Category: Box Office Democracy

Box Office Democracy: Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day: Resurgence is inexcusably boring, the kind of movie script I would expect if you went to one of those experimental Google A.I. routines and asked them to make a summer blockbuster. None of the ideas feel clever or new but instead a naïve attempt to maximize potential profits.  It’s a disaster movie mixtape with a couple alien cliché deep cuts thrown in to appear hip. Resurgence tries so hard to traffic in the positive memories we have of the original Independence Day and while it’s occasionally evocative enough to stir that up, it so much more often completely fails to not only carry the weight of the first movie but to even be a coherent film.

The original Independence Day was particularly relatable because we were offered so many different slices of life. We saw the goofy scientist and his nebbishy father, we saw the air force pilot and his exotic dancer wife, and, yes, we saw the President of the United States and his family but we also saw the trailer parks and the end of the world parties. We got a world that felt lived in. Every principal character in Resurgence is either a holdover character from the first film, now renowned for their work saving the earth, one of their children who are uniformly top fighter pilots, or a spectacularly important global political figure. There’s no relating to any of these people because so few people actually travel in these circles. The problem seems to come from the world being way more science-fiction-y than the original film and there seems to be no desire to explore how things have changed in any respect besides anti-alien war machines. The world feels so much less lived in and so it’s much harder to care when they start wrecking things.

Along with being unrelatable, none of the characters have narrative arcs at all. With the exception of being sad about loved ones being killed or mad that alien invaders are back, none of the characters have any kind of emotional growth. None of them have to change the way they interact with the world to solve the problem of the alien invasion, they just sort of do the same things over and over again and eventually it works and the day is saved. There’s a certain catharsis to seeing a bunch of alien ships explode and everything but there’s no meaningful character work happening here so there’s nothing but hollow victories.

Independence Day: Resurgence is set in a world where all of humanity has come together in harmony after the monumental alien attacks of 20 years ago. This new one world government is composed mainly of American and Chinese people and I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence that these are the two largest markets for movies these days. No other nations are represented in any significant way at all unless you count the African warlord of a nameless country who seems to exist only to provide a vague sense of menace and have a kind of racist interaction with a minor character toward the end of the film. One of the three big disaster sequences also takes place in China, which is either an attempt to underscore the stakes for all of the main players (including the Chinese fighter pilot) or more transparent pandering to the Chinese market, and I’m betting heavily on the latter.

I could go on and on with things that were boring or lazy about Independence Day: Resurgence. The alien queen looks suspiciously like the one in Alien vs. Predator. Two different plotlines have separate bumbling nerdy guy characters, I assume because they couldn’t figure out a way to combine them, and they both get external validation of their masculinity to close out their stories. Jeff Goldblum is carted around from place to place to react to things in his inimitable way and they rely on his charm being so strong that we don’t notice that he doesn’t ever do anything in the film; he could be replaced by a handsome coat rack. The mysterious object that can save the world is stunningly poorly designed and could quite accurately be described as a mecha-Pac-Man. The third movie basically announced in the closing moments of this one is a hundred times more compelling conceptually but still isn’t a movie I want to go see after this wretched chapter. The original Independence Day was an iconic disaster film that shaped a decade of blockbusters, but Resurgence is an emotionless husk, an exoskeleton with no alien pilot, gracelessly going through the motions.

Box Office Democracy: Finding Dory

I am too big a fan of Pixar to be reasonably objective at this point. On this very website I wrote a rave review of The Good Dinosaur, a movie I seem to be almost completely alone on the island of people who think that was an unqualified masterpiece. I’ve given more than one passionate defense of Cars as a well-intentioned movie with a nice message about the virtue of small town America. I’m even polite enough to pretend that Cars 2 never existed. I’m a Pixar team player all the way. But I’m just not sure I’m a big fan of Finding Dory.

It’s not a bad movie, that’s not what’s wrong here, not by a long shot. It’s funny, it’s momentarily very moving, and the design work is exciting and dynamic. What it doesn’t feel is particularly original. They hit a lot of characters again, not for deeper dives (sorry) into the characters or even for fresh jokes, but to do basically the same joke over again. There’s also a couple sea lions introduced that feel an awful lot like the pelican from the first movie crossed with the seagulls, to say nothing of another luminescent predator in a dark environment coming around. I might be expecting too much from one-note characters in a children’s movie but I expect more from this studio, and I expect more from a successor to such a resounding triumph of filmmaking as Finding Nemo.

