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Flixist Discusses: An Analysis of Denis Villeneuve's Arrival [Part 2]

Dec 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221111:43257:0[/embed] Alec: That liberal vs. conservative idea is interesting, and my gut reaction is that it's probably true (assuming we're talking explicitly about alien films)... but I'm sure you could find an exception (to prove the rule). I wonder if there's a similar case to be made re: optimistic or not films. Or, more to the point, I wonder how the political climate will affect the mood of films with both liberal and conservative ideologies going forward. Will liberal films become crushingly sad across the board to reflect their reality or become  happy as they embrace, uh, fantasy and escapism?   I wonder if Arrival would have been different if pre-production began now instead of years ago. I'm thinking yes. I mentioned earlier that one of my colleagues hated the film. His first problem, when I asked why (this was before I had seen it) was that it didn't have a lot of dialogue. (Aside: This is interesting, though not necessarily surprising, for a film that is about language.) He thought it was confusing and that the twist (reveal) didn't work. Etc. I think this may be Villeneuve’s best film, but it's definitely not his most accessible. The “This is thinking person’s sci-fi” reputation is deserved, and if anything I think it was intended to be more opaque than it is. The genuinely bizarre and out-of-nowhere narration from Jeremy Renner felt like a capitulation to the studio over a montage that had been designed for musical accompaniment and nothing else. The decision to leave Banks’ perspective in that moment (especially since it's still about her) is jarring as heck. Genuine question: Are there any scenes in the movie without her that you can recall? I feel like there aren't. And so there's that one weird dark spot coloring an otherwise brilliant experience. And it hardly ruins the film. It's just… why? Everything else is so deliberate. I think it's almost time (ha!) to really get into this thing, but before we do, do you have any other thoughts on the film in general? Even if I didn't think it was so relevant and important, it's just a damn good movie, with gorgeous cinematography and some genuinely great performances. Hubert: Yeah, I agree with you about Jeremy Renner’s narration midway through the film. Everything else in that movie is filtered through Louise’s point of view, and that sudden imposition of Renner’s character just comes out of nowhere. Whereas other scenes seem deliberately ruminative, the learning montage is purely functional. It probably was the “let’s explain this to you if you don’t get it yet” moment in the screenplay, and may have been made more explicit by the studio. That montage and narration would be just fine if they used Louise’s voice and channeled it through her point of view. It wouldn’t be that difficult to make it work that way. It’s her story, after all. Maybe they just needed to give Renner’s character (off the top of my head, I can’t recall his name) something to do. I guess Renner’s character in Arrival is similar to Amy Adams’ Lois Lane in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice--just stand around and look handsome/pretty, and let your significant other be heroic and save the day. We can go in a lot of directions with this conversation about Arrival. I eventually want to get to the idea of free will, determinism, and predestination, but maybe we can save that for the end. I find that discussion determines whether people find the movie hopeful/optimistic or fatalistic/pessimistic. (Just more future stuff in the present. Don’t mind me.) What’s one of the things that struck you most about Arrival while watching it? Alec: That house. I want that house so bad. Actually, though: the design of the aliens. I didn't see the trailer, so I didn't know what they looked like (were they humanoid? were they terrifying?). My gut reaction to their lack of “human”ness was “Oh thank God,” because that would have been a cop out from a design perspective. They aren't from here and they shouldn't look like us. Period. And they didn't, and I was glad about that. But as I consider it, I think about their head-like thing, which we only see in the sequence in the fog. There are those indents, as though they have eyes there. I don't see any practical purpose for those other than to give a face of sorts for the audience to look at in that moment. Humans will see faces in everything (see: trees, the moon, toast), so you don't have to do much to make us subconsciously think about them. And to make them, in that moment, even the slightest bit human allows for another level of connection. In a sequence where we're actually just watching the sort-of-head for a while, we need that. But I think about what a more humanoid design might have done. Diverting back to politics (or, at least, real-world issues) for a moment, much of the fear and hatred in the world right now is aimed at the Other, where that's a race, gender, culture, socioeconomic class. We take people who look like basically us and then box them off. With the Heptapods and their very definitively Other design, you're starting from scratch on empathy. But there's also no prejudice against them. It's an actual blank slate. And how you ultimately feel about them says something about your empathy for other beings but not for your fellow man. A human-like alien race (or one that presented as alien and made a point of being like, “We actually look like something else, but figured you'd appreciate this”) would have added an interesting other level. I'm imagining someone shouting, “IF YOU'RE GONNA BE HERE, JUST LEARN ENGLISH, DAMN IT.” Arrival’s too subtle for that, but I'm calling it right now: We will see a science fiction movie with an equivalent line of dialogue in some equivalent situation in the next four years. (If we haven’t already.) And yeah, I agree that that’s where this conversation is fated (what a great pun) to end up. If you want to go there now, you can have the first word on that. If there’s more you want to say beyond that, though, I’m game. Hubert: I really enjoyed that heptapod design as well. Tentacles and that raw seafood look immediately make people queasy and distrustful. H.P. Lovecraft was onto something about the creeping chaos of the local sushi restaurant. But yeah, the vestigial torso-and-head at the end is so oddly inelegant yet fitting for where the story has gotten at that point. The moment we see that human-like shape is when the heptapod tells Louise that its companion is “in the death process”. What a fascinating construction, that sentence, and what a time for an English translation of heptapod to finally appear on screen. I thought the way the ink emerges from the heptapods like squids to form their language was pretty inspired as well. The look of the language informs the creature’s look and vice versa. So many smart, deliberate choices. I wonder how this movie would have played out with human-like aliens, especially now when audiences sort of expect something alien about the aliens we see. Maybe the alien visitation movie in the post-Trump era will have someone demand that the aliens “Speak American” or “Take off that breathing hood”. Though maybe that would make things too preachy in certain hands. Which reminds me: Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) is set to direct a remake of Alien Nation, which was all about human-like aliens assimilating with the human race like a new immigrant community. The movie was all right, but the TV show and made-for-TV movies were much, much better. Makes me wonder how the remake will address our current political moment. It seems unavoidable to me now, even if they did try to make it a buddy cop movie like the original film. And you know, it’s almost fitting that in 2016 the two movies Nichols put out were Midnight Special (an indie take on 80s science fiction) and Loving (a movie about a mixed-race couple’s love in the face of bigotry). Alien Nation has gone from a curiosity from a filmmaker I like to a potentially important statement about the early 21st century. Which, come to think of it, makes that hypothetical film like Arrival. So about Arrival’s implications about free will and determinism and predestination. The big question: do you think Arrival is melancholy but ultimately hopeful or is it sad and fatalistic? I don’t mean about global peace or anything, but rather the idea that we might not be able to change the future. That certain sorrows in our lives, like certain joys, are unavoidable? I think it’s painfully hopeful since it suggests that even though you may be miserable now, there was still a moment of joy in the past that was just as real. It’s an affirmation of good and bad things as a whole, and that maybe some handfuls of genuine happiness are a justification for a lifetime of general boredom, depression, and unhappiness. (Though my read on this also speaks to the privileges of a middle-class upbringing in the first world.) Alec: Honestly, I think it's neither of those things, because I don’t even think the film is ultimately that melancholy. I read someone somewhere say that this is probably the most hopeful movie they’ve ever seen -- it assumes humans will still be around in 3000 years. But, joking aside, I do genuinely think this an optimistic movie. I left the theater feeling kind of upbeat, and part of that was because it was a great movie and that usually makes me feel good, but there was more to it than after. I realized that it was because of the way Dr. Banks’s decision at the end is played. When she decides to hold onto Jeremy Renner, she does so knowing that they will be together, they will have a young girl, she will tell him that their young girl is going to die, it will break his heart and his relationship with the daughter, the daughter will develop cancer, and the daughter will die. And she does it anyway. You look at that list, and you’re like… damn. That’s genuinely horrible. She’s guaranteeing never-ending sadness for one man and the literal death of her own child. So, she’s a psychopath, right? And that might be the logical conclusion, but I’m going to not think about it way. What’s unclear is whether or not she thinks she has a choice in the matter. Her actions might imply that she doesn’t, but that’s not how I saw that decision. There’s another read, one that I think it’s evidenced by the fact that she smiles in that moment. She knows the happiness that the daughter brings in the time that she’s alive, and that life with her is better than life without. (It’s better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all, as they say.) It might be fatalistic in a literal sense, but I don’t think it’s a function of her resigning herself to or even just accepting her fate; she’s straight-up embracing it. And I see that as a rejection of the sadness that seems inherent with the life she’s going to lead… but we also don’t really see all the good moments. We see a couple, but we are more generally aware of the bad things that happen than the good, which I think colors the perspective (also, knowing that all of those things happen and thinking about them in a list format is different than the reality of them taking place spaced out over more than a decade). She is the one who lived it and is most qualified to make the decision, and she decides that it is the thing she wants and not just the thing she has to do. Hubert: It’s interesting we’re both seeing it as hopeful. I’ve read/heard a few people conclude that Arrival's implications about time and the future are bleak. It is pretty grim to think about not necessarily having any say in your own life. Viewed in those terms, Arrival‘s conclusion could be read as ditching agency for resignation. It’s going to happen anyway, so why try? And yet, we do, continually, on and on, until we die. That’s more than a little sad. That makes me wonder about Louise telling her husband about their daughter’s death, an act that ruins their marriage. Did she tell him as an attempt to change the future, but it went wrong? Did she tell him because they were having an argument and she wanted to say something awful in the heat of the moment that would hurt? Did she tell him because she thought it would help him deal with loss in the future? Did she tell him because he kept asking her about their daughter and she couldn’t handle being the only person who had access to that secret? Or did she tell him because it was, simply, that time when she was supposed to tell him? There are these fascinating gaps in the future-narrative that Louise as a character might know but the audience has to invent on their own. The relative hope or bleakness of Arrival might be there in the lacunae and how we fill in the blanks. But yeah, I think it’s hopeful. Louise’s smile, like you mentioned, is her saying yes to all the joy and misery ahead because it will have been worth it. It’s like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. By the end you know it’s not going to end well for Joel and Clementine, but dammit, that love was worth the pain and vice versa--let’s do this! This aspect of Arrival reminds me of this Friedrich Nietzsche idea of the eternal return of the same (aka eternal recurrence). It’s one of those Existentialism 101 types of ideas, and yet I unavoidably find myself thinking about the shape of my own life in terms of the eternal return. Nietzsche presented a hypothetical situation in which a demon comes to you and says that for the rest of eternity you will have to relive your entire life again, over and over, all of the happiness but also the pain, down to the smallest detail. Nothing new can ever happen in these additional recurrences of life--you are a speck of dust in the great eternal hourglass of existence. If you were confronted with this scenario, would you feel immense anguish and defeat given the futility of it all? Or would you instead welcome this moment, having lived a life worth affirming? Was this worth it? Ask me one day, I might lean one direction. Ask me another day, I lean the opposite direction. When Louise smiles, you know what she thinks about her life to come. Though I wonder, in the vast lacunae of her life off-screen, about the days that Louise feels otherwise. Alec: I can imagine so many scenarios in which Dr. Banks would tell him that their daughter was going to die. All of the ones that you listed there and then others. The hypothetical that I find most compelling is that she told him because he asked. That they were talking about the future, that he wanted to know what she saw for their child and for them and she couldn't lie, because she knew he would find out eventually (of course she knows) and she didn't want to have the fight then. I like that because it has a Pandora’s Box kind of feeling or some other, more appropriate parable that I can't think of: It's his choice to learn the truth, though he is foolish in thinking that he can handle it. In any version of the story, though, it gets at this broader concept froma  very different but equally significant angle: what do you do when you know someone who knows the future? What do you do when you know your daughter is going to die because someone who knows the future has told you, but you can't know it the way they know it? You have to trust it, but at the same time you just can't do that. It's why he can't look at his daughter anymore, because he feels like she's been taken from him because he now knows a horrible truth and, more importantly, he knows he can't stop it. He knows that, no matter how many new treatments there are and how much they put into her recovery, it's going to fail. He feels helpless. (Science will fail him, so it has failed him.) I mean, think of Arrival with the same narrative but from Jeremy Renner’s perspective. I can't imagine a movie much bleaker than that one. I know I’ve got the last word of this particular discussion, but I’m still going to end on a question. If the future is pre-ordained, then neither of them has agency. But in that world, whose situation is better? In more cliched terms: Is knowledge power… or ignorance bliss?  
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Flixist Discusses: An Analysis of Denis Villeneuve's Arrival [Part 1]

