bit like the assortment of Star Wars characters you would put together for a tabletop RPG, but the supporting characters absolutely work.

The main characters are a little rougher.  Its hard to suss out what Cassian or Jyn really want out of the events of the movie besides a vague desire to do what the plot demands.  Jyn wants to be reunited with her father but she doesn’t do very much to make it happen, nor does she react particularly emotionally when it doesn’t work out.  Cassian is just a soldier who wants what a soldier wants and never has any time for deeper motivations.  The most egregious example of poor character work comes in the form of Orson Krennic, the film’s primary antagonist.  I believe that he’s evil and should be stopped based solely on the fact that he devoted his life to building the Death Star, but he doesn’t spend the movie doing anything particularly evil, rather he spends it trying to ensure he gets credit for his work from his superiors.  That isn’t jump-off-the-screen evil, and it means he gets overshadowed by every other prominent Imperial in the film.  These three principles just needed clearer goals and a bigger push.

There’s some stunning work being done in the visual effects department for this movie.  The space battles seem more dynamic than anything I’ve seen on screen, better than The Force Awakens mostly because it’s trying to do something altogether different than anything I’ve seen in a Star Wars film before.  The interplay between the war in orbit and the mission on the ground made everything feel a little more real, an odd thing too say about a movie about space battles and lasers that emulate atomic bombings.  An effect that did not go over as well was the digital way they make actors look like actors from the older movies.  They do it a few times and it never looked quite right— the attempt to recreate Peter Cushing failed completely for me.  It was firmly in the uncanny valley, and I spent an entire scene featuring him just thinking about how oddly his upper lip was moving.  George Lucas would have been endlessly trashed for a stunt like this, and it’s only that Disney hasn’t burned through all the good will yet that saves them from the same critique.  Parts get recast all the time, they can do it here too.

I’m excited to see Star Wars “go wide” like this, to start exploring stories and ideas that would have been shuffled off in to the Expanded Universe a decade ago and putting them on the big screen.  Rogue One feels a bit like a novel and there’s some good and bad with that (the main characters feel tailor-made to not ruffle any existing continuity)  but it’s ambitious and different and that good far outweighs the occasional fit of mundanity.  I want to see other kinds of movies in this setting; from this kind of war movie to perhaps more ambitious science fiction and quieter character pieces.  We might never get any of that but right now it all seems possible— and Rogue One is lighting the way.

Box Office Democracy: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

It’s hard to tell either Warner Bros. or J.K. Rowling that they should refuse to make any more money off the Harry Potter franchise. If they can pack people in to theme parks and sell out a theater in London for over a year in advance, why shouldn’t they put out more movies? They didn’t stop making James Bond or Star Trek movies just because they ran out of books or the original cast members didn’t want to do it anymore. That said, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a good movie where I can sort of feel its hand in my pocket. This isn’t a labor of love and while I could lie to myself about that being true with other Harry Potter movies, I can’t convince myself quite as much this time.

The story in Fantastic Beasts is more or less Harry Potter with a twist. There’s a magical calamity, in this case Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) loses a bunch of magical creatures in New York City, and while a good-hearted but misguided authority figure, disgraced Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) tries to punish our hero for this misunderstanding they discover a much larger plot involving an immensely powerful evil wizard, this time German pseudo-Nazi Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). This outline vaguely describes the first five Harry Potter films if you substitute the names and add in a few scenes set in classrooms. I’m not knocking it, it’s an established formula because it works, but it never quite feels like we’re reinventing the wheel. The fun of the movie comes from Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger) the Muggle (No-Maj in America apparently) baker who happens to switch briefcases with Newt early in the film and is drawn into the whole adventure. His point of view on the events of the film as a true outsider is what feels fresh and exciting and that it brings a bunch of good physical comedy along with it is a fun bonus. Similarly, Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) is a sheltered functionary in the magical bureaucracy starting to realize a lot of what she’s been told is lies— a character I don’t remember seeing in the first seven Harry Potter films. Seeing prejudice against non-wizards confronted directly instead of through philosophical discussions is more affecting.

I found myself struggling to care about Newt or Tina. They aren’t particularly likeable or interesting beyond being the lead characters of a movie. Newt felt like a blank slate; unless he was in a scene with Jacob he just reflected the tone of the scene or gave some exposition about some beast or another. It doesn’t help that I find Eddie Redmayne sort of boring as a human being, he’s like the personification of bland England. Tina is a character who deeply cares about one thing (saving the children from the New Salem Society) that is pushed to the periphery of the movie until very late and the rest of the time she’s just the character who wants the main characters to have less fun. She’s like if they replaced Hermoine with Molly Weasley in the main Harry Potter films. By contrast, the supporting characters, Jacob and Queenie, are infinitely more interesting. Jacob has this ambition to escape his mundane life and then he’s offered this glimpse in to an immeasurably more interesting world. Queenie is a telepath who is falling for the first non-wizard she’s ever spent any time with. Their stories are so much more compelling, I would watch a TV show about the two of them running Jacob’s bakery every week.

