Now Playing December 2019

Beaten

SteamWorld Dig 2 – I think I legitimately forgot this game was released until I found it on a Christmas eshop sale. I really wanted to play it on WiiU, which it was never released on. I don’t think it was originally released on 3DS either. I loved the first SteamWorld Dig game and I loved SteamWorld Heist. This game turns the fairly simple “dig straight down, bring stuff back up” of the first game into a full blown metroidvania. I loved it. The game really isn’t doing anything new or innovative, like Heist did, but it executes its formula incredibly well. There is something incredibly soothing about the rhythm of the game. Making a trip to dig up some gems and kill some monsters, going back up to sell what you find, buying some new equipment and power ups, lather, rinse, repeat. It is just kind of a perfect video game. No matter how many indie-ish metroidvania games we get, every time I play a good one I remember why these are so great. This is just a very good exercise in the genre.

Ongoing

Stella Glow – The same eShop sale that brought me SteamWorld Dig 2 also got me this game. I’m roughly a third of the way into it and it is fine. I don’t really have more to say about it than that. The battles are decent; there are some balance problems as it relates to character speed, but it mostly works fine. I recall some similar problems with this developer’s Luminous Arc games on the DS. The stuff around the story and characters is just above the most risible stuff that frequently appears in JRPGs. It keeps looking like it is going to be just kind of gross, but keeps itself from falling into the abyss.

Life is Strange – I cleared the first chapter of this game. It is really good. It is doing something I have not seen many games do, telling a kind of story that few games do. The game does so with a very obvious video game mechanic. Prince of Persia did this games rewind time thing in an action game 15 years ago. Here, it is put into a, so far, pretty mundane and thoughtful story. This is the kind of thing I want more of; games that push video games into places other than just violence.

Fire Emblem Warriors (3DS) – I was shopping for Christmas presents and bought this on amazon for next to nothing to give to my brother. It was only later that I recalled that he does not have a New 3DS to play it on. So I kept it. I’ve played five or six missions. The mix of Dynasty Warriors and Fire Emblem works surprisingly well. The menus are dense and not particularly well laid out. I will probably get through the story mode in January and basically call this game done. It is fun enough, worth the $10 I spent on it.

Judgment – I keep making a little progress in this game, loving it while I am playing it and then forgetting about it for weeks at a time after I turn it off. I think if I just let the game take me I would have the time of my life, but I have been too busy lately to really sit and enjoy it. Maybe in the new year. I did finally get to the drone races, which are simple and fun and I spent way too long with them.

Upcoming

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – I have a hankering to play this some more.

Code Name: STEAM – I got about halfway through this game a couple of years ago and I really just want to go back and finish it off.

Dragon Quest XI, Final Fantasy XV, Horizon: Zero Dawn – A trio of PS4 games I have started and just sort of lost track of. I really want to beat them, maybe not in January, but some time in 2020. In early 2020, because I am going to have a busy second half of the year. But I really want to beat some of these.

Best TV Shows of 2019

I did my Top 20 movies, so I decided to do the same with TV. Lot’s of good stuff this year, and a lot of the stuff that just missed the list is as good as the bottom quarter of this list. A lot of it has the problem of not being recent, so I don’t remember it that well. Here is the list:

20. The Boys – This show is dark and cynical and gory, descriptors that would normally kill any interest I have in a work of fiction. However, while The Boys is all of that, there is a surprising amount of heart hidden underneath that. The show, at least in the first season, is ultimately less cynical that it wants the viewer to believe it is. What made the show work for me is the surprisingly heartfelt romance between Hughie and Annie, showing that there are also good and human people in this show, along with all the cartoon monsters.

19. Dear White People – I loved the first two seasons of Dear White People; this third season is still good, but it feels a little more scattered than the previous two. The show has always been an ensemble that alternated viewpoint characters from episode to episode, but Samantha has largely been the axis the show has turned on. This season made a conscious effort to turn the focus elsewhere, and it destabilizes the show somewhat. It is still good, and I am looking forward to the fourth season, but this one was a step down from the previous two.

18. Carnival Row – First of all, and this goes for the next show on this list as well, I am already completely annoyed that any show that is even remotely fantasy is going to be reviewed as though it was trying to be Game of Thrones, even if it shares as little with that show as, for example, Carnival Row does. Carnival Row, with its fantasy Victorian setting and murder mystery set up, is almost perfectly crafted to be something I love. And I did love it, I think. I greatly enjoyed watching the show, I am just not sure if it is actually any good. Still, I enjoyed it enough to put it on the list. I might rewatch it to see if that enjoyment holds up.

17. The Witcher – This is the most recent show on the list, and after I sit with it for a while it might go up or down on this list. Right now, it is resting in a pleasant afterglow. I don’t know that this show made the best use of its eight episodes, taking a little too long to get to what it is setting up as the main plot. However, I was much less interested in that plot than I was in Geralt going around fighting monsters and learning that man is the real monster. I would be into this show if it was just a big budget Hercules The Legendary Journeys, but it is more than that. I am really looking forward to more of this.