Dec 08 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221081:43252:0[/embed] Alec: So, before we get into this, I want to give some context about my own expectations, because I think expectations ultimately matter a lot here (probably more than they should). Denis Villeneuve is one of my favorite working directors. Sicario is one of the best films of 2015, and both Prisoners and Enemy are really good and extremely interesting. (I’m not fully versed on his pre-English work yet, but I’ll get there.) Anyways, his name gets attached to a project and I’m sold on it. It means I don’t need to learn anything about it and that I won’t watch trailers. I didn’t see the trailer for Arrival, though I knew the basic concept: Aliens arrive. How do we communicate with them? I also knew what other people thought. The downside to having a lot of critic friends on Facebook is that you know what people think about things the instant they get screened. Whether it was the festival premiere or when it actually hit theaters, my feed got inundated with various takes. Most of them were glowing, and I saw a lot of “brainy” and “thought-provoking” pull-quotes, but I didn’t read any further. I also knew that one of my day-job colleagues hated it (this person also hated Carol, for what that’s worth) and another thought it was fine, he guesses (this person hates Guardians of the Galaxy, for what that’s worth). I was fairly sure I’d love it, though. The only thing that surprised me was just how much I loved it. Had you read up, Hubert, or did you go in relatively blind as well? Hubert: I went into Arrival knowing the buzz and seeing the blurbs out of the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, but I intentionally avoided reading the full-length reviews. Certain movies I’ll read up on extensively and spoil everything for myself and it won’t dampen the experience of seeing the movie. Some movies you’ve already seen before sitting down to watch them, if that makes sense. I even avoided reading the Ted Chiang short story it’s based on in his book Stories of Your Life. I’m glad I went in relatively blind. Arrival’s all about that act of discovery and revelation, and a couple scenes had me silently geeking out as I began to understand the shape of the narrative, and how little lines or images are clues about the nature of the movie. In a sense, Arrival is a causal loop time travel story. It’s not about time travel in a traditional sense, but rather more about folding a moment in the future back like a piece of paper onto the past--a Möbius strip. Even the look of the heptapod language is a closing circle, like the ouroboros, which made me think about time and cycles of existence. By around the halfway point of the movie, I kind of realized that Louise was seeing flashforwards rather than flashbacks, which was all really set-up in Amy Adams’ opening voice over about beginnings and ends. But even suspecting and discovering that on my own, it didn’t damped my emotional reaction at all. (Given the implications of Arrival, in the world of that film, maybe all movies are movies you’ve seen before you sit down to watch them.) Had I read reviews about the movie, I’m sure some critic somewhere would have mentioned a little too much about one detail or another, and the whole game of Arrival would be given away in my head. Alec: I’ve been wondering that, actually, how much I think knowing the game would have spoiled my experience. I’m glad I went in blind, but I’m not entirely convinced I needed to. The other day, I read an article by Todd VanDerWerff at Vox about twists in the modern TV era. It talks a lot about Mr. Robot, which often telegraphs its big moments pretty heavily, so people aren’t all that surprised when things come. And Sam Esmail says that’s intentional, because then it allows you to think about the thing that just happened and not only be shocked by it. This then led me to another VanDerWerff article, which is ostensibly a review of a movie that you didn‘t like but actually has little to with Goodnight, Mommy at all. It’s about the nature of twists and gets to an interesting question: Is there a difference between a “twist” and a “reveal,” and where does Arrival fall on that line? I actually think the answer changes depending on your interpretation of the events and of Dr. Banks’ fascinating brain. In one of them, Banks knows everything that has happened and will happen simultaneously (the Heptapods experience this). In this, the reveal is fundamentally a Twist, because it’s information that the character knows being hidden from you; in another, she experiences time in a non-linear fashion but she doesn’t fully understand it until she’s been taught to understand it. In this, she learns at the same time we do that her daughter is her future daughter and not her current one and then follow all of that. It’s not until the phone call with Shang that it becomes truly clear, but by the time we got to the “non-zero-sum game” sequence, I had figured out where it was going. And so when it came, my thought was, “Damn, this could have gone bad in so many different ways. Good on you team!” and not “WHHAAAATTT?! NO WAY!” and I think I had the right response. Because, like, oh man, there are so many ways the non-linearity thing could have gone wrong, especially with the way it deals with Banks’s daughter. There was so much potential for it to feel ugly and emotionally manipulative, but no, I think it nails the whole damn thing. Hubert: It’s a definitely a reveal rather than a twist--that’s a good distinction with the language. And yeah, a lot of that has to do with how much of the film is anchored into Louise’s point of view, and how the audience is learning the information as she is through most of the movie. Her brain is rewiring and her perception of time is changing, and the audience is starting the see this narrative in a different way. In the same way that Louise is learning to read heptapod language and learning to interpret time, the movie is teaching the audience how to read the movie. Such a fascinating parallel. With twists, like in Goodnight, Mommy or High Tension, there’s no sense of learning how to read the text of the film, at least not in the way that would suggest the twist. Usually there’s just a quick explanation at the end. On the note of Todd VanDerWerff (let’s make this a trifecta), he wrote a new piece on Vox about the pivotal phone call scene. His big takeaway is that Louise is omniscient when she makes the call and meets with Shang in the future, and that she’s playing a role to get the information she needs. I personally think there’s a much different interpretation of that moment: Shang himself learns hetapod and taps into non-linear time, and that takes place after he gets the phone call but before he meets Louise. When he meets Louise in the future, he realizes that it is contingent upon him to give her his cell phone number and a message that will convince his past self (whose view of time is pre-non-linear) to avoid conflict and make this future moment possible. The past is contingent on the future and vice versa, which creates this smaller causal loop in the bigger narrative. We got sidetracked to the ending (how non-linear of us), so maybe let’s get into the meat of the movie and its ideas of communication. There’s this line by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that if a lion could speak to us, we wouldn’t be able to understand it. The idea is that even if a lion used English, its worldview is so non-human and its use of words/grammar so potentially unfamiliar that we would not necessarily comprehend the meaning of the lion’s sentence. This also means that the interior lives of lions are alien to us. With Arrival, it seems to suggest that seeing the world like a lion might help us understand their language better, and their values. Arrival is a movie about a lot of things, but extrapolating that idea, I think the movie stresses this belief in empathy. Alec: I think that's true. If science fiction is a way to use unreal narratives to comment on very-real societal issues, I don't think there's a more appropriate film for 2016. The entire world is moving rapidly in an isolationist and nationalist direction, so a film about trying to overcome the fundamental barriers of understanding and the need to work together is, to say the least, timely. That lion thought is an interesting one to consider when put up against what I think is one of the most crucial moments in the film: the reveal of the word “weapon.” In our version of English, that has a very specific meaning and it only ever means something to be used for violent purposes. But the heptapods don't have that context. They, as far as anyone can tell, seem to see “tool” and “weapon” as equivalent words. And so we get into a theme of patience. Some have complained about the methods they use and how it seems like they could have used more videos or other aids right at the start to speed up the process, but that misses the point. Underneath the whole experience is a respect for time and taking the time to do a thing. She wants to get it right, and getting it right requires long, boring demonstration. And that minimizes, theoretically, the chance of a miscommunication. (See the film’s discussion of how the Chinese use war games to learn communication and the pitfalls therein.) But when miscommunication comes, we need to be careful and see it as that. Dr. Banks’ pleas to not jump to conclusions, to point out that the heptapods lack true context for “weapon” is oh-so-relatable to right now. Governments all around the world are being forced to deal with an equivalent problem, where