Alita Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel is possibly the most successful attempt an American studio has made to turn a classic anime or manga into a live action movie. There have been disasters (Dragon Ball Evolution) and unfortunate misses (Ghost in the Shell, Death Note), along with one arguable classic (Speed Racer). Alita does a lot of things right, without ever managing to really elevate itself out of the morass of other effects heavy would be blockbusters. There is little I can point to that the movie does wrong, but there also isn’t anything that Alita: Battle Angel does that is truly memorable. That leaves us with a competent, often enjoyable movie that I expect to hard pressed to remember I watched in six months.

While the special effects are good, there is one effect that is an initial hurdle for anyone watching this movie. The title character, and only the title character, has big anime eyes. Some people appear to not be bothered by this; maybe the same will be true for you. I found it distracting. Additionally, with all of is close ups of Alita’s face, the movie will not let you forget your distraction. Otherwise, the effects are good. Honestly, the effect of the eyes isn’t badly done, just poorly considered.

If you can clear that hurdle, you are in for a romp not unlike the overstuffed delight Aquaman. Alita is based on a episodic manga, and it shows, as the movie ping pongs from one outlandish idea to the next. The central pillars of the movie are Alita coming to terms with her identity and her relationships with Dr. Ido and her love interest Hugo. It starts with Dr. Ido finding the almost purely robotic Alita in a scrap heap and giving her a new body, She has no memories of her past. Dr. Ido takes a fatherly interest in Alita. Alita also meets Hugo, a cool neighborhood boy who teaches her about Motorball and life in the depressing confines of Iron City. Soon, Dr. Ido’s life moonlighting as a “Hunter-Warrior” comes out, as does Alita’s combat skills. While fighting, she gets glimpses of her past, and tries to join Ido in an attempt to learn more about herself. Her relationship with Hugo grows, but he is hiding a secret.

That quick synopsis leaves out about a dozen smaller threads woven through this movie. While Alita: Battle Angel meanders all over the place, it never takes the focus off Alita. How much a person enjoys the movie likely comes down to how charmed they are by this dystopia. A lot of time is spent on the goofy future sport Motorball, wherein cyborgs play rollerblade basketball to the death. Whether it is a highlight or a waste of time like comes down to personal preference.

Alita: Battle Angel didn’t really work for me. However, I was reminded while watching it of Mortal Engines and Aquaman from late last year. Those movies hit me in the sweet spot; I loved them. Any complaints I can make against Alita are likely shared by those movies. It just comes down to how a movie hit the viewer, whether it engages their imagination. Alita: Battle Angel didn’t really do anything for me, but I can’t fault the people who got a big kick out of it.

***

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What I Watched January 2019

Movies
The Phantom – Oh my God! How is this movie not widely regarded as a classic? It is a near perfect action adventure movie. I need to write something more full bodied about this movie. I loved everything about it. *****

Punisher War Zone – This showed up on Netflix and I jumped on it. It is astounding. This is a movie that realizes how much of a cartoon the Punisher actually is. It plays it like a serious crime drama in some ways, but in others it is more like a Looney Tunes cartoon. It is an appealing mix. ****

Support the Girls – An interesting film, starring Regina Hall (check that) as the manager of a Hooters-like restaurant. It follows her for a day, as she does her best to look out for her employees while dealing with the unreasonable owner and some bad decisions from those employees. It manages to not be completely crushing while highlighting the difficulties faced by its characters. ****1/2

Blindspotting – I’ve reviewed this here. I watched it again and I think it holds up on subsequent viewings. *****

His Girl Friday – A great screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Lots of rapid fire dialogue and witty lines. It is a delight. *****

The Addams Family – I’ve reviewed this before. I might not be able to analyze this movie objectively. I don’t care, I love it. *****

On the Basis of Sex – read review here. ***1/2

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek – read review here. ****

Serenity – read review here. *1/2

Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened – One of two nearly simultaneously released Fyre documentaries. This one, from Netflix, is more slickly produced and takes a close look at exactly how this disaster came to be. It is more of a blow by blow of the disastrous set up for the failed festival. Both of these docs are compromised in some ways, this one was partly produced by the advertising company who advertised for Fyre, and they do their best to ease their culpability. It is an interesting story. ***

Fyre Fraud – The other Fyre documentary, this one from Hulu. It is a little more ramshackle and has a greater focus on how Fyre became a thing culturally and more of the effect on the victims. Again, this one is possibly ethically compromised by paying Billy McFarland, the man chiefly responsible, for an interview, though the doc doesn’t go easy on him. This one takes a much more strident view of the failed festival as a crime. Honestly, they are about equally good and are different enough that they don’t overlap all that much, so watching both gives a really complete look at this mess. ***

