Category: Box Office Democracy

Box Office Democracy: Keeping Up with the Joneses

Keeping Up with the Joneses is a comedy that isn’t very funny. It isn’t bad, or offensive, or sloppy, nor does it suffer from a lack of effort or energy. It just doesn’t hit with enough punchlines to be worth spending money and sitting still for most of two hours. Most of the jokes seem to have started with the premise “wouldn’t it be funny if people actually lived in the suburbs” without any twist or an examination of why such a thing might be funny. It is actually funny when Jon Hamm has to save Zach Galifianakis from the venomous bite of a disembodied snake head, it is not funny to keep hearing the word “grillbot” over and over again. This movie has too much of the latter and not nearly enough of the former.

It’s not a problem of chemistry, it’s a delight seeing these actors share the screen. Hamm and Galafianakis are very good together. Honestly, Jon Hamm is good in everything, I don’t understand why he isn’t constantly working; he’s a gifted comic actor and has leading man looks. What does Chris Pratt have that Jon Hamm doesn’t? Nothing. But I digress. Isla Fisher does a fine job meshing with the cast although I want more from her than “fussy, carping, suburban housewife” but if these are the roles she’s being offered she’s doing good work. Gal Godot is somewhat less charming and doesn’t appear to be as good a fit but I’m more than willing to write that off as a more businesslike character not meshing well with the stable of wacky characters the rest of the movie offers. The actors don’t fail this movie; the movie fails the actors.

There’s just no spark to the plot in Keeping Up with the Jonses. They spend the first half of the movie alternating between showing how pathetic Jeff and Karen’s (Galifianakis and Fisher) lives are and the detective game about figuring out the Joneses are spies— of which all the funny moments are in the trailer. The second half is a bland spy comedy, which probably would have worked for me at some point, but the genre has fleshed out well in the last decade or so and it’s hard to see Joneses as anything less than a feeble shadow of Spy. The plot is limp, and the jokes fail to connect time and again until you get the cinematic equivalent of flop sweat, and the audience is sort of nervously chuckling trying to push the whole thing forward. I’m not saying there are no genuine laughs in here, but they’re embarrassingly too few.

The secret joy of reviewing movies is seeing bad movies and getting to dunk on them. Good movies are boring to write about unless they’re sublimely terrific at one thing or another, but bad movies are an endless font of fun negative adjectives. I don’t want to slam Keeping Up with the Joneses because I feel like everyone involved suffered enough by just having to show up for work and deliver lines they knew weren’t funny.   This isn’t some cosmic malfeasance against the art of cinema, this is just a bunch of talented people (and I should include director Greg Mottola in here as well) working off a script that has a crummy premise and misses way more than it hits when it comes to being funny, the prime directive of any comedy. The worst part is it’s a pleasant enough movie when you don’t realize you haven’t laughed in a while and the stakes of the movie feel meaningless. It would be a great cinematic white noise machine or something, but it isn’t a successful movie.

Box Office Democracy: The Accountant

Movies like The Accountant used to be a dime a dozen, or at least they felt like that, a simple action movie with a low-A-list or high-B-list actor just filling time in the schedule. Now it feels like all of these movies have become franchise entries instead, a safer attempt at the same money as star power has become less important and licenses have become king. The Accountant is a by-the-books action movie with a gimmick, the main character is supposed to have Asperger syndrome, and it relies on that gimmick and the charm of the cast. It’s an exceptionally charming cast, and it’s capable of pushing a rather cliché movie through all of the rougher parts. I like The Accountant despite the things it does badly and, maybe a little bit, because of them.

I’ve seen some variation of The Accountant’s story a million times. A criminal with a heart of gold (Ben Affleck) gets in over his head with what is supposed to be a simple job. An innocent girl (Anna Kendrick) gets wrapped up in a world she has no place in and must be saved by said criminal. The twists and turns are supposed to keep you guessing as to whom the real bad guy is but it ends up being the person with the highest billing that isn’t the protagonist or the love interest (I don’t want to give it away but you can read a movie poster). A young cop (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) tries to bring the criminal to justice but struggles with the shades of grey around who the real bad guy is. I’m not mad, I like this story, but maybe this one wraps up a little too neatly as everyone in every flashback wraps around to be an important part of the present day. There’s also a kind of inexplicable moment where the back-story, previously told through flashbacks gradually handed out throughout the movie, is dumped out in a giant bit of narrated exposition at the end of the second act as if they realized they had run out of time for their previous framing devices.

