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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Shoplifters (2018)

It would have been easy for Shoplifters to glamorize the criminal acts of its central characters. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film follows an impoverished Tokyo family surviving on a hierarchical system of thievery, nicking small items where the opportunity arises or, more frequently, setting out on an express mission to steal that which they need. The setup, of course, is worlds away from the heist genre, but it’s still refreshing to experience these criminal acts for what they actually are: desperate, thrill-less acts devoid of meticulous planning or grifter’s luck. And if there is any thrill in stealing shampoo and ramen noodles, it’s a thrill that quickly sinks into the pit of one’s stomach, weighed by the immorality of it all.

Shoplifting — or crime, more broadly — isn’t really the main focus of Shoplifters, anyway. This is a movie about family, and the family in focus happens to sometimes commit criminal acts. For the first chunk of the film, we might almost leave it at that. We spend as much time at home in quiet moments with the members of this family as we do in the “action” of their thievery, although it quickly becomes apparent that both are survival tactics. Fulfilling the role of Family Member, in many ways, provides much the same life-giving sustenance as does the role of Thief.

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Roma (2018)

You could call Roma the most colorful black-and-white film ever made. After the Centerpiece screening at the 56th New York Film Festival, writer/director Alfonso Cuarón noted how important the visual presentation was to the overall effect of the movie. Crucial among his points was that this black-and-white is “not a nostalgic black-and-white” but instead “modern” and “pristine,” disabusing the viewer of the notion that this tale is unfolding in a long-forgotten place or time. Despite being assured throughout the film that the place is Mexico City and the year is 1971, Roma simultaneously manages to assure you that what’s happening is happening here and now.

You could also single out the production design, the incredible detail in every frame of the film, as a primary contributor to this experience of color in a movie that supposedly doesn’t have any. A sweeping shot of the countryside seems to give off a yellow hue because the lighting is so sunny and natural; muddy brown makes its way into an otherwise cold shot of a discarded action figure and a flattened soccer ball in the garage outside. A rock thrown through a window in one scene leaves a hole that we look through weeks later, and somehow this lasting detail even evokes color in clear glass.

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Green Book (2018)

After winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend, public opinion on Green Book quickly pivoted from a general curiosity in a dramatic effort from the guy who did Dumb and Dumber to genuine anticipation for an early Oscar frontrunner. The film’s first trailer, full of emotional monologues and swelling orchestral strings, already gave off a For Your Consideration vibe before Green Book even premiered. But TIFF has certainly become a stronger indicator of awards season success in recent years, and nine of the last ten People’s Choice Award winners went on to become Best Picture nominees. Universal went into overdrive this past week to get their sudden contender out to smaller festivals and screenings, so this week’s presentation at the 34th Boston Film Festival was a pleasant surprise.

Set in the back half of 1962, Green Book follows pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) after he hires bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) to be his driver on a tour of the Deep South. Their pairing has the trappings of a buddy road movie, Shirley a wealthy and dignified artist and Tony a brash and illiterate tough guy. Shirley is reserved, polite, particular; Tony eats twenty-six hot dogs in a bid to win fifty bucks. More to Green Book‘s theme, Shirley is a Jamaican-born American rightfully concerned about his own safety on a tour of the increasingly bigoted South; Tony, an Italian-American who rarely leaves the Bronx, is for the most part blissfully unaware of his own racism.

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Predator 2 (1990)

This review contains minor spoilers for 2018’s The Predator. Also, minor graphic language. Okay, major graphic language.

Shane Black’s new Predator movie, which opened last night and was advertised as an “explosive reinvention” of the series, purportedly debuts on the crest of a new wave of R-rated Hollywood blockbusters. Deadpool and Logan did pretty well in ’16 and ’17, see, and Kingsman and Mad Max: Fury Road succeeded in ’14 and ’15, so we must be in a New Age of Hard-R Blockbusters, right? The Predator will do for 2018 what those other movies did for the previous half-decade, injecting some hardcore badassery into a film landscape increasingly populated by PG-13 flicks about pretty people in capes and tights. This is the same Shane Black who wrote the Lethal Weapon movies and directed the mouthy noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, so The Predator must have the brash and unforgiving potency of a genuine R-rated monster movie. Right?

Pah! The ’80s laughs at your puny efforts. Steve Rose at the Guardian lays it out:

Predator represents a bygone era of ripe, risky, reckless action movies, often dripping with blood, testosterone and cheese but also wildly entertaining…[Predator‘s popularity] reflected a movie scene where Hollywood didn’t have to play it safe and pitch every movie at the broadest possible demographic in order to recoup costs.

We’ll get to the 2018 version of Predator in a minute; whatever sadness this nostalgia may engender for a bygone era of balls-out filmmaking is going to have to take an emotional backseat, because 1990’s Predator 2 is here to peel the skin from your bones.

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Rear Window (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to the optical point-of-view shot, inserting a camera into the heads of his characters in nearly every film throughout his career. The Master of Suspense knew that this shortcut to conveying a character’s experience could be a powerful tool if used artfully. In Vertigo, this artfulness resulted in one of the greatest POV shots of all time, the discombobulating push-in-zoom-out (technically a “dolly zoom”) that simultaneously suggests our hero’s unbalanced frame of mind. More importantly, Hitchcock routinely tied these POV shot choices to significant narrative moments. In Vertigo this served to heighten the most intense action scenes by placing us directly in the action; elsewhere, the POV shot served to convey vital information, revelations, twists and — you guessed it! — suspense:

With Rear Window, Hitchcock structured an entire film around this single technique. It may not register on first viewing just how much of the movie is comprised of true POV shots, mostly because there’s a consistent pseudo-POV gaze out of Jeffries’ (Jimmy Stewart) apartment toward those of his neighbors. Insofar as such a thing can (or even should) have one unwavering, concrete definition, this analysis will define a “POV shot” as one that is truly mirroring the vantage of the character. There are a number of sweeping pans during Rear Window in which we see much the same thing Jeff is seeing, but many of these end up incorporating Jeff into the shot and are therefore technically objective, “false” POV shots.

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