16. Santa Clarita Diet – The third and final season of this show continued to be excellent. That excellence was in large part due to the performances of Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant especially. The rest of the cast is good, and there are a lot of solid guest appearances, mostly from stars of other excellent TV comedies, like creator Victor Fresco’s underrated previous show Better Off Ted. I am really sad to see this show go, especially as it didn’t quite appear to be finished. I don’t know that they could have found a satisfying ending to it, but at least it left off at the end of a section of the story, and not a complete cliffhanger.

15. Brooklyn 99 – I really enjoyed the first season of this show on NBC. It is in that solidly comfortable part of the lifetime of a show. Other than Chelsea Peretti, who is both great and whose character was kind of an odd fit for the show, the cast does not seem interested in moving on. The show just continues a string of routine excellence.

14. GLOW – This show has done an amazing job of building up its cast. This season has the crew doing the show as a nightly Vegas show, with the cast getting a little stir crazy stuck in Las Vegas for the time their contract runs, with many of them finding interests outside of show. It is just really entertaining television.

13. Bob’s Burgers – See what I said above about Brooklyn 99. Bob’s Burgers is also routinely excellent. Just shockingly few misses. Each episode adds something or someone new to the show. One offs become recurring characters, one episode obsessions become part of characters. None of it feels like they are doing anything but growing organically. I hope this show runs forever and I hope

12. Unbelievable – I know a lot of people who have this show much higher, and I can’t say they are wrong. This is the lowest it appeared on any draft of this list. This show does a great job of centering a police procedural show around a different kind of detective. It does a great job showing what would cause a rape victim would recant a true account. Great work from Merritt Weaver, Kaitlyn Dever and Toni Collette. Just a great show.

11. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – Season 4 almost lives up to the excellence of Season 3. This one starts with the team tracking down magical creatures that have been strewn throughout time. As they collect them, someone comes up with a plan to use them for no good. Added to the team this season is Constantine, whose expertise with magic is needed. The show is wild and silly and possible the most entertaining thing on TV when it comes to just pure enjoyability.

10. Stranger Things – I know some people are down on Season 3 of this show, but I think it works. It turns more to echoing action movies and TV shows of the 80s now; there is a character that is essentially a terminator running around and Hopper expressly dresses like Thomas Magnum for most of the season. It is louder and broader. But the characters remain true. I think I might be more into and more investing in this show than any other currently running series. I recognize some faults, but I just love to immerse myself in this world when I get the chance. I love how the cast just keeps expanding, and somehow each new addition just fits right in.

9. What We Do in the Shadows – What We Do in the Shadows was one of the best comedies of the last ten years. Somehow it seems to work even better as a series. This show takes the set up and the sense of humor of the movie, but leaves the characters. Now it is just a comedy about a group of vampires, living in New York, living their lives. The new characters are great, and the show goes some new and interesting places. It is just a lot of fun.

8. Good Omens – I haven’t read the book this mini-series is based on. I do, however, love Michael Sheen and David Tennant. I like Jon Hamm. I like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. This show is a lot of fun; lots of irreverent humor and strong performances. The show really sings when it focuses on Tennant and Sheen; they have wonderful chemistry together. It if was just the continuing adventures of Crowley and Aziraphale it would likely have still made this list. This is just a really entertaining show.

7. Documentary Now! – If it were just the first two episodes of Season 3, I think Documentary Now Season 3 would have a strong case to make this list. I am not sure those are the best episodes of the season. The last episode, Any Given Saturday Afternoon, is delightful. Original Cast Album: Co-op is wonderful. There are no bad episodes. The show breaks from the first two seasons, which largely focused on Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, to feature a lot more guest performances. It is just great.

6. Fleabag – I always feel like I should have more to say about this show. It is excellent from start to finish. Well acted, well written, funny and affecting. It is basically everything you could want out of a half hour comedy. It’s on Amazon Prime; you should go watch it.

5. Doom Patrol – There was a lot of great superhero TV this year. But nothing tapped into the fun and weirdness that I love comics for better than Doom Patrol on DC Universe. While the aggressive weirdness brings a lot of entertainment, it is built on a solid foundation of some wonderfully realized, human characters. It is great to watch this found family come together and solve problems even weirder than they are.

4. When They See Us – Amazing, powerful and heartbreaking. When They See Us tells the story of Central Park 5, a group of young boys who were railroaded and sent to jail for a crime they didn’t commit. Their story highlights some flaws in the criminal justice system. The show is just amazingly composed and acted, and while it ultimately ends on a somewhat optimistic note, is completely devastating. This is the show on my list that feels the most important, everything above it is fun.