they need to know if something that has been said or done is a result of ignorance on the part of our president-elect or actually means a tectonic change in American policy. And they're dealing with someone who may as well be an alien politically AND for the most part speaks a different native language. (You just have to hope that every government has a Dr. Banks to say, “Let's not go to war just yet. Let's make sure we and they all understand each other correctly.) And looking back on what I just wrote, it appears that I'm thinking of the film’s themes about communication in purely political (or perhaps strategic) terms, which I don't think is quite right and is almost definitely me bringing my own baggage into it. Hubert: Right now, political baggage is personal baggage, so I think that political read of the film is warranted. The movie even braids global conflict with Louise’s unavoidable personal tragedy. I’m sure we’ll talk about the implications of time and fate in the film eventually, but on the note of unavoidable things, our president-elect is sorely lacking in patience and language skills. With patience and empathy comes nuance and mutual understanding. And like you said, you need room for there to be nuance, whether it’s to find the context of “weapon” or to understand why a gesture can be taken as an insult or provocation by another culture. That takes more than 140 characters. Meaningful language is generally not found on bumper stickers or baseball caps. What a weird time to be alive. Since science fiction can reflect societal fears, I wonder what other types of science fiction movies we might be seeing in the coming years as the world faces this wave of nationalism, isolationism, bigotry, and uncertainty. I think the appeal of authoritarianism in general is that it ignores nuance and complexity and reduces the world into manichean problems with simple answers and plenty of convenient scapegoats. In some ways, we’ve never really left the world-on-the-brink feeling of Children of Men. We’re just getting closer to the film (well, except babies are still getting made). So much anxiety about potential global conflicts. Maybe we’re going to go through that Cold War/Atomic Age cycle of sci-fi. There’s this old theory about science fiction movies that’s pretty interesting. I can’t remember who first said it or if it’s necessarily true, but it goes like this: If the aliens come to Earth and want to harm us, the film’s politics are conservative; if the aliens come to Earth and they don't want to hurt us, the film’s politics are liberal. Arrival’s firmly in the latter camp, especially if it’s stressing a form of patient diplomacy to fight humanity’s innate tribalism and nativism. I guess there’s a sadness bundled up in all this since so much of the real world wants to shut off communication and take care of its own affairs. That’s a bumper sticker or baseball cap answer to problems. By contrast, Arrival is a type of humane and life-affirming wish fulfillment, a Star Trek-esque utopianism. (As an aside, three movies that Arrival reminded of: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Day of the Dead, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.) [Check back tomorrow for Part 2!]
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Nov 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221047:43203:0[/embed] MoanaDirectors: John Musker and Ron ClementsRelease Date: November 23, 2016Rating: PG Moana follows the titular Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), a teenager who's always dreamed of traveling the seas beyond her island village, but is next in line for village chieftain and must stay home. When darkness begins rotting away her home, brought on when the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) steals the heart of the ancient goddess Te Fiti, Moana must journey across the sea, find Maui and ask him for help, and return the Heart of Te Fiti from where it came. From its core, Moana is much different from Disney's other princess films. Choosing instead to follow Moana on a hero's journey, rather than a quest for love, the film allows for individual character development thanks to its simplicity. While this simplicity may mirror Disney's previous films a bit too much, it is honestly what makes Moana work as well as it does.  Directors Musker and Clements have experience creating lasting Disney legacies with the two of them directing hits like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Great Mouse Detective. Basically, these two are responsible for a good deal of your favorite Disney moments and it's the same with Moana. The film may share too many structural similarities with previous films because of their choices, but it's also sure to make up for that simplicity with a complex emotional through line and culture. It's what previous Disney Princess films had lacked, and it's what Frozen experimented with. With a simplified tale, the film allows the characters to add layers of depth. Instead of growing as a character in relation to another person, i.e when Ariel changes herself for Prince Eric, for example, Moana's tale is all about self-improvement. It's not complicated with extraneous plot like a third act twist villain or jokes from a cartoon sidekick, Moana instead sticks to its heart with its two central characters and builds everything around them.  Being a character first type of fairy tale, Moana trusts in its two stars to make it work. Thankfully, Dwayne Johnson and the awesomely talented newcomer, Auli’i Cravalho more than hold their own. Johnson as Maui is energetic and as charming as he ever is, but, coupled with Maui's slightly mischievous character design, now has a slight edge missing from some of Johnson's work. His song, "You're Welcome" is also fantastic. His single is definitely a standout with a blend of humor and musicality. But I don't think I'll ever be able to fully express how impressed I am by the young Auli’i Cravalho. You would never be able to tell, but as her first major starring role, Cravalho is an absolute delight. Once again marrying character design and performance, Cravalho makes Moana a believable kid. Moana is astonishingly the first Disney Princess to act like an actual young girl. She's awkward sometimes, but has an endearing moxie that characterized classic princesses like Mulan, Ariel, and Tiana. But unlike the other Princesses, Moana is allowed to have non-romantic flaws.  You're probably a bit worried since I keep comparing Moana to previous films, but it's entirely intentional. Musker and Clements intended to recapture the spirit of the 2D films. Every part of its production fully embraces nostalgia, while making sure to change enough to keep the film from repeating the past too much. Thanks to the phenomenal soundtrack from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina, every scene has just a bit more punch. The opening, for example, is kind of incredible. As the film introduces its setting and unique culture (as the Oceanic island culture is far more three dimensional than cultures seen in films past), its punctuated by an incredible chant-like song mirroring The Lion King's now prolific opening. While I'm not sure if its lead single's, "How Far I'll Go," contemporary style will outlast the Broadway appeal of its predecessor, it's still heart-opening. Jemaine Clement's surprise song performance is pretty great too, as it plays to his creepy wheelhouse. Also, the most beautiful song and performance overall is the ancestor song. I don't want to spoil it, but just trust that it's fantastic. But none of this character work or music would succeed without Moana's unbelievable visuals. Moana has Disney's most exemplary animation to date with its luscious landscape and gorgeous ocean animations. The setting itself is a main character, and somehow feels fantasical yet attainable. It's an island paradise capturing the mythical nature of its fairy tale, but also looks grounded enough to exist in our world. There's no skirting the Pacific Islander culture here, unlike the other Princess' films dilution of ethnicity. The character body design is diverse, with Moana herself looking less plastic and moving more fluidly than humans seen in Tangled or Frozen. Thanks to its full embrace of what makes it different, the story's complex emotion and culture seem simplistic. See? Full circle. It's simplicity by design. Blending its depth so well and sneaking in character development through song, I didn't realize how much I had experienced until I started writing this review. The only real problem I had with Moana overall was how some of its contemporary jokes and song arrangements (There's a Twitter reference and other meta jokes) betray the timeless quality of its setting, but honestly it's not that big of a deal. Moana is definitely one of the better theatrical experiences of 2016, and in a year full of strife, it's what we need right now.  Its nostalgic quality may turn some off of Moana, but the film is still incredibly fresh despite these parallels to the past. It's a Disney Princess film taking the successes of the past, fixes their problems, and injects a breath of life into Disney they haven't had for quite some time. Moana is for the child in you, your children, and even their children. And who knows? Moana may just go down as a "classic" years down the line. 
Moana Review photo
Hawaiian roller coaster ride
Disney Animation has had one critical success after another since they're in the middle of a new creative renaissance. Fully embracing CG animation, Disney has produced hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and most im...

