Lady Birds, Mothers, and Wonder Women: The Best of 2017



Last year was filled with complexity, contentiousness, and change. Sometimes, it was for the betterment and progression of society, and other times it happened in ways that dragged efforts backwards -- but little of it occurred without most people gaining and revealing some battle scars along the way. As is frequently the case, the movies released in 2017 provided an echo for the sentiments laced throughout the news cycle, but one element in particular stood out in tremendous fashion in this year’s batch of movies: stories about and hinged on women, both overt representations and subtler, more subversive efforts, reigned supreme. The latest exceptional films from pop-culture auteurs Christopher Nolan and Edgar Wright struggled to keep up with Greta Gerwig’s spin on adolescence, Guillermo del Toro’s endearingly warped love story, and Martin McDonagh’s harrowing, yet shrewdly humorous tale of a grief-stricken mother fighting for her daughter’s justice. Amid all this, comedian Jordan Peele also dropped one hell of a meaningful, tongue-in-cheek psychological thriller into the mix. Science-fiction and horror genre delights blended with clever spins on contemporary society and historical depictions in a decidedly outstanding year for film. Below, you’ll find ten favorites -- and a few honorable mentions -- that I'll be taking away from 2017, kept in alphabetical order to avoid arbitrary ranking.

Baby Driver

A synergy of music, color, and attitude fuel the chaotic works of Edgar Wright, from spoofs of the zombie apocalypse and buddy-cop action films to a boy’s videogame-inspired journey to defeat ex-boyfriends in order to win his almost-girlfriend’s heart. Each one has enough satirical or exaggerated tonality to stay at a distance from realism, and that’s the line that Wright's crime drama Baby Driver crosses with sophistication and gusto, driven by an earnest story of young kid who’s caught up in organized crime and trying to make his way out and rediscover happiness. The premise possesses Wright’s signature flourishes, giving the driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) a ringing in his ears that he drowns out with a precise arrangement of tunes by the director, but his melancholy indebtment to Kevin Spacey’s crime boss and his shy pursuit of the lovely Debora (Lily James) steer the director’s film into a more earnest lane. Wright’s strategically vivacious combination of music and editing still fuels the affair, but those tweaks in his intentions give the breakneck pacing of the storytelling and action a boost throughout.


Blade Runner 2049

Merely the suggestion of producing a sequel to a revered classic can push film lovers over the edge. This can be caused by the fear that said sequel won't feel like a proper part of the world created by the original, or that this new installment might either flesh out certain ambiguities left alone in the first film or rework details in the storytelling to benefit this new follow-up. All those concerns emerged with the mentioning of a sequel to Ridley Scott's seminal science-fiction film, Blade Runner, one whose legacy -- and decades of critical reevaluation -- hinges on both literal ambiguity involving the fate of the main characters and contextual ambiguity in the thought exercise over whether the protagonist, Deckard, was or wasn't an advanced robot called a replicant. Building a continuation of this cinematic take on Philip K. Dick's narrative requires both audacity and precise consideration, yet those are qualities that director Denis Villeneuve consistently displayed in his prior works, to such a degree that studios were comfortable gifting him ample budgets for sci-fi films. The splendor of Blade Runner 2049 is the result. [Full Review]


Colossal

Penniless journalist and borderline alcoholic Gloria (Anne Hathaway) decides to pack her bags and head back to her hometown after coming face-to-face with her problems … though, really, she didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. There, she reconnects with old friends, including bar owner Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), and picks up a job while she’s getting back on track and attempting to detox. What sounds like any other inspirational drama takes a clever turn in Colossal when Gloria discovers, through a stroke of magic, that she sporadically gains control of a kaiju-style, skyscraper-tall monster that rampages through South Korea, giving her something of a wakeup call within her current state of self-focus and passivity while getting her life straightened out. Themes of substance abuse, jealousy, and regret over life choices give Nacho Vigalondo’s film a darker and more pensive streak than what some might expect from the concept, elevated by a versatile performance from Anne Hathaway that employs both moments of her overstated comedy and raw, soul-searching dramatic presence in how Gloria crashes into her many issues.


Dunkirk

There’s typically some kind of a narrative hook within each installment into Christopher Nolan’s body of work, so curiosity naturally arises over how he’s done so with Dunkirk, his tense depiction of “Operation Dynamo”, an evacuation of allied soldiers trapped on beaches in France during World War II. The answer comes, unsurprisingly, in the narrative structure of the film, in which Nolan breaks the chronology of stories into three segments -- one that takes place across a week, one that takes place across a day, and one that takes place across an hour – that eventually converge amid the dramatic evacuation itself. Crafted with tight thrills in mind, resulting in the second shortest runtime of Nolan’s feature-length career, Dunkirk never wastes a moment in how it depicts the tenacity of the soldiers and their paranoia over the enemy’s proximity, guiding numerous characters with defined purposes through the chaos. A carefully-constructed message of patriotism and camaraderie among a country’s citizens amounts to a dazzling historical thriller, heralded for balancing historical accuracy and cinematic embellishment.