3. Russian Doll – This show came out long enough ago that I don’t remember all of the finer details. I remember the feel of the show and the concept, but I am completely unable to bring any details to mind. Natasha Lyonne is stuck in a recurring loop, living the same day over and over. She is trying desperately to find a way out, and eventually finds another person caught in a similar loop. I remember the show being funny and interesting and thoughtful. I need to watch it again.

2. The Good Place – Whether this is Season 3, or the second half of Season 3 and the first half of Season 4, The Good Place deserves this place on the list. It has the tone and jokes of some of my favorite comedies of the last few years, also created by Michael Schur, but also tells a strong serialized story. It frequently strays into schmaltz, but it all works for me anyway. It is unique among sitcoms as a show that completely changes the premise every three or four episodes. Season 3 did this several times, settling into a concept for three or four episodes before shaking everything up. I love this show.

1. I Think You Should Leave – The whole season of this show is less than two hours long. I think I spent more time watching this than any other show on this list. Sketch shows and be hit or miss, but this one cranked out hit after hit. It is aggressively weird on a frequency that just resonates with me. I absolutely love this show. The Baby of the Year sketch, Fenton’s Stable and Horse Ranch, The Night Scrooge Saved Christmas, the car focus group, I could literally go on all day. I am apparently a huge Tim Robinson fan and I can’t wait for more of this.

Best Movies of 2019

I started with a plan to make a Top 10 list, but that felt a little limiting. So I expanded to 15. Then to 25. Then I scaled it back to 20. Then back to 15 again. Finally, I went back to 20. I was just as firm in choosing the movies on my list. The real problem is that if I cut it at 20, there were two or three movies I wanted to talk about as much as the three or four in front of them that would miss the list. If I cut it at 15, the same would be true. So I landed on 20 movies for my best of the year list. I didn’t really expand it because this was an especially good movie year, it was fine, but because I saw a lot of movies this year and I really want to talk about some of them. So here is my list, with links to written reviews if I have one:

20. Toy Story 4:

This one kept falling as I adjusted my list, and I am not sure that is entirely fair. As I came to the end this list making process, Toy Story 4 essentially fell out of my Top 20. I really liked the movie. I don’t think the people I’ve heard call it the best Toy Story are crazy, but thinking on it half a year later, I don’t know that it quite stacks up for me. Still, its a real good movie.

19. The Two Popes:

I just saw this, so it might rise or fall in my estimation in the next couple of weeks, but right now it is just clinging to the list. I really liked the scenes where Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are debating the direction to take the church and what is necessary to be a good priest or cardinal or pope. The rest of it is fine, just not as riveting as those scenes. Netflix had a heck of a year and this is one of their better ones.

18. Ready or Not:

This one has really grown on me since I’ve seen it. Its horror trappings almost kept me from going to see it, but I am glad I did. Just a winning performance from Samara Weaving, and several other strong performances throughout the cast. Lots of well staged action, humor that mostly hits its mark and gore that is sure to please whoever it is there to please. This movie deserves to be seen by more people. Knives Out hits a lot of the same notes; the two would make a great double feature.

17. The Breaker Upperers:

This is a fun little New Zealand comedy from early this year about a pair of women who run a business helping people break up with their partners. It slips in just conversational weirdness with some real strange, bigger moments that are almost all funny. It manages to catch you off guard, like when the protagonists visit one of their mothers and slip away to the bathroom to steal her cocaine. The situation is weird enough, but every detail added is stranger and funnier. This movie is a lot of fun and needs more people to pay attention to it.

16. Klaus:

A Netflix produced, Christmas themed, animated movie in the style of Disney movies. The plot and the story are good, a solid little Christmas movie. It is generally a fun world to enter for the 90 or so minutes the movie lasts. What really sets it above others is how gorgeous the animation is. It is like if Disney kept putting their resources into traditional animation instead of switching to CG. Basically, everything about this movie works. It really is worth the watch and will likely be in the Christmas rotation for years to come.

15. The Standoff At Sparrow Creek:

This is a solid little thriller. After a shooting, a militia group meets up to find that it was committed by someone in their group. Without knowing who was responsible, they lock down their headquarters and try to find the guilty party, hoping that by making it clear the rest of them had nothing to do with it, they won’t be in trouble. Of course, all of them have secrets. And out hero seems more interested in finding a scapegoat than the real party responsible. It is tense and entertaining.

14. The King:

I don’t quite know why this movie worked so well for me. It loses some of the best things from its Shakespearean sources, like Falstaff being an enjoyable character, but doesn’t do so in the name of being more historically accurate. Still, the story it tells of Prince Hal’s transformation into King Henry V, and the isolation of being the King I found very entertaining. This movie is for me.

13. Ad Astra:

Sad Dad in space. This movie is cold and haunting. Beautiful, but distant. It doesn’t quite bring everything home as well as one could hope, but the first two thirds are some of the best stuff I saw in a theater in 2019.