It’s a little strange that the gimmick of this movie is that Ben Affleck is playing a neuroatypical character. I don’t know if this is an accurate depiction of Asperger’s or an offensive one. I am reasonably sure that most people with any form of autism are not master assassins, so it’s all kind of abstract at that point. It feels like grabbing a tiger by the tail to suggest that the way to make your special needs child function in a normal society is through an intensely abusive upbringing that turns them in to an assassin, but maybe it’s enough that all of the autistic people in the film are depicted as functioning reasonably self-sufficient adults. The Accountant might be ahead of its time now, but it feels like it’s in dire danger of seeming very regressive a decade down the line.

Then again, maybe The Accountant isn’t meant to stand up to the judgment of the ages. This is The Transporter or Kiss of the Dragon more than it’s a Die Hard; a movie to bridge the gap between bigger releases and to take advantage of the lead actor bulking up to play Batman. I had a great time watching The Accountant— the action was fun and as original as you’re going to get for a movie made at this level of effort. The plot wasn’t any great puzzle or anything, but I had a good time pulling at the threads and unraveling it in my brain. I would watch eagerly watch a sequel and sigh and roll my eyes if they stretched it in to a trilogy. Not every movie can be Citizen Kane and not every action movie can be Crank 2: High Voltage but the world needs new movies all the time, and The Accountant adds up to a solid film.

Box Office Democracy: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children because I was so sure I would leave the theater either fantastically impressed or utterly repulsed. There were just so many flags for a strong reaction: it’s a Tim Burton movie, it’s a movie where the director made a boneheaded comment the week before release, it’s a superhero movie but not really, it’s a bit Harry Potter adjacent. None of it ended up inspiring a strong reaction in me. Miss Peregrine’s is a fine movie that capably blends some spellbinding spectacle with some rather drab boring junk. That probably sounds a little more harsh than I intend but this is very much the movie equivalent of the little girl with the little curl; when it’s good it’s very, very good and when it’s bad it’s horrid.

The fun stuff in the film is unmistakably fun. The use of super powers, or peculiarities, has a sense of wonder and more importantly whimsy that separates it from a lot of the bleak drab superheroics we see in films these days. It feels a little more like Grant Morrison’s X-Men than Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and it makes the whole thing so much less psychologically draining. The time loop mechanism is fun in the light doses of it we get in the first two-thirds of the movie. There’s a great fight scene on a pier in modern-day London. This is a disjointed list because the connecting tissue that binds all of these things together is lacking.

The story, once you get past the fun stuff, is a boring mess. Plot points are gone over and over until belabored doesn’t seem appropriate anymore. I understand that the target audience for this movie is probably a bit younger than me but I bet they don’t need to be told that Emma had a thing for Abraham before he left a half dozen times. There are severe lulls where it seems like nothing happening and no new information is being parceled out. The finale also seems flat but maybe that’s because it relies heavily on time travel causality loops that can’t be thought about too hard or it gives you that weird feeling in your stomach. I guess I believe the ending is consistent with the rules established, but I’m not certain why.

Tim Burton got a lot of well-deserved flack for his comments about how he wasn’t sure if his movies “call for” diversity, but I think there was a different representation issue overlooked here… Miss Peregrine’s is unmistakably a movie about a young child dealing with the enormity of the Holocaust. A boy learns from his grandfather (named Abraham no less) that he had to flee his home in Poland as a boy due to the threat of “monsters” and go in to hiding in a remote part of Wales. The boy goes to try and trace the history and finds a bombed-out building. The monsters in the movie are called Hollowgasts, which sounds a fair bit like “Holocaust” to my ear. It’s honestly one of the best ways I’ve seen an issue like this tackled in a movie, obvious but indirect so it doesn’t become smothering, but they did it without any Jewish actors involved. It’s strange to see such a specific metaphor explored with no one with a direct connection to the actual lived experience. I’m not here to argue that Jews are somehow underrepresented in Hollywood, but it’s a bit vexing to see this happen like this.

