Monday, January 29, 2018

Movie Review: A Futile and Stupid Gesture

A Futile and Stupid Gesture ** ½ / *****
Directed by: David Wain.
Written by: Michael Colton & John Aboud based on the book by Josh Karp.
Starring: Will Forte (Doug Kenney), Martin Mull (Modern Doug, the Narrator), Domhnall Gleeson (Henry Beard), Thomas Lennon (Michael O'Donoghue), Joel McHale (Chevy Chase), John Gemberling (John Belushi), Matt Walsh (Matty Simmons), Rick Glassman (Harold Ramis), Jon Daly (Bill Murray), Seth Green (Christopher Guest), Matt Lucas (Tony Hendra), Paul Scheer (Paul Shaffer), Lonny Ross (Ivan Reitman), Neil Casey (Brian McConnachie), Armen Weitzman (Lorne Michaels), Jackie Tohn (Gilda Radner), Natasha Lyonne (Anne Beatts), Emmy Rossum (Kathryn Walker), Camille Guaty (Alex Garcia-Mata), Joe Lo Truglio (Brad), Erv Dahl (Rodney Dangerfield), Annette O'Toole (Doug’s mother), Elvy Yost (Mary Marshmallow).
If you’re going to make a film about National Lampoon in general, and one its founders Doug Kenney specifically, than director David Wain would seem like a good choice. While I’m not as big of a Wain film as many (sorry, I though Wet Hot American Summer was pretty bad, and other than Role Models, I haven’t much liked his other movies either) – but his films have the irreverent spirit that I think you may well need to make film about this group of people work. Yet, it ends up not working at all – because the screenplay takes such a conventional approach to Kenney’s life, rushing through his time in college right up until his death in his mid-30s – in about 100 minutes, essentially doing what all, conventional, boring biopics do and play like an assembly of greatest hits. Worse, the film takes some dark twists and turns, and Wain seems incapable of going there – the tone remains light and superficial throughout, even during bouts of depression, drug use and (maybe) a suicide. For a subject that is clearly a passion for all involved, you would think they would treat unconventional subjects in an unconventional way – not here.
The film follows Doug (Will Forte) from his time at Harvard, where he and best friend Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleason) do the Harvard Lampoon, and take to great heights, to the pair of them founding the National Lampoon magazine in the early 1970s, through its various incarnations and journeys, through Animal House and Caddyshack, drug abuse, marriages and friendships collapsing, etc. It’s less than a 20 year stretch, but it moves so quickly that we never get much of a handle on anything. In a weird, narrative device, the film casts Martin Mull as an older version of Doug Kenney to narrate the film, and comment on the action (it’s even stranger if you don’t know Kenney’s fate before watching the movie, as it comes out nowhere).
To be fair, I don’t think the movie is ever boring. Forte is good as Kenney, and Gleeson is even better as Beard – he has a dry wit about him that works here. The film casts a lot of well-known stars of today as well-known comedy stars involved in National Lampoon – and while none of them really look like the people they’re playing (with the exception of Lonny Ross as Ivan Reitman) or even sound much like them, the movie makes an amusing joke about this and moves on. The best of these performances is probably Joel McHale playing his Community co-star Chevy Chase. They didn’t much like each other on that TV show apparently, but McHale isn’t doing a hit job here (the film, I don’t think, is particularly nice to Chase either). No, he doesn’t try to look or sound like Chase, but he nails his physical movements in an amusing way.
What the movie really lacks is focus. The film introduces us to multiple characters, and then basically drops them without allowing them to do anything. We meet Kenney’s first wife – who is introduced as if she’s going to be his great love, and a major part of the story, and then she’s basically just gone. A second woman, who enters his life later (Emmy Rossum) isn’t given much to do either. Wain is never able to figure out how the handle the darker turns in the movie either. While there has always been a debate about whether Kenney’s death was an accident or a suicide, I think the movie makes its opinion clear it was a suicide – and yet, it pretty much comes out nowhere.
In short, I think there is enough about A Futile and Stupid Gesture that I liked that I wish it was better at just about everything it does. A film like this should work a lot better than it does – instead, this film is amusing in fits and starts, but doesn’t really go anywhere.

Movie Review: BPM (Beats Per Minute)

BPM (Beats Per Minute) **** / *****
Directed by: Robin Campillo.
Written by: Robin Campillo and Philippe Mangeot.
Starring: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (Sean Dalmazo), Arnaud Valois (Nathan), Adèle Haenel (Sophie), Antoine Reinartz (Thibault), Ariel Borenstein (Jérémie), Félix Maritaud (Max), Aloïse Sauvage (Eva), Simon Bourgade (Luc), Médhi Touré (Germain), Simon Guélat (Markus), Coralie Russier (Muriel), Catherine Vinatier (Hélène), Théophile Ray (Marco), Saadia Bentaïeb (Mère de Sean).
The French film BPM (Beats Per Minute) combines the political and the personal in a way that reminds viewer that the two are forever intertwined, and we should expect nothing different. The film takes place in the early 1990s, and focuses on the Paris chapter of ACT UP – the AIDS organization that, through various means, put pressure on governments and pharmaceutical companies to get treatment to the many people living with HIV, and dying when they got AIDS as a result.
The film starts out in macro, showing us the group as a whole, first at a protest when they storm the stage of a government spokesperson, and then in the weekly ACT UP meeting, where the various people involved dissect what happened, and disagree about its effectiveness. It’s clear from these scenes that not everyone agrees on what to do, or how to proceed. Various people start to stand out in the crowd. The group’s de facto leader is Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), who wants to take a more diplomatic approach – reaching agreements with the government and pharma companies in a non-confrontational way. Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) is almost the exact opposite – wanting to push these groups buttons, and force them to do something, and rub their nose in the effects that their policies are having on real people. Sophie (Adele Haenel) is somewhere in between – seeing the value in both positions, but definitely willing to get her hands dirty. While most in the group are gay men – many living with the disease – that isn’t true of everyone. Among the groups other few female members is Helene (Catherine Vinatier), who is there for her 16-year-old who has the disease, which he got through a blood transfusion.
A new face, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) shows up, and will change the course of the movie. He gets more and more involved in the group sure – and has a voice – but at first he is relatively quiet. He isn’t HIV positive, which draws some suspicion, but he gradually gets closer to the action. He also falls in love with Sean, and the two men’s relationship forms the emotional core of the film. The last act basically abandons ACT UP to focus on their relationship, as Sean gets sicker and sicker.
The film is incredibly dense in terms of its dialogue – particularly in the beginning – and it takes a while to really find your footing in the film, to get to know the characters, and get on the films wavelength. In the earlier going, the film is built around the various meetings – most of which will grow contentious, and arguments are common – and the various actions the group takes. It’s quite impressive how co-writer/director Robin Campillo, navigates these scenes so that you’re not lost in them. I actually liked this part of the film more than the final act. When the focus on the movie switches to the relationship between Sean and Nathan, the film still works, but it’s also more conventional. The point here is to show that the politics in the film are personal – and have real consequences to those involved. It works, but it also feels like other films we’ve seen before – while the first two acts felt like something different, and more complex.