Austin Powers in Goldmember – There are parts of this movie that don’t work 15 or so years later. There are lots of dated cultural references, though not the Tom Cruise cameo. The wordplay and genial goofiness, though, hold up quite well. I’ve written before about how there is something comforting about these movies that were big when I was in high school, regardless of their actual quality. ****

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – It has been a long time since I actually sat and watched Fellowship. This is an excellent movie. It really is a journey, and does an amazing job of laying the foundation for the rest of this epic. The most dynamic character, in this film, is Boromir. You get a great sense of his struggle, of how his need to help his homeland causes him to fail and betray his allies, at least momentarily. This is such a great movie, so many unforgettable moments. *****

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – Still great. *****

TV
A Series of Unfortunate Events S2&3 – I should maybe read this books some day. They came out when I was a little too old to be paying attention. Based on this show, though, I really like this series’ sensibility. I love its mix if macabre humor, literary references and meta-textual tricks. I watched the first season when it came out, but skipped the second season for some reason. When the third hit, I sped through both of them. The show is so great. Really solid performances from the kids, and Neil Patrick Harris is clearly having a great time as the villainous Count Olaf. The show is at its best when it leans into it showiness. It does a great job of appearing happy and peppy, while spending the whole time telling the viewer that this is an unhappy story. When the unhappy turns come, they aren’t shocking. In fact, as a viewer you are disappointed in yourself for expecting anything else. This is a really solid show.

Homecoming – I wish I had more to say about this show. It is very good. It is a mystery that plays out across two time periods, with Julia Roberts playing a counselor at a facility for soldiers with PTSD in the past and working as a waitress in the present. I don’t want to say more and risk spoiling anything. It is very good.

Outlander S4 – Season 4 did a lot of good things, but it is adapting a book that is rough to condense into a TV season. It is a transitional book in the series; developing a new setting for the series going forward. The season, at least the back half, chose to focus on the romance between Brianna and Roger. That is the most important thread from the book and it manages to construct a solid enough story. The problem is, knowing how things go in the book I had a hard time accepting a lot of the changes made. Mostly because I know they will frequently have cascading effects. If I could think of a good reason for some of the changes, for example in the book when Roger leaves Brianna after finding her in Wilmington (?) it is with the express promise to meet her later. In the show, he does so after being told to go back to their own time. The change makes the fight more memorable, I guess, but why later is Brianna waiting for Roger, when she doesn’t know he is coming back. There are numerous such changes, and it makes for a sometimes frustrating watch. Still, I am looking forward to the next season. Hopefully it has more Fergus and Marsali.

Future Man S1&2 – This is a frustrating show. Because it is often very close to being very good. If someone told me they loved it, I wouldn’t think twice about it. There is a lot to like. But something about it consistently put me off. It is in how the show mixes humor and science fiction. It pivots from one to the other when it should stick with what it was doing; going from a working comedy bit to a science fiction bit. When the show actually manages to blend the two, it sings. More often they clash, making for a show that feels like it should be better, even though it is already mostly good. I would watch a season 3, but I can’t say I would miss this show much if it disappeared.

Sex Education – This show takes places in nowhere. It seems like it is set now, in the late 80’s in some small British town in Ohio. If you can get past that weirdness, it is a solid teen drama. Otis, a repressed teen with a sex therapist mother, teams up with Maeve, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, team up to provide sex therapy to their classmates. The show introduces a ton of teens who are having teen problems, some of them sexual, some not. Soon, Maeve and Otis are not only helping their classmates, they are also dealing with their own personal problems. That impossible setting gives the show a sort of timelessness; there are elements that are very reminiscent of my own teen years, despite other parts being things I never encountered. It is another show that front-loads some of its harshest content; the show gets a lot more comfortable after a rough first episode that does seems to be trying to do to much. It just gets better as it goes around.

Happy! – This show should not work as well as it does. Chris Meloni stars as an ex-cop turned drugged out hitman. He finds a new partner in Happy, a young girl’s imaginary friend sent to find help after she had been kidnapped. Things start weird, and get weirder. Meloni’s Nick Sax is a force of nature. He is very good at a few things, the most important one, on this show at least, is killing people. It does a great job of showing how deadly he is up front, so it makes sense when people sent to kill him later treat him like he’s John Wick. And Meloni infuses everything he does with a coked out madness that is also somewhat sad. I feel the need to stress that the show is often gross. It works anyway; I really like it. I am ready for season 2.