Get Out

Who knows what it is about comedy-minded directors that also makes them perceptive of the unsettling corners of suspense -- from Bob Clark’s Black Christmas earlier in his career to Rob Reiner’s Misery and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London -- but perhaps it has to do with the warped, oftentimes dark nature of comedy itself. Jordan Peele joins those ranks in grand fashion with Get Out, which has taken on a strange categorization since its release, mostly due to the efforts put in place for award recognition. There’s a satirical intention to Peele’s story of a black photojournalist who, while on a trip with his girlfriend to meet her parents, discovers a community of older white people exerting a form of mind control over other black people, so they’ll conform to their social standards. Comedy this isn’t, though, as Peele unleashes unsettling psychological thrills upon the audience packing a fierce symbolic punch that accomplishes more than mere satire, instead joining the ranks of other pieces of science-fiction that utilizes its premise as a microscope focused upon legitimate societal concerns.


Lady Bird

Oftentimes, coming-of-age movies tend to embellish their tone and mannerisms, perhaps in hopes of holding younger viewers' attention with their catchy, larger-than-life presence. And it works: Diablo Cody's zinger-heavy lingo in Juno gave the Ellen Page-led pregnancy comedy its distinctive attitude, while the rapidity of dialogue and bold vulgarity of The Edge of Seventeen resonated with audiences. A consequence of that comedic exaggeration comes in the risk of losing the realism of the scenarios, and, along with that, the film's capacity to identify with people on a more meaningful level. Greta Gerwig may inject some distinctive quirk and personality into her own coming-of-age story, her sophomore directing effort Lady Bird, but she avoids the overdone style of her contemporaries while bringing to life a graduating high-schooler discovering herself under tricky circumstances. Instead, Gerwig blends cautious humor with a strong affinity for the realities of growing up, resulting in a charming yet expressive story about failed relationships, financial troubles, and complicated kinships with parents. [Full Review]


mother!

Darren Aronofsky has crafted his most complex and metaphorical work to date with mother!, a depiction of a couple’s relationship dynamics as they renovate a home, cater to guests, and embrace the wonders of pregnancy. Jennifer Lawrence turns in a deliberately doe-eyed, obedient performance that simmers with frustration throughout, eventually reaching a boiling point as her patience with her guests -- Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, imposing themselves brilliantly upon her “nest” -- begins to wear on both her day-to-day activities and her renowned author husband’s progress on his book. On the surface, the domestic thrills built around Lawrence’s expecting character are effectively claustrophobic and button-pushing, yet very little of Aronofsky’s film exists without underlying meaning. What begins as domestic suspense with a slightly off attitude descends into an allegorical depiction of the pillars of nature, religion, and expectations placed on women by society, which one can be selective in how to interpret it all as mother! is brought to disturbing, boldly suggestive ends with a brazenly surreal finale.


The Shape of Water

Much of Guillermo del Toro’s work fits into the category of genre entertainment, from soldiers manning giant mecha-suits that hold off monsters to vampire action films and gothic ghost yarns. When he reaches deeper into dramatic complexity, such as with The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth -- both still borderline genre films, both in Spanish -- del Toro elevates the richness of his characters and thematic intricacy of his intentions that oftentimes go unnoticed. These are the pieces of work that his devotees truly anticipate, and he’s delivered another with The Shape of Water, though this time he’s stricken those chords in an English-language film. Absorbing shot and dazzlingly scored by Alexandre Desplat, del Toro’s tale of a deaf and mute cleaner who befriends a humanoid aquatic creature at a government-run facility revolves around transcending the boundaries of normal communication, along with discovering love and compassion under those circumstances. Sally Hawkins’ intuitive and emotive performance is marvelous at underscoring this complicated tenderness.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Out of frustration with the local police department over their investigation of the violent abuse and murder of her young daughter, divorced gift-shop worker Mildred (Frances McDormand) purchases the advertising rights for a trio of billboards in the city’s outskirts. There, with vivid red backgrounds and black lettering, she makes her message heard loud and clear, upsetting both the police chief (Woody Harrelson) and the townsfolk to such a degree that she’s pressured into taking the signage down. With McDormand playing the bluntly determined and ferocious mother, her resistance to their efforts grasps onto some of the darkest humor out there, while also drudging up hard questions about revenge for investigative complacency, respecting police authority, and the moving parts of sexual assault in rural America. McDormand’s portrayal as Mildred is crucial to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, yet she’s counterbalanced by the wounded charm of Woody Harrelson and, particularly, the hostility and awakening of Sam Rockwell’s wannabe detective Dixon in this incredibly tense pitch-black comedy.