Still, BPM never feels any less than vital and important, and although the film runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, it never grows dull or repetitive – it earns that runtime throughout, and makes an important statement – not just about the past, but also the present.

Movie Review: My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Dash Shaw.
Written by: Dash Shaw.
Starring: Jason Schwartzman (Dash), Lena Dunham (Mary), Reggie Watts (Assaf), Maya Rudolph (Verti), Susan Sarandon (Lunch Lady Lorraine), Thomas Jay Ryan (Principal Grimm), Alex Karpovsky (Drake), Louisa Krause (Gretchen), John Cameron Mitchell (Brent Daniels), Matthew Maher (Senior Kyle), Keith Poulson (Senior Craig).
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea takes a lot of influences – both in terms of its visual look and its storytelling, combines them all together to make an animated film that can sometimes feel patchwork, but it’s always interesting to look at, and entertaining. The film runs a brisk 75 minutes, so there’s not much time to get bored, and while that means the characters are thinly written, the story moves quick enough to keep things from getting bogged down. It’s not a great animated film, but it’s a great first animated film for Writer/director Dash Shaw – a graphic novelist making his transition into the movies. He plays it safe in many ways, just working on making sure everything works. I hope a second film from him will take more chances.
The film centers on a high school sophomore named Dash (presumably based on the writer/director, but voiced by Jason Schwartzman in a way that makes him seem like if Max Fischer was animated) – who on the first day of school has a fight with his best (only) friend Assaf (Reggie Watts) because the editor of the school paper, Verti (Maya Rudolph) clearly favors Assaf in more than one way. On a quest to get his permanent record, Dash ends up in the bowels of the school, where he comes across paper work that shows that the school new auditorium – built at the top of the school – has made the whole building dangerously unstable, and that even a small earthquake could send the school off a cliff, and crashing into the ocean. Of course, no one listens to Dash, and of course, that is precisely what happens. Dash has to team up with Assaf, Verti, sophomore class President Mary (Lena Dunham) and a helpful lunch lady (Susan Sarandon) to try and reach the top of the school so they can be rescued, before the whole school sinks.
The film is basically what you get if you animated a mishmash of John Hughes and The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno). The animation style is often rudimentary on the surface – the characters aren’t Don Hertzfeldt stick figures by any means, but they aren’t overly detailed either. Shaw does excel in the backgrounds however – often creating intense, flashing room that leave our heroes in striking silhouette. His other influences ranger from old school Nintendo games – the ones where a character stutters across the screen to fight bad guys, but only have one move, to a deliberate reference to A Charlie Brown Christmas. The result is actually quite charming – as if a high school sophomore’s doodle book came to life along with his fantasies of the school being destroyed, and all his enemies being vanquished.
I liked the vocal work in the movie as well – even if, for the most part, Shaw seemed to cast people to do things right in the centre of their sweet spot. Still, it works – and the film does as a whole as well. It’s fun and funny, and just as you start to feel the film flagging a little bit, it’s over. I look forward to seeing what Shaw does next – he’s made a very good first film, but I think there’s something more waiting to come out.

Friday, January 26, 2018

2017 Year End Report: Best Television Shows of the Year

This is the first year I’ve done this – inspired because I want to honor Twin Peaks: The Return – the best, well, anything of the year (century?) – but it is clearly a TV show, despite what some people thought. So below are my 23 favorite shows, and some others I watched. I hardly keep up with everything, so if your favorite isn’t here, it’s probably because I never watched it.
Sitcoms I’ve Kept Up With, But Wouldn’t Say Are Great: The Big Bang Theory (Season 10b/11a) keeps on chugging along, and works for me as TV comfort food – no, it’s hardly great, but its low investment, entertaining TV that I can sink into whenever. The same could be said for Modern Family (Season 8b/9a) which is nowhere near its peak, but the vitriol directed at the show during Emmy seasons always strikes me as odd – it’s still a fine network sitcom. I stick with Friends from College (Season 1) but I’m not quite sure why – perhaps the cast, which is charming, but really the show wasn’t very good at all. The Simpsons (Season 28b/29a) pretty much blends in with the years and years of the show I’ve seen – the fact that it’s still fun is remarkable, even if we all admit, its best work is well more than a decade ago. Young Sheldon (Season 1a) is a show I’ve actually liked more than I thought – the creators have followed it, somewhat anyway, into some of the sadder, darker moments it would need to about the childhood of someone like Sheldon – a little more, it may actually be quite good.
Dramas I’ve Kept Up With, But Wouldn’t Say Are Great: I made it all the way through The Defenders (Season 1) – without ever really giving a shit – despite the fact that I mostly like Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage (I did skip Iron Fist). House of Cards (Season 5) was the same guilty pleasure as always – but a little less pleasurable now, as it’s repeating itself (and this was before revelations about Kevin Spacey came out). Law & Order: True Crime: The Menendez Murders (Season 1) showed how NOT to do the true crime thing that American Crime Story did so brilliantly last year – the show was almost a guilty pleasure, as they really never figured out how to do it properly – even as it held my interest. Madam Secretary (Season 3b/4a) is straight ahead, network drama pabulum – which I find incredibly entertaining, even while admitting it’s never been great – but since we’re more than three seasons in, and I’m still watching, that says something. I made it all the way through Ozark (Season 1) but that is a show that creaks and wheezes a lot – when it works, it’s quite good, but I cannot help feeling that everything that happened in the first season could have been gotten through in less than half the time, and been far better. The Sinner (Season 1) kept me interested enough because of its twisty narrative and fine performances, but left me ultimately unsatisfied. The Walking Dead (Season 7b) was an incredibly mixed bag – I think Negan is pretty much the most boring TV villain around, he’s completely one note, and the show is bordering on nihilistic at times with him, and yet I kept coming back through season 7 – and yet, I have not really kept pace with Season 8 – I think I may be done with the show.
Runners-Up: American Gods (Season 1) gave me enough of the old Hannibal high to keep me interested – and great performances by Ian McShane and Gillian Anderson (among others) helped enough to overlook some of the obvious flaws – the bland, uninteresting lead character, its overly reverential attitude towards the Neil Gaiman book, the fact the openings, often unrelated to the main plot were much better than the main plot. Big Mouth (Season 1) is absolutely filthy – an animated comedy about puberty which somehow manages to be the grossest thing you will see about sex – and the most honest, and at times the sweetest – I think season 2, when they can settle down a bit, could be much better. Black-ish (Season 3b & 4a) had a few episodes that I would say were absolute stinkers (the Chris Brown episode would normally be the nadir of a quality season – then I remember the horrible Disney episode from 2016) – but is still a provocative, daring and overall funny sitcom – sometimes it takes bad chances, but when it works, it’s still the one of the best sitcoms on network TV. Bob’s Burgers (Season 7b/8a)  may well have entertained the part of its run where it get underrated, because it has been so consistently good for such a consistently long time – if you considered this a “sitcom” and not animation, it would be the best one on network TV (aside from The Good Place). F is for Family (Season 2) daringly went further in Season 2 than Season 1, in making its “hero” an asshole, who tests our sympathy for him – and even does the same thing for his middle son – and makes the case for itself as Netflix’s best hidden secret – as it never really gets talked about very much. Orange is the New Black (Season 5) had one of its better seasons – all taking place over just a few days in a prison riot, even if at times things felt drawn out, and I’d be all for a near permanent ban on all future flashbacks. Trial & Error (Season 1) didn’t get much attention in the spring when it aired – perhaps it felt too much like it was copying The Office or Parks & Rec – and yet I found it utterly delightful, with a great John Lithgow performance, and catnip for true crime addicts like me – it should have gotten more love.