Golaith S2 – This show completely fell apart at about the halfway point. I’ve loosed my venom elsewhere and I don’t really have it in me to tear into this miserable show again. It is ostensibly a legal drama, but all the legal parts of it go away near the midpoint. That element is replaced with preposterously stupid nonsense about a Mexican cartel. Character’s motivations just switch, making no sense with what came before. It confuses darkness with depth. It is really just bad in every way it could be bad. I know a season 3 is coming, I hope it is more like season 1 than this pile of shit.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego – A new Netflix cartoon take on this classic edutainment character. This show turns Carmen Sandiego into a hero, making her a kind of Robin Hood like figure. It mostly works, and occasionally gets in it history lessons. The back story is very involved, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It is pitched a little young for me, but the show seems about perfect for like 8-12 year olds. I was drawn in for nostalgia for old Carmen Sandiego games.

Frontier S2 – I am going to be completely honest; I sort of lost the plot with this show. There are so many characters and I started it long ago enough that I don’t quite remember who they all are. I had enough fun with it, but it a little like watching a show through fog. I almost need to start over rather than moving on to season 3 like I intended to.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt S4 Part 2 – These final six episodes of what has been one of my favorite Netflix shows were slightly disappointing. It doesn’t really feel like they were aware they were in the endgame until right at the end and there aren’t quite as many laugh out loud moments as were in previous seasons. That second problem is understandable, since this is only half a season. There are good moments, but nothing touches the first half of the season’s Party Monster episode. The big swing is the alternate reality Sliding Van Doors episode, which doesn’t quite work as well as it should. It has its moments and is a good episode, but I don’t think it is a great one. Still, I am sad to see this show go. With the loss of this and of Great News, there is suddenly a dearth of Tina Fey/Robert Carlock comedy coming. Maybe I should just be glad I got 4 seasons of this, 2 of Great News, and 7 of 30 Rock. Kimmy Schmidt has been one of the funniest shows on television since it started and I look forward to the possibility of a follow up movie.

The Good Place S3 – This might not be as consistently excellent as the first two seasons were, but if not it is still damn close. The show continues to just eternally upend everything every couple of episodes. It remains one of the funniest shows on TV, capable of getting laughs out of jokes about relatively obscure philosophers. The best show on television.

Serenity

I was excited to see Serenity. It has a good cast, with stars like Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, as well as excellent supporting players like Diane Lane (she is a star, but she is supporting here), Jason Clarke and Djimon Hounsou. The initial concept is appealing as well, a sun-drenched tropical noir, with McConaughey’s Baker Dill being asked to do something bad for a whole lot of money. The twist, which I will endeavor not to spoil other than to acknowledge that a twist exists, sends things off into crazy town. Honestly, though, the movie was off the rails before that, in some ways as groundwork for the twist, in others that just make no sense.

Baker Dill is a fisherman, hiding from his mysterious past on a tropical island. He hires his boat out to fishermen, but doesn’t make a lot of money because he has a habit of snatching the poles away from his customer when he suspects he is about to land his nemesis, a giant tuna Dill has named Justice. When on the shore, he either spends his time sticking it to lonely widow Constance, who pays him for his company to make up for his fishing failures when he returns her persistently lost cat, or drinking at the one local bar. Soon, the answer to his money troubles appears in the form of his ex-wife, played by Anne Hathaway. She tells him that her new husband Frank is abusive to both her and their son and asks Dill to kill him. Dill is understandably hesitant, but soon events go in a direction impossible to foresee.

While it may be part of setting up the twist, the set up in the first half of the movie is laughable. It has terrible dialogue and ridiculous premises. I already mentioned the tuna named Justice, which is actually close to subtle in for this movie. Constance spends her time either with Dill in bed or watching him out her window. People do and say the same things every day. This is only broken up by brief unexplained glimpses of Dill’s son. Then there is the new new husband, Frank, who is perfectly loathsome. He starts bad, with accusations of abuse, and just gets worse and worse. From forcing his wife to call him Daddy to suggesting a night out on the town to find underage prostitutes. In every way a person can be gross, Frank is gross. It is a symptom of the movie not knowing when there is enough. Like Dill’s obsession with a fish called Justice.