There were no children in my 2pm Sunday showing of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Maybe it was the awkward time or maybe it’s because I was seeing it in Hollywood, which is not exactly a big family destination, or maybe people were just seeing through it. The ad I saw for this movie called it “Harry Potter meets X-Men“, but it was really more like Doom Patrol with a British accent. There’s nothing wrong with Doom Patrol, but I don’t think it’s ever going to be a monolithic kid’s franchise. I liked the stuff I liked but it wasn’t a good movie and I remain basically uninterested in Burton’s entire oeuvre since Mars Attacks. He’s become some kind of heartless version of Wes Anderson, and I’m not sure how much heart Anderson has to lose.

Box Office Democracy: “The Magnificent Seven”

If The Magnificent Seven had a title like Seven Cool Cowboys, I would be here writing a rave review. This remake is a good, fun western that might employ a lot of well-worn tropes, but has a good enough cast and a light enough tone to make it work quite well. I had a great time watching it almost the entire time I was in the theater. The problem comes from using the name of an older movie, a different movie, a better movie, and most importantly a movie with a point of view entirely ignored for this iteration. The Magnificent Seven is a fine movie but it’s an awful take on the original and it needs to carry that weight.

The Magnificent Seven hits all of the basic bits of the original film. Outlaws take over a town, townsfolk enlist a ragtag band of assorted cowboys and ne’er-do-wells to fight off the incursion, they train the civilians to help defend their town, and then a big battle ensues. What it misses is the thematic hit. The original Magnificent Seven (and the Kurosawa masterpiece it’s based on) ends with the heroes remarking that while they won the battle that they lost because their time is over, the world isn’t going to need gunfighters forever. The remake discards all of this: there’s no sense of ennui or longing, the surviving heroes ride off confident in their work and their status of heroes. Again, in any other western this wouldn’t be a problem— but for this one it seems like they took the name, they took the premise, and then they discarded the theme. I hate that they did that, it makes it look the name was a cheap ploy to lure in an audience that probably hasn’t seen the original but can be brought to the theater just on name recognition.

It’s a shame that no one thought this movie could make it on its own steam because there’s a fine cowboy movie here. Denzel Washington is one of the best actors alive and he’s fantastic in this movie, even though he can sometimes feel a little crowded out by the ensemble. It’s unfair to make Chris Pratt play across from Washington, because even though Pratt is charming and funny he withers from the comparison. Vincent D’Onofrio is playing the strangest part I may have seen in a movie all year but he’s inexplicably crushing it— I guess talent is the great equalizer. The rest of the cast is good (with the possible exception of Ethan Hawke, who might just have nothing to show me anymore) and they do an above average job playing some broad genre stereotypes. Do I wish that the two strong silent types weren’t also people of color? Yes, but I suppose I can live with it.

There’s nothing in The Magnificent Seven that particularly reinvents the wheel (reinvents the horseshoe?) when it comes to western action, but I’m ultimately fine with that. We don’t get westerns very often lately, and when we do they’ve been by either Quentin Tarantino or Seth MacFarlane and those haven’t exactly been typical westerns by any means. There’s a part of me that doesn’t mind seeing the same showdowns, the same bits of dialogue, or even the same shots. I miss the western… and if I can only get it in small doses, I can understand if they only want to play the hits.

Box Office Democracy: Don’t Breathe

It’s hard to describe why Don’t Breathe had me so consistently scared while I was watching it… it almost seems like dream logic at this point a couple days removed from viewing. There’s a very clever sequence where they just quietly show you the house that 85% of the movie is going to take place in, and they do it by just having the camera pass through the house. It goes down one hallway, up through the ceiling and through the second floor in a kind of transparent Chekhov’s single-family home kind of thing, and while I knew it was guaranteed nothing terrible would happen during this sequence I could barely look at the screen. The sense of menace during Don’t Breathe was so powerful and pervasive that even when the movie stumbled with character or an overly long climax I couldn’t look away.