Best Shows
23. Glow (Season 1)
The premiere series of Netflix’s comedy series was elevated by its excellent trio of central performances – Alison Brie, once again showing her range, Marc Maron, showing he really can act, and Betty Gilpin as a woman scorned but also by its respect for its large ensemble cast – not all of whom are fully developed yet, but all of whom do feel like real people. There is a certain degree where the show does feel like Orange is the New Black – but shorter and funnier (and this, for me anyway, better). I do wish that the show had moved a little quicker in year 1 – seriously, we could have gotten to the first real Wrestling matches before the finale – but they’re clearly playing the long game here, establishing characters, so basically I’m okay with this promising series – especially since the 1980s retro vibe is so much fun, without overdoing it.
Best Episode # 9 – The Liberal Chokehold – The penultimate episode of the first season really did bring all the storylines together, gave everyone their moment, and was the ensemble comedy at its best. Sure, you  argue that the final episode – where we really see things come together – is the best, but it’s here we get most of the emotional payoffs – and see Allison Brie, Betty Gilpin and Marc Maron at their best.
22. Dear White People (Season 1)
Justin Simien, expanding his 2014 movie into a series (the series is actually a sequel to the film – but missing the two biggest stars – Tyler James Williams and Tessa Thompson – who had to be recast) has been able to deepen the themes addresses there, and expand on them. It’s not a perfect series by any means – there is still a feeling that too often he’s writing a term paper, not a TV series – but for the most part, the film addresses complicated feelings of race, diversity, inclusiveness in way that are fascinating, thought provoking and funny. Plus, Simien doesn’t insist on any of the characters being perfect, making the whole thing satisfyingly messy and complex. I’m not sure where he goes from here with the series, but I’ll certainly be watching.
Best Episode # 5 – Chapter 5 – Was there ever any doubt? Directed by Barry Jenkins of Moonlight fame, this episode sets up the entire rest of the series – a stunning moment at a party that changes everything. A truly great, truly timely episode.
21. Feud: Bette and. Joan (Season 1)
When you hear that Ryan Murphy is going to make a miniseries about the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis – highlighted on their time working together on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane – you assume that the film is going to be little more than a camp fest. And it would be dishonest to suggest that camp isn’t part of the appeal of the final product – it’s also hardly the only reason to watch. The performance by Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis are both great, and the fact that the actresses themselves have had to deal with the same sort of Hollywood ageism as their characters adds to it. It’s a portrait of Hollywood that is fascinating for how much it’s changed, and sad for how much it hasn’t. Aside from the leads, there is great work by Alison Wright, Jackie Hoffman, Judy Davis, Stanley Tucci, Alfred Molina (even if the series really is unfair to his real life counterpart – Robert Aldrich) as recurring characters, and John Waters, Sarah Paulson, Toby Huss, Serinda Swan in cameos. The series doesn’t hit the heights of American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson – but it’s still a triumph for Murphy and company.
Best Episode # 5 – And the Winner Is … (The Oscars of 1963) – This really is the peak of this series and its feud – as Lange’s Crawford is bitter than she didn’t get nominated, and mounts a “private” campaign to have anyone but Sarandon’s Davis to win the Oscar. There are great cameos of people playing the other nominees – Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Paige and Serinda Swan as Anne Bancroft are both great – but it really does show how sad this feud was – and how it really did kind of destroy them. Yes, you get the juicy gossip, but there is an undercurrent of sadness even in Crawford’s “triumph”.
20. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 3)
I think the third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt may be its weakest – the show doesn’t really know what to do with Kimmy in terms of her journey from “mole woman” into independent adult. But while, I think the overall arch of the series probably needs a little more thought, the individual episodes are still packed with jokes, are consistently hilarious, and contain such good performances that you really don’t care if they haven’t quite figured out where the series is going. I think Ellie Kemper is perhaps underrated because she seems to be playing herself (although we have no idea who that really is) – but her constant perkiness can disguise perfect comic timing. Titus Burgess delivers the most consistently funny on TV – this year, nothing will top his already iconic Lemonade-in (although the episode where he is horrified by a baby named Linda comes close). I do wish that it felt like the creators had some sort of unifying vision for the series – but it’s so consistently fun, perhaps I shouldn’t complain.
Best Episode # 2 – Kimmy’s Roommate Lemonades! – This episode has a lot of things to like – including the first appearance of Daveed Diggs, who I really liked this season, and the wonderful Ellie Kemper doing great work. But let’s be honest, this is all about Tituss Burgess’s letting her inner Beyoncé out in his wonderful parody/homage to her now infamous album/movie. Made me laugh more than just about anything this year.
19. 13 Reasons Why (Season 1)
One of the most talked about shows of the year – particularly in circles that usually do not talk about TV – Netflix’s TV drama, about a teenage girl who kills herself, and leaves 13 tapes explaining why was a devastating emotional experience, and perhaps the drama series I binged the quickest this year. You can certainly nitpick – since it’s on Netflix, not every episode needed an hour long (the middle episodes in particular would probably still feel padded at 30 minutes), and the series tries to artificially amp up some suspense where it wasn’t needed – but overall, I thought this was a smart, well-acted, well directed (by a host of indie directors) show that contrary to what some thought, did the opposite of glamorize suicide, and doesn’t turn the main character into a martyred saint. It’s also a devastating emotional series, building up to two extremely difficult to watch scenes in the final two episodes, which were still necessary. Netflix is, I fear, making a mistake in bringing it back for Season two – one main character is dead, the other is in a good place to move forward, and the rest aren’t necessary to continue to explore – but even if it doesn’t work, Season 1 certainly did.
Best Episode #9 – Tape 5, Side A – This episode, the first of the three part party episodes, is probably the best example of what this show did well – show how inaction can be as harmful as anything else. This episode was painful to watch, without quite pushing things as far as they can (and eventually did) go. Still, this is more a season that was about the cumulative effect of the episodes, not necessarily one episode at a time.
18. Game of Thornes (Season 7)
The penultimate season of Games of Thrones suffers from the same thing that many shows in this situation do – they spend too much time setting up the series’ endgame and forgets that they need to make a great series unto itself. Having said that, while much of this shortened season felt rushed – and I’m more than a little disappointed that apparently what they’ve been building to all these years is a showdown with the most boring, one note villains imaginable – the highs of the show were still more than worth it. This is still a show that is great at doing great big action sequences, and moving a lot of chess pieces around all at once – and even though I have my quibbles about some of the performances, the best of them are still top notch. Yes, in many ways, this season of Games of Thrones is satisfying because we know the characters so well by now – and it works our affection for them. But it still works.