12. Missing Link:

I am a little late to the Laika love, having only really starting to pay attention after Kubo and the Two Strings. Their movies, in general, are criminally underseen. Missing Link, which bombed at the box office, might be the most overlooked. It is about a disrespected adventurer, Sir Lionel Frost, who meets up with a Bigfoot, Susan, who wants to find a place he belongs with more of his own kind. This sets them off on a world spanning adventure, as they evade hunters who want to catch Susan, as well as a former flame of Lionel’s, Adelina, from whom they stole a map. The whole thing is beautiful and heartwarming.

11. Jojo Rabbit:

This movie sets itself up a delicate balancing act and mostly pulls it off. I think it did a good job of making humor out of a terrible situation, but not trivializing the subject. I found it very heartfelt and charming. I really bought into the Jojo’s personal journey from being an outcast kid who believed some vile stuff to a thinking person. It is also just really funny, which you know, is good in a comedy.

10. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote:

I really wish Terry Gilliam hadn’t been showing his ass in the news lately, so I could feel better about championing his long gestating passion project. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is about a man who played Don Quixote in a movie thinking he really is Don Quixote, and recruiting the director who made that movie to be his Sancho Panza as that director tries to get him help. Adam Driver plays the director as a man who has lost sight of his passion and is oblivious to the wreckage he leaves in his wake. It is a movie about chasing your dreams, even if others think you are crazy. It is kind of a mess. It is the quintessential Terry Gilliam movie. I loved it.

9. High Flying Bird:

Basically, the whole gimmick of this movie is that it is a sports movie that goes out of its way to never show any sports. It ends up playing like a heist movie, with agent Ray manipulating everything to try to end a lockout and get his clients, especially rookie Erick playing and paid. It is really entertaining.

8. John Wick 3:

The John Wick series continues to be just masterclasses of action movies. This one gets even deeper into the arcane mythology of this world. It also delivers three or four of the best action scenes of the year. Really, there is little not to like about it. The only flaw I can point to is that I don’t know that it is better than either of the previous two movies. That really isn’t a flaw; it is really just a sign of how great the movies are. I didn’t much like the ending twist, though. More in a I wish that didn’t happen way than a that didn’t make sense way.

7. Shazam:

I was really afraid this movie wouldn’t hold up. I loved it early in the year, but kind of thought that a revisit would damper my enthusiasm. However, I watched with my family at Thanksgiving and it is still great. There are a few moments where the tone kind of gets away from it, like the boardroom scene, but otherwise it is the closest we’ve gotten to an Amblin superhero movie.

6. The Laundromat:

I might be the only person that likes this movie. I don’t get its complete dismissal. It packages complex financial maneuvering into a package that anyone can understand, making essentially an economics lesson entertaining. I loved the bits with Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, I liked the parts with Meryl Streep. It was entertaining and infuriating.

5. Booksmart:

A lot of people just wrote this off as Superbad, but with girls. While there are similarities, people graduating this year were in kindergarten when Superbad came out. And honestly, Booksmart is the better movie. This is centered around great performances by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, but Billie Lourd steals every scene she is in. It is a surprisingly human movie, showing all of these high school kids as full people and not just one note stereotypes. Plus, it is really funny.

4. The Irishman:

The Irishman is long and contemplative and mostly a downer. It is also eminently watchable. The movie works to tear down the mafia mythology Scorsese built up in movies like Goodfellas and Casino. The de-aging special effects are effective if overblown. It is great to Joe Pesci again. This is just a great movie.

3. Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood:

This one stands out in Tarantino’s filmography. It is less pulpy, less violent than most of his other movies. It is thoughtful; with fading star Rick Dalton looking back on his career and the movie looking back on a Hollywood that died right at the time the movie is taking place. It is a world on the cusp of change. Even with the movie giving everyone a happy ending, it is clear that the world they live in will not last much longer. This is the perfect hangout movie.

2. Parasite:

A wild, wild movie. Parasite starts as one thing and just sort of seamlessly changes into something else two or three times. It highlights societal problems without really vilifying any of the people involved. Still, there are certainly “good guys” and “bad guys” but they are all people. It is heartbreaking and hilarious. Parasite is simply an amazing experience.

1. Knives Out:

Yeah, this movie is very much for me. Great cast, great performances. A classic murder mystery that also manages to find some twists withing that set up. The movie just keeps the viewer guessing the whole time and never stoops to cheating. It might keep secrets of who knows what and who did what, but in all of its pulling the wool over the viewers eyes and rug out from under their feet, the movie never lies. It is just not always clear what you are seeing. This is a movie that will be in heavy rewatch rotation for years to come.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

 

The Rise of Skywalker had a tough task, especially after Disney announced that it was going to be the last film in what they are calling the Skywalker saga. I am not here to write about how this movie fits into the overall Star Wars story; I am planning that post for a later date, after I have had more time to digest this and maybe see it again. I am also not here to relitigate The Last Jedi, which for the record is the best movie since the original trilogy, no contest. I am merely attempting to review the movie itself. All the other stuff is important and it is nearly impossible to separate this movie from ‘what this movie means’ but for the next few hundred words I am going to attempt to do that.