The set up is for a cliche noir story, but with the cast on hand that might have been enough for a watchable film. Not something truly memorable, but probably entertaining enough. Serenity is not content with simple competence, so it takes a big swing and strikes out. The twist is bewildering, with the rules making less and less sense the more you think about them.

I will say this for Serenity; it is certainly memorable. It is not often that a movie this perplexingly bad hits theaters. It is a special kind of disaster; one where the filmmakers saw the ruin they were headed to and steered into the mess rather than attempting to salvage things. Serenity is entertainingly terrible.

*1/2

On the Basis of Sex

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is absolutely a person who deserves a biopic made about her. I only wish that a slightly better one had been made. On the Basis of Sex isn’t bad, but it is so predictable. You know the beats the movie is going to hit pretty much as soon as it starts, not as a product of being familiar with history but because On the Basis of Sex’s beats are the same as any inspirational biopic. The initial hurdles, the successes and setbacks that all build up to a triumph where she realizes her ambitions; it has all been done before. Still, On the Basis of Sex is a fine movie about an important and heroic figure that never surprises or surpasses expectations.

On the Basis of Sex follows the future Supreme Court Justice from when she entered Harvard Law School to the early stages of her fight legal equality between women and men. The movie details her struggles in law school, with the inherent sexism of Harvard and its faculty and her husbands bought with cancer. It then follows her difficulty in finding employment as an attorney before settling in as a law professor and then finding the right case to pursue sex discrimination in the courts.

Everything is drawn somewhat broadly, as biopics often do. One encounter is there to stand in for a pattern of behavior, so that one encounter must hit all the points. Or the pattern is pointed out in dialogue. Sometimes these moments are worked smoothly into the course of the film, sometimes they fit in awkwardly. Some of the law school moments establish an effective pattern, Ginsburg explaining all of her bad interviews to an interviewer in what turns out to be another bad interview is a bit much.

Still, the movie hits the highlights of the story quite well. It tells its story just fine. The best part is its portrayal of the Ginsburg’s marriage. They are a fine partnership. A lot of that has to do with the performances of Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer. Jones infuses Ginsburg with this quiet fierceness, letting you see her sharp intellect and occasionally sharp tongue while still seeing how her struggles get to her. Then there is Hammer as her eternally supportive husband. A lot of his support comes merely from his recognizing her talents in a way others in their profession refuse to. The rest of the cast is filled with excellent players do the best with their small parts. The movie has a scene or two for Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux and Stephen Root. They all acquit themselves well in parts that don’t leave a lot of room for them to work.

As a current law student, the moot court practice gave me terrifying flashbacks. From the odd formal beginning to the pointed questions that seem to exist just to throw you off your game. A lot of the details of Ginsburg time in law school rang especially true, even though her time in law school was about fifty years ago.

On the Basis of Sex is fine. It is everything one would expect from a biopic and nothing else. It feels a little disappointing, but this is a year where Bohemian Rhapsody, which is outright bad outside of the music and a performance or two, got nominated for Best Picture. On the Basis of Sex could certainly have been worse.

***1/2

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

This is the first great movie of 2019. I think. After more than a week to think about, that is what I am going with. While there are certainly twists and turns in this thriller, it is a rather simple movie. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a perfect example of the movie just doing the thing. Contrast this with the recently released Serenity, an island noir that refuses to just be a noir, to admittedly hilarious results. Sparrow Creek is just a small, condensed mystery thriller. It just does that, with no special shifts in genre or concept mid-movie. And it all works well.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is about a militia group. They meet at their warehouse headquarters after hearing police reports of a shooting at a police funeral. The seven men quickly determine, based on some missing gear and a missing assault rifle, that one of the seven of them was the shooter. They decide to find out who did and turn that person in to the police in order to keep them from taking the whole group down. So ex-cop Gannon starts to investigate the other men in the group. He quickly narrows it down to young loner Keating or he standoffish Morris. Meanwhile, militia leader begins to suspect Noah, who has some kind of connection to Gannon and lied to the others upon arriving. Tensions rise as Gannon and Ford struggle over how to find out who is responsible. Meanwhile, reports on the police scanner suggest that other militia’s like theirs have risen up across the nation to fight back against the corrupt police, making the group wonder is they really want to turn in the culprit.

The movie is rather simple in form; it is essentially a kind of locked room mystery. But it is playing a bigger game. Gannon, played by James Badge Dale, is very effective at his job, but he is more worried about finding a scapegoat than actually getting to the truth. He is not exactly a reliable narrator. You can’t really trust him; he joined this militia same as these other disaffected criminals. But he is the center of the film. Each of the other characters, in a cast made up entirely of familiar faces if not familiar names, is broken in a slightly different way. Each one is an outcast. You never really sympathize with them, their goals and beliefs are abhorrent, but you can almost understand how they got there.