Best Episode #4 – The Spoils of War – There was a lot of setting things up this season, which wasn’t always great – but this episode, which ended with one of the very best battles in this series’ history, was not one of them. It even gave us a look at old, quotable Tyrion, instead of the idiot he was too often this season. Yes, this does kind of feel like showrunners felt the audience needed some excitement – but when the result is this good, who cares?
17. Legion (Season 1)
Noah Hawley’s FX show, set in the X-Men universe, clearly thinks it’s doing something revolutionary in the superhero genre, and while I don’t really think it is, what it is doing is certainly entertaining, and at times jaw dropping in terms of its visual playfulness. In fact, it’s the visuals that carry the show – the various strange musical numbers, the weird action sequences, the movie homages – including a great silent movie one – that carry the show through its rather standard plot – mutant learns of his powers, and how strong they are – and the fact that there are really only two really interesting characters in the show (played, brilliantly, by Audrey Plaza and Jermaine Clement – the fact that the two are together at the end of Season 1 – and away from everyone else, fills me with equal parts anticipation and dread). It isn’t that the rest of the cast of characters is bad – they aren’t, and the likes of Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller and Jean Smart make them interesting – just that I know where they’re going. Still, I’m basically nitpicking a show I thoroughly enjoyed, and left me wondering what they hell they were going to do next on a weekly basis – if some of the technical innovation extends into the characters and storytelling at some point, Legion would go from a very good show into a great one.
Best Episode # 7 – Chapter 7 – It’s a tossup for me between this and Chapter 6 – both are solid episode in many ways, but let’s be honest, both episodes are about one stunning series – Chapter 6 had Audrey Plaza’s brilliant dance sequence, going through David’s mind wherever she pleases, and this one had the even better silent movie Bolero sequence. Perhaps it’s because I love silent movies, this one wins – but you cannot go wrong with either (and it’s no coincidence that Plaza is at the heart of both).
16. Stranger Things (Season 2)
Season 2 of Stranger Things was everything Season 1 – plus MORE. That means almost everything good about season 1 was better in season 2, and everything bad about Season 1 was worse in Season 2. The result is still a show that is hugely satisfying for fans of its major inspirations – Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, everything else 1980s – but also at times frustrating, as the Duffer brothers and company double down on bad decisions, or decide to devote too much time overcorrecting (we needed something about Barb in Season 2 – we didn’t need Nancy and Jonathan to spend the majority of the season trying to get her justice. Still, I think on a macro level, the season is more satisfying as a whole than Season 1, despite its stumbles (like, uh, the entirety of Episode 7 – which highlighted the fact that they really didn’t know what to do with Eleven this season). Still, one of the most entertaining and overall satisfying shows out there.
Best Episode #8 – The Mind Flayer. This episode had some of the best moments in the Season – Bob’s expected finale, the return of Eleven in the final moment, and also had some of the best action of the Season as well – with just enough humor mixed in. In short, it’s everything I like about Stranger Things, without going overboard on any of it.
15. She’s Gotta Have It (Season 1)
Spike Lee’s 1986 debut film – She’s Gotta Have It – has never been one of my favorites of his. I’m not sure his screenplay ever really figured out who Nola Darling was – and that doesn’t even bring up the predatory fashion in which he paints a major lesbian character, or address the out-of-place rape scene in it. It remains interesting because in many ways it was groundbreaking – AND because of who Spike Lee went onto become. Now, 31 years later, he returns to She’s Gotta Have It – expanding it into a 10 episode season for Netflix – and the result is miles better than the original film, and one of the best things Lee has made in recent years. Like almost all of “late Lee” – the series is uneven – but that messiness, that hitting out in every different direction, is one of the most charming things about it. The show has figured out who Nola Darling is – thanks to a fine performance by DeWanda Wise, and a writers room full of women (Lee has still not quite figured out how to write women – but he’s smart enough to bring in people who do). The three men in her life – played by Anthony Ramos, Cleo Anthony and Lyriq Bent – are better defined as well, as is Darling’s circle of friends (including Opal – the lesbian character, this time treated with respect) – and Fort Greene, Brooklyn, which Lee clearly loves. Lee continues to push boundaries – his and everyone else’s – and this is some of his most interesting recent work.
Best Episode: #9 - #Change Gonna Come (Gentrification)
Really, I could pick any of the final three episodes – which is where this show went from good to near great for me. Episode #8 opens with my favorite sequence in the entire series – essentially a music video, as a howl of rage, as the characters wake up the day after Donald Trump is elected, and episode 10 figures out the perfect way to climax the show – a wonderful dance sequence, featuring the four main characters, dancing to Prince’s Raspberry Beret. But episode 8 is the best overall – a great opening at a community meeting talking about gentrification, the argument with the police, that gets scary, and an absolutely stunning finale – where Darling spins around and around (set to Faithful) – which is perhaps really when she makes her decision. If only they could have include Miss Raqueletta Moss in the episode, it would have been perfect.
14. The Deuce (Season 1)
HBO’s latest David Simon/George Peleconos show never really did become a hit for them – the season seemed to kind of simmer under the surface in the mainstream, with few outside TV critics talking about it week-to-week. I think that will change – eventually (The Wire was hardly an instant success) – but it is easy to see why perhaps this show didn’t connect – it’s a rather dirty, grungy, depressing show – set in New York in the early 1970s, focusing on prostitutes, pimps and pornography in a way that highlights the misogyny, and out and out violence against women – even the men who are not complete slime balls (few and far between) aren’t exactly progressive in their views on women. The show is also not really plot driven – it’s more of a portrait of this large subculture, which has been recreated brilliantly. The performances are all good – I’m not sure we needed twin James Franco’s, but it most works – and Maggie Gyllenhaal is probably doing the best work on the series as a prostitute turned porn star turned porn director by the end of the season. I won’t say I enjoyed The Deuce – this is a dark show, and I cannot help but think that I kept kind of waiting for the show to kick start a little, and it didn’t really get there. Still this show has so much going for it, and it was never less than fascinating and engrossing, so I’ll be back for Season 2.
Best Episode # 8 – My Name is Ruby. The season finale was also the longest of the season – running 70 minutes – but it really was worth it. Director Michelle McLaren does a great job of sewing everything together, bringing some sort of closure to the major characters, while suggesting where things go from here. It may be the most hopeful as well – even though yes, it contains another cold blooded, heartless murder of a prostitute – because Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy actually seems to achieve what she wants. We’ll see if that holds for next season.