The problem I have with Finding Dory would likely be fixed with some higher stakes. Finding Nemo is a movie filled with life and death peril at every turn. Marlin and Dory are crossing the ocean and interacting with sharks and jellyfish and everything else dangerous out there. Nemo is in a fish tank waiting to be taken home by a little girl who murders every fish she gets her hands on. Those are some real life-or-death stakes. Everything feels less important this time around. Dory wants to find her family but she looks for them exclusively in a relatively safe environment. Marlin and Nemo are in pursuit but the biggest peril they ever seem to be in is when they’re trapped in a tank with a particularly boring oyster. It all just feels too breezy and light to ever feel like anyone is in any real danger and at that point, so why are we bothering to hear this story? Writer/director Andrew Stanton has two Oscars for Best Animated Feature and four nominations for screenplays so it’s hard to believe he doesn’t understand all of this much better than I do it’s just strange to see Stanton in particular and Pixar in general put out such a relatively empty film.

It might seem hollow after all those complaints, but I quite enjoyed getting to spend a little more time with Dory and Marlin. The original film was a favorite of mine and is singlehandedly responsible for my general appreciation of Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks. Both are really good in this movie, DeGeneres is obviously fantastic, her performance both resembles her real world comedic style and is so in tune with the character she can really nail the quieter moments. Brooks gives a more subtle performance, Marlin says something early in the film and having him try and minimize what he said while clearly being filled with regret and needing to make amends is so subtle and so relatable. I got a little crabby with the plot but the performances and the direction are second to none.

Finding Dory is a B+/A- movie from a company I have grown accustomed to giving an easy A every time. There’s nothing wrong with it, I walked out of the theater completely delighted with the movie— but it doesn’t feel like it’s entirely living up to the standard that Disney and Pixar have set over the last few years. It would be hard to make the case that Finding Dory is a better movie than Frozen, or Inside Out, or Zootopia. Finding Dory is a far sight better than The Angry Birds movie, but that’s like saying that the worst team in the NBA would probably wreck your local college team: true, but not really the point.

Box Office Democracy: The Conjuring 2

There’s a lot of charm in The Conjuring 2, maybe more than it should considering it takes place in a grey house, on a grey street, in a part of London that seemingly thunderstorms every night. For some reason this family felt more natural, more caring than the families one typically sees in these horror movies— everyone is believed, everyone tries their best to maximize each other’s safety. There’s a sing-along number and a dance and that might just be about maximizing the value of paying for an Elvis song but it’s very sweet in a genre that sometimes feels as if it is just trying to maximize the unpleasantness it can dish out. I’m still far too easily scared by horror movies to consider myself a real fan but this was a nice movie, a movie I don’t regret sitting through.

The Conjuring 2 is based on a true story. They very much want you to know that. They tell you before the movie, they tell you again after and then they spend the first section of the credits showing pictures of the real life people and events next to pictures from the movie. The real life incident is widely considered to be a hoax and learning that really diminished the movie for me. (That feels a little strange to say. I know that nothing in most movies has really happened. Crimson Peak is complete hogwash.) Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers bear no real resemblance to any actual people. The realities of fiction never impede on my enjoyment there, but I think there’s something about being sold very hard on the idea that this is a true story, that this ghost is real that to find out that it’s fairly documented as not real kind of leaves me with a sense of “what did we do all that for then?” that’s pervasive and inescapable.

Between Saw, Insidious, and now The Conjuring, James Wan is responsible for three of the biggest horror franchises of the 21st century, and he’s an undoubted master of his craft. The main demon is a fantastic piece of design work, but what stands out is this stunning sequence early in the film where the demon is a shadow and then manifests through a painting of itself and it sounds kind of basic in text but it’s a series of arresting visuals, the true work of a master. The flip side of this is I am so familiar with Wan’s work at this point that his less ambitious sequences are starting to feel a little paint-by-number. I know that the fire truck is coming back out of the tent. I know that the zoetrope is going to be used to set up a larger scare. I know the ways Wan likes to be scary and when he plays with it it’s amazing, but when he falls back on it it’s starting to feel tired.