The Rise of Skywalker opens with the reveal that Emperor Palpatine is still alive (alive again? Its not clear). He has been hiding on a Sith planet called Exegol, building a new fleet of Star Destroyers and secretly controlling the first order from the shadows. A spy in the First Order gets this information to the Resistance, and our heroes set off to find the hidden planet and put an end to Palpatine and the First Order for good.

If I had to describe The Rise of Skywalker in just a few words, I would call it frantic and desperate. This is a movie that seems to be unable to stop for a second to breath or contemplate. Maybe because it knows that the house of cards that is its plot would completely collapse. JJ Abrams remains great at manufacturing excitement. The gang rushes from one catastrophe to the next, from one giant set piece into another, from one revelation to the next. There is no time for things to settle. For the most part, it works in the moment. Then there is the sheer amount of fan service. This movie remains as determined as The Force Awakens to remind the viewer of the original trilogy, even at the expense of telling its own story. That gives the whole thing a feeling of sweaty desperation, that that greatest fear of the people behind this movie is that the viewer might not like it.

One thing the movie does that is absolutely great is that, for the first half of the movie, keeps the central trio of Rey, Finn and Poe together. In the previous two movies, the main characters spent precious little time interacting with each other. Part of that was due to how many characters these movies have tried to juggle, adding characters from the original trilogy with plenty of newcomers. Here, we finally get to see how these characters interact with each other. It is a lot of fun.

Where it started to fall apart for me is when the movie did slow down a little and you could see how empty it was. Mostly, the movie plays the hits. Bits from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi show up. Most of the revelations with Palpatine fell completely flat for me. Kylo Ren’s fate felt underserved, an echo of the past that was not really rooted in some character decision.

I can’t say the fan service didn’t work on me. I teared up a little with Leia’s exit. I loved to see Lando and that brief glimpse of Wedge. New characters, like Zori Bliss, were fun, though I hated to see Rose Tico get sidelined. The ending, which was easy to predict as soon as they announced the title for the movie, worked wonderfully.

The Rise of Skywalker is a movie that is trying very hard to please, to be everything its fans want it to be. The problem is that it doesn’t really have any ideas; all it has is a love of the past. So it trots out things you seen before, maybe gives them a little twist, and shows them to you again. Don’t you remember when the Death Star destroyed Alderaan? Here that destroys another planet. Remember that moment from A New Hope when Han Solo came back and saved Luke during the trench run? What if it wasn’t one ship but hundreds? It can delight in moments, but there is nothing hiding how empty everything is. But it tries so hard.

***

Jumanji: The Next Level

I didn’t have a lot to say about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle when it came out. It took a pretty interesting premise, of a group of teenagers jumping into the bodies of 4 video game characters and executed it well. It was fun, forgettable movie. Jumanji: The Next Level is literally just more of the same. It is still pretty well made and thoroughly enjoyable, with just enough newish wrinkles to keep things fresh, but it is largely repetitive of its predecessor.

The plot is thin. Three of the last movie’s four teens have moved on and are doing well in college. Spencer feels left behind, and wants to refind the confidence he had when he was Smolder Bravestone. So he goes back into the game Jumanji. His friends find out and go after him. The twist this time is that Spencer grandfather, played by DeVito, and his former business partner, played by Glover, are in the area and they get sucked into the game too. When they get there, Spencer is nowhere to be found, and this time his grandfather is Bravestone. So the group sets out to save Spencer and beat this new version of Jumanji.

The characters don’t have as much to work through this time. Spencer is having doubts about himself, but those aren’t actually addressed by anything other than his friends coming after him. The big emotional moments go to Glover and DeVito, two former business partners who have been estranged for fifteen years. They bicker through their guises as The Rock and Kevin Hart through much of the movie, before coming to terms with each other and acknowledging that they are nearing the end of their lives. It works better than it should, but it is pretty thin as presented here.

Jumanji: The Next Level runs it back with the same cast that made the previous movie so enjoyable. Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Dwayne Johnson are all back. All four of the kids return. Even Colin Hanks and Nick Jonas come back as the older version of the kid once trapped in the game for years and his in game avatar, respectively. There are a trio of new additions in Danny DeVito, Danny Glover and Awkwafina. As with before, in the in game characters get a lot more work than the real world ones, but their personalities are carried through well. Black is the stand out here, playing a handful of different “real” people and making each of them clear and distinct. You know who he is just from body language. Similarly, Awkawfina and Kevin Hart do a good job with their switching as well. The normally hyperactive Hart sells the subdued Glover, and Awkwafina does a great job as both the nervous Spencer and as the consistently befuddled DeVito character. The one who sells the movie, and inarguably struggles the most, is Johnson. Through a lot of the movie he does a very entertaining but not especially good DeVito impression. It is comically exaggerated, and its works because of it ridiculousness.