Wonder Woman

Finally.

There are several ways to interpret it when a discussion about Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman begins with something like: "Finally." Perhaps it references the legion of fans of the character, created in the ‘40s as a way of empowering girls and emphasizing the strengths of nurturing leadership, who finally get to see their heroine on the big screen. Perhaps the folks at DC have finally hit the right marks following a string of lackluster outings featuring the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader. Or, perhaps we've finally been bequeathed that mythical female-led superhero blockbuster that so many have hope for over the nearly two decades comprising this latest renaissance of comic-book films, whether we're talking about the embattled actress filling the suit or the director at the helm. With Gal Gadot shouldering the burden like a perfectly-sculpted champ, Wonder Woman defies the expectations laid out by DC's output to date, lassoing together both optimistic and ominous tones into just the right kind of dynamic, vibrant projection of heroic idealism that this universe so desperately needed. Imperfect, but wonderful. [Full Review]


Honorable Mentions




Most Disappointing: Alien: Covenant

Despite a moderately successful box-office turnout (worldwide) and earning generally positive marks from the critic community, Prometheus quickly earned and has further developed a reputation since its release for being, at best, a lackluster return to science-fiction for Ridley Scott. The visuals and tone might've been representative of the Blade Runner and Alien director, but the film's exploration of the origins of mankind produced overambitious world-building, odd lapses in scientific logic, and, put bluntly, some rather idiotic decisions made by the characters. The coupling of Prometheus -- both the experience in making it and the divisive fan response -- and the Academy Award-nominated efforts he poured into The Martian have sparked in Scott a rejuvenated passion for the genre, which has led to Alien: Covenant: a point-blank, overt return to the realm of the xenomorphs. Unfortunately, the criticisms that sparked debate over Prometheus return in greater, less disputable force in this sequel, resulting in a stably-crafted, sporadically tense, yet knuckleheaded sci-fi horror hybrid. [Full Review]


Best Videogame: Assassin's Creed Origins

Despite the additions of “brotherhood” assistants to the main character, intense boat-to-boat naval battles, and even dual protagonists, the Assassin’s Creed franchise has largely stuck to the same formula that’s worked for it since the original landed on the scene roughly a decade ago. Sensing it was time for something new after the past couple of installments didn’t exactly make waves, Ubisoft decided to combine one of the locations players have most requested for the franchise to take place in, Egypt, with an overhaul -- and stripping down -- of the game’s mechanics with Assassin’s Creed Origins. Naturally, aerial assassinations, wall-climbing, and other elements of stealth movement return through the vantage point of Bayek, one of the last remaining Medjay protectors of the land coping with the death of his son. The open-world aspects, combat, and storytelling style have drawn influence from other franchises -- The Witcher and Batman Arkham series -- and molded them to ancient Egypt’s antiquated environment and tools at the character’s disposal, diving into truly renovated and rewarding territory for Assassin’s Creed.


Favorite Blu-rays Covered in 2017 (Click Each for Review)





Parting Thoughts

Lots of love for the cinema of 2017 in what’s been a tumultuous year on a meta level, where the volatility of what’s going on in current events translates, in a way, to the unpredictable strengths that emerged in these tales of empowerment and social issues, taking shape through a unique mixture of grounded and elevated-reality fiction. The sci-fi lover in me cannot help but be disappointed in Blade Runner 2049’s inability to catch on with a wider audience -- and with Ridley Scott’s more direct return to the Alien franchise -- but beyond that, there are tons of exceptional works released this year that also actually have substantial return value, both in terms of entertainment value and for magnetic craftsmanship. It’ll be hard for 2018 to measure up, but let’s hope it defies the odds so that there’s just as many confident critiques and quality escapes from the world’s unstable day-to-day rhythm. Thanks for reading, y’all, and all the best for the coming year.

The Force Further Awakened in Bold Spectacle of 'Last Jedi'



Directed by: Rian Johnson; Runtime: 152 minutes
Grade: B+

I felt a great disturbance in The Force, as if millions of fans suddenly cried out in terror.