I understand that characters in horror movies often have to be quick sketches to properly get to the action in the allotted runtime, but Don’t Breathe might be skimping on the characters a little too much. It’s hard to root for characters that are criminals, especially when the crime is robbing a blind man, so the film goes way over the top to try and give us characters we can try and root for. Rocky (Jane Levy) has an abusive mother so extreme that Eminem would find it a little far-fetched. She’s just robbing houses to save up enough money to take her little sister and move her to California and a new start. Alex (Dylan Minnette) is a thief but a very practical one with a strict code about what they steal to maximize safety and minimize legal risk. He robs people but he also refuses to consider moving away because he has to take care of his aging father. Money (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky’s boyfriend, is more of a cliché troublemaker and, well, they show him getting murdered in the trailer so he doesn’t last very long. They want us to think these people are ok even though they do bad things, and it didn’t work for me at all. It took so much more for me to view these kids as sympathetic characters.

They had to make the robbery victim so much worse to get me to root for those characters; to turn him from victim to monster, and they do it with relish and gusto. I’m getting in to some spoilers here so this is your opportunity to turn back and not know.

<clicks away to check email while spoilerphobes leave>

We find out early in the second act that our blind homeowner has a woman chained up in his basement— not just any woman but the woman who killed his daughter in a car accident. It flips the equation on us: sure these kids are thieves, but this guy is a kidnapper. Kidnapping is a worse crime than robbery, and so we have our proper good versus evil story restored to us. Much later in the film we discover that he had impregnated the kidnapped woman and plans to do the same to Rocky in a intensely uncomfortable artificial insemination scene. While being one of the grossest scenes I’ve ever seen committed to film, it was nice to see it done without emphasizing the sexual aspects of Rocky’s peril. We see her experience this horror through angles that accentuate that she’s helpless and terrified, but that don’t linger on her being exposed or whatever. (Her cut jeans do seem to magically fix themselves when she escapes and needs to run around more, but I’m willing to let that go for propriety and avoiding an NC-17 rating.)

When I saw the first trailer for Don’t Breathe, the one that focused heavily on the sequence with the lights out in the basement, I thought that someone had decided to make an entire movie out of the night vision sequence at the end of The Silence of the Lambs and how torturous that would be to watch. Instead I got the scariest movie I’ve seen so far this year, a frightening little gem that might not play fair the entire time (every blind person is not Daredevil) but delivers where it counts. We’re coming up on the big horror season (I could see having horror movies in this space for the next month looking at the calendar) and it’s exciting to see the gauntlet thrown down so convincingly ahead of the parade of remakes (Blair Witch) and hastily reskinned versions of Alien (Morgan) coming down the pipe.

Box Office Democracy: Sausage Party

It’s a shame there’s no outlet in our current media landscape for R-rated sketches written by high profile talent. There’s Funny or Die and its ilk, I suppose, but I can’t imagine the money there is anything like it is for a feature-length film. I’m pretty sure there’s a good eight-minute sketch to be made out of Sausage Party that would be, if not quite to my taste, generally enjoyable but instead it’s this endless rehash of the same five or six jokes that seems to drag on forever and ever but only takes 90 minutes.

Maybe I’m becoming too old and stodgy to enjoy comedy anymore, but I just don’t think the idea of a hot dog and a bun having sex is funny enough to be the anchor for an entire movie. This is the joke of this movie. Not the only joke, there’s a literal douche who is also a figurative douche and the whole thing with food being alive and not knowing it’s going to be eaten, but the hot dog bun sex thing is the big one— we start with it, we end with it, it comes up amazingly often, and it isn’t really that funny. They try to spice it up in the second act by adding a lesbian taco, and let me tell you, what this movie didn’t need was a greater variety of speculative food intimacy (but it’s clearly what the producers thought it needed as the whole film concludes with a massive food orgy).

Sausage Party is, when it isn’t a hastily constructed vehicle for bad jokes, a takedown of religion. The food thinks they’re going to heaven when they’re selected by humans (called “The Gods”) because they have been tricked by a consortium of non-perishable food items that have seen the cycle play out for some time and invented the story to make the food less afraid of their impending horrible deaths. I would say that it’s the screenplay embodiment of the arrogant attitude about other people’s personal beliefs you get from taking one college-level philosophy class, but Ricky Gervais made that movie seven years ago and it was The Invention of Lying so Sausage Party isn’t even original in being a smarmy ball of quasi-intellectual tripe.