Without spoiling any of the narrative twists, things eventually come to a boil as most of the characters secrets are revealed. The conclusion ties everything together in a way that makes sense, but also keeps the viewer guessing right until the end. That ending, if I am interpreting things correctly, may not be as palatable as what came before, but it is still something. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek does not do anything truly new or revolutionary, it merely executes an old fashioned thriller at a very high level.

****

What I Watched December 2018

Movies

Creed II — read review here. ***1/2

The Kindergarten Teacher — A disturbing look at a sort of obsession. A kindergarten teacher finds what she thinks is a poet prodigy in her class, but disagrees with how to deal with him with the kids parents. Her actions get more and more extreme. I mostly just found it to be a drag. **

The Princess Switch–This movie is nonsense. It isn’t good by the standards of Hallmark holiday movies. That being said, I had a good time, even if kind of ironically. **1/2

The Christmas Prince 2 — Did I just put on some of Netflix’s crappy Christmas movies in the background while I did other things? Yes. Do I remember a single thing about this movie? Maybe one or two. I don’t have anything to say. **

The Christmas Chronicles — Kurt Russell plays Santa Claus. That was the only fact I needed to get me to watch. The movie itself is pretty standard affair as a family movie. There is some mild fun to be had, and Russell is clearly enjoying himself. Its fine. ***

The Living Daylights — I guess I had never actually seen this movie. I thought I had, but apparently thought different parts of License to Kill, as well as small bits from this movie, were The Living Daylights. Know I understand why Dalton’s take on Bond has gotten something of a reappraisal lately. This is just an excellent spy movie. All the things people love about Bond movies, more serious and exciting than a lot of the Moore movies, but still not dour. ****

License to Kill — And just as quickly as the Dalton era of Bond started, it goes off the rails. This movie is bad. It is dark and stupid and just kind of dull. It feels too long, even though it is roughly the same length as the previous movies. I liked almost nothing about this movie. **

Braven — Jason Momoa stars in a tight little action movie. Some drug runners hide their drugs in Momoa’s hunting cabin. He just so happens to visit, with his father and daughter, when they are attempting to retrieve their stash, sparking a stand off. It follows with some solid action in something like the Die Hard mold. Normal guy Momoa fights off a bunch of armed thugs. It works. ***1/2

Robin Hood — read review here. **1/2

Tomorrow Never Dies — Bond fighting with a new media mogul who is trying to use access to information as a way to start wars and make money is still surprisingly topical. Also. Michelle Yeoh is great, if severely underused. This is still on the good side of Bond movies. ***

The World is Not Enough — I don’t know how much this is influenced by this being the movie that made me a Bond fan, but for all of its weakness, like a miscast Denise Richards and some truly weak action scenes, I still really like a lot of what is going on here. Having a supposed Bond girl turn out to be not just a villain but the villain is a great twist. ***1/2

Mortal Engines — read review here. ****1/2

Aquaman — read review here. *****

Mowgli — Reactions to this live action take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book have been muted, at best. It is decent enough, all I really have to say about it is that this movie is much better than Disney’s recent attempt at the same thing. That movie had better effects, but it is a worse movie. ***

Dumplin — I don’t have anything to say about it. The plus sized daughter of a former pageant winner enters the pageant she won and learns a lot about herself and about her recently deceased aunt. Its fine. ***1/2

22 July — This movie tells the story of the deadly 2011 terrorist attack in Norway. It is likely a story that needed to be told, but I was not crazy about this movie. **1/2

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — read review here. ****

Die Another Day — I know this is widely considered one of the worst Bond movies. I can’t agree. Not that I think it is particularly good, but it is at least fun once it goes off the rails. And before that moment, which is the when they get to the ice castle, it is actually a pretty solid Bond movie. **1/2

Ralph Breaks the Internet — read review here. ****

The Favourite — read review here. *****

A Fish Called Wanda — This movie is a classic. I first watched it because I was a Monty Python fan. This time I was struck by how excellent Jamie Lee Curtis is in this movie. This is just a great comedy. *****

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — I watched this for the first time since seeing it in theaters and I liked it even more this time. This movie is just so great. It manages to be something new for Star Wars while making a show of being at times both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It is just so good. *****

A Wrinkle in Time — There is a lot to like in this movie. It’s heart is certainly in the right place. Unfortunately, it feels like someone rushing through a book that is too long for one movie. It is filled with ideas that almost certainly worked better on the page. **1/2

TV

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina — This Netflix series from the same people behind Riverdale on CW is good fun. It treats the somewhat goofy witch adventures completely seriously, so it is somewhat chilling. It lacks a little of the pop of Riverdale, but it was still mostly a good time.