13. Alias Grace (Season 1)
This CBC/Netflix miniseries is the more understated of the two Margaret Atwood adaptations this year (part of me thinks it’s the better one too – but I guess not that much of me). Sarah Gadon is wonderful as a housemaid in 1840s Canada, convicted or murder and now – 16 years later – narrates her story to an American doctor who she hopes will write her a good report to help secure her a pardon. The film is as feminist as The Handmaid’s Tale, and didn’t make the missteps that series did – but also is perhaps too subdued at times for its own good. The writing, all by Sarah Polley, is excellent – as is Mary Harron’s direction throughout, as it keeps you guessing through its six parts. The ending is strange, and not wholly satisfying – but that’s by design. I have a feeling this is going to be a show that looks better and better in retrospect.
Best Episode # 2 – Part 2 – In retrospect, this may be the key episode of the entire series – as it is the one that underlines Grace’s relationship with Mary – and the pain and unfairness of her fate. It’s also when things get the most disturbing, and highlights two important things – that maybe we cannot fully trust Grace, and two, that doctor will never understand her.
12. Black Mirror (Season 4)
A very solid selection of 6 episodes, including two legitimately great ones – USS Callister, which is funny and kitschy on one level, and downright disturbing on another, and Hang the DJ – one of the few that actually has, and earned a happy ending. One episode was bad – Arkangel, which was too obvious by half, but that’s too be expected in an anthology series. The other three episodes fall square in between – Metalhead, straight ahead action filmmaking, with a bleak look into the future, Crocodile the downright most depressing episode ever, but with a great Andrea Riseborough performance, and nifty noir storytelling, and Black Museum, an interesting triptych of stories, that doesn’t reach White Christmas levels, but is close enough. All in all, this is what you watch Black Mirror for.
Best Episode # 4 – Hang the D.J. – USS Callister got the most buzz – and it was deserved – but I like Black Mirror when it doesn’t completely depress you – and Hang the DJ had a legitimately happy ending – the kicker was a killer – even though it is tinged with the realization to get there, you have to torture people who don’t know they aren’t real (a major theme this year). Hang the DJ was the most fun I’ve ever had watching Black Mirror, so it gets my vote this year.
11. The Americans (Season 5)
Season 5 of The Americans is probably the weakest yet – mainly because the show has always been great as both a domestic drama and a spy drama, and this year the spy stuff kind of felt like they were going through the motions – in America, I heard more about wheat than I ever cared to, and in Russia, I learned more about supermarkets than I needed to know. Still, as the show approached its endgame (Season 6 will be its last), the Jennings family life continues to fascinate, this year culminating in them almost moving back to Russia (they were deluding themselves that their kids would be fine with this) – but sticking around in the end, a move that will (likely?) doom them next year. Matthew Rhys in particular was great this year – the couple murdering an old woman pushed him too far, especially after he realized they murdered an innocent earlier in the season. It’s some truly great acting on his part – and Keri Russell continues to do good as well. So even if The Americans felt like it was moving chess pieces around the board a little bit in order to put them all in place for its endgame (seriously, when the hell is Noah Emmerich going to figure this out) – it was still a fine season – it’s just that the series has set the bar so high in Season 1-4, that you notice even a slight downgrade in quality.
Best Episode # 11 – Dyatkovo – This may end up being one of the key episodes of the entire series – and oddly, it’s almost a standalone one, as Elizabeth and Phillip are assigned to kill a war criminal they’ve never seen before – and are confronted with what seems like a nice, older lady – and have to figure out what to do. The episode is intense, and really sets in motion the likely endgame of the series. Not every episode this season was great – this one was.
10. Master of None (Season 2)
Master of None season 1 was cute and funny, and one of the better sitcoms on TV that year. Season 2 is better in every possible way. In it, series creators Aziz Ansari and Allan Yang push themselves – both in terms of the stories they are telling, but also in how they tell them, bringing in elements of Italian cinema, and others into a great package. The overall arch of the season – Ansari’s Dev falling in love with a woman who is not available – was emotionally rich and satisfying – but I think the standalone episode – Dev on a series of first dates, a triptych of stories of regular New Yorkers, the brilliant Thanksgiving episode – are all even better, deeper and more satisfying. It almost felt like they got a lot of what they felt they needed to say out in Season 1, and could relax a little more in Season 2. The result is one of the best seasons any “sitcom” has had in years.
Best Episode #8 – Thanksgiving – One of the two, great standalone episode of the series, this is the emotional high point of the series – as we see how Dev and Denise’s friendship developed over the years, and how emotional it was to come out. No, you don’t get a lot of what made this season great in terms of serialized storytelling, or the filmmaking – but as a half hour sitcom episode, this is nearly impossible to beat.
9. Big Little Lies (Season 1)
At first, Big Little Lies looks like little more than a murder mystery grafted onto some lifestyle porn in a big, glittery guilty pleasure package. And, sadly, some never really looked any deeper into the package, to see how deeply dark and troubling this world is, and how deeply felt the creators built it up. I actually didn’t much care for the mystery elements (I get annoyed when a show deliberately withholds information to falsely build suspense – and here, withholding both the name of the victim and the killer felt like cheap dramatics – especially since as the season went along, with become very clearly who it was referencing) – but luckily, the show really isn’t about that element. Instead, it is about these ultra-competitive mothers – and father – who have built up this idea of themselves, and present this image to the world, and how they deal with when it all starts crumbling down. Nicole Kidman reminded everyone of what has always been obvious to those of us with brains (that she is among the best actresses of her generation) playing the one with the most perfect image, and least perfect life – but I think I prefer Reese Witherspoon’s performance, as the overachiever whose life hasn’t quite worked out (both Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley are great in support – as is, on the male side, Alexander Skarsgaard, one of the best looking men on the planet, who seems determined to tear down his own image, playing a series of creeps and criminals). The whole season was directed by Jean Marc Vallee – doing his best work since leaving Canada – and the show is pretty much perfect for Trump’s America.
Best Episode #7 – You Get What You Need – This really was a remarkably consistent series, and you could choose pretty much any episode of it, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Here, though, finally free of talking around the central mystery, it worked better than most – and it has an effective, cathartic ending – with everyone getting their moment in the sun. Predictable? Sure – but most satisfying anyway.
8. The Handmaid’s Tale (Season 1)
I worry a bit about what comes next in The Handmaid’s Tale – because now they have to go off book from Margaret Atwood’s original novel, and the weakest aspects of Season 1 were when they did just that (you could have cut a good 50% of the flashback scenes, and been fine – and the season had a big sag in the middle). Yet, at its finest, there was no more powerful show on television this year – a brilliantly realized dystopian vision of the not too distant misogynistic future, where women are used and abused by men, no matter what their position. It’s to the credit of the show that it basically treats all of its women characters as victims of this society – even as some of them become victimizers themselves. At its core, is a fantastic performance by Elisabeth Moss, proving once again why she’s one of the best actresses working – although there was great work by the entire female cast – especially Ann Dowd and Alexis Bledel. I hope this isn’t an example of one brilliant season of television the series is never able to live up – but even if it is, we still have this one.
Best Episode: #1 – Offred. I’m not sure it’s a good thing that the first episode of the series remained the best – but I do think it’s true. Brilliantly directed by Reed Morano, this opening episode does a great job of setting up this world, and our main characters – and doesn’t have the flaws that bugged me a little later in the series. One of the great first episodes a drama has ever had.