I’ve never seen a modern demonic possession movie that I thought had a stand out performance and this is no exception. Madison Wolfe does a good job playing a creepy possessed child, but I’ve seen that so many times that I’m starting to suspect it might be easy. Isn’t every child in the world a little creepy? And the effects seem to be doing a lot of the heavy lifting (heavy levitating?) these days anyway. James Wan horror movies seem to be Patrick Wilson’s entire career at this point, and he’s gotten good at blustery confidence followed by sheer terror in the third act but there’s nothing new in this performance. There’s nothing cringe-y or terrible— it’s just kind of there. The actors feel like they’re just part of the set, the real star is the camera work, the editing, and the sound design.

I’m often unhappy seeing horror movies for work but I didn’t get that this time. We’re probably reaching the end of this phase of James Wan’s career, he wasn’t permanently lured away from horror with Furious 7 but Aquaman is calling… and I have to imagine at some point the prestige of more “mainstream” films will pull him away forever. The Conjuring 2 feels a lot like what I imagine seeing The Rolling Stones is like; they play the hits and while there are probably moments of unexpected delight, what you’re mostly there for is a sense of comfort and familiarity. I feel that nostalgia for Wan’s horror movies at this point and while I didn’t particularly like them, I respect the level of craft and the place in the horror canon. I lost this particular war but I don’t particularly mind the peace.

Box Office Democracy: X-Men: Apocalypse

The X-Men movies have a fairly high average quality for a franchise going in to its sixth entry. In fact, with the exception of a Brett Ratner directed monstrosity of bloat and pettiness, there isn’t a truly bad film to be found in the bunch. For a stretch of my college career I would have told you X2 was the best superhero movie ever made. I would have been wrong— Unbreakable was a lot better and Spider-Man 2 has held up better over the years if we’re talking strictly licensed fare. But this is a franchise that means something to me so it’s a shame to see them start to slip a little bit. Not that X-Men: Apocalypse is a bad movie or anything, but it’s a frustrating one in many respects and one that could be pointed to some years down the road as the beginning of the end of X-Men as a quality, bankable, brand.

I’m not certain when it became the decree from on high that every X-Men film had to be a period piece but with three in a row and a fourth on the way that definitely seems to be the way things are going. It felt revolutionary with First Class, these characters are timeless in their way and putting them in some historical context is a great way to show off the multi-faceted nature of the material (it’s also a great way to not have to pay some of your more expensive actors but that’s neither here nor there). Days of Future Past was also fun; the time-travelling Wolverine made it all feel a bit more earned, plus it was a great excuse to retcon away some of the worst bits of X-Men: The Last Stand that no one cared for. Now it’s starting to feel a bit unnecessary with another movie another decade later. I’m no longer feeling like these are timeless characters and instead they’re starting to feel dated; like the X-Men are nothing but a nostalgia act. The best X-Men comics I’ve ever read have felt cutting edge, like they were happening six months from now not thirty years in the past. I get that all storytelling eventually feels dated, but at this point I would much prefer them working and reworking things so that older stories felt new instead of constantly telling me how old and quaint the X-Men are.

I understand that if we accept the premise that every X-Men movie has to be a period piece, that recastings will have to be a constant part of the franchise (although all the people from First Class sure don’t look 20 years older but whatever) and I generally like the new blood. Sophie Turner is a great young Jean Grey, although it’s certainly possible the casting is trading on some good will borrowed from Game of Thrones. My only critique of Tye Sheridan as Cyclops is he’s a bit of an emo stick-in-the-mud, but that’s also my critique of Cyclops the comic book character so maybe he’s actually perfect. My only real beef is with casting Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse. You have one of the most charismatic actors in Hollywood riding a hell of a run and you put him in a big suit under a ton of makeup and have him just recite dialogue that would have felt cliché in comics 15 years ago. It’s a staggering waste of an incredible talent. Even my fiancée, a dyed-in-the-wool Isaac fangirl, didn’t even recognize him in the movie until I pointed him out.