Snatch S2 — I think I may be the only person who watched this show, let alone enjoyed it. It is worth your time. It isn’t really anything lasting or memorable, but it is a lot of fun. It is a group doing gangster stuff in Spain. They came together in the first season for a heist, and now they are kind of splintering outside of that focus. But all the scheming is connected. It is a lot of fun.

Titans — This is a show that lead with its worst stuff. The first episode struggles a little with tone, being too violent and dark. Soon, it finds its footing and manages to tell a pretty engaging story. There are still flaws, it sometime leans into the violence too hard and sometimes splits off for odd tangents, but it is mostly a very solid drama. That tangent complaint is about a Hawk and Dove origin episode three quarters of the way through the season that could have been better placed. Otherwise, it has a similar tone to Netflix’s Marvel shows and enough plot to make all of its episodes worthwhile.

Outlander S4 — They are making some changes from the book. That is to be expected. But I am having trouble making sense of those changes. They seem to be changes just for the sake of changing things, and they have a cascading effect. A character no longer has a certain piece of knowledge, so their motivations change, so other character’s reactions change and now things are happening for reasons that no longer make sense. That is harsh for a show that is mostly still really good and the season isn’t over yet, so maybe there is a plan. But I knew there would be changes as the story lost some of its propulsion, since Jamie and Claire finally find a place to settle in book 4, and becomes more episodic. Let’s hope the last handful of episodes bring things home in a satisfying way.

3Below — I liked Trollhunters a bunch and this spin-off/sequel/companion piece is just as good. It switches out magical creatures for space aliens, but has them land in the same small town. It can be a little on the nose at times, but it sets up a handful of interesting characters and adds some depth to those returning from Trollhunters. I hope this continues to be good.

Superhero Shows — Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl had a crossover. I thought it was going to be more of a Crisis and not a prelude to next year’s crisis, but it was still really fun. Having Barry and Oliver switch bodies was almost enough to justify the crossover on its own. Also, seeing Superman and Lois Lane was great, and Batwoman was intriguing. Black Lighting finished the year strong. And Legend of Tomorrow finished with an all-time great episode.

Top 10 Movies of 2018

I put this list off for a few days because a lot of good 2018 movies hit streaming services right at the start of January (or were still there from earlier but now I had time to get to them) and I thought I might find something I wanted to add to this list. However, with apologies to Roma, Support the Girls and Annihilation, I’ve decided to keep my list as it was.

Honorable Mentions: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Incredibles 2, Bad Times at the El Royale – All three are really good movies that probably deserved a spot on my list. But when considering my ten favorite movies of the year, I went with personal enjoyment over other considerations.

10. Mortal Engines – I can’t look at someone with a straight face and say that I think Mortal Engines is strictly better than any of the movies in the my honorable mentions. However, I know that I enjoyed watching it so much more than them that I am giving it the last spot on my list.

9. Mission Impossible: Fallout Not the best in the series, but there are so many outstanding sequences. MI is the best spy movie franchise.

8. BlacKkKlansman – A brilliant look at race in America and propaganda, and the outward similarities in the black power and white nationalist movements despite how different their goals and places in society, highlighting how fundamentally gross the white nationalists are.

7. Widows – Perfect pulp with something more on its mind. It has a lot of great actors elevating already pretty good material.

6. Aquaman – A wild romp that never knows when to say enough. It just keeps tossing on more and more.

5. Black Panther – A great combination of a fantasy epic and a superhero movie that more than deserved every bit of its success.

4. The Favourite – Just piles of perfectly biting and witty dialogue as people vie for power and access to power.

3. Blindspotting – A thoughtful and sympathetic drama that deftly explores notions of race and identity.  It not easy to describe in one or two sentences.

2. The Death of Stalin – This movie manages to be both amazingly funny and amazingly dark. It looks into the pitch black hearts of the vultures who tried to grab power after the death of Stalin and turns their deadly machinations into a farce. It is nearly perfect.

1. Sorry to Bother You – This showed up on hulu and I watched it again. It is still amazing. I love just about everything about it.