7. Mindhunter (Season 1)
I was probably not the only one who figured that the David Fincher produced (he also directed 4 episodes) – show Mindhunter would be little more than a more slickly produced Criminal Minds. Instead, the show which focuses on the birth of the BSU and Criminal Profiling at the FBI in 1979 is that – but also much more. Part of it is using real crimes – and real criminals – which seem to raise the stakes a little. Part of it is that the FBI agents played by Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany – who begin as clichés (the young golden boy and the buzz cut sporting veteran) deepen throughout the series, and become more complicated as it goes along – as does the third member of the team, played by Anna Torv. Groff’s Holden goes through the most – going from a curious kid, into an arrogant asshole, who has pretty much ruined everything in his life. The film is brilliantly directed, disturbing, and other than the first scene in the series, not bloody at all – and all the more disturbing for it.
Best Episode: # 2 – You could probably pick any number of later episodes as well, but I’ll stick with the second episode – the first time Cameron Britton’s Edmund Kemper shows up, and talks to the agents about his murdering career as the best episode. In part, it’s because Episode 1 really did feel like the series I didn’t want this to be, and Episode 2 is such a departure, you realize just where this is going to go. The episode is intense and disturbing, and just brilliantly handled all around.
6. American Vandal (Season 1)
It would have been very easy for American Vandal to go off the rails – it is, after all, a mockumentary series, playing off true crime series’ like Serial, Making a Murderer and The Jinx – but instead of a murder, it investigates the crime of vandalism – specifically, who drew 27 dicks on 27 teachers cars one afternoon. Yet the series has more than a few things going for it – the first being is just how spot on its recreation of those docs is (it is ingenious, and they never mess it up), the second is that the performance by the young cast are all great, and the third is that they somehow make a dick joke work for 8 episodes. This is arguably, the out and out funniest series of the year. But underneath the humor, and the mocking of true crime docs, there are some real undercurrents here – not just about true crime in general, but also about being a teenager. One hopes that Netflix doesn’t try to do a Season 2 of this – as a one and done, it’s perfect.
Best Episode #2 – A Limp Alibi – This was a remarkably consistent series, and I think the show should get incredibly high marks for the wonderful achievement of Episode 5 – an ingenious one assembling footage from multiple cellphones at a party – and Episode #8 is also great, as it dives into the real world consequences of true crime. Yet, I’ll still give it to Episode #2, which delves into the story of the key witness Alex Trimboli – including a brilliant computer recreation of a certain act, which is when I knew this series was a keeper.
5. The Good Place (Season 1b & 2a)
The best (non-animated) television comedy, and the best show on Network television period, is this wonderfully absurd, and absolutely hilarious comedy in which Kristen Bell’s Eleanor ends up in Heaven by mistake – and has to figure out a way to stay there. And that’s just the beginning. I usually don’t binge very well – but I binged the whole first season very quickly when it came to Netflix (how the hell did I miss this last fall) – and Season 2 has worked to deepen things, and take things in new directions. Yes, I do wonder just how far they can take this – I don’t think this is a 10 season show – but what we do have is brilliant. The cast is wonderful – this is Bell’s role to date, and Ted Danson is a pure delight as architect Michael. My favorite character though is clearly Janet – a kind of Siri in person form, played by D’Arcy Carden in the best comedic performance on television. The film is endlessly original, colorful and hilarious. Network television usually doesn’t deliver shows like this – so when they do, they deserve credit.
Best Episode: #13 – Michael’s Gambit – I could very easily pick the last couple of episodes of Season 2 before it’s football hiatus – but I think I’ll go with the Season 1 finale, which changes things up brilliantly – in a way that I didn’t see coming (although I probably should have). This is how you pull off a twist.
4. Fargo (Season 3)
Season 3 of Fargo may be the weakest the show has had so far (it may end up being the weakest ever, since it may not come back for season 4) – mainly because the series seemed to drag in the middle a little, and repeat elements of the first two seasons a little too closely. Still, it basically made up for all of that with the few brilliant hours of TV that ended the season, including its thrillingly ambiguous finale. The overall theme of Season 3 is actually closer to the Coens No Country for Old Men than their Fargo – that there is unspeakable evil out there that is impossible to stop or make sense of, which is a downer to be sure. The ending – where we don’t know who is walking through that door, lets us decide if it really is a No Country for Old Men world, or a Fargo one – one where the wicked are punished. Along the way, there is some amazing performances – Carrie Coon as a dogged detective, who doesn’t give up, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who ends up where he probably deserved to, but made us feel for her along the way, Michael Stuhlbarg a stooge, David Thewlis as that unspeakable evil – and finally Ewan McGregor, who seemed to grow into his twin roles as the series progressed. Perhaps it’s best to leave this series at three brilliant seasons – the standalone nature of the show does mean it has a real danger of repeating itself if it keeps going. Even if this was the weakest season of Fargo – it’s still absolutely brilliant.
Best Episode: #8 – Who Rules the Land of Denial? The final episode of the season is probably the most complex one of the series to date – ending on the perfect note, and would, normally, be the episode you’d choose. And yet, I find this episode – an epic struggle for survival on the part of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki the most exciting single hour of TV this season – and has the key scene of the season, as she sits down at a bowling alley with Ray Wise’s Paul Marrane – whoever he happens to be.
3. Bojack Horseman (Season 4)
It says something pretty great about Bojack Horseman that even if Season 4 doesn’t quite hit the heights of Seasons 2 or 3 – it’s still the best comedy of the year. This collection of episodes was more of an ensemble than ever before – Bojack doesn’t even appear in the first episode of the season, and every major character has their own storylines this season apart from Bojack. For the most part, this works – Princess Caroline’s heartbreaking relationship drama was great, the Mr. Peanutbutter for Governor storyline was hilarious, and his rocky relationship with Diane worked as well. I do wish that there was less goofy Todd, and more about his discovering of his asexuality and what that’s means. For the title character, this was a season of growth – the writers deliberately did not want him to go through the same cycle of screwing up, hurting people, and being forgiven – but hating himself. This year, his relationship with the daughter he never knew he had, and his reconnecting with his now senile mother – who he understandably hates, gave him a way forward. This has always been a dark comedy, addressing real issues – and it does so again here. Oh, and it’s also funnier than any other show I watched this year.
Best Episode: # 11 – Time’s Arrow – I was very tempted to pick episode 6 – Stupid Piece of Sh*t – because its dark humor literally gets inside Bojack’s head in a way that is disturbing its darkness – and completely relatable (the b storyline thought stopped this choice). Instead, I’ll go with Time’s Arrow – perhaps the most complex episode the series has ever tackled, as it flashes back and forth in time, in Beatrice’s fractured, damaged brain.