It’s hard to get too bothered by bad representation in a movie that feels as insubstantial as Sausage Party. If a few Jewish writers want the only Jewish character in their movie to be a nebbishy Woody Allen stereotype, I don’t have any specific problem with that as a Jewish man. I’m a little less confident that the right choice was to make an equally stereotypical Arab character and have that character be voiced by David Krumholtz. Having those two characters end up screwing each other senseless in the aforementioned giant food orgy plays in to some ugly stereotypes vis a vis masculinity with regards to both communities, but I doubt this is something that went through the head of literally anyone involved so it’s more a sin of ignorance than malice. I’m slightly less willing to be charitable about the decision to have Bill Hader play both a Native American stereotype and a Mexican one in the same movie, but every moment I spend thinking about that is one less moment I get to spend never thinking about Sausage Party again.

It’s possible I’m simply too old for Sausage Party. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was one of the funniest movies I had ever seen when I was 15 years old and I was an evangelist for it among my friends. Perhaps Sausage Party is sending the same ripples through teenagers today and I’m out of touch or simply heard enough swear words in my life that reciting them as rapidly and randomly as possible doesn’t make my laugh the way it did when I was younger, but I don’t believe it. I firmly believe Sausage Party is a bad and lazy movie, but there were enough laughs in my theater to give me this slight moment of pause.

Box Office Democracy: Suicide Squad

I usually try to avoid reading reviews of movies before I go see them but the explosion of negativity that came out as soon as the embargo dropped last week made it utterly impossible to see Suicide Squad completely untainted. Combined with some scheduling snafus that kept me from seeing the film until Monday morning I walked into the theater with a strong preconception that this was going to be a bad movie. And it was— Suicide Squad is a bad movie, but it isn’t the end of western cinema, it isn’t the worst superhero movie ever made, it isn’t even the worst superhero movie released this year from Warner Bros that Ben Affleck is in. At some points it’s even endearingly bad, the kind of movie that could end up with a cult following. I doubt it will because of all the times it’s just a bland kind of bad and the crushing weight of the perpetual DC cinematic failures, but there are traces of a spark here.

Suicide Squad is an aggressively bland movie. Everything but Harley Quinn seems to be colored in various shades of grey or, at best, muted colors. The sets are drab and the exteriors are very obviously studio back lots pumped in with a smoke machine. Even the most common bad guys are an endless supply of vaguely human cannon fodder made out of black goo. There’s no personality to the environments, the objectives, or most of the characters. I just can’t care about this team of warriors killing wave after wave of generic nothing henchmen to foil an evil plot that looks menacing, but has no established stakes until the movie is 90% over. I get that the government has a vested interest in not having mysterious interdimensional entities establishing swirling vortexes above major cities, but if you don’t tell me what it does it becomes entirely generic.

Even if Suicide Squad were, somehow, a more interesting movie it wouldn’t save it because it’s a stunningly misogynist and racist movie. I might be at odds with some others in the comics community by saying this but I never thought Harley Quinn started as a particularly progressive character. She got there when they teamed her with Poison Ivy and there have been more and less good depictions of her over the years but this is definitely a bottom-of-the-barrel portrayal. Harley is a living breathing failure of the Bechdel Test because literally every action she takes is about a man, usually The Joker but sometimes Deadshot. It’s challenging to give this critique because Margot Robbie does such a good job taking the poorly-written character she’s given and wringing every bit of character she can out of it. There’s a moment where she turns to bow when she exits a scene that I swear is frame-for-frame perfect with an appearance on Batman: The Animated Series and that’s quite a commitment to the character.

If we want to hit sexism and racism in one character it would be in El Diablo. I’m not familiar with this version of the character at all, he must be from after my time as a regular comic book reader, but I sincerely hope that he has origins more distinct than this Mexican gangster caricature. It’s like David Ayer learned five things about Mexican gangs when he was writing Training Day and decided that he would put those things in every movie he wrote from then on. The movie also very much wants us to believe that El Diablo is the real victim of the time he got mad and incinerated his entire family in a scene that was several notches over my comfort zone in terms of similarity to real-world domestic violence. I understand that they’re trying for a metaphor here, but there’s basically no way the family man character they expect me to believe Deadpool is would be cool with what El Diablo did. Oh, and when El Diablo gets to his most powerful level, he inexplicably turns in to a giant flaming Aztec caricature, it’s very strange juxtaposed with his seemingly Catholic world view up until then. It’s as if they decided if they treated Will Smith and Viola Davis well, they could just do the rest of their minority characters as rough ethnic sketches.