Whenever a longstanding franchise decides to try something bold or different that deviates from its legacy, there's bound to be some blowback. Throughout the beloved original trilogy and the not-so-beloved prequels, Star Wars may have incorporated peril, tension, and death into the storylines, but there's always been a relative safety net underneath the characters that befits the space-opera serial genre. That safety net involves the presence of hope regardless of the situation, where the filmmakers responsible for a certain installment in the series are, in one way or another, beholden to a degree of restraint involving unchanging character motivations and the prospects of a triumphant outcome. Some may consider these the "themes" running throughout the series, and others will attribute perceived depatures from those core pillars as the product of faulty writing. Looper and Brick writer/director Rian Johnson has and will continue to face these criticisms for a long time because of The Last Jedi, largely due to how he's taken the franchise in daring, borderline avant-garde directions that -- perhaps recklessly -- plow through the safety net.

The state of the universe in this eighth episode of the Star Wars saga, which follows very shortly after the events of The Force Awakens, isn't unlike the state of the universe following the events of A New Hope, the very first film in the series. The First Order, something of a reemergence of the Galactic Empire, has suffered a profound defeat at the hands of the Resistance: the destruction of the Starkiller base. This didn't come without casualties, though, leaving them without Han Solo and healing the heroic ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) after his encounter with the menacing Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who in turn was defeated once Rey -- a scrapper from a sandy planet -- began to discover her sensitivity to the magic abilities of The Force. Once discovered by The First Order, the Resistance finds themselves evacuating their base and on the run from a massive fleet, but not without unleashing a counterattack that betters their chances of survival. Caught in a stalemate of sorts, the Resistance must figure out another escape plan … while elsewhere, Rey (Daisy Ridley) arrives at the island that houses who could become a key element of the Resistance: the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).



Despite being a box-office hit and a credible rejuvenation of the Star Wars franchise following George Lucas' divisive prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens took a beating for its resemblances to the original A New Hope, too many to succinctly recap here. The Last Jedi isn't devoid of this in its mirroring of the original trilogy's first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back: both involve a strategic pursuit after the enemies force the rebels to evacuate their secluded base, and both involve the isolated training of an emergent Jedi whose powers are desperately needed on the rebellion's side. Rian Johnson's script camouflages these similarities more skillfully and intricately than its predecessor, though, and he does so through the strengths and weaknesses of the characters involved, who take on more distinctive traits this time around. The plotting is rather unique, in which events happen around the momentum of a conflict that, by design, doesn't seem like it's moving forward, employing stalling tactics and heated discussions between raucous "flyboy" Poe (Oscar Isaac) and his cautious superiors, including General Leia (Carrie Fisher).

With The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson found a way to bring indie-movie or serialized television boundaries to the sprawling scope of the Star Wars franchise, a brave endeavor for a genre that typically doesn't benefit from slowing down to let the audience ponder how it might violate whatever narrative rules have been put in place. Johnson hopes that the strength of the characters, both old and new, distracts from any of those concerns … which they do, for better and for worse. We're introduced to one of this new trilogy's most compelling new faces, Vice Admiral Holdo, played by Laura Dern, whose stern practicality yet underlying comforts of wisdom position her as a layered female leader. Her interactions with the brazen, good-intended maneuvers of Oscar Isaac's Poe make up some of The Last Jedi's strongest dramatic movements. The late Carrie Fisher's sagely presence as General Leia endures a challenge in what'll be her last full outing as the character in the Star Wars saga, in which unique elements of her lineage are revealed -- somewhat clumsily -- amid the chaos of battle.



A solution to the First Order's slow crawl toward the Resistance does need to be discovered, and that largely occurs outside the inert chase, on a distant planet populated with gambling and excess that brushes against social critiques on the wealthy and elite. Johnson also brushes against the excess of new scenery and visual effects akin to the prequel trilogy in his rendering of this destination, Canto Bight, in which Finn and new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) -- an (Asian!) engineer who has recently suffered a family loss -- hunt for an alternative, more daring solution to the Resistance fleet's problem. Large computer-generated creatures, extensive overhead renderings of the scenery, and hokey representations of those that populate this new wretched hive of scum and villainy make for a sluggish and heavy-handed dip in the film's momentum. The interplay between Rose and Finn occasionally elevates those scenes with levity, but Johnson's overt attempts at brightening the mood in what's ultimately a grim corner of the Star Wars universe can ring false, partly due to Rose's exaggerated dramatics.