2. Better Call Saul (Season 3)
Most of my returning favorites didn’t have their best seasons in 2017 – but Better Call Saul was different, as Season 3 is where the show became truly great. As it moves closer to the time when it will overlap with Breaking Bad (and thus, have to end – I see one season more, two max) the Mike side of the show, which re-introduces us to Gus Fring and many other Breaking Bad favorites, is pure fun, and catnip for fans of the original show. Personally though, it’s the Jimmy McGill side that makes this show truly great. Bob Odenkirk delivered one of the great performances of the year as Jimmy, as he slides further down the slope that will turn him into the amoral Saul Goodman. Rhea Seahorn is just as good as his girlfriend and partner – and perhaps the one remaining thing in his life that keeps him from completely turning into Saul. This year though, it was Michael McKean – who arguably gave the best performance I saw this year in any medium (how the hell Emmy voters didn’t nominate him is a mystery I will never understand) – who was truly great, as his Chuck struggled with his demons, and then ultimately succumbed to them (I assume). The series grows deeper as it goes along, and while it doesn’t have the crackerjack pace of Breaking Bad, it is more tragic than its predecessor. The secret of Breaking Bad is that it’s Mr. Chips turned Scarface protagonist was always a horrible person – he just finally allowed himself to embrace it over the course of the series. Jimmy didn’t have to become Saul – and the fact that it is inevitable that he does is so sad, it’s almost tragic.
Best Episode: #5 – Chicanery – In many ways, the entire series has been building to this episode – as Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy is finally able to confront – and beat, his brilliant older brother Chuck – and in doing so, probably damning his soul forever. The two hander than ended this episode is the best single scene of the series to date – perhaps of this show and Breaking Bad – and likely of the year.
1. Twin Peaks: The Return (Season 1)
This season of Twin Peaks is the best single season of TV I have seen in years. It is totally and completely its own thing – it is a continuation of what came before in the original series, and the brilliant stand-alone movie Fire Walk with Me – but it’s also a standalone of it owns. The original series got a lot of mileage of the tension between David Lynch’s own, surreal visions, and the network imperative to make a genre show – a police procedural, a prime time soap opera, etc. But it you’ve been paying attention to Lynch in the past 25 years, you would have known he was no interested in that anymore – he has become increasingly non-narrative in his thinking. This season did have a narrative to be sure – and one that was, all things considered, rather straight forward. What the show didn’t do was act as empty nostalgia for fans of the original series – but something deeper and darker – a vision of America, and evil, that goes farther than Lynch has ever gone before. The TV performance of the year may well be Kyle McLachlan – who had to play at least three (and probably four) different roles in the series – only becoming his beloved Agent Dale Cooper in the final few episodes. It’s hard to describe this show – but harder to shake it. It ends on the perfect note for this series – perhaps the most perfect note any series has ever gone out on. There is talk of another season – and if it happened, I’d be there. But if not, it doesn’t matter. What was done here is perfect. A standalone masterpiece that will be remembered in television forever.
Best Episode: #8 – Gotta Light? You could very easily go with the finale – which was also perfect – but episode 8 is the most daring hour of dramatic television, perhaps ever. This is essentially Lynch’s version of The Tree of Life, but for evil. It’s haunting, surreal, visually stunning, and perfect. The best hour that Lynch has directed? Perhaps.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

2017 Year End Report: Worst Films of the Year

I continue to try and avoid things I know I will dislike – so some of the bigger turkeys this year aren’t here – but there are still a lot of them.
Also Bad: Aftermath (Elliott Lester) was a rather limp revenge drama, which wastes a dramatic Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Bad Batch (Ana Lily Amirpour) was a cannibal/dystopian/horror/comedy/western that really tried to do a whole hell of a lot, and ended up not doing much of anything. Baywatch (Seth Gordon) at least tried to be fun and funny – but the jokes were too hit or miss for it to be good. Bokeh (Geoffrey Orthwein & Andrew Sullivan) has an interesting premise, but ends up going nowhere. The Discovery (Charles McDowell) has a lot of ideas, and yet they all lead nowhere. The Circle (James Ponsoldt) seems to completely miss the mark in terms of building a paranoid thriller – and ends up bland, with only a great Tom Hanks performance in its favor. Fist Fight (Richie Keen) has an appealing cast, but the jokes let them down too often. The Foreigner (Martin Campbell) is too serious to be much fun, but not serious enough to take seriously. Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders) seemed to spend all its time trying to look great – and none on anything else. The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou) was overly complicated, and somehow didn’t even have great action sequences, despite being from the director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers. I, Olga Hepnarová (Petr Kazda & Tomás Weinreb) was an overly dour tour of European misery. Jigsaw (Spierig Brothers) is not a very scary, or good, sequel/prequel/reboot of saw. Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughn) didn’t bring anything new – except the glorious Julianne Moore – to the series, and didn’t even have an action sequence as good as the church one in the original – so is basically a waste of time. The Most Hated Woman in America (Tommy O’Haver) tells a fascinating true crime case, but in the most lifeless way imaginable. The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature (Cal Bruckner) doesn’t even rise to the standard of the not very good original. Resident Evil;: The Final Chapter (Paul W.S. Anderson) hopefully really is the Final Chapter of this series that some people love for reasons that continue to escape me. Rings (F. Javier Gutierrez) is the final nail – a decade too late – in this horror series. Rough Night (Lucia Aniello) wastes a cast full of very funny women in a lifeless comedy. Salt and Fire (Werner Herzog) is another awful non-doc from Herzog, who will hopefully stopping making those soon. Smurfs: The Lost Village (Kelly Asbury) was uninspired – even by the low standards of this movie series. Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie) goes around and around in circles and goes nowhere very slowly. Suburbicon (George Clooney) is a confused mishmash of styles that never comes together into a cohesive whole. Table 19 (Jeff Blitz) is stuck in the middle of being a comedy and a drama, and does neither well. To the Bone (Marti Noxon) has good intentions, telling the story of bulimia – but is the too clichéd ridden to have much of an impact. The Void (Jeremy Gillespie & Steven Kostanski) is a horror film that goes from boring to off the rails. War Machine (David Michod) never finds the right tone in its attempt to be a satire on the military industrial complex. War on Everyone (John Michael McDonagh) tries very, very hard, but is an overwritten, over directed, over acted film that becomes borderline unwatchable at times. We Are The Flesh (Emiliano Rocha Minter) takes place in an underground hell scape and really wants to be a disturbing exploration of our modern world – but is immature and silly. Wilson (Craig Johnson) takes the brilliant graphic novel and turns it into a limp, Sundance dramedy. Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen) is another uneven, late Allen film – but this one with a very icky real world correlation. Woodshock (Kate Mulleavy & Laura Mulleavy) looks great, but makes zero sense – and wastes Kristen Dunst. XX (Jovanka Vockovic/Annie Clark/Roxanne Benjamin/Karyn Kusama) is a horror omnibus by four woman directors – an idea I love – but only one of the segments (by Kusama) actually works. xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (D.J. Caruso) is goofy, but somehow not quite goofy enough to be over-the-top fun.
