Face Off: Noah’s Ark (1999) and Noah (2014)

When Darren Aronofsky’s Noah came out in 2014, the website I was writing for at the time sent me to screen it and review it. The film stars Russell Crowe as the biblical Noah and follows his ark-building journey after God warns him of a great world-cleansing flood. Animals arrive two-by-two for the cruise, forty days of rain ensues…you know the story. Amongst my original thoughts was the following:

“This is probably Aronofsky’s least personal work — the close-quarter character examinations of Pi and The Wrestler aren’t at play here, and while the character of Noah is drawn quite well, the confines of a big-budget blockbuster based on what may be the most widely-read story of all time just doesn’t allow for as much intimacy.”

I was wrong. Not about the impersonal nature of the film — that’s still the case — but about Noah being based on the Bible.

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True Detective 3.3 – “The Big Never”

As we discussed in our review of last week’s episode “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” the macro-level focus of True Detective has eschewed a mere whodunit? in favor of complex, haunted characters embroiled in ever-shifting family dynamics. When the two switch places — when plot overrides character, or when the plot twists at the expense of character development — it doesn’t necessarily make True Detective into a bad show so much as it makes it an atmospheric version of every other police procedural on TV.  Working out a case is fun as a viewer, but it’s far more compelling to tag along as a well-crafted set of characters works it out (or doesn’t).

…that being said, the case unfolding in the third season of ‘Tec is a very, very compelling one. What started as a cut-and-dry kidnapping case was already more complicated by the end of the first episode, but “The Big Never” threw several big wrenches into the mix. In 1980, Wayne and Roland look into a possible connection with the local grocery plant and chase down an angle concerning the Purcells’ “best friend.” In 1990, Roland gives a deposition that paints both of those developments as important revelations. And in 2015, Wayne desperately clings to the facts of the case in an effort to finally solve it.

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True Detective 3.2 – “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”

HBO’s release strategies for their flagship series have always been carefully planned, and the one-two punch of the first two episodes of True Detective’s new season is no exception. The hooks were in after the first episode, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” but the character depth provided by “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” all but guarantees a return audience next week. The eight episode season will take us to the end of February, when the hype train for April’s Game of Thrones will be full steam ahead. And then, though there’s no official release date, look for HBO’s Watchmen to premiere right around the end of Thrones.

The premiere placement of “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” was smart on another level, though, because it got to the heart of what made ‘Tec great in the first place. Both episodes unfurled a twisty and time-jumpy mystery, but “Goodbye” had a particular focus on family that heightened investment in the whole affair. Complicated family dynamics are what the first season had and what the second season lacked, and the characters of this third season — Hays and the Purcell Family for sure, but even “minor” characters like Woodard — are better for having to balance a home life with their work.

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True Detective 3.1 – “The Great War and Modern Memory”

To a child of the 21st century, the ancient era referred to as “the Eighties” must seem like a difficult place to live. No cell phones. No internet. None of that pervasive interconnectedness borne of technology where everyone knows everything the second it happens. If you hear that Steve McQueen just died, you hear about it through a friend who heard from somewhere else. And if your kids don’t come back home when they’re supposed to, you can’t just ping the Find My iPhone button in your pocket.

About one-third of the new season of True Detective is set in these quaint, social media-less Eighties — starting on November 7th, 1980, to be exact. A few things happened that day. Steve McQueen died. It was a full moon. And two kids went missing in Arkansas, Will and Julie Purcell, ages 10 and 12. That missing persons case extends far beyond 1980, though, having a profound effect on those involved for decades to come.

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Best of 2018

On New Year’s Day it’s customary to make a ritual sacrifice to the all-powerful List Gods, the extradimensional appetites of which demand that all things — like, say, the best (and worst) movies of 2018 — be ordered and numbered before the new year can commence. For some reason, the List Gods also demand that “Top Ten” items be ranked in reverse sequential order so that everyone has to read the whole damn article to see what came in first.

Editor’s note: in cooperation with scary net neutrality stuff, Motion State’s Top Ten this year was subject to audit and review before publication to ensure that none of this news is deemed fake. As such, the views expressed in this commentary are actually 100% correct, factually speaking. These ones are just the best.

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Aquaman (2018)

The superhero genre is not, in fact, a genre. Adapting comics to film has become a billion-dollar industry in the past decade, and the movies comprising that industry have certainly been typified by a familiar formula. Marvel movies are with few exceptions fun but mostly mindless. DC movies are with few exceptions Marvel movies with all the fun wrung out. Those exceptions usually end up being the best of the bunch, but the point is that the “superhero genre” — while technically an applicable term for things grouped by subject matter — is more a “superhero formula” applied across genres. There’s action-thriller, action-comedy, action-adventure, sci-fi action…heck, when’s someone gonna make a superhero rom-com or a superhero road trip flick? Or a super-workplace melodrama devoid of any action whatsoever?

That ain’t Aquaman, an action movie that feels like someone took three of the other action movies we just described and crammed them into one package. Starring Jason Momoa as himself, Aquaman is DC’s most eye-popping blockbuster in quite some time, more reliant on world-building and flashy set-pieces than Wonder Woman or the feeble Justice League, which is sort of saying something. By and large this world-building is thorough and these set-pieces are inventive. If you’re sensing a big huge HOWEVER looming on the horizon, then this review is evidently as predictable as Aquaman.