It’s not the kind of thing I like to complain about, but I was quite struck with how much the final battle looked like it was taking place in a studio lot. I know that they can’t actually film in a destroyed Cairo or anything but a bunch of people in costumes with no bystanders and some generic looking rubble looks a bit too much like a SyFy channel original movie for my taste. I don’t even know how to fix it and I’m sure I’ve seen a dozen action sequences shot in lots this year alone, but something about this one had me thinking the tour tram could drive by the background at any moment.

I know I’ve crapped on this movie a bit here but I want to emphasize that the stuff the works works so well. Michael Fassbender is amazing as Magneto, displaying a tortured depth to the character that honestly surpasses Ian McKellen’s wonderful but more scenery-chewing effort. Jennifer Lawrence has made Mystique into a character more interesting than her comic book counterpart, and while I’m not entirely sure it lines up narratively with all her other appearances she carries the film through all its bumpy stretches. All of the stuff that’s been working since the reboot still works… it’s just the connective tissue is getting worse and the formula feels a bit more tired. This series needs a kick in the ass, and not in the way a film set ten more years in the future is going to do. Maybe the next Wolverine will be great though.

Box Office Democracy: Money Monster

If your internet life is anything like mine you probably saw one too many articles this week on Money Monster and what it meant for the election, or what it meant that George Clooney made this movie and is a Hillary supporter, or why this movie exists when The Big Short already came out. I found it completely exhausting and it wasn’t representative of what this movie actually is. Money Monster isn’t a real piece of analysis about any kind of systemic flaws in our financial system; it’s John Q but with algorithmic trading instead of health care bureaucracy and George Clooney instead of Denzel Washington. It’s a fantasy and an understandable one, but one that feel light on substance and, ultimately, a little garbled.

The big problem Money Monster has is with its casting. George Clooney is a proven commodity as the slick huckster with a heart of gold, and throwing in some Jim Cramer caricature makes it so much better. Julia Roberts is the quintessential put-upon hard-working career woman and she’s firing on all cylinders reunited with Clooney to do a slightly less sexually charged version of their shtick from Ocean’s Eleven. Clooney and Roberts are fantastic but they pull focus from the character the movie should be about, the guy who is so angry with the injustice of the financial system he needs to take hostages, Kyle Bludwell. Kyle is played by English actor Jack O’Connell, who you might know from his turn on the British drama Skins or his medium-sized part in 300: Rise of an Empire, but who you probably don’t remember from anything. He does a good job and is honestly acting his ass off at certain points in this film, but even in those big moments it’s hard not be transfixed by the bigger stars on the screen. It makes Kyle’s rage about the injustices of our system and the lack of accountability seem like the less important problems than the dining habits of a TV host, and that seems antithetical to the movie’s message.

If we ignore the central political issue, and it sort of feels like the film wants us to, there’s perfectly good filmmaking in here. The studio hostage scenes are tense and it especially does a good job focusing on the fear and menace that the gun represents. The mystery elements feel sufficiently twisty and surprising, although my fiancée pointed out in the car home that it all really gets solved by one person asking one question to the right regulatory body and maybe it all would have come out without the events of the film but I can let that go. There are even some good moments of levity, which can be hard to balance with a film that wants to be on the edge of overwrought all the time. It’s nice to see Jodie Foster back directing features and she gets good work out of her actors, it’s just a shame to see the parts add up to less than a coherent whole.

There’s no way anyone in Hollywood sat in their office and said, “we’re going to make a movie about the financial crisis and we’re going to cast George Clooney and Julia Roberts and it’ll get middling reviews and open in third place in mid-May.” That’s just not how anything works. The previews we saw before this movie were prestige films with festival accolades and pre-made awards pitches, and it was like seeing the potential Money Monster was going to fail to live up to. This could have been a powerful statement on any number of topics, but instead was okay with being a good thriller and an offbeat character piece. Money Monster wants to be a big and important movie but it doesn’t get there, it doesn’t have a strong enough point of view or clarity of vision.

Box Office Democracy: “Captain America: Civil War”

Captain America vs. Iron Man by Alex Ross after Jack Kirby from Tales of Suspense #58

I hesitate a little sitting down to write a rave review of Captain America: Civil War because a year ago I wrote a rave review for Avengers: Age of Ultron, and when I rewatched that to make sure I was all set for this new installment I found it rather tedious. Are these, perhaps, movies that trick us into liking them with their big action scenes, clever dialogue, and sweeping scores— but only really play in a big theater with a bucket of popcorn? Are there no legs to these films? Will we be as embarrassed of them in 20 years as we are of Batman Returns now? The correct answer to these questions is a resounding “who cares?” It doesn’t matter if these are immortal treasures, the Casablancas or French Connections of our time, only that they’re fun to watch now and they are, perhaps the most fun this side of Fast & Furious, and we should cherish and celebrate them even if they might be a bit fleeting.