Review: The Monster

Nov 21 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221043:43200:0[/embed] The MonsterDirector: Bryan BertinoRelease Date: November 11, 2016Rating: R  Though there are a couple of others who make brief appearances, The Monster is effectively a film with only two characters: Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). Kazan is 33 but looks ten years younger, and I'm pretty sure her character is closer to the latter than the former. Kathy is a terrible mother, pretty much what everyone assumes a young twenty-something with an already eight-or-nine-year-old child (or whatever age she is; Ballentine is 15, but I think she's also playing someone younger) is like. You don't root for her, and you definitely feel Lizzy's exasperation more than her mother's, but both of them feel extremely real, and their reactions to an increasingly horrific series of events serve as the focal point for everything that happens. And what happens? Well, late at night, as Kathy drives Lizzy to be with her father, they hit a wolf that runs out into the street in the pouring rain. The car breaks down. They call for help, but they have to wait. The wolf disappears from the road. There's a monster. Most of the film takes place on that road, in that car. Everything that matters takes place between Kathy and Lizzy. Everyone else is just filler. Fortunately, both actors give genuinely spectacular performances, and I became immediately invested in their struggles, and I was invested through all of the horrors. I mean, it made me cry. Actually and truly. Movies in general don't make me cry, and horror movies in particular don't (at least, not from anything other than fear). And yet, much to my surprise, The Monster got to me. Kathy and Lizzy got to me. Everything from the two of them felt so real, so earnest and heartfelt, even in the midst of ridiculous events, they were grounded. They made everything work. If you've seen It Follows (you should), or even just its trailer, you may remember the shot of the naked old man standing on the roof looking down at the main characters. It's a cool shot, but it's a problematic one. It doesn't make any sense in the narrative itself. The creature wouldn't do that for any reason other than because the director said, "This is gonna look awesome." And he's right, but it pulls you out of what is generally a pretty cohesive movie with reasonably well-conceived rules. Everything in The Monster is like that image on the roof. You can never know what the monster is going to do, but you always know when it's going to do it: Right when the film needs it to. It comes at the apex of tension, right when you expect it. Maybe you just see it in the background of a shot. Maybe it pulls a character underneath a truck. Maybe it throws a severed arm onto the windshield of a car. It does whatever with no rhyme or reason, but it does it exactly when anyone who has ever seen a horror movie would expect it to. The monster itself looks pretty good, and I am a fan of big practical effects, but it also is just... there. I went back and forth with the person I saw the film with on whether the monster represents anything (or whether The Monster is trying to make a grander point), and both of those conversations ended with a resounding, "Uhh... no?" Certainly the monster just seems like a monster, something there to drive the plot. It doesn't connect to the struggle that the characters are going through in any meaningful way, and the lack of clear rules makes it hard to pinpoint any real purpose at all. And that lack of clear rules gets really problematic in the final act. Really, it just serves to get in the way of the drama. So, the monster is by far the weakest part of the film whose name it occupies, but it's a testament to just how good the dramatic relationship between Kathy and Lizzy is that it doesn't really matter. While the monster waits in the darkness, biding its time for no clear reason, we get to spend time with Kathy and Lizzy. That's an emotional rollercoaster, one that is often difficult to watch but impossible to look away from. There's a decent argument to be made that the relationship deserves a better movie than the one it's in, but that's a needlessly negative way to look at it. We should be glad that we got to see it at all. I know I am.
The Monster Review photo
More tears, less fears
As often as I can, I like to go into films relatively blind. In the case of The Monster, my Facebook feed had been full of friends talking about how stellar the leading performances were and how great it was that they had gon...

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Nov 17 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220497:42908:0[/embed] Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemDirector: David YayesRelease Date: November 18, 2016Rating: PG-13  In 1920s New York City, muggles are called "nomags," a shortening of "no magic." I mentioned this to a friend, who said that sounded more offensive than "muggle." I disagreed. I think we're desensitized to the word muggle, but it sounds pretty mean to me. (Not mudblood level, obviously (that one's awful).)  In 1920s New York City, the President of America's magic society is a woman, which means that this fanciful version of 1920s America is more progressive than actual 2016 America (though this wasn't 2016 New York City's fault). In fact, there are a lot of females in power in 1920s magic world. To some degree, it feels like the least realistic thing about the entire film. But that's neither here nor there. In 1920s New York City, Newt Scamander (a very socially awkward Eddie Redmayne) causes mayhem. He carries with him a suitcase. In the suitcase is a whole host of fantastic beasts. Unfortunately, some of them escape. He has to find them. Ultimately, that isn't what the movie is about. It's simply a way to get him entangled with the other zany characters, primarily two of them: Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a nomag who doesn't get Men In Black mind-zapped and so is forced along on a wild adventure featuring magic and things, and Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), an ex-Auror who brings in Mr. Scamander for causing problems (mostly by not Men In Black mind-zapping Mr. Kowalski). Some others are involved in various forms.  Also, there's Colin Farrell AKA Percival Graves AKA a guy who can do magic with just his hand. Someone told me Voldemort could also do that (I know house elves can), but I don't remember that. I just remember him using his wand. Then again, Graves also uses his wand. And I have some questions. - Why can he magic without a wand, and why does no one seem impressed by that ability?- Why does he use a wand sometimes even though he doesn't need one?- Is it because he's dueling, and he can only deflect magic with a wand? - Someone just shouted "Take away his wand." Why? Would that impact him in any meaningful way? I have come to believe (in large part thanks to Film Crit Hulk) that if you only question something after the fact, then it doesn't ultimately matter. Many great films fall apart under close inspection, but in the moment, you're too caught up to notice or care. And so the movie is successful. On the other hand, if you think about the problems, that mean the film has failed to either keep my interest enough for me to not think about it, hide it well enough behind some sort of pseudo-logic that can keep me going for two hours, or both. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a little bit of both. I was constantly asking questions throughout the film (in my head, I'm not a monster), and precisely none of them were answered. I'm not going to list them all here for you, but many of them boil down to, "Wait, so how does that work?" Nowhere is this more problematic than with the film's actual conflict: An Obscurious (sp?) is wreaking havoc on the city. Who is it? How can they stop it? New Scamander might know the latter but no one knows the former. It's probably related to the creepy anti-witch cult that the film keeps cutting back to, because that's the only reason we would be spending so much time with them. Anyways, once things are revealed and we see the Obscurious at work, the whole thing kind of falls apart. Someone might be able to explain this using overly technical language that will confuse me into thinking maybe it made sense, and others will say that it doesn't matter, this is for children, and I should stop being such a spoilsport... but really, I have so many questions relating to literally everything about it, and none of the answers I come up with are satisfying. The Harry Potter books have issues, but they're satisfying. They scratch an itch and do what you want them to do. Much of the time, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does too. Jacob Kowalski, for example, is a great character, and pretty much every scene with him in it was at least good if not great. I dunno why I liked him so much, but he's probably my favorite character in any Harry Potter story. Maybe it's because he's a Nomag and I liked seeing how a non-magical person really reacts to all of the craziness? I dunno. He's great. The actors in general are quite good. No more weird, wooden performances from children who were chosen before anyone knew if they could actually act. The dialogue, written by J.K. Rowling herself, is also fine. Many of my friends who did read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child complained that the dialogue was clearly not written by Rowling, so I expect they will enjoy this more. The pacing is off, and the movie is about 20 minutes too long, but those 20 minutes of meh are scattered throughout and not in one big, boring chunk. And though some moments may drag, some genuinely excite. There are a couple of thrilling action sequences (even if they're a bit contrived), and there are some genuinely inventive things, like some of the weirder Fantastic Beasts. I liked seeing the expansion of Harry Potter. I'm glad that this isn't another Harry Potter story. I like the idea of a series of spin-offs for the same reason I'm excited about all of the Star Wars Stories that aren't numbered episodes. And for all of my issues with this first installment, there are definitely things to like, and the good outweighs the bad. If you can see past the massive gaps in logic and just say "The wizard did it" and be content with that, you may very well love Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. If you thought Harry Potter was dumb, this sure as hell won't change your mind. But if you're a fan (even a lapsed one), you should most certainly check it out.
Fantastic Beasts Review photo
I have some questions
On my right wrist is a scar given to me by the seventh Harry Potter book. I was abroad at the time, at a language school. The book had just launched, and my Turkish roomate (not my French or Croatian ones) got a copy. I asked...

Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Nov 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221033:43193:0[/embed] Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkDirector: Ang LeeRating: RRelease Date: November 11, 2017 You may recall complaints about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey being shown in HFR 3D. Audiences said it looked strange and artificial, which is why neither of the two sequels had HFR screenings. That was just at 48 frames per second. With Billy Lynn, more frames per second doesn't translate into greater verisimilitude. Instead the high frame rate tends to make the movie look amateurish and fake. This is experimental technology, and only two theaters in the United States are equipped with the projectors to properly show the HFR version of Billy Lynn. The full experience is underwhelming on the whole with a few exceptions. What does HFR look like? Picture an HD cooking show shot with a consumer-grade digital video camera. Or maybe a local news broadcast viewed on an LCD viewfinder. Movements tend to look overly smooth. In some shots, the figures in the foreground look like they were inserted via green screen. In an early graveyard scene, it felt as if Lee was laying Colorform decals of his actors onto a flat background. 3D never looked so artificial. Other scenes felt like HD versions of cut scenes from 90s video games. I was reminded how expensive things can often be so tacky. It doesn't help that the cinematography lacks life. The film is built out of mechanical, workmanlike medium shots, flat close-ups, and pristine tracking shots. Lee continually returns to the POV of Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), like a riff on the symmetrical POV dialogue scenes in an Ozu film. There's a problem. Since Billy's eyeline is not trained at the viewer like the people he's speaking to, the Ozu effect is lost from inconsistency. It's one of many curious choices with the overall way the film was shot. The movie doesn't look clinical but synthetic. In terms of camera placement and movement, the movie almost feels as if it was shot by a first-time cinematographer. In fact, the film was lensed by John Toll, whose credits include The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous, and Cloud Atlas. High frame rates may make amateurs of pros. Occasionally the HFR works well. When Bravo Company takes the field before the game starts and throws some footballs around, the vast length of the field is captured thanks to depth of the tableau. But it's also a tech-demo shot ("Let me show you what this baby can really do!"). The battle scene and halftime show--the sole justification for the technology--are pretty spectacular as well, though more the Iraq scenes than the halftime show. At the Dallas Cowboys game, the troops are meant to share the stage with Destiny's Child. Destiny's Child body doubles, to be more precise. Just when the halftime show seemed like something real, the blatant fake-Beyonce took me right out of the scene. So much of Billy Lynn is about small character moments rather than big spectacle, which makes the decision for HFR filmmaking somewhat baffling. Billy flirts with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) after a press conference. It's a medium shot with a dark curtain as the background. The distracting look of the frame rate and the lack of 3D depth in the shot called attention to the artifice of the scene and the superfluous use of this technology to tell this story. It would be a bad shot and a poorly blocked scene in 2D, but in glorious 4K 3D the banality of the shot is much more apparent. I've spent all of this time complaining about the look of the film that I haven't even gotten to the scenes that work. That ought to say something. Lee's got a good lead in Alwyn, who carries the imperfect movie on his back. He has the all-American look coupled with vulnerable eyes. He's a kid always at the verge of breaking, trying to tamp down the unspeakable hurts. Vin Diesel is the late philosopher warrior of Bravo Company, essentially playing Vin Diesel. Kristen Stewart makes a solid impression in her brief supporting role as Billy's anti-war sister Kathryn. A tense Lynn family dinner scene feels more real than the stadium stuff. Garrett Hedlund makes the most of his screen time as the driven head of Bravo Company, a strong center that orients the group. All of the boys in Bravo have an easy camaraderie, though some of it's built on the same old war movie cliches. This may be just a roundabout way of saying the real immersive material in a movie has nothing to do with 3D or frame rates or spectacle and everything to do with the emotional content. I think about an alternate universe in which Billy Lynn was shot in the same way as The Ice Storm or Brokeback Mountain (and with no fake-Beyonce). I wonder how much more moved I would have been. I wonder what kind of movie this would be. As it is, there's a good movie in Billy Lynn that's constantly struggling to break out and breathe. Witness in 120 frames per second and 4K 3D the folly of mismatched form and content. It's ironic yet fitting that Billy Lynn's technology gets in the way of what works in the film. This is a movie about people using troops as a means to an end--they're good for ratings, they're good as a recruitment tool, they put butts in seats, they're fantasy figures, they can angle for a movie deal (a cloying, winky, meta element to the film that's too on the nose). It's also a movie about disregarding our troops as people. Lee had good intentions, but is feels like the tragedy of these heroes is just an excuse to play with some new cinematic toys.
Review: Billy Lynn's photo
High frame rate, low level execution
I can say this about Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: Ang Lee and his cast have their hearts in the right place. Adapted from Ben Fountain's novel of the same name, the film is constantly trying to remind its viewers about th...

Hayao Miyazaki is back photo
Some good news in 2016 for once
Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from filmmaking back in 2013 with the release of The Wind Rises. That directing bug is strong, however, and he couldn't completely step away from animation. Back in July 2015, Miyazaki ...

Ghost in the Shell photo
Major-ly cool
Ghost in the Shell is shaping up to be an interesting project. An adaptation of Mamamune Shirow's manga, Ghost in the Shell stars Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg policewoman who must help stop the latest...

Review: Pokemon: The First Movie

Nov 03 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221011:43182:0[/embed] Pokemon: The First MovieDirectors: Kunihiko Yuyama and Michael HaigneyRating: GRelease Date: November 6, 1999 (USA); November 1, 2016 (special event re-release) When a group of scientists sucessfully clone an ancient pokemon known as Mew, the resulting super pokemon breaks loose and wreaks havoc. The super clone, Mewtwo (Philip Bartlett), now in search of a purpose, invites the strongest pokemon trainers to a mysterious island to battle him. Ash Ketchum (Veronica Taylor), together with his friends Misty (Rachael Lillis), Brock (Eric Stuart), and Pikachu, meet Mewtwo's challenge and soon figure out there's more to this pokemon than they realized.  First things first, The First Movie is incredibly brisk. Choosing not to overstay its welcome (if you don't include the Pikachu's Island Adventure short), it instead tightly focuses on developing its central antagonist. Mewtwo themself is well defined with a clear existential crisis (as they try to clear the clouds of their mind, not so subtly represented by the storm they whip up with their powers), and it's a greater deal of characterization than anyone else gets in the film. It's such a well put together back story, in fact, it's surprising The First Movie is able to explore as much thematic territory as it does. It ends up questioning the philosophy behind the Pokémon series in full as it briefly challenges the "fighting vs. battling" argument within the Poké world. The film doesn't get as deep as I would've hoped, as the argument gives way to a hokey climax, but this amount of self-awareness is impressive for a children's film.  The laser focus on Mewtwo may help the film's pace within its short run time (as it rarely goes on tangents), but it's hard to care about anyone else involved with the plot since they fail to get the same attention. Since the film assumes the audience has working knowledge of the Pokémon TV series, and it's a fair assumption given the branding, Ash and his friends (along with Team Rocket, introduced into the plot in a Rosencrantz/Gildenstern, outsider looking in fashion) don't really have a reason to be involved. Their usual schtick of wandering into a plot in motion may work for a TV series needing a fresh story every week, but it falls flat here. Along with introducing seemingly important ancillary characters (like the kidnapped Nurse Joy or the random lady who knows storms or something) only to serve no purpose, The First Movie fails to turn Ash into a compelling protagonist.  With no real personality of his own, Ash instead becomes a moral mouthpiece. His base love for his pokemon is exaggerated into a love for everything and grand declarations of peace. It's a far cry from an Ash who, just minutes before, was willing to pit his pokemon against Mewtwo. The First Movie betrays its emotional themes with its own world, really. It's greater desire to stop senseless violence goes against everything Pokémon is known for. So it's okay to use your pokemon to fight when they use their abilities? Since there's never a clear difference between how Mewtwo forces a fight and how trainers could force a fight, the overall moral is clouded. Rather than focus on, say, the friendship between trainers and their pokes (thus enhancing its narrative overall), the film goes with a generic message. It almost feels like a cop out.  But in the end, Pokémon: The First Movie makes up for its shortcomings with pure entertainment value. Once you get passed the cheesy dialogue (complete with puns and jokes that didn't age well in the slightest) and the murky themes (which I give the film credit for attempting), there are plenty of rewards in store. A well written antagonist, slick animation, and a score that includes the ironically lovable "Brother Against Brother" song.  No matter what score I put here, it literally doesn't matter. You love it, you hate it, you already had an opinion 18 years in the making. But it was great to confirm that I liked a good thing back then, instead of figuring out yet another product from my childhood was hot garbage. My critic brain may settle on "Good," but my nostalgic one adds about 30 points. 
Pokemon The First Movie photo
"...and we succeeded"
One weekend, too many years ago, I spent a night over at my aunt's place. She didn't have cable, but she had a VCR. Which meant I could watch any movie I brought with me when I was bored of doing dumb kid stuff. Not thinking ...