Fantastic Beasts is supposed to be the first in a five movie series, and that fills me with apprehension. The second movie is supposed to take place in Paris and if the story is that Newt’s case full of magic animals gets broken open unleashing calamity there I’m going to be pretty bored with it. There seems to be less potential with Newt and Tina than there was with Harry, Ron, and Hermoine for continued adventures because instead of a lifelong vendetta and the turmoil of maturity, we have a box with a greedy platypus. I loved that platypus but it isn’t enough. I intend to give Rowling a chance because she hasn’t let me down yet, but I’m nervous about it. Fantastic Beasts is a load of fun but I hope it doesn’t get, please forgive this pun, too long of a leash.

Box Office Democracy: Arrival

I went in to the theater knowing less about what Arrival was and what it was about than any movie in recent memory. I had skimmed the first few sentences of the Wikipedia page but only knew the absolute broadest strokes. I was beyond pleasantly surprised; I can’t recall being so enthralled by a movie that was so far off my radar since Drive. Arrival is the best kind of science fiction that provides us with some fantastic things and concepts, but what it really tells is a mundane story through a fresh lens fantastically well.

Arrival has the kind of plot that sounds boring in summary— a linguistics professor is called to translate the language of a visiting alien— but ends up working well. The movie got me thinking about linguistics and the intricacies of language more than I have since I decided not to take an introductory level class in the subject back in college. There’s an inherent tension involved in any alien encounter, and something about the way the score does string hits that kind of sound like the way the aliens talk gives even the safest moments a hint of looming doom. There’s this overlay of global tension, that other countries might attack their local aliens and that this will spark a war for some reason, but none of that ever feels terribly compelling. I care about the characters they’re making me care about; I don’t care about vague threats that never make much sense.

There’s a turn in the story— I don’t want to call it a twist; there’s a massive shift in perspective in the third act. I usually don’t care about spoilers but I won’t give this away because I appreciated that I came in to Arrival with very little idea what the movie was about. The third act is brilliant, it’s clever, it’s suitably science-fiction-y, and it puts the whole film in to sharper focus. (This might be getting too close to what it is but I’ll never pass up a chance to give Zack Snyder grief: Arrival makes Watchmen look terrible.)

There aren’t enough good things to say about Amy Adams and the job she does here. She nails the big moments like being afraid of the aliens the first time she meets them and the big moments of grief and sadness, but the bigger moments seem easy. The small moments are what set the whole film apart. There’s a moment where she struggles with her hazmat suit the first time she has it on, the weight and the cumbersome nature seem to be smothering her and it communicates how awkward and massive that moment must have felt in a way that slack-jawed awe never would. There’s this need to lace so many touching moments with a sense of bittersweet inevitability in retrospect and it’s there, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s beautiful. Forest Whitaker is excellent and Jeremy Renner does some of the best work I’ve ever seen from him, but Amy Adams is special in this film.

Arrival is an incredible science fiction film. Easily the best entry in the genre since Ex Machina although they’re nothing alike so there’s very little basis for comparison. With six weeks of allegedly top notch movies still to come, Arrival is comfortably on top of my list for best film of the year. It’s a haunting film that commands attention when on the screen, but more importantly infests your thoughts for days after.

Box Office Democracy: Doctor Strange

I assume at some point in the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe we’re going to come across a threat that unites every character in one movie to fight against it in some budget-busting assembly of talent. I am starting to dread this moment because between Tony Stark, Peter Quill, Scott Lang, and now Stephen Strange, I can’t imagine anything could ever get done between giving all four of them chances to show how little they care about anything that happens in favor of getting in some quip or another. Ironic detachment has become the house style in the MCU, and I’m not sure why Doctor Strange was my breaking point but it was. I’m sick of people saving the world by not caring about it.

It’s not that Benedict Cumberbatch is the problem with Doctor Strange. I found him surprisingly acceptable playing a native New Yorker. He isn’t bad at doing pithy dialogue and this might be projection on my part because he’s English but he’s masterful at appearing above it all. He does a good job climbing over the mountain of unlikability the script puts in his path. Honestly, I’m not sure at what part of “arrogant doctor crashes his supercar while rejecting pleas from sick people to get help” is supposed to make us think he’s a good guy, but his subsequent petulant rejection of all of the advice of his doctors so he can regain the use of his hands so he can go back to being a jerk of a surgeon doesn’t do it either. Stephen Strange is an unlikable crater in the middle of Doctor Strange, but Benedict Cumberbatch is just reading the words off the page.

I don’t like Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. I don’t like that she’s playing an Asian man and even though they go out of the way to say she’s Celtic, there’s nothing she does in the entire film that isn’t out of the mystical Asian man playbook. I think it’s cowardly that Marvel changed the character from Tibetan so that they could have an easier time accessing the Chinese film market. All the talk of censorship I’ve seen in media these past few years— we get actual government intervention in a movie, and so few people seem to notice.