I was the perfect age to be completely enamored with the Civil War comic book series. I was finishing up my junior year of college and I could not get enough of any super hero comic book with a political allegory thrown in. If you wanted to have someone talk your ear off about how Margaret Thatcher influenced British comics in the 80s with not even a whiff of proper context I was your guy. Civil War the comic felt timely and provocative while Civil War the movie feels decidedly less so. We seem less concerned these days about government surveillance and intrusion in to our lives. There was probably a good pivot to be made to police militarization and violence, especially when Captain America learns that the order is to kill Bucky on sight, but there’s seemingly no interest in exploring this and it’s hard to blame them when Marvel is interested in making a billion dollars, not in being provocative.

They’re going to earn that billion dollars, too. Civil War is a crisp, effective, action movie that provides ample fan service without feeling overdone. Early in the film I thought I was completely worn out by super hero action sequences, and then they get to the big signature set piece where all the heroes fight each other and I was completely riveted. It helps that their big dramatic fight scene has a brand-new wisecracking Spider-Man and a welcome returning Ant-Man to keep things light and glib and just the utter opposite of Snyder-esque. The final fight scene has that overwrought gritty feeling creeping in, but by that point the stakes have been jacked up so many times that I was willing to forgive it. It’s a dark violent fight but it’s so well directed and the cramped environment makes it feel immediate, imposing, and fresh. Civil War has some fantastic character moments but it needs to live and die by its action sequences, and with the exception of one that felt lifted from The Bourne Identity it consistently hit the mark.

I’m beginning to wonder if the Marvel Cinematic Universe is starting to strain under the weight of its own continuity. The scenes between Vision and Scarlet Witch were generally charming but they mostly felt like they were setting things up for future movies rather than relating directly to the action at hand. Similarly, I was thrilled to see Chadwick Boseman debut as Black Panther and while he’s a riveting presence (and an A+ costume) it felt like they were saving all the good bits for his solo movie, and while I’m excited to see it that movie comes out in two years, I paid for this ticket now. I understand that this is bigger than any one movie, but I want these events to feel important and self-contained and not just part of some endless march to Thanos or whatever the endgame after that is. Comic book movies should be evocative of their source material, but should avoid the more glaring pitfalls of sequential storytelling with excessive continuity when they can.

I like so much of what they put on the screen in Captain America: Civil War and most of my complaints seem to be about the things they didn’t do or problems outside the scope of a movie like this, and while I do think a more timely, more self-contained film would have been more enjoyable it doesn’t take away from how good it is now. We are looking down the barrel of a rough summer when it comes to standard-fare action movies, and when I’m sitting through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows I’m not going to be thinking about how Civil War dropped too many hints— I’m going to miss how it could stage a compelling grandiose action scene and how none of the characters looked like expressionless CGI blobs. Civil War is as good as superhero action films get, or at least as good as they get with no Hulk.

Seriously, I feel Hulk-starved at this point.

Box Office Democracy: Keanu

Keanu is a lot of things, it’s a very funny comedy, it’s a sharp piece of social satire, and it’s a telling mirror held up to the tropes of the contemporary action movie, but what it isn’t is the movie they advertise it as, a movie about a cute kitten. I understand the urge to run those advertisements—if the internet has proved one thing, it’s that there’s no end to human cruelty; but if it’s proved two, it’s that people love cute cats so much—but it seems to be a great way to end up with a theater full of people who are not getting the movie experience they thought they were getting. While it’s very easy to Monday morning quarterback these kind of decisions, it’s now clear that this wasn’t the secret to untold box office millions, and the actual content in Keanu is excellent and should have been given a chance to stand on its own.