The official trailer for Wonder Woman is full of heroism and graceful badassery

Nov 03 // Hubert Vigilla
Whoa... a DC Comics movie about a hero who enjoys doing heroic things? And the Cubs won the World Series last night? Guys, it really is the end of the world. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) looks like he may be the hapless, comic-relief non-hero of the film. That's good because Steve Trevor is the worst. Having him play the deflated macho foil to a proactive and heroic Wonder Woman seems like a solid bit of suffragette girl power. Let's just hope there's no perfunctory romance. It also makes me wonder about the comedy of manners and skewering of gender roles. It's been hinted at in both the SDCC trailer and this one, which could lead to some subversive screwball moments that hopefully dig deeper than petticoats and career paths. While Patty Jenkins' action and direction looks crisp, I'm still not 100% sold on Gal Gadot's performance. She has the look and can carry herself well, but Gadot's line delivery is flat and bordering on Schwarzeneggerian. It might be better in context rather than in these trailer-sized snippets. Part of me at a goofy meta level does like the idea that Wonder Woman is the resident Arnold of the DC Universe. And yet given the grace and diplomacy at the heart of Wonder Woman as a character, I worry that aspect of Diana Prince might be missing on screen. Also not sure of Junkie XL's metal'd out pseudo-"Immigrant Song" cover as an official Wonder Woman theme. Maybe it could be arranged for and recorded by an orchestra so it doesn't seem so out of place. Wonder Woman will be out June 2, 2017. What do you think of the trailer? Let us know in the comments. Below is a bright, bold motion poster for the film. [via /Film] [embed]221013:43186:0[/embed]
Wonder Woman trailer photo
Still not sure about Gadot's performance
The San Diego Comic Con trailer for Wonder Woman was wonderful, and the best ray of hope for the bleak DC Cinematic Universe. It offered some glimpses of Wonder Woman's home of Themyscira and the culture of the Amazons while also showcasing Wonder Woman's prowess as a warrior. Today the first official trailer for Wonder Woman dropped, and you can give it a watch below.

T2 Trainspotting photo
Choose the same
Any movie from Danny Boyle is a cause for celebration, but a sequel to the cult hit and the movie that put Boyle on the map, Trainspotting, is cause for a bit extra. The first trailer has finally landed and its basically...

Logan trailer photo
I will make you hurt *snikt*
For Hugh Jackman's final film as Wolverine, they're going old man Logan on us. And here we have our first trailer for Logan, which is full of equal parts badassery and pathos. Wolverine meets The Road and The Last of Us? Oh h...

Watch the sneak peek teaser for Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2

Oct 19 // Hubert Vigilla
Oh, you kids with your space movies and things. How lovely. No lie, Guardians is my second favorite MCU movie since it has a bit more personality than the other films, and because James Gunn made Tromeo and Juliet, the secret-best Troma movie. Gunn is such a nice guy he even shared a poster for the film. Give it a look below. We'll keep you posted on the full trailer for Guardians 2 when it arrives. For now, come and get your tease of love. [via James Gunn on Facebook]
Guardians 2 teaser photo
We are all Kevin Bacon again
We're all anxiously awaiting Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2. James Gunn promises a full trailer is on the way for his misfit science fiction adventure, but for now, he's taken to Facebook to share a special sneak peek of the film. Give it a watch below, amigo.

Review: The Accountant

Oct 14 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220965:43147:0[/embed] The AccountantDirector: Gavin O'ConnorRelease Date: October 14th, 2016Rating: R  The Accountant feels like a television pilot, an origin story with a little bit of Case of the Week madness thrown in. Ben Affleck plays the eponymous accountant, constantly creating new identities based on famous people who were interested in math (at the start of this story: Christian Wolff) and then discarding them whenever his situation becomes compromised. And why would it do that? Because he works for some of the most dangerous people in the world: terrorists, thieves, cartels, you know name it and he does their books. Key to his success is his autism, which causes a number of problems but also unlocks an incredible ability to solve puzzles and make connections. He can do the work of a half-dozen neurotypicals in half the time. And he always finishes what he starts. I can only think of one other action movie with an autistic star, which would be Thai film Chocolate, by Prachya Pinkaew. In that film, an autistic girl watches martial arts movies and becomes a master. I bring it up solely because I think you should see it, because The Accountant isn't really like it at all, though Mr. Wolff is a more-than-capable fighter. He was trained by his father, a military man, and the men that his father hired to make sure he could take care of himself. The flashbacks to his younger self, often at his worst, in the midst of meltdowns or other crises, demonstrate the difficulty of having a child with autism while also showing a fascinating sort of respect for what it can do. I'll admit that my experience with autism is fairly limited, but what I saw felt pretty right. On the whole, the film is trying to make a pretty clear point: Autism is not a disorder or an illness; it's just a different way of being. It's not worse or better, just its own thing. And credit where credit is due: That's awesome. How many times have we seen an autistic protagonist who can genuinely take care of themselves in a major motion picture? Have we ever seen that? I'm honestly curious, so someone please tell me if that's a thing. Certainly it wouldn't be something like The Accountant. No, The Accountant is different. I mentioned in the intro that this is a film with a genuinely strange structure, and what I mean by that is that the story itself comes out in bursts that feel sort of haphazardly placed. After big action sequences we'll end up with long stretches of exposition that totally kill whatever intense pacing the film may have been building up. There is a lengthy subplot involving a pair from the Treasury trying to track him down, and as that story develops, we learn a lot about J.K. Simmons' character. None of that really felt necessary, and it kind of bogs down the movie in its second half, but it also felt a little bit like, "Why not?" The characters in general feel like they're being introduced for something grander, and we'll learn more about them in future episodes. J.K. Simmons is set to retire, so this is probably the last we'll be seeing of him. It was his time in the spotlight. Next week, we'll learn more about someone else. And while we're getting a lot of character exposition about Affleck and Simmons, we're getting pretty much nothing about the actual story itself. So, blah blah blah someone is cooking books. Affleck finds out about it. People need to die. Etc. We learn about the motivations of the bad guy, but his actual place in the film is so minor (and ultimately inconsequential) that the film may as well have no story at all. You might think that one of Wolff's obviously dangerous clients is after him, but that isn't it at all. As far as the film is concerned, he has successfully stayed off the grid. No one knows where to find him, so he only has to worry about the people right in front of him.  Which means that we're probably in for a franchise, assuming The Accountant does well at the box office. It doesn't end on a cliffhanger or anything, and it doesn't need a sequel, but the character and his work is structured in such a way that it would be exceedingly easy to make one. You'd think that Affleck's got his hands full with the whole Batman thing, but I imagine the dramatic work involved in The Accountant is a bit more satisfying. It's possible that the action is too, because the movie actually has some pretty great fight scenes, ones that don't need a whole bunch of purdy CGI to be cool. (Think Batman v. Superman's warehouse fight, which is easily the best part of that movie (except it's okay when Batman kills people in this one).) And so I hope this does become a franchise, and I hope we get to see more of Anna Kendrick in fights, because in the one fight where she has a minor role, she's a total badass about it. I heard a guy complaining after the film that she didn't seem Damsel-in-Distress-y enough. And thank gosh; she's way more interesting that. And I have to give the film credit for that, too. It treats pretty much all of its characters with a certain amount of dignity; they are (well, most of them) more complex than I had expected, and that made some of those slow, exposition-heavy moments a lot more bearable than they could have been. There are many things about The Accountant that I genuinely loved and nothing that I really disliked. Sure, some of its issues, particularly around structure and pacing, are irritating. They keep The Accountant from being truly brilliant. But they don't keep it from greatness. Bring on The Accountant Chapter 2. 
The Accountant Review photo
Ben Affleck's John Wick
I remember seeing the first trailer for The Accountant a few months back and thinking, "That's a hilarious premise that looks like it could be terrible, but I bet it's going to be awesome." It seemed like the kind of bizarre ...

Rogue One Trailer photo
Gimme dat sweet Mads
The idea of getting a new Star Wars film every year might be overwhelming, but after checking out this final trailer for Rogue One, I don't think it's going to be a problem. With our best look at the film yet, I am completely...