Bottom 10
10. The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson)
The Snowman has already become one of those legendary failures – and that’s because everyone involved in making the movie is so talented, and the result is almost unbelievably bad. This is a serial killer thriller about a killer who likes to toy with the police – except he doesn’t really do that – and is obsessed with snowmen – for reasons that are never explained. The plotting of the movie is nonsensical, so even the very few things about the movie that do work – included some nice cinematography – doesn’t really hold. The performances are basically one note, the characters clichés, that the talented cast cannot save the movie from itself. At times, the whole thing resembles a straight faced parody of the serial killer genre – except in this case, they’re taking it deadly seriously. A grim, slow, slog.
9. Brimstone (Martin Koolhoven)
Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone is a long, dull, grim slog of a film – one that unless it’s turning your stomach with its depiction horrific violence – sexual or otherwise – is boring you to tears. The film runs two-and-a-half hours, which is odd, since nothing much happens in the films – it’s told in three chapters cutting back and forth in time and is about, well, that’s the problem – I’m not sure. The film’s message is confusing and confused (perhaps something about religious hypocrisy? Sure, let’s go with that). The worst part is, that Koolhoven treats everything with grim delusion of grandeur – as if his dark vision of the past was saying something important about the future. It isn’t. A game cast cannot make this anything that a grim slog to nowhere.
8. The Assignment (Walter Hill)

I have never been as big of a fan of Walter Hill as many cinephiles are (I finally saw a Hill film I truly loved this year – 1978’s The Driver) – but his latest film, The Assignment, truly may be the nadir of his career. Here, Michelle Rodriguez plays a hitman who angers the wrong people, who ends up giving him an unwanted gender reassignment surgery. The film clearly doesn’t ponder its own implications very long – and to be fair, had the action in the film been better, I may well not have cared. But the plotting, action sequences, acting and dialogue is all so clumsy, that basically, nothing about the film works – making the offensiveness of its premise stand out all the more.
7. Death Note (Adam Wingard)
The idea behind Death Note was always incredibly silly – a teenage boy finds a book that if he writes down someone’s name, that person will soon be killed. Yet, the series has a large, loyal fan base in both its manga and anime form – both in Japan, and around the world, so it must be doing something right. Adam Wingard’s Netflix remake – transplanting the action to the American Northwest (and substituting in white characters for Japanese ones) though is a mess. Wingard, who clearly can make great movies (see You’re Next and The Guest) here appears like an amateur – the action sequence are confusing, everything is cloaked in darkness and unclear. The performances are bad – in part because the dialogue they have to speak poorly written. The film never quite decides what it wants to be, or how far to push things. The result is a limp, unscary horror film – that really has no reason for being.
6. Dark Night (Tim Sutton)
The talent of director Tim Sutton is undeniable – out of all the film on my worst of list, this is clearly the best made film, with impeccably crafted images, and wonderful sound design. The problem I had with the movie is the approach it has to its subject matter. The film is about a shooting at a movie theater, in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado shooting – which we see many reports about in the background of this film. The film plays guessing games throughout – showing us many lonely, isolated, potentially violent people all living out their miserable lives, and has us in the audience trying to figure out who’s going to snap. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, and felt exploitative. The film was said to be inspired by Gus Van Sant’s Elephant – but that film didn’t play these silly games, and was richer for it. This film felt cheap and offensive.
5. Bright (David Ayer)
Bright is the kind of ridiculously dumb movie that you almost cannot believe it exists. It tries to cross the world of a tough, LAPD crime drama like Training Day, with a fantasy world that includes Orcs, Fairies and other magical creatures, and somehow turn it all into an entertaining action movie, and a treatise on racism. Nothing about the film really works – I have no idea why Will Smith felt something like this needed his immense, movie star charisma – which, to be fair, he doesn’t actually bring in this movie (he seems bored) or what about be slathered in horrible orc makeup appealed to someone like Joel Edgerton, as his partner. The movie really doesn’t work on any conceivable level – it’s poorly written, directed, acted and worst of all, it’s boring as hell. This was Netflix trying to move into Blockbuster filmmaking – it didn’t work.
4. The Dinner (Oren Moverman)
Oren Moverman is a talented filmmaker, has assembled a talented cast including Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney, and here has adapted one of my favorite novels of recent years by Herbert Koch. And yet, The Dinner is a downright awful movie – glib and superficial. Part of the problem is that as talented as Coogan is, he is all wrong for what is essentially the film’s lead role – that requires him to go dark, violent and unhinged – and he doesn’t pull it off. Another part is that in transplanting the action for The Netherlands to America, Moverman decides to try and take the central action of the novel – the horrific killing of a homeless man by two teenagers, whose upper class parents meet over a hugely expensive meal to discuss – and tie to American history, which doesn’t really connect to what the film is actually about. The result is a movie that doesn’t really know what it is trying to say. Koch’s book, while hardly perfect, was a blunt instrument that was very clear in its purpose. This adaptation has no idea what it’s trying to say, and says it poorly at that.
3. The Emoji Movie (Tony Leondis)
Many children’s movie – both good and bad – can be made for cynical reasons such as brand extensions and its ability to market toys to children. While I don’t particularly like this aspect of children’s movies, you kind of have to except it, as its part of the whole package. But I have my limits – and The Emoji Movie is it. The Emoji Movie is a gross, cynical, lazy film, which doesn’t even really think through its very thin premise to come up with a believable world. The film is basically product placement and poop jokes for 90 minutes – it treats its audience as if they are idiots. Yes, I know, you can argue that lots of kid’s movie – like say, Trolls, is built upon the premise of selling toys to kids. Yet, while that may be the purpose, the makers of that film also fill that movie with songs, and visual humor, and lots of other things that are enjoyable. The Emoji Movie leaves it all out.
2. Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley)
The people making these movies know how silly and stupid they are, right? After all, director James Foley has made some very good films in his career – After Dark, My Sweet and Glengarry Glen Ross to name but two – and star Dakota Johnson has been quite good in other films (to be honest, she’s good in these movies as well – without, this probably moves up a spot on this list). Still, I cannot be sure that they really do know how silly these moves are – because if they did, they would treat them so deadly seriously, would they? They wouldn’t make the sex in the films so joyless, cold and sterile, would they? They would encourage leading man Jamie Dornan to be less of a stupid block of wood, wouldn’t they? They get some joy out of the utterly inane plot, wouldn’t they? Well, wouldn’t they? These movies were never going to be great art – but the fact that they are not great trash is unforgivable.
1. Transformers: The Last Knight (Michael Bay)
I honestly don’t know what to say about Transformers: The Last Knight – and that’s at least in part because I really have no idea what the film was about. The film is essentially a loud, incoherent mess for two and half hours – time in which a lot of visuals fly at you, but nothing really happens. Could I explain the plot to you? I could not. Who the characters are? Not the slightest clue. I can say that the Autobots and Decepticons are fighting again – but wait a second, I’m not so sure about, since I just remembered the weird robot woman back on the transformers home planet, and I’m quite sure what they hell she wanted. I almost want to give Michael Bay some credit and say that he’s become an avant-garde filmmaker of the blockbuster set – making huge montages of unrelated images. But that cannot be what he’s doing, can it? Regardless, this was the most miserable experience in watching a film I had this year – and so, it’s the years worst film.