The similarities between Keanu and John Wick are reportedly coincidental, but they’ve clearly leaned in to it by naming their film after Keanu Reeves and calling on him for a cameo voice role. On the surface the movies have a lot in common, people are inspired to gratuitous amounts of violence over the grief the feel over losing a newly acquired pet, but the comparison dries up quickly after that. John Wick is this sublimely misanthropic movie about how the good in the world is a facade and how we can never escape our baser instincts, and Keanu is full of redemptive arcs for all but the most sinister characters, everyone has a chance at a better life and there’s a feeling of hope. Maybe this is the difference between a live kitten and a dead dog but it’s probably a bit more than that.

On the face of things, Keanu is a lot like any comedy you’ve seen for your entire life— but there’s something deeper lurking underneath. Rell (Jordan Peele) is struggling to recover from a breakup and is looking to find his joie de vivre again while his more together friend Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) is more together but needs to find a way to advocate for his own needs and find time for himself. I’m sure these exact characters to this point have existed thousands of times in the history of film and thousands more on TV sitcoms, but they’re effective character shorthands. What Keanu uses these shorthand characters for is to discuss black masculinity, a topic I am wholly incapable of discussing in any sort of authoritative manner. I can say that when Rell tells Cameron that he sounds like “Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy” I laughed because I got the reference, but I can’t speak to the truthfulness of these observations. I urge you to seek out more insightful thoughts on this topic from black cultural critics or even from Key & Peele themselves in their interview for Sharp Magazine. I enjoyed it, I think it’s important; I’m too white to get further involved.

I very much enjoyed Key & Peele when it was on Comedy Central, so it’s no real surprise that I found Keanu generally hilarious. In particular, there’s a bit where Clarence has to convince a car full of young gangsters that George Michael is a black musician making music that speaks to their lives and situations that was easily the strongest bit in the whole film. It was cut with a remarkably weak scene with Anna Faris playing herself as a set of drug clichés that felt indulgent and overly long. It’s generally well paced and consistently funny and, perhaps most importantly, has the good taste to wrap up the movie before it gets boring. Keanu passes one of the most important tests a comedy can pass: I would 100% stop and watch it if I saw it was on cable.

Box Office Democracy: “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”

In my first year of reviewing movies I ranked Snow White and the Huntsman as the ninth worst movie of 2012 and by that time news had come out that neither star Kristen Stewart nor director Rupert Shane would be returning for the sequel, and I predicted that it would probably be a better movie. I was right, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a better movie, and it still isn’t a very good movie.   Freed from trying to retell a more famous story, there are some interesting choices made in the script— but it’s all overwhelmed by the crushing clichés of high fantasy. At its lowest points Huntsman is the slickest Lord of the Rings fan-film you’ve ever seen; at its highest it’s a kind of cute romantic comedy starring Nick Frost.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War wraps around the first movie with a little bit of an origin story and then the kind of sequel where you barely need to bring any of the cast back. The story now revolves around a previously unmentioned northern kingdom ruled by Freya (Emily Blunt) the ice witch sister of the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) from the first film. Freya has a plotline so similar to Elsa in Frozen that it feels like the script was written by lawyers, everything feels just distinct enough while still constantly threatening to break in to a chorus of “Let it Go” at any moment. Freya, it conveniently turns out, raised and trained a whole army of Huntsmen (and Huntswomen) and her sociologically fascinating but completely implausible ban on the very concept of love ends up driving away Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and starting him on his journey that leads him to the first movie. We then skip ahead to after and Eric with one of the eight dwarfs from the first movie (Nick Frost) plus a new dwarf (Rob Brydon) end up on a convoluted quest to rescue the evil magic mirror to save the completely absent Snow White and save the world, I guess. Sara (Jessica Chastain) is Eric’s presumed dead wife who saves his life at a miraculous moment, and then just a bunch of fantasy junk happens until they have to wrap it up.

I feel like a crazy person typing all that up. There’s just an insane amount of idea bloat in this film and it struggles to find a focus.

Some of that struggle for focus is the result of not having a clear protagonist. Going strictly by the screenplay writing books it’s Freya, because it is the change in her attitude that allows the climax of the movie to happen, but she’s practically a Bond villain in terms of her scheming for the rest of the film and it’s hard to feel particularly invested in the well-being of someone who keeps a room full of people turned into ice sculptures. In terms of screen time (and billing) it’s Eric, but he doesn’t change his attitude one iota through the film— he’s right about pretty much everything all the time and is super capable and has no need to improve, he’s Aragorn with an axe. It’s probably supposed to be Sara, she has a clear narrative arc and she has the biggest impact on the events of the film but they try so hard to obfuscate her actions and intentions that it’s hard to connect with her. That along with the stilted narrative structure leaves the movie feeling like a series of vignettes and not like a cohesive narrative.