NYCC: John Wick: Chapter Two takes place four days after the original

Oct 11 // Nick Valdez
If you were somehow worried the sequel wouldn't have the same amount of love as the original, there's no need to worry. One thing the panel highlighted was how much care was going into Chapter Two. Before the panel proper we were treated to a behind the scenes video showing off the film's stunt work (and a couple of the set pieces). Things I could skim from the video were another prominent car fight, and a bit more of that lobby and alleyway shootouts in the trailer. But the important fact is that each of these stunts is very real. Director Chad Stehelski emphasized the practicality of the effects and that each actor was put through the ringer in order for the film's action to feel as real as possible. Common even mentioned how this film is the most intense action he's been a part of (and after a look at his fight with Reeves, that's definitely an understatement). But the better part of the panel went into a good amount of juicy story details.  The best part of the first John Wick was the Continental Hotel, and it's making a return in the sequel. Ian McShane also noted how there's an Italian version of it and fighting through it leads to Wick killing "about 80 Italians." The specificity of the statement was a bit weird, but whatever it's all good. Keanu Reeves detailed the plot as such: When Wick first left the assassin world, he made a deal with someone in order to hide his existence completely (using the specific "blood oath" phrase). And as such, when returned to action he broke that oath and now someone is out to "cash in" on that deal. Not only does he have to deal with someone chasing him down, Reeves also teased a new mysterious organization called The High Table which may or may not be connected to the Continental. And the kicker? The sequel takes place just four days after the original film. John Wick gets no rest.  Other things of note are the new setting and new dog. The sequel is headed to Italy for stylish killing action, and director Stehelski couldn't confirm whether or not this new dog was going to be safe. It's a high point of contention for some people in the first one, but although he couldn't confirm whether or not the new dog was going to be safe he did say we'd like it. So, I'm sure this new doggo will be just fine. Maybe cutely falling asleep through everything or something.  That's all from Lionsgate's Power Rangers/John Wick: Chapter Two panel! The film releases next February and it's going to be a hell of a wait. 
John Wick 2 photo
More guns, more hotel, more...Italians?
Lionsgate had a weird, disjointed panel at New York Comic Con. With two properties that couldn't be more disparate.there wasn't a proper amount of hype or negativity. Thankfully after Power Rangers' lackluster showing, John W...

NYCC: Power Rangers might be both fun and boring

Oct 11 // Nick Valdez
First thing's first, we did get a few key bits of info that my fan brain was able to parse out. One thing the cast seemed to emphasize at the panel was the fact they had to do a lot of stunt work themselves, which is great (and what I wanted all along). RJ Cyler (Billy) had a pretty fun anecdote about how he learned how to do an "axe kick" from his stuntman. So this at least confirms that we'll be seeing them fight outside of suits, but if the trailer is anything to go by, these fights are most likely mixes of martial arts and superpowers. As for the Zords, we still didn't get a look at them as it seemed that the teaser trailer was really all that was ready to show off for now. It's a little lame but I get not wanting to release it all early.  My biggest concern going forward, however, is how well this cast will work together. At the panel they were telling stories of how much they bonded as a group, but their behavior told a different story. They seemed stiff around each other with no natural chemistry. In fact, the only ones happy to be there were the previously mentioned RJ Cyler and Becky G (Trini), who not only color coordinated their outfits but also are the only experienced actors in the teenage cast. It didn't help matters when the host clearly didn't understand what was going on, so there was no push for more stories of their time on set together. The last bit of new info is both director Dean Isrealite and Elizabeth Banks mentioned Goldar and the Putty Patrol. Not a hard confirmation, but it's good to know these characters will be back in some regard.  But since they thought the teaser was good enough to show twice, I might as well breakdown some things here. As I mentioned in that post, I'm a little torn. After spending some time away from it and the fan bubble, I've come to realize a few things. I'm not sure what I expected, but I totally forgot Lionsgate is the reason Young Adult books made so much money. The Hunger Games, Twilight, they all play a part here. While the opening logos promise a rainbow colored adventure (even spilling out into the first shot of the trailer with Jason and his red car,  and yellow, pink and blue bikes), the rest of the film gives way to the same grim color palette the rest of the Young Adult films have. But in a weird way, this totally works when stuff like the power coins are highlighted. While the overly dark lighting might get tiresome, maybe the colors will pop more. Sort of a silver lining situation. But that's pretty much where the positives end. I'm thinking this reboot, an origin story as the trailer confirms, is going to be both fun and boring. As evidenced by the Breakfast Club like setup (where a bunch of latchkey kids come together in detention, including a red ranger wearing a house arrest anklet), these kids are meeting other for the first time before bonding over becoming superheroes. While I don't like their Spider-Man esque powers (complete with the Tobey Macguire "look I have abs now" scene), I get it. Power Rangers has always been about regular people who get caught up in irregularity, and it's been done in the series proper, but this direction only works when the characters are defined well. If you remember, it took the original show sixteen episodes of team building before it could tell an actual story ("Green With Evil"). I'm also guessing that's why we've seen so little of the Ranger action as of yet. Which is a shame since that's what is going to separate the movie from all the other boring teen films.  The most grim prediction I can make regarding this tease is that we're only going to get about 15-20 minutes of them in the actual suits. At least the panel confirmed that the suits are physical (with CG enhancements, most likely), but I'm sure most of this origin is going to be spent getting to know these kids since the film doesn't have the luxury of getting 22 mins of air time every weekend. At least it looks like they'll free Rita when they nab the power coins. Since there's an image of her trapped in some kind of rock, I'm assuming it's the same the rock Billy blows up in the trailer. It'd be neat to connect Rita directly to the Rangers that way.  Overall, I am a bit disappointed with the way the NYCC panel went down. Once I took off my fan hat, and put on my critical one however, I did ease up. But not by much. As always, I remain highly skeptical. I don't like some of the changes to the story, but I do like some of the changes it brings (the fact Rita can say "kill" instead of "destroy" is a huger deal than we're making out of it). And it seems the trailer is doing a lot to grab non-fans of the series, which is always a huge plus. I just don't want to watch a series of movies I dislike, so I hope these can be good. Then again, since this could have been much worse I'll take what I can get.  Oh yeah, don't expect the Green Ranger anytime soon. 
Power Rangers NYCC photo
Goldar and the Puttys are a comin'
There was only one panel I was looking forward to during New York Comic this year, and it's been a long wait for it. On Saturday, Lionsgate held a dual panel featuring both Power Rangers and John Wick: Chapter Two. Suffice to...

Iron Fist photo
Fisting all over the place
When Marvel announced their series of shows that would eventually lead up to a Defenders show the biggest question mark was definitely Iron Fist. Since then Netflix and Marvel have been pretty open with the other series,...

John Wick 2 photo
"Yeah, I'm thinking I'm back!"
John Wick was one of the biggest surprises of 2014. What looked like a B movie starring Keanu Reeves turned out to be one of the most confident and competent action films of the last few years. Flixist as a whole has been loo...

Power Rangers photo
After 10,000 years...
So it's a bit earlier than planned and it's definitely taken the wind out of my sails in more ways than one. But here's the first Power Rangers reboot trailer. I'm not sure what to think. At first watch, it's pretty generic b...

NYCC: War of the Planet of the Apes is going to be dark

Oct 06 // Matthew Razak
At the event Reeves, Serkis and the series' producer Dylan Clark talked a bit about the making of the new film (and the previous two) while showing off the first teaser and a seven minute, unfinished clip. The basic theme for the night though was that War is really big in every way possible. First it's a war so it's a much bigger film than the previous two in terms of scope, but more importantly for Reeves and Serkis it's bigger in emotional power.  "“It has been the most psychologically intense and physically challenging part of this arc," Serkis said. That's probably because Serkis' character, Caesar, is going to go through some tough stuff this time around. The movie picks up two years after the last film and Caesar is steadily becoming more and more jaded thanks to the war with the humans and his guilt over not being able to stop it from starting. The filmmakers likened him to a much more vengeful Dirty Harry -- a but more action and violent oriented.  In the clip we saw he and a few other apes from the past films come upon a house where they encounter a man. Caesar shoots the man after he attempts to pull a gun on them, but then finds out that he was simply a father trying to defend his daughter. Unlike in the previous films Casesar's empathy is fading as he goes on a suicidal quest to kill off Woody Harrelson's character.  It was actually really interesting seeing the unfinished product as animation moved in and out of the shots and the actors, in their dots and motion capture suit, popped in. A major focus of the event was applauding the performance of the mocap actors, especially Serkis. The mention of academy award nominations was once again brought up, but the reality of that happening is pretty slim still... even if it should.  Finally, we saw a teaser for the film. Oddly, after all three men spoke most of the event about how the movie was more emotional and about the apes not the humans the first teaser trailer was focused on the action and the humans. We saw a group of soldiers hunting in a cave before being taken out by Caesar and some other apes. Then a monologue  by Harrelson's character played over the rest of the film as apes and humans clashed. The end result is a trailer that plays up the action and battle and not the humanity. Hopefully the film itself is more like the event and less like the trailer. 
Planet of the Apes photo
Also there will be war
The Planet of the Apes franchise took an interesting turn when Dawn of the Planet of the Apes came out: it got really good. Like, really, really good. Director Matt Reeves somehow turned a stale franchise into an emotion...