The rest of the cast is great. Chiwitel Ejiofor is too good an actor for the small part this movie asks of him. He wrestles with his morality over the course of this film and you can see the conflict on his face and in his posture in a way you just don’t see in genre films. He’s deserving of more, and I trust if we get a sequel we’ll get more of him. Benedict Wong is also excellent in a small part. He has a great physicality in a movie dominated by bodies skinnier than a life dedicated to martial arts would suggest. He is the focus for much of the humor in the second act and he carries it well. Mads Mikkelsen wouldn’t have been my first choice for a magical martial arts bad guy but I’m thrilled to have been proven wrong. Because of the magic roots (and the liberal use of stunt doubles) it’s not like he has to carry any of the difficult work himself, and it gives us a gifted actor skilled at playing menaces to carry the heavy weight a villain must shoulder in a superhero film. The best part of the entire film is a quick comedic exchange between Cumberbatch and Mikkelsen, and I’m not sure anyone but Mikkelsen could have made it work.

The story is as predictably lifeless as one would expect from a superhero origin story these days. Bad thing happens, person gets extraordinary power, some sort of betrayal requires that power to be directed against evil, and then there’s a new status quo. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times now and there’s nothing new or exciting about the way it’s written up here. The been-there-done-that feeling also extends to the special effects. I’ve read rave reviews of the visual effects and while they’re nice, there’s nothing here I haven’t seen in Inception or The Matrix franchise. While they’ve turned those visual concepts up to 11 this time out it didn’t particularly impress me; I’m not looking for more and bigger with effects as much as I am smarter and more effective. Doctor Strange looks like someone put a kaleidoscope in front of the projector after it had already been shot rather than having a coherent design.

It must seem like I didn’t like Doctor Strange and that honestly isn’t true. Marvel Studios has gotten very good at making these films and it’s almost impossible to sit through one and not be entertained. I’m just starting to see the strings a little more, the same old things, and the clichés that dominate these movies particularly the origin stories. I had a good time watching the movie but it’s not fresh like Iron Man was; it feels more like watching a movie where a police officer has only one day until retirement. Perhaps as we get in to a round of sequels we’ll see a lot less of this, but until then I’m going to be writing a lot more reviews complaining about a movie that’s honestly above average.

Box Office Democracy: Black Mirror: Season Three

I had very little idea what Black Mirror was before it was assigned to me this week. I was reasonably sure it was something a little spooky because of the way people talked about it on social media and from context clues I was pretty sure it was a TV show. That was all I knew and it was kind of refreshing.  I did know that people had a very high opinion of Black Mirror and maybe that damaged it in my mind. Black Mirror is a good anthology series with a few solid episodes but there’s a distracting sense of self-importance creeping in from the edges that is ruinous when the episodes aren’t rock solid.

The thematic through line for Black Mirror is the danger of modern technology, particularly technology popular with young people in the real world. We see the dangers of an exaggerated version of Klout, the perils of advanced virtual and augmented reality systems, even an episode about call-out culture. When these hit they feel like prescient warnings, but when they miss they feel like an old person yelling at kids for enjoying a thing they don’t understand. I enjoy meditations on how we can tell what’s real when computers start inputting signals directly to our brains, but I’m quite over being lectured about looking at my phone too much by any media— especially a streaming content provider like Netflix. The strongest two episodes, “San Junipero” and “ Hated in the Nation”, let the technological ruminations fade to the background and focus on just being strong stories instead and they’re much stronger for it. “Hated in the Nation” is a fun feature-length mystery thriller with a side of sci-fi and it stands head and shoulders above the rest because it isn’t there to lecture but to generate suspense.

Maybe I’ve seen one too many episodes of The Twilight Zone, but I also found the twists to be a tad facile. I could have written a summary of the first episode after the first ten minutes and would consistently only be surprised if they did a second twist (it’s very hard to nail a double twist). Storytelling isn’t about twists and predictable isn’t the end of the world but there were two out of these six episodes that seemed to have nothing going on except setting up a twist (“Playtest” and “Men Against Fire”) and when those don’t land the whole episode falls apart. It’s the unfortunate cliché of the sci-fi anthology that everything needs to have some kind of gotcha ending and the genre needs to grow out of it.

This might not be the place for this critique, but as I’m not a TV critic I’m not sure I’ll get another chance to talk about it. I might be getting very tired of the way people act in English dramas. Perhaps I’ve been taken in by an epidemic of overacting in American television, but in all but the most heightened moments everyone seems so dispassionate in Black Mirror and in most English shows I can call to mind right now I feel the same way. Either I’m supposed to believe England is a country full of people who have an almost sarcastic disconnection from their day-to-day lives except in moments of extreme stress, or this is some kind of artistic meme— and if it’s the latter, I just don’t care for it much anymore. If it’s the former, I guess it’s an okay representation and I hope the country of England gets better soon.

I want there to be more anthology programming on TV. I hate seeing a TV cast that is temporarily or permanently bored with their show, and that constant churn makes sure that even in a weak moment that everyone at least gives a shit. Unfortunately I haven’t particularly clicked with any of the attempts to revive the format, and Black Mirror is almost certainly going to continue this trend. If I was given a very specific recommendation, I could see myself returning for an episode or two— but I’m not going to be on the edge of my seat whenever season four launches. I like my science fiction a little less preachy and old fashioned. I’m happy Black Mirror exists for the people who want it, I’m a fervent supporter of anything that isn’t a family sitcom or a police drama, but it’s just not my cup of tea.