I did genuinely enjoy the love story between Nick Frost’s dwarf and Alexandra Roach’s. It was cute, and it felt clever, and most importantly… it didn’t feel like it was shaken out of the fantasy magic eight ball like every other piece of Winter’s War. It was the only thing that felt genuine or surprising. This was a movie full of twists and every one of them was telegraphed so far in advance and the one that might have been surprising was shown in its entirety in the trailer for the movie. That simple, silly love story was the only thing I liked, the only thing I will remember fondly in this overplotted mess, but it deserves to be recognized. If the next movie just takes those two characters I’d be first in line for more; otherwise, please put this series out of its misery.

Box Office Democracy: Midnight Special

Midnight Special

At the theater I see most of my movies at, they sometimes run interviews with filmmakers after the credits. These are never particularly hard-hitting affairs, usually filled with variations on the question “just how is it you came to do such brilliant work on this movie” and so on. After Midnight Special, they ran an interview with writer/director Jeff Nichols where they asked him what it was like to be a writer who only wrote films he was going to direct and a director who only directed films he wrote. Putting aside that this isn’t nearly as uncommon as this interviewer seems to think, it kind of brought in to focus the nagging problem I had during the film; it’s a wonderfully directed movie and only an okay script. There are fantastic, compelling acting performances holding up a script that thinks it’s too clever for context, and a third act that feels utterly without consequence. A movie can go a long way on gritty atmosphere, tension, and a pervasive sense of intrigue, but it can’t quite get all the way to the finish line— and so Midnight Special is a frustrating good instead of a dizzying great.

Midnight Special is about a boy, Alton, with some kind of powers. They’re never made particularly clear, which becomes awfully convenient when they need him to do just about everything to make the story come together in the end. It’s also about his parents who love Alton so much that they’ll give up their lives and endanger innocent people to rescue him from a cult that might not have his interests at heart, but when it becomes clear they might not see their child again they never once tell him they love him or that they’ll miss him. It’s all tight-lipped stoicism and meaningful glances. It’s also about a manhunt to find him both by the government and by two agents of this cult, but the methods of the pursuers are vague and the cultists seem to give up very easily considering they think the boy will bring about biblical judgment. Midnight Special is a movie where nothing feels particularly weighty because nothing makes all that much sense.

There’s a pleasing depth to the world of Midnight Special, and while they drop us right in to the middle of the action it all feels lived in and real. The problem comes in because, while I don’t want more exposition per se, I can’t help but wonder if some of the stories we don’t see on screen aren’t more interesting than the one we’re seeing. The story of an established rural Texas cult refocusing itself around a precocious young boy and rewriting their scriptures, or the story of the NSA discovering that said precocious cult child is spilling national secrets, or even a 20-minute short about how the world would react to whatever the hell happened at the end of that movie. A movie should always try to leave the audience wanting more but Midnight Special left me wanting something completely different and something I’ll never be offered, and that’s slightly less pleasant.

Michael Shannon was seemingly created to be in movies like Midnight Special. He’s quiet, he’s intense, and he can convey an incredible amount of information with his expressions. He’s needed in this movie because while the information might seem thin or a little nonsensical, he can instantly ground it by wordlessly conveying to the audience what it means to his character and how we’re supposed to feel in the audience. He isn’t angry at Alton when the crashed satellite destroys the gas station, he’s afraid— stuff like that. Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst are also very good and they’re acting against the type I have for them in my head, which is nice. They both feel like such substantial presences on the screen and while that might seem like damning with faint praise, it isn’t— their tiniest reaction or mannerism feels gigantic in this film.

I’m unhappy to admit that I was probably wrong about Adam Driver. I didn’t like him for a long time and it seems like he’s a real actor. I didn’t like him in Girls, I still don’t understand why people think he’s so incredibly good-looking, but he was good in The Force Awakens and he’s great here in Midnight Special. He’s firmly in my McConaughey Zone for actors that are going to take me a while to get past their so-so starts to appreciate their good work, but at least the newest inductee has a name I don’t have to look up every time I need to write it down.