I suppose I can’t get out of this without talking about Jared Leto’s performance as The Joker because of how it dominated the hype campaign for this movie despite being a vanishingly small part, all things considered. Leto does not do good work. He seems to be doing an impression of Heath Ledger’s performance from The Dark Knight but with all of the subtlety replaced by the kind of grunting you would get if you asked a 12 year-old what sex sounded like. He’s easily the worst live action depiction of the character, but you can tell that every time they called “cut” he was convinced that he nailed it. There are good acting performances in this movie, I’ve already shouted out Robbie, and think Viola Davis deserves kudos for taking a part that in another era would have faded in to the background and created one of the scariest characters in a movie that includes a crocodile monster. Will Smith is also doing good work, although we’re clearly getting “action movie” Will Smith and not “actually trying his hardest” Will Smith, but it doesn’t matter. Smith is a sublime talent as a movie star because he makes action nonsense seem serious and he nails the quiet moments as well as the funny ones.

At this point I don’t know what needs to change at DC Entertainment before they start putting out movies that aren’t dreary disasters. I suppose they would have to stop making quite so much money, but they hold their opening weekend numbers very badly and the critical derision has got to hurt especially when Marvel puts out bigger numbers and gets better reviews. I’ve heard over and over that there are shakeups internally and that things are going to get better, but it never does. The Comic Con footage of Justice League looked good but after seeing this and Batman v Superman how am I supposed to believe that the people who signed off on those movies even have any idea what a good movie looks like? It’s time for a change, but does anyone who could make that change care as long as the money comes in?

Box Office Democracy: Jason Bourne

I have repeatedly gone on the record as a huge fan of the Bourne series. The Bourne Identity was a landmark action movie; one that changed how fight scenes are choreographed and shot throughout all of cinema. When they needed to prove that James Bond wasn’t a Cold War relic, they did it by making him more like Jason Bourne. The Bourne Ultimatum won three Academy Awards and deserved every one of them; it’s a stunning example of the genre. The Bourne movies always seemed like they were two steps ahead of the action game in the same way their protagonist was two steps ahead of his pursuers but something has happened in this nine-year layoff. Now Jason Bourne feels a step behind.

There isn’t anything wrong with the Bourne formula— I still quite enjoy globetrotting and big set pieces filled with any combination of fighting, car chases, and explosions. The final sequence in Las Vegas is as good as any other climax this franchise has had. Neither Athens nor Berlin feel very special as exotic locales, and going back to London again after it was featured in Ultimatum feels a little lazy, but there’s only so many countries out there and we are on the fifth movie here. Tommy Lee Jones is here to be the token evil old white guy and that’s all fine. The real problem is that because this is the paradigm now, what once felt fresh is now cliché and this is all evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Matt Damon did a round of press where he seemed very proud that he only has about 25 lines of dialogue in Jason Bourne, and what a mistake that was. Bourne isn’t an emotionally expressive character, so if he isn’t telling you how much he cares about things it’s easy to assume he just doesn’t. If we let everyone else in the movie tell us how important things are or how emotionally devastating these revelations are, then we start to empathize with those characters more than the titular one. It’s easy to assume everything is rolling off his back as he stumbles through more and more of the plot. Even when they go to the tired trope of fridging a prominent supporting cast member (for the second time in three movies if we’re counting) it doesn’t seem to have an impact that lasts longer than the scene directly after the one it happens in.

There’s a big story going on in Jason Bourne, but I’m pretty sure Bourne himself has no idea it’s going on. There’s some big conspiracy between Jones and his CIA influence on a social media platform run by stereotypical tech mogul Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) and while Bourne comes in to possession of files that could expose the program we never see him read them, mention them, or seemingly have any interest in present-day CIA operations. Bourne is consumed with evidence that his father (a character that has had zero footprint on this series to date) might have been killed as part of a cover-up. The bad guys spend the entire film scrambling to cover-up and protect a program that the good guy has no knowledge of or interest in. It feels like the two sides are brought together solely by contrived coincidences and in a saner world never would they come in to conflict.