Fortunately, there are quite a few exciting and imaginative set pieces as well. The video game conceit allows them to throw somewhat illogical nonsense on the screen with the need to explanation. The standout is a set piece in a series of hanging bridges across a bottomless pit that keep spinning.

Jumanji: The Next Level is almost strictly just more of the same. When the first one was as much fun as it was, that really isn’t a problem, though it was starting to feel a little stale as this movie drew to its conclusion. Hopefully it inevitable next sequel finds something of a new hook or a twist to expand on this enjoyable formula.

***1/2

Dark Waters

I have been on a run of really depressing movies. From Queen & Slim to The Report on Amazon Prime to The Irishman on Netflix, I’ve been stuck on some real downers. Dark Waters is not bucking that trend. It shares a lot of similarities with The Report, the biggest one being that despite attempts to frame its conclusion as a triumph, there is a palpable feeling that the situation is irrevocably messed up and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Dark Waters follows Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney, who takes a small case for a family friend, a poor West Virginia farmer whose cattle appear to have been killed by chemicals leaked by the DuPont corporation. As he digs into, it becomes clear that the DuPont’s misdeeds go far beyond inadvertently killing some cows. Soon, the case has consumed Robert’s life and the scope keeps growing. He is one man against one of the most powerful corporations in existence. But he won’t stop.

The cast is impeccable. Mark Ruffalo stars as Bilott, seeming to shrink into his suits. He does not look like a man of great fortitude. Anne Hathaway plays is long suffering wife, supremely overqualified for a largely thankless role. Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, William Jackson Harper, and Bill Paxton play other lawyers who drift in and out of the movie. Tim Robbins has the biggest role as a senior partner at Bilott’s law firm, who largely backs him despite the damage it does to the firm’s reputation.

Dark Waters is largely a movie about exhausting, draining, tedious process of legal work. At first, Bilott is just looking into hazardous chemical stored in the landfill next to his clients farm. Then he realizes that the harm is not caused by a classified hazardous chemical. Then he discovers that the harm is not limited to cattle, but also affects people.Then he learns that DuPont knew how harmful the chemical was. He started with a very small case, but he keeps learning worse and worse information and has to keep digging to get justice for his client. The more he finds, the greater the resistance from DuPont grows. The greater the mountain of paperwork he has to sift through to find the answer. And DuPont plays dirty, reneging on deals, stealing evidence and obfuscating issues.

The set up isn’t exactly a recipe for tension or drama, but Dark Waters maintains plenty of both as it goes. There is an overall oppressive feeling to the movie, as though the rug could be pulled out from under our hero at any moment, and from any part of his life. The case puts stress on his family, on his work relationships, on his health, on his very safety. At any time any of those could collapse. Or he could just lose the case. He navigates it all, keeping the pressure on DuPont but just being indomitable and unflappable.

In the end, Bilott triumphs, though the consequences faced by DuPont for knowingly poisoning thousands of people is shockingly light. That is where the downer part of the ending comes in. Through extraordinary effort and more than a little bit of luck, Bilott was able to get at least justice from DuPont, but this is just one case and the deck is stacked against the people in favor of companies like DuPont. Even when the good guys win, the win does not seem to be enough to stop those like DuPont from just doing it again. That is no fault of Dark Waters, which is a well executed legal drama.

****

Queen & Slim Review

Queen & Slim is a gorgeously shot and well acted romantic drama that ultimately feels more strongly weighted toward style rather than substance. It is a movie that deliberately provokes with how it portrays the police and how they interact with African Americans, but I am not sure it actually has much coherent to say about the issue. I do welcome alternate views on that, though.

The two protagonists, who are not named until near the end of the film. Daniel Kaluuya’s “Slim” and Jodie Turner-Smith’s “Queen” meet for a Tinder date. Queen, a lawyer, had a bad day at work and wants some company. Their date is uncomfortable; the two have little chemistry. They get pulled over on the drive home by a cop who, despite Slim’s completely cooperation, keeps escalating the stop. He just keeps pushing Slim and Slim keeps taking it. Queen, however, pushes back a little. Maybe he doesn’t need to conduct a completely unnecessary search of Slim’s drunk in the freezing cold. When he pulls his gun for absolutely no reason, she gets out of the car. After he fires on her, Slim fights back and the cop ends up dead. With little time to think, the two take off on the run.

The rest of the movie follows them as they run from the police. They don’t really have a plan or a destination, just no other choice with trigger happy cops on their trail. They become unwitting cultural symbols as they continue to evade the cops. As they go, they draw closer together. Forced together by chance, they end up forming something that feels like a real relationship, even as every element of their story is coated in tragedy.

The movie looks amazing. It is a road movie, with the two of them driving all over the eastern United States. Sunrises and sunsets look great, as do the two stars as they watch the countryside pass or each other. There is a lot internal going on, as you can see the characters journeys in their faces as the movie goes. The terror, the elation, the exhaustion. Kaluuya is amazing at this; Turner-Smith is fine. Bokeem Woodbine shows up for a while and is as entertaining as ever.

The movie doesn’t quite come together as more than a disconnected series of stops, other than in the building relationship between Queen and Slim. All of the provocative imagery about police and protests feels like window dressing. This is a movie created with that as the backdrop, that acknowledges those problems, but it is not a movie that helps sort through those tough issues.

Queen & Slim might have hit harder if there hadn’t been movies in the last year or so that explored similar topics with greater focus and skill. For example, last year’s Blindspotting covered some of the same ground, but that movie was more thoughtful and considered while it was no less confrontational. Queen & Slim’s point seems to be that no point can be taken from tragedies like this. Which, fair, but I walked away with a greater memory of some truly wonderful shots rather than anything from the story.

***

Knives Out

This is likely the best movie I’ve seen this year. A mystery like this is almost perfectly calibrated to for me to like, even if the execution is merely competent. (See 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express.) Luckily, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is more than just competent: it is outstanding. Knives Out isn’t quite the classic “whodunit,” as the killer is revealed pretty early, but it is a wonderful, twisting mystery that fully satisfies.

Harlan Thrombley, a wealthy mystery novelist, dies after his 85th birthday party. His entire family was there, as was his nurse. The evidence suggests a suicide, but when a pair of cops show up after the funeral to ask a few questions, they have famous private investigator Benoit Blanc with them, and he suspects foul play. Blanc and the officers proceed to question all the family members present.

That family is a classic array of mystery suspects. The first is Jamie Lee Curtis as Harlan’s daughter Linda. She is a proud and haughty real estate mogul, who seems to get along with her dad. Then they question her husband, Richard, played by Don Johnson, who had argued with Harlan before the party. There is Michael Shannon’s Walt Thrombley, Harlan’s youngest son who runs Harlan’s publishing company. He also argued with Harlan that night. There is Joni, played by Toni Collette, the widow of Harlan’s other son who is reliant on Harlan for financial support. Then there is the next generation of Thrombleys, alt-right dweeby teenager Jacob, performatively liberal college student Meg and family black sheep Ransom, played by Chris Evans. Ransom is not present, but the others have bits to contribute to the case. Finally, there is Harlan’s young nurse, Marta, played by Ana de Armas. She was the last person to see Harlan alive, as they played Go in his attic office before leaving for the night. She also has the unfortunate personal tic of vomiting when she lies. Taking everyone’s self-serving testimony, Blanc has to put together what happened that night and find out who is responsible for Harlan’s death.

It is a star studded cast. I haven’t even mentioned that Daniel Craig play Blanc, employing a delightfully overdone southern accent as he drops tortured bits of wisdom. Or Lakeith Stanfield as the lead cop on the case. Ana de Armas is the star of the movie though. She impressed in Blade Runner 2049, but she is even better here. Her Marta is pressed into service as something of a Watson to Blanc’s Sherlock Holmes. Her unavoidable honesty, and the fact that she has nothing to gain by Harlan’s death, makes her the person he can rely on while investigating.

To the shock of nobody, not everything is as it seems. Everybody is hiding something, even Blanc himself. The movie is light on its feet and wonderful to look at. It keeps flipping the viewer’s understanding and expectations. The one thing that is constant is that the Thrombleys are terrible. They are not equally terrible, or terrible in the same way, but they are all terrible. From Joni’s apparently good hearted but still thoughtless – she gets one of the early big laughs by noting that she knows Blanc from reading a tweet about a New Yorker article about him – actions to Richard’s overt, presumptive and unearned sense of superiority they all suck. When Ransom shows up, you really want to believe he is not as bad as you’ve been led to believe. Sure, he’s the black sheep, but the family sucks and Chris Evans is charming. But in the end he is another Thrombley.

The movie is just purely entertaining from start to finish. I loved every second of it. Rian Johnson has quickly become one of my favorite directors. From this to The Brothers Bloom to The Last Jedi, every movie I’ve seen of his has been both thoughtful and entertaining. With him being signed on for a trilogy of Star Wars movies, I hope he has time for diversions like this in the years to come.

*****

21 Bridges Review

I’m of two minds about 21 Bridges. On the one hand, it is a well executed crime thriller; on the other it embodies some downright gross policies. Just as a pure exercise in genre, it is a lot of fun. However, the movie’s take on killer cops is troubling, at best.

Chadwick Boseman plays Andre Davis, whose father was a cop who was killed while working and is now a cop himself. A cop with a reputation for shooting suspects. He claims they were all in self-defense and the movie does nothing to question that. At the start of the movie, two small time crooks attempt to steal a small amount of cocaine they have been told was being held at a restaurant. Once there they find ten times the amount of cocaine they expected. In the midst of the heist, they also find nearly a dozen cops descending on the restaurant. The crooks, Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch) shoot their way out, killing more than a half dozen cops. In the aftermath, Andre is called in. Realizing how close they are on the trail of the crooks, he requests to have all 21 bridges connecting Manhattan to the mainland to be shut down so they can find them before they escape. Andre is joined by narcotics officer Burns (Sienna Miller) as they attempt to track down the unknown killers. Andre is pressured to shoot first and ask questions later, but he seems uncomfortable with that.

The movie is surprisingly sympathetic to the crooks. Maybe it was just me, but I found myself rooting for them as the movie went on. For all they are murders, it paints them fairly sympathetically. They are both ex-soldiers; just poor guys who are putting the skills they have to good use. Ray is more than willing to shoot his way out of any situation, but Michael is more thoughtful. He is the first to twig that something isn’t quite right with what is going on. When he is finally cornered by Andre about halfway through the movie, he tries to convince him something more is going on. Andre is already on the same page at that point, noticing how his fellow officers are shooting first, asking questions never and acting without his approval even though he is supposedly in charge of the investigation.

The movie really works in some tense shoot out scenes. The opening slaughter shows the cold efficiency of Ray, who quickly realizes they will not make it out without shooting. That continues to a shootout in a fortified penthouse, and another in a mostly abandoned butcher shop. There is also a solid on foot chase scene. I feel like I say this a lot, but it’s not John Wick but it is still pretty well done.

My biggest problem with this movie is how it just tacitly accepts that the police need to kill people. It sets up a dichotomy between good killer cops and bad killer cops, with the cops in this movie killing suspects as a matter of course. The movie posits these extra-judicial killings as an unfortunate necessity, even as nearly every cop in the movie is revealed to be at least somewhat dirty. The fact that the circumstances here do not represent anything like real-life are kind of moot. When J.K. Simmons’s Captain McKenna tells Andre to kill the shooters because he doesn’t want to put the families through the “trauma” of a trial, the movie treats this as an at least somewhat reasonable request. It is a disgusting request.

My problems with politics it espouses aside, 21 Bridges is a solid action thriller. If it felt more mindless it would be better, instead it manages to feign thoughtfulness, as though it means what is says, which is pretty gross. Boseman, however, remains an excellent presence to center a movie on.

***

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood attempts a delicate balancing act and mostly manages to follow through on it. While the trailer focused on Mr. Rogers, this really isn’t a Mr. Rogers movie; it is a movie about a cynical journalist whose interviews with Fred Rogers helps him to reevaluate his life. The movie is about the fictional Lloyd Vogel and his relationships with his father, his wife and his newborn child. Mr. Rogers is the catalyst for his change, but he is not the central character of the movie.

That point is an important one, because the most wholly successful part of the movie is Tom Hank’s portrayal of Fred Rogers. He nails the slow, deliberate cadence of how he talked, his complete empathy. The movie puts him to good use when he is on screen. Vogel is tasked with interviewing Rogers for a magazine feature on heroes. The cynical Vogel goes in trying to find the cracks in the apparently saintly Mr. Rogers. However, Mr. Rogers honest, if not entirely open, replies to his questions cause the reported to stumble. This eventually leads to a Vogel

The central emotional thread is how Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys, relates to his father and how he is going to relate to his newborn son. Vogel’s father, played by Chris Cooper, left the family while his mother was sick with cancer. He shows up to Vogel’s sister’s wedding in an attempt to mend things, but Vogel is not interesting in hearing from his dad. As he meets with Mr. Rogers begins to realize that his anger at his father will continue to affect his life, and his family’s lives, as long as he holds on to it. So with Mr. Rogers as the catalyst, Vogel begins to reconnect with his father.

There is something strange about this movie. The objectively very corny Mr. Rogers stuff worked for me completely. From movie’s framing device as an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, to spontaneous Mr. Rogers reactions like the crowd on the subway breaking out into his theme song or him asking for a moment of silence during a meal and having the whole restaurant, and the movie, go silent for a minute. That stuff is corny, but it absolutely worked on me. A lot of that has to do with the completely irony free Mr. Rogers, in real life and as portrayed by Hanks. What was more spotty was the somewhat boilerplate familiar reconciliation plotline that takes up most of the movie. It isn’t because Cooper or Rhys aren’t good actors or doing good work; the story is just has so little interesting going on that it never really does anything.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is well worth watching. It does given a look into what made Mr. Rogers so amazing, so powerful and so unique. But the movie doesn’t really focus on him. If you want a movie about Mr. Rogers, watch last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. This is a middling to solid drama with a strong Tom Hanks performance as Mr. Rogers that makes the whole thing work.

***1/2