It’s great for science fiction that Midnight Special exists. It’s a nice, slower, less special effects intensive kind of sci-fi that has a really good vibe (Alton reading 1980s Superman and Teen Titans comics in the back of the car was an especially nice touch). It’s an emotional film and its an effectively tense film but it never feels particularly clever; it’s a well-decorated house that’s collapsing into a sinkhole. It’s the kind of movie I would stick with if I ran across it on cable but would be not paying attention at all by the end.

Box Office Democracy: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

It’s easy to kick a studio while they’re down, and a little of that seems to be happening with the reactions to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Warner Bros. has struggled mightily in bringing their heroes to the screen in recent years (recent decades if we don’t count Christopher Nolan’s work) and there’s an attempt to pile on. If Batman v Superman were a Marvel Studios film I suspect it would be getting more positive coverage as people dug to find the good things and used them to redeem the things that don’t work; instead people are endlessly picking at the numerous mistakes. Don’t get confused, Batman v Superman is an awful movie and Zack Snyder should be stopped at all costs but in the hands of literally any other director I could believe there was a salvageable property here and there’s time to right this ship.

Superman as depicted in Batman v Superman isn’t fun to watch, nor does he feel faithful to the character. I’ll be honest: I stopped reading comics on a weekly basis in the winter of 2012 and I haven’t been keeping up since then, so maybe Superman has become an extremely violent, petulant baby in that time— but I sort of doubt it. The Superman in this film is terrifying to consider. He’s quick to anger and never particularly nice to anyone that isn’t Lois Lane; more like Miracleman than Superman. The only never ending battle on display in this film is the one Warner Bros. fights for Superman to appear cool, but they’ve succeeded in creating a character that would only seem cool to an edgy teenager or the 90s comics industry. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be rooting for Batman or Superman when they come to blows, but I’m almost certainly not supposed to be thinking Lex Luthor is right about everything— and yet that’s just where I was for 80% of this movie.

The non-Superman characters were mostly pretty good. Ben Affleck should release a video where he makes it very clear he’s addressing all the people who doubted he could be a credible Batman, drop the mic, and then walk away. He’s a great Batman; I’m ready to put him in the upper echelon with Bale and Keaton (and Kilmer but let’s not get sidetracked) after seeing this movie. He’s believable physically, and he captures that kind of arrogant paranoia that I think Batman should embody. The scenes with Wonder Woman in costume are a giddy rush, and they represent her so well in the fight scenes without any clunky exposition or holding anybody’s hand. We all know who Wonder Woman is, we’ve been alive in the world. The scenes before she puts on the costume are less good; they kind of play her like an off-brand Selina Kyle, but they might have been going for an air of mystery and were betrayed by the PR team. Jesse Eisenberg has the most off-beat take of any established character, and while there isn’t a strong comic book foundation to what he’s doing, it does feel like what a billionaire megalomaniacal industrialist would look like in the modern start-up culture and he’s so unsettlingly creepy that I’m going to give him a pass.

I generally find Zack Snyder’s work to be unappealing visually, and Batman v Superman is no exception. Things are too slick, slow motion is used too much, only a handful of scenes take place in daylight. Gotham City and Metropolis look the same because there’s no room for points of contrast. I suppose Gotham’s abandoned docks are supposed to feel seedy and give the city a dilapidated edge but Metropolis has a crashed alien ship taking up a huge part of their downtown so there’s no contrast there. The contrast between Superman and Batman should be reflected in every part of their environment and instead everything takes place on the same dreary streets and rooftops.

The common refrain after seeing a movie like this is that it “destroys their childhood” of the viewer, and that’s always nonsense. No one from Warner is going to break down my door and set any of my trade paperbacks on fire or draw a bunch of bloodstains in the margins or anything like that. However, superhero movies are trading on nostalgia. If they can’t get a dyed in the wool DC Comics person like me to feel a connection to this film (and if you go back and read paragraph three of this review I desperately want to feel this connection) then I can’t imagine who does. They’ve made a misanthropic film, an ugly film, and worst of all they made a Zack Snyder film.