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Prospect (2018)

Detail is king in Prospect, the debut feature from writing/directing duo Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl. There’s little to latch onto in the opening minutes that could be called “familiar” outside the general setup: two human characters, father and daughter, in a ship floating through space. But the young girl is writing in an alien language, her father is administering a strange drug, and the process they both engage with to launch their pod down to the surface of a nearby planet is about as complicated as the entire mission in First Man. There’s a device that the father holds in place and continuously winds like it’s a jack-in-the-box, though its purpose is never actually articulated.

World-building is the key to good science-fiction, whether that world is wholly foreign or just slightly askew from our own. The level of detail present in Prospect has garnered comparisons to Moon and even to Star Wars, both of which are high praise indeed. It’s evident from the very start of Prospect, though, that we’re diving even deeper into unfamiliar territory, making the film of stronger kin (visually, at least) with indie sci-fi like Automata, Young Ones, Monsters or District 9.

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The Birdcage (1996)

Art ages. The second a book hits the shelf, a movie hits the cinema, a painting hits the exhibit or a song hits the radio, that art is in some ways locked into that time period forever. Maybe as time passes that art ages poorly and is sentenced to oblivion — like, say, a racist Donald Duck cartoon or two — regardless of whether it was deemed appropriate or entertaining at the time of publication. Maybe as time passes that art does the opposite, somehow seems more fitting for the current time rather than the time in which it was published, which can often be a hallmark of good sci-fi art (like the original Westworld movie) or good political art (like the V for Vendetta comic) or both (like 1984). But sometimes it’s not so simple. Some art — like The Birdcage — remains both a product of its time and perfectly fit for the future.

This is not an automatic compliment, even in the case of a film as funny and as culturally significant as this one. It’s impossible to rewatch Birdcage — pitched as a somewhat innocent laugh-a-minute comedy and little else — and not think about how the same movie would be made today, what might be changed, what might be emphasized or removed entirely. Today, discussion of the movie must start and end with the way gay or bisexual characters are represented in the film.

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The Favourite (2018)

I never much expected Yorgos Lanthimos to become a great filmmaker. He was always a very good filmmaker, and it must be noted that we’re reserving the term great here for someone truly deserving of the moniker, as in one of the all-time greats. Nowadays great gets bandied about a lot. Is Ridley Scott great? From time to time, sure. Maybe we weigh the greatness of Blade Runner against the decidedly-not-so-greatness of Alien: Covenant? Is Francis Ford Coppola great? He definitely was. Does he get a lifetime pass for Godfather and Apocalypse Now? Is Wes Anderson great? No, he’s not. Stylish, yes. Symmetrical, very. But a mere few living filmmakers are transcendently, naturally, consistently great. Surely it’s a malleable and transient label, fit to be removed, re-earned, reconsidered. And surely — as The Dude would say in that movie by the great Coen Brothers — it’s just, like, your opinion, man.

Lanthimos isn’t yet one of the all-time greats, but watching The Favourite I did think, for the first time, that he might just have it in him someday. Such a consideration might have been questionable after his previous film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an overly melancholy tale featuring a creepy turn from Barry Keoghan, one cool shot of a descending escalator, a Funny Games-esque climax and a whole bunch of monotone dialogue. It wasn’t a bad movie, and it might even be a pretty good movie. But the cold design of Sacred Deer made it impactful but never resonant. Maybe it was just so different than The Lobster, the previous effort from Lanthimos, which was a darkly funny and much more inventive film.

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Daredevil – Season 3

Boasting a “return to roots” formula meant to appeal to champions of the first season, Daredevil‘s third season premiered on Netflix this weekend in the wake of the cancellation of its peers Iron Fist and Luke Cage. Trailers revealed Matt Murdock back in his homemade origin-story duds, rather than the classic crimson armor. The villain is also back, Wilson Fisk returning to his old ways and prompting Murdock and Co. to take him down…twice and for all. The question was whether there would be enough newness to offset what frankly sounds like a remake of the first season, enough to actually move the series forward. It’s worth remembering that the Netflix/Marvel model is a business model, not a storytelling model, and while both could be said to have an “arc” it’s always been evident that the former has dictated the output strategy of both Netflix and Marvel Studios.

And the arc here is a fairly predictable one:

  1. Marvel and Netflix launch a new arm of the all-encompassing MCU, populated by more “realistic” street-level heroes.
  2. Praise follows, mostly for Jessica Jones and Daredevil, which has a second season that spawns a Punisher series of its own.
  3. Iron Fist premieres to negative reviews, the first show to break the streak. Probably just a fluke, though. Right?
  4. The Defenders happens in an attempt to mirror the team-up mentality that led the film series to Avengers: Infinity War. The main difference, of course, is that Defenders is one of the most arduously-conceived, inconsequential, straight-up boring television shows ever made.
  5. This seems to spook the larger Netflix/Marvel model, predicated on interconnectedness from the get-go, and each individual series begins to shy from too much overlap. Rosario Dawson’s Night Nurse, the only character to appear in each show, seemingly evaporates.
  6. The second seasons of Jones, Cage and Fist premiere, all to lowly-to-middling reviews that fail to generate much more of a reaction past “meh.”
  7. Cage and Fist get the axe and Daredevil‘s third outing arrives with the promise of a return to the Glory Days of Season One, back when it was the only one of its kind in existence.

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