NYCC 2016 photo
Cons bring all the nerds to the yard
Like every other year before, New York Comic Con is underway and Flixist is there to check it out for you. We're doing a little better this year since we already have a bigger crew, and we've got some cool stuff lined up for ...

Review: American Honey

Oct 05 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220902:43130:0[/embed] American HoneyDirector: Andrea ArnoldRelease Date: October 7, 2016 Rating: NR  In 2013, at the New York Film Festival press screening of Claire Denis’s Bastards, a film critic (I don’t know who it was) asked a painfully stupid question, something to the effect of, “When I am watching the film, I think of the camera like an eye. And I want to know whose eye am I seeing this film through?” Denis also thought this was a stupid question and told the audience so. In that moment, I appreciated her candor. (I appreciated it less when we had a painfully awkward interview just a couple days later, where I opened with “I liked [insert film of hers here],” and she just said “Why?” (It only got worse from there.)) But I bring this up because, while I don’t believe that a camera has to be anyone’s eye, in American Honey, it is rather explicitly. This is a film about Sasha Lane’s (spectacular turn as) Star; it is her Instagram. She leaves an extremely disturbing home life and joins a bunch of societal rejects who drive around the country and sell magazines. It’s a simple narrative, one where nothing happens except for everything. It's told with all the complexity you would hope, everything required to capture a life. And the film works hard to capture Star’s specifically: the camera almost never leaves her side. We witness the events of the film pretty much the same way she does. When she (and by extension we) first sees Shia LaBeouf’s Jake, it’s from a distance. When we see him again, the two closer, but it’s still from Star’s perspective and not the film’s (whatever that means). We don’t cut to a closeup of his antics at the grocery store (set to Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love,” just one of a number of excellent musical cues that seem well outside the budget range for this film but somehow (very happily) make it in). You might expect his face doesn’t fill the frame as he looks at her in that way that only Shia LaBeouf can, to get that little moment to make you swoon. But we don’t get that. We see him as Star does, from where she does. This serves to make a film that is intensely personal, despite being in large part an ensemble piece. American Honey is about Star, but it’s also about the kind of people who Star would align herself to. And this, in part, serves to further develop Star as a character. Her interactions with the outside world say a whole lot about her, but the moments with the ragtag group of misfits in the van say even more. Even sitting in silence, we understand her. It’s a beautiful thing. I have no doubt that there is a cut of American Honey that is at least 11 hours long. It’s just that kind of movie. So much time is spent with the ragtag group of misfits sitting in a van, singing and talking and drinking and just existing. I said that they serve to expand on Star’s character, but let’s be clear: Each member of the group their own little backstory, and even if we don’t get much of it, each character was clearly defined. We may not know much about them, but we get a feeling for who they are on a fundamental level. You don’t always need words to express it, and the film embraces that. Even in their relatively small amounts of screentime, we got a whole bunch of People. Wikipedia tells me that most of the cast was just found around the place, so it’s entirely plausible that most of them aren’t playing characters at all. They’re just being themselves for the camera. And maybe that’s not the case, but it doesn’t matter. Each feels lived-in, and it feels like each could have been the star of (at the very least) their own short. It also feels like the proverbial cutting room floor of the film is probably so littered with character moments that someone could make short films about each and everyone else. If American Honey has a failing, it’s that it has a 2:43 runtime in an era where people claim to not have the attention span for two-thirds that length. I’d fully believe that none of the characters in American Honey would even give American Honey a chance because of its length. (I know that if I hadn’t heard so many great things about it, I probably would have skipped it myself.) But I had a sort of surprising reaction to the length: I checked my watch about an hour in and then never again – usually it’s quite the opposite. It’s not that the first hour is boring, but I was keenly aware of just how long it was going to be during that time. Around the hour mark, I settled into the rhythm of the film. It’s on a very particular wavelength, and if you can’t get into it, then you’re probably going to suffer for those 163 minutes. But if it grabs you, and it certainly grabbed me, then you’ll feel like you’re vicariously living as part of these peoples’ lives. I would never do what Star did or does, nor am I anything like any of the people in that van, but I am pretty damn sure I’d follow each and every one of them on Instagram.
American Honey Review photo
The social network
American Honey is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, where the image is approximately 1.33 times wider than it is tall. Movies looked like that a long time ago; TV looked like that much more recently. Neither looks like that anymore...

Review: Shin Godzilla

Sep 30 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220931:43124:0[/embed] Shin GodzillaDirectors: Hidaeki Anno and Shinji HiguchiRated: NRRelease Date: October 11th, 2016  Much like the original Godzilla (or Gojira) film released in 1954, Shin Godzilla is a natural disaster film through a political thriller lens. When a giant, radioactive monster suddenly rises out the sea and wanders through Tokyo, the Japanese government discusses how to handle the situation. But the focus is on the one lone dissenter, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), the Deputy Chief who's more interested in saving as many people as possible rather than rise through the political ranks. As he leads a task force, he must now work with the Japanese government members who have their own agendas, an American government with their own ideas as to how to handle the problem (both metaphorically and narratively), and of course, a giant monster slowly getting deadlier as time rolls on.  As you can gauge from the synopsis, Shin Godzilla is light on Godzilla action. It's reflective of that old school Toho mentality where Godzilla is merely a disaster punctuating the human drama. But unlike the similar criticism used against Edwards' Godzilla in 2014, this film makes sure each of those short bursts is treated with the appropriate amount of weight. When Godzilla attacks, or better yet walks, the action is grounded. You see citizens actively reacting to the monster and even witness some of their downfalls. When this Godzilla tears through a building, there's a sense that each of those buildings is populated. Like the film, Godzilla itself moves in a direct way. Using a traditional suit highlighted by CG also helps the titular kaiju feel real. There is an attention to detail that's been missing from the series for quite some time. It's part of the reason the new design is so effective as well. This "Shin" Godzilla radiates with bright reds and oranges, and I've never seen the series' radioactive fire breath be more effective. Watching deep purples giving way to the trademark blue flame crawling up through Godzilla's tail and then out of its mouth is honestly badass.  But the problem with having such a well thought out, weighted Godzilla is the absence felt when not on screen. By leaning so heavily into a political thriller, directors Anno and Higuchi bet everything on human drama. The main problem with this angle, however, is the political stuff isn't all that interesting. There are vague hints of government members who are making decisions in order to protect their own interests, but it neither helps build the world nor is relevant to the overall plot. The attention to detail also works against the team here as a lot of time is spent explaining minor details like evacuation plans or devoted to following down a chain of command as they issue orders. Leading to much of the dialogue feeling like wasted time. To their credit, Anno and Higuchi do their best to make the dialogue heavy scenes easy to digest. Much of the dialogue is framed through quick cuts (leading to these weird moments when characters speak directly to the camera), and little jokes give some of the members much needed personality. But it's not until the titular monster fully evolves does the film choose to evolve as well. Much like the 1954 original, Shin Godzilla is a thinly (then not so thinly) veiled metaphor for nuclear weapons. But before settling on the same commentary on the subject the series has been known for (making for a weak conclusion), directors Anno and Higuchi slip in some experimental commentary never seen in this series. For one, there are several direct references to America's vision of Godzilla. From its name change, as this film adopts "Godzilla" over the traditional "Gojira," to ridiculing American blockbusters' penchant for big, loud solutions to their problems. But oddly enough as the two ridicule Western film making sensibilities, a lot of its themes are adopted here. When the film works best, it lauds itself with a Japanese nationalism mirroring much of American disaster films. The "united we stand" mentality carries the film through its climax and eventually gives way to a cool "rah rah" moment. Which makes it all the more confusing when it reverts back to a somber, "nuclear weapons are bad" tone.  In the end, Shin Godzilla has me torn. While I appreciate a return to the series' deep thematic roots, the film is at its best when it flirts with ideas outside of the norm. It's a clash of old school Toho and modern monster movie filmmaking that ultimately leaves a lot to be desired by film's end. But at the end of the day, Shin Godzilla accomplishes what Toho set out to do. This new Godzilla is fearsome as it is toothsome. It simply beats out the American version with just the fire breath alone.  Regardless of what Toho decides to do with this new Godzilla series moving forward, I'll be there to watch it happen. 
Shin Godzilla Review photo
Godzilla got busy
When Gareth Edwards' take on Godzilla failed to light up screens here in the U.S., Godzilla's parent company, Toho, took the reboot as kind of an insult. Vowing to reclaim their famous monster, Toho unveiled a striking new de...


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