The Favourite Review

The Favourite turns a story of the political machinations of the 18th century English court into a brilliant, witty comedy. It plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, but that really isn’t the point and it doesn’t diminish what is one of the funniest and smartest comedies of the year.

The film is centered around three excellent performances. Emma Stone plays Abigail Hill, a young noblewoman who has fallen on hard times who has come to seek help from her cousin. That cousin, Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz, is the current power behind the throne, running Queen Anne’s court with an iron fist. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, a physically and psychologically weak Queen who tries to do her job well. The Queen holds all of the power, but lacks to ability to actually use it, and Abigail and Sarah jockey for the position as her favorite to have the power turned to what is important to them, while also being generally kind of mean to everyone around them. All three are great performances. Sarah essentially controls Queen Anne. They have been friends all their lives, and Sarah knows how to manipulate and goad Anne into seeing things her way. Their balance is upset with the arrival of Abigail, who at first is hired as a maid but works to make herself indispensable to both Sarah and Anne. Abigail does not want to return to the life of hardship she has known and will do nearly anything to insulate herself from that. Sarah wants to maintain her position and the Queen needs genuine human contact.

The Favourite does an amazing of getting the viewer to change their sympathies over the course of the movie. At the start, Queen Anne seems weak and easily manipulated, Sarah ruthless and Abigail tragic. The movie starts the viewer in Abigail’s corner, with her stories of hardships contrasted against the lavish lives of those living in or near the royal palace. The movie then reveals more about Sarah and Anne that changes how you view them. Anne is weak, but she has also undergone many tragedies in her life and is shown to want desperately to be a good Queen. Sarah, meanwhile, is revealed to actually care under her prickly exterior.

The women take center stage, there are men on the outsides. Nicholas Hoult plays Robert Harley, a political enemy of Sarah and just a complete ass. There is also Samuel Marsham, the almost complete nonentity that ends up married to Abigail. They are there, but the structure of the movie keeps them on the margins. Marsham only matters to Abigail because he is how she get stability. As soon as that is achieved, he is all but forgotten.

Where The Favourite really shines is in its pitch perfect script. It may dispense pretty quickly with historical accuracy, but man it has some great dialogue. Most of it delivered perfectly from Weisz or Stone. Whether it is Weisz’s withering, perfect put downs of the puffed up clowns at court or Stone’s more vulnerable and slightly veiled shots at other characters, it all works.

The Favourite is a purely enjoyable movie. It has some fairly dense psychological underpinnings, dealing with the nature of power and the machinations of those close to it, layered into a wonderfully smart and witty comedy.

*****

Aquaman Review

Through Amazon Prime, I got tickets to an advance screening of Aquaman. I loved it; to a shocking degree. I have generally been more receptive to DC’s superhero movies than most. Sure, Wonder Woman is the only one I wouldn’t begin my defense of with “it’s flawed, but…,” but I’ve enjoyed them. I was still caught off guard at how much fun I had watching Aquaman. Instead of writing a review right then, I decided to see it again. After plans to see it with family over Christmas fell through, I went see again just before New Years and everything fell into place.  I liked it even more the second time around.

Aquaman’s greatest strength is how unrelentingly earnest it is. That is a trait is shares with most of DC’s movie output. Marvel’s movies have this veneer of irony, a remove from the material that by treating it all subtly like a joke. The DC movies have lacked that remove. Aquaman is no different. This is a movie where the villain puts on a silly mask and tells everyone to call him Ocean Master, a moment that is treated as sincerely ominous instead preposterously silly, which it is. However, by playing the joke straight it keeps the viewer in the preposterous world of the movie. Assuming, that is, that the viewer bought in to begin with. It opens with mermaid Nicole Kidman washing up on shore near a lighthouse and pretty quickly fighting a squad of mermen in reverse scuba suit armor. You should know right then if you are in or out. And if you are in, the movie will take out on a ride.

Aquaman is something of an origin story, but not the one we’ve seen repeatedly in superhero movies. Aquaman’s, whose real name is Arthur, journey is one of accepting his place as a child of two worlds and of determining what sort of hero he wants to be. It is the same kind of story that Man of Steel flubbed the landing on. Early in the movie, Arthur makes a choice while rescuing a submarine from submarine pirates. It isn’t necessarily the wrong choice, his decision makes sense and is largely justifiable. It does, however, have repercussions. By the time he feels those repercussions, Arthur knows he made the wrong decision. The next time he faces a similar choice, he chooses otherwise. It is believable and gradual change, with Arthur deciding what kind of person he is going to be. In places Aquaman hits many similar notes to Black Panther, giving the movie something of a fantasy epic feel, like Lord of the Rings as a superhero movie.