I want to believe that the Bourne franchise is bigger than this misstep. The biggest problems are narrative and let’s be honest, no one is seeing these films for their tight, coherent storylines. It needs to be a little better than this, but this is a slight stumble not a tumbling fall. Paul Greengrass, if he chooses to stick around, can recover from this and make a better movie. They left so many plot threads to continue on, from Ahmed’s character not coming close to having a character arc, to the surprise emergence of Alicia Vikander emerging as the most compelling entity in the whole film. In fact, if they decided to move away from Damon again, I would much rather watch a movie about Vikander’s morally ambiguous CIA character than I would like to have Jeremy Renner back. We’re 15 years in to the Bourne era, and while Jason Bourne is not the genre-defining pipe bomb its predecessors were, I’m not ready to write the whole venture off yet.

Box Office Democracy: Star Trek Beyond

Box Office Democracy: Star Trek Beyond

I can clearly remember the moment that guaranteed that I would never be a Star Trek in the same way I am a fan of so many other science fiction properties. I got a very bad cold in summer camp when I was nine years-old and was put in the infirmary, the only place in the camp that had television. I don’t remember if I choose the programming or if someone else did but I watched an entire evening of Deep Space Nine a feverish miserable mess (so feverish that it could have only been one episode as far as I know) and I’ve never quite gotten over that association enough to enjoy the show as an adult. Unlike Star Wars, DC, Marvel, Firefly, Buffy, et al I have no connection to the Star Trek franchise past enjoying a few of their cinematic efforts and enjoying others less. Star Trek Beyond is in the latter camp, a fine sci-fi action movie I guess but one with thinner characters than I’d prefer and action sequences that, while pleasing, seem a bit like nonsense.

Good science fiction either needs to get the audience very invested in the world, the science, and the process or invested in the characters to the point where none of that really matters. Star Trek Beyond fails to do either of those things, I’m not sure where my affection for these characters is supposed to come from besides the fact that they have very famous names and are on Team Earth and the universe feels vry shallow for a decades old property and the science is basically magic. We get scenes where characters I’m not super invested in are confronted with gigantic problems and then solve them by saying a bunch of big words I don’t understand and then they hit some buttons and poof the problem is over. This feels like it describes 90% of the conflict in the film. I’m being unfair to characters like Kirk and Spock who had a lot of time in the previous two films to get some earned affection but there’s a fair amount of Scottie action in here and none of that feels earned at all.

If a reboot is supposed to be a fresh start, to begin again without all the encumbrances of the original series, how far can you get in to the new thing before it’s just as difficult for outsiders as the original? We’re a mere seven years and three films in to the new Star Trek canon but with Star Trek Beyond we might be getting there. There’s very little here for people new even to this small corner of the franchise and some of it even seems to be relying on familiarity with the orginal series. Bones McCoy has been a criminally underused character in the first two entries in this franchise and while I’m glad to see him thrust in to a larger role this time around I can’t imagine his prickly friendship with Spock feeling even the least bit earned if you’ve only seen the 2009 Star Trek and Into Darkness. This no longer feels like a fresh, interesting, new take on Star Trek but more an acknowledgment that the original cast is far too old to do the action movies they want to make with these characters. Unless you never thought this was a fresh interesting take in which case I don’t know what this movie has to offer you at all.

The heartbreaking thing about this movie coming just a bit short is that it tarnishes the stellar reputation of Justin Lin who, prior to this film, was on run of genre-defining action movies with the Fast & Furious films before failing to impress here. I can see him trying to put his style on the film in moments especially in the scenes that prominently feature 20th and 21st century music but it isn’t enough. The moments that feel like him feel out of place amidst the rest of the film and the more traditional stuff often feel hollow and lacking in follow-through, where his frenetic pace may have saved him before here all of Lin’s missteps have a seemingly unlimited amount of time to breathe.

I don’t want do go in to other people’s fandoms and tell them how their beloved things ought to be. While I was a big fan of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot and thought Into Darkness totally acceptable action movie that I enjoyed watching once and have never been tempted to watch again. Star Trek Beyond I found considerably less enjoyable, it feels like uninspired technobabbly science fiction far too often and at rare moments seems to be playing directly to clichés lampooned in Galaxy Quest ones that probably needed to be permanently retired after being exposed so expertly. Maybe this is the Star Trek movie that will please the die-hard fans but I just couldn’t get in to it.


