So let's see what happens when you take the travelogue, the anti-imperial themes, and the breathless enthusiasm for made-up science out of Jules Verne's anti-imperialist science-fiction travelogue. Is it still good? Surprisingly, very slightly yes, but not much.
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Earl Felton (based on the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne)
Essentially everything that could be wrong with a mid-century Disney film rolled into a single package, to die might actually have been a bigger adventure than it is (though given that is only 75 minutes, I quite manfully gutted it out).
Directed by Clyde Geronomi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske
A dark and weird comedy with a point—but probably the most consistently funny thing we'll get this year, so happily it's that kind of "dark and weird comedy with a point"—The Art of Self Defense has a lot on its mind, but lays it out with stark clarity, surprising precision, and strong laughs.
Though blessed with at least one genuine high point, and even a few good bits after that, for the most part this anthology isn't even up-and-down, it's mostly one single flat, boring line, spread across some of the most disposable animation in the whole Disney canon.
Directed by Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronomi, Hamilton Luske, and Joshua Meador
The package film era of Disney at its most playful, of course that must be very playful indeed. Tastes may vary on whether that makes The Three Caballeros actually good or not, but, heck, it's certainly something to see.
While never managing to become "more," and prompting the question, "why do you need it to be 'more' anyway, Ari?", Midsommar is a hell of a good horror film in The Wicker Man vein, and that's still fresh enough that it doesn't matter too much what else is wrong with it.
Written and directed by Ari Aster
Spoiler alert: moderate, though I just mentioned it's a Wicker Man rip-off, so, you know... there's that
A movie of seemingly boundless energy and possibility, Night doesn't always live up to its own potential—nor always put its money where its mouth is, and there's a good twenty minutes in the middle where it's not doing either one—but that doesn't mean it's not one of the most essential animated films of the last year, or even the last decade.
2017 Japan/2018 USA
Directed by Masaaki Yuasa
Written by Makoto Ueda (based on the novel by Tomihiko Morimi)
It absolutely surpasses Egerton and John's last collaboration, but then, "being better than Kingsman: The Golden Circle" isn't much of an accomplishment. So, happily, let's say that Rocketman is still good—even if, unlike the subject of its story, it whiffs it hard on the actual greatness.
Possibly the wrongest Godzilla has ever been, at the very least Gen Urobuchi's trilogy has proven itself admirably crazy—and outright insanity in pursuit of heavy-handed allegory is no vice. I think that's how the saying goes, right?
An extraordinary two-hander (that occasionally fails to be an ensemble), Booksmart is the kind of fun, likeable comedy they ought to make more of, at least if they want me to bother going to theaters to see a comedy in the first place.
Directed by Olivia Wilde
Written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman
So now I can see why I might have dragged my feet on finishing this particular retrospective—it must have been a premonition of utter shit. Not only the worst film in its series, The Predator is quite probably the worst film of its whole year, and damned if I didn't expect much, much better from this franchise and from these creators than that.
The best of the MCU's crossovers without even thinking about it too hard, Avengers: Endgame is even better than that fairly-faint praise implies, and it earns its place in cinema history (and our hearts) for at last giving some its various childlike empresses their names, and bringing some of their neverending stories to a highly satisfying close.
While both atmospheric and willing to go for broke,neither craft nor courage quite manage to win the day against the plodding unscariness and poorly-used metaphors of Us. (Also, I apologize for the hiatus. I was busy.)
It turns out influenza is real, and not merely a historical anecdote, and can be profitably compared to a hangover that lasts a week and a half. If I feel better now, I think the lion's share of the credit goes to the 4K release of Aquaman. However, before I got sick, I watched not one but two piece of shit new-release movies, and I might as well log the stupid things while they still maintain their tenuous grip on my memory. So! Here's some short(ish) reviews of 2019's Greta