Aquaman is also a movie filled with solid performers giving fun performances. Nicole Kidman plays Arthur’s mom. Dolph Lundgren plays an undersea king with murky motivations. Willem Dafoe plays Arthur’s mentor Vulko. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays the villainous Black Manta, though he mostly only gets to show rage. The central characters are Jason Momoa’s Arthur, Amber Heard’s Mera and Patrick Wilson’s Orm. Momoa brings a delightful sort of bro-y charm to Arthur, making him believably conflicted and brash. Wilson is fun as the wrongheaded, but not completely wrong, Orm. He is far enough gone to be villainous, but his motivations, both his larger ones and his more personal ones, are believable. Heard has by far the hardest job, being the only Atlantean to have to have meaningful interactions with the surface while also explaining to Arthur how a lot of the undersea world works. Still, she does it while making Mera a believable character except from some unbelievable wigs.

I am not blind to the movie’s flaws. The most prominent of which is some just miserable dialogue. The plotting of the movie is fine, good even, but the dialogue is frequently dreadful. Sometimes in a fun way, see “Call me Ocean Master,” but more often just being things that no person would ever say to another person. It can be rough. But the movie more than makes up for it with unparalleled spectacle. This is not a movie to hold anything back. It goes places and goes for it with every scene in the movie. You get to see the unreal majesty of Atlantis, then the real beauty of Sicily before the movie takes you to the horror of the Trench and then to the lost kingdom that is the last resting place of Atlantis’s first king. It is very special effects heavy, but it is gorgeous anyway.

I am a sucker for Aquaman’s brand of earnest nonsense. It is the same sort of thing I fell in love with in Flash Gordon (and recently Mortal Engines and 1996’s The Phantom). It is just the sort of movie the I am prone to falling in love with, and I did here.

*****

Mortal Engines Review

Mortal Engines is the kind of movie that comes along every few years; a completely excellent sci-fi or fantasy adventure that loses a lot of money and is dismissed by almost everyone despite being exactly what I want to see. A blu-ray copy of Mortal Engines will sit next to Willow and John Carter on my shelf and I will drive people crazy going on and on about how great it is. Because I loved Mortal Engines. The plot lacks any semblance of originality, but it just such a breathless adventure that I couldn’t help but love it anyway.

The opening exposition explains the concept of this movie. After an apocalypse, people built cities on tank treads and they roam the countryside devouring smaller cities for replacement parts and fuel. It is, of course, pure nonsense, but if you can simply buy into this initial premise the movie is sticks with its internal logic and is a heap of fun. It starts with a scarred young woman, Hester Shaw, sneaking aboard London to assassinate Valentine, an important official in the city. She is stopped, however, by a young historian named Tom. After Hester falls from the ship, Valentine throws Tom off as well. The two end up working together to get back to London, for their own reasons.

The plot is mostly Star Wars. Tom and Hester find themselves in many predicaments and eventually start to become an effective team. Hester learns to trust Tom and Tom learns how to survive as Hester has. Eventually they are joined by Fang, a mysterious woman with a bright red airship. She is essentially Han Solo, except she is the one with ties to those who oppose London and the superweapon Valentine is building. The trio are chased by Shrike, a undead cyborg who is after Hester for unknown reasons.

The movie just moves, never settling in one place for long. It does an amazing job of just keeping building. The problems and obligations faced by Tom and Hester mount and mount as they meet more and more colorful characters and learn more and more about what Valentine is up to.

It is a well put together movie. CHaracters have clear motivations and arcs, and are mostly well played by a cast of not precisely newcomers but also not big names. The visuals are amazing. The movie is filled with things that have never been seen in a live action movie before. The fanciful city and airship designs are delightful. Each place our heroes visit is strikingly different from the others. It all looks really good.

It is not shocking that this movie has not been successful. The only name in the cast is Hugo Weaving, and as good as he is, I doubt he is moving the needle much for a blockbuster movie. The books are not obscure, but they are also not extraordinarily well known. It is a big gamble on something original when original things really do not sell. It is also earnest and sincere in a time that is not particularly receptive to sincerity. I hope, however, that this movie manages to find its audience anyway. The movie is too much fun not to. I know I am going to be singing it praises to any faintly sympathetic ear for years to come.

****1/2