Box Office Democracy: “The Purge: Election Year”

I firmly believe that all media is political, that you cannot separate the political component from a cultural artifact anymore than you could strip out narrative or theme. I usually try to only be at about a six out of 10 in terms of political content when writing these reviews because I worry that I might come off as too singularly focused and, if I’m being completely honest, because I’m concerned that my analysis is not nearly sophisticated enough to be my leading edge. I’m throwing that out of the window for The Purge: Election Year partly because it is such an aggressive political piece and partially because other than the political content it isn’t offering much beyond the established Purge formula. If you’re the kind of person who desires no politics in their media criticism I can tell you that The Purge: Election Year is very similar in tone and pace to The Purge: Anarchy and while it has a lot of additional world building it isn’t moving heaven and earth to get there. If you want a fun thriller with a complex if not entirely unpredictable narrative, this is a good choice. I also urge you to stop reading here because from here on out I intend to only engage with the political content.

My main critique of the first Purge movie was that it gestured to some bigger political issues, but was really nothing more than a monster in a house movie. The daughter character is there to raise questions about the fairness of the Purge, but every other character tells her to keep it to herself. At this point it seems they’ve heard this critique and Election Year is much more comfortable engaging in politics and having a clearer point of view on contemporary issues. The ruling party, The New Founding Fathers of America, is a right wing party that has wrapped itself in religion and firmly believes that there is no point in trying to create income equality and is trying to murder the poor. They also hire an army of Neo-Nazis decked out in patches of the Confederate flag and white power slogans to murder their political enemies. I’m sure when they were writing this, it seemed a little more dystopian and far-fetched than it does on a weekend when a major party political candidate posted an image from a Neo-Nazi web forum on his official Twitter account. It’s no coincidence that the last round of advertising I saw for this film features the slogan “Keep America Great”, and it’s nice to see this series engaging with issues instead of pushing it aside for the sake of simpler thrills.

While I appreciate the willingness to go to a more political place, I picked up on some attempts to draw equivalencies between both sides of the issue of purging and I’m not entirely sure that’s appropriate. I want nuanced and complicated characters on both sides of the equation, but I also want it underlined that the people fighting to stop the night of unregulated murder that disproportionately targets their community are much more morally right than their opponents… and I’m not sure the movie always agrees with me there. There is a resistance group, introduced in the last film, composed of almost exclusively people of color that run a hospital on Purge night but that also want to engage in a political assassination to influence the election. I thought the movie made it seem like this assassination attempt was just as evil as the attempt of the ruling party to assassinate the candidate opposed to the purge, and I don’t think there is a moral equivalency here. Trying to stop the Purge is a cousin of self-defense, and while it isn’t a lofty political ideal to kill your opponents I understand why they thought that was their only option. It’s worth noting at this point that my fiancée, a scholar with extensive training in media and representation, does not think that they were saying both groups were similarly bad.

There’s one more unsettling bit in here (as long as we’re drawing parallels to modern politics from a movie made by a studio famous for caring only about keeping costs down and making as many movies as they can). There’s a B story about a deli and the owner trying to protect it on Purge night when his insurance is cancelled at the last minute and the crazy aggressive local girl who is nursing a grudge over a shoplifting incident. I very much want the intent behind this plot to be about how marginalized communities are often turned against each other to fight over scraps instead of fighting against the systems that serve to oppress them. However, the much easier parallel to draw from that is one about “black-on-black violence” and if that’s legitimizing that nonsense to their audience then there’s some actual evil going on here.

I appreciate that with The Purge: Election Year, the franchise is starting to engage with the social issues at the root of their premise. All good science fiction should aspire to engage with contemporary issues and hold a mirror up to the places that could be doing better. At its best moments Election Year is doing a great job at that, and in other places it feels like it is trying to hard to please everyone to have a strong enough perspective on some things. I’m thrilled that there’s the space to have these observations and actual conversations about a Purge movie and I’m excited to see where (if?) things go from here, an enthusiasm I did not have the first time around.