Obviously, indicated by the title, the more intriguing elements of The Last Jedi occur elsewhere, in the presence of those navigating The Force. That includes the return of Luke Skywalker, whose transformation in personality over the course of thirty-some-odd years strikes a specific chord with fans of the series. In the presence of Daisy Ridley's eager yet fearful Rey, whose attunement to The Force has left her wanting to discover more while on a quest to draw the Jedi master back into the throes of battle, Skywalker exhibits resistance to her pleas and something resembling disdain for the mystical powers that ultimately saved the universe from the reign of the Emperor not so very long ago. Mark Hamill's performance is marvelous, allowing touches of the wistful Skywalker of his youth to peek through the grizzled, cynical attitude he's developed over time, which was at least partially established and foreshadowed in The Force Awakens. Appreciating his defeated gloominess and lack of gravitas can be complicated, though, calling into question the consistency of his character.



Watching where Rian Johnson takes their usage of The Force becomes both the most absorbing and most maddening element of The Last Jedi, mostly on the absorbing end of the spectrum. The experience of Rey zeroing in on the intensity of her connection to the mystical side of the Star Wars universe becomes entrancing, where her dance with both its light and dark sides recalls Luke's own experiences with Yoda in Empire. Visual panache enhances the duality of it all, where the imagery captured by Johnson's regular cinematographer Steve Yedlin descends into the earthy roots of both the island and what it means to tap into that kind of power. Skywalker's individual perception of The Force, which approaches it from a uniquely nonaligned angle, also lends her learning experience a bit of genuine philosophical weight beyond merely harnessing good power and shunning the bad. Johnson also finds a gripping way of incorporating the Jedi's ability to feel one another's presence and employ their ability to "hear" one another. The magical side of the Star Wars universe flourishes here.

Alas, this also proves to be The Last Jedi's most contentious, albeit mesmerizingly executed characteristic once the stakes have been elevated in the final act. As writer/director Rian Johnson draws together the previous narrative threads into a sequence of high-stakes escapes and battles, he bravely emphasizes personal sacrifice in a greater capacity than previous Star Wars films have done, which results in a melancholy feeling that flows throughout the end of the film. While stunning in execution and impacted by the plucked heartstrings of nostalgia, his devices also challenge preconceived notions about what's possible in the universe, especially in terms of the expansiveness of The Force's reach across time and space. Sure, there's abundant suspension of disbelief involved with space wizards and their mental tricks, prisoners encased alive in carbonite, and destructive space stations the size of small moons, but The Last Jedi heavily relies on leaps in ability only faintly and vaguely hinted at beforehand, for the sake of pull-the-rug-out surprises. Whether Johnson's audaciousness deserves to be cheered or lambasted -- probably a bit of both -- he certainly ends this middle entry in the modern Star Wars saga with a hopeful bang.

TV Season Coverage Roundup at DVDTalk.com

Check out some of the TV reviews I've been responsible for lately over at DVDTalk.com:



"Maps are featured prominently in this first half of Game of Thrones' final thirteen episodes, appearing as newly-created murals along a floor, buried within ancient texts, or rediscovered in the unkempt halls of a familiar location. Doing so, intentionally or not, reinforces the enormous scope of the lands of Westeros and beyond, in a time when the divided and conflicting forces spread across its surface area may need to band together against a common enemy. Under George R.R. Martin's penmanship, the geography of the lands he created interwove with the events that transpired in such a way that readers and/or viewers didn't dwindle on any chronological uncertainties; in short, the timeline of events made enough sense. Alas, Winter™ is indeed coming, and the series continues to run out of time for when the beloved -- and not so beloved -- characters must meet it, wrapping up monumental threads in a final run of thirteen episodes. With spectacular craftsmanship and performance value always in tow, Game of Thrones must hurry to make it happen, and that rush can be seen in how this shortened seventh season haphazardly traverses the map."

Full Review of Game of Thrones: The Complete Seventh Season can be found here: [LINK]



"Creepypasta" can be viewed as the internet's equivalent to a scary campfire story. Sometimes, an example of this online storytelling starts and ends with a single online post that functions as self-contained short fiction, perhaps generating posts in the comments section underneath that accentuate the attempted real-world presence of the piece; other times, it involved a string of participants that add to the urban legend mythology or straight-up expand upon the tale itself. One of such phenomenon involves Candle Cove (click here for the original text), a mythical ‘70s television show that featured pirates engaging in unsettling and borderline macabre behavior, which author Kris Straub capped off with a stinger of a twist ending that made the reader question anyone who's seen the program. That show proves to be the basis for the premiere season of Channel Zero, Syfy's take on the horror anthology concept, though the end result indicates that conciseness and preserved mysteries suit these kinds of stories better than a six-episode miniseries."

Full Review of Channel Zero: Candle Cove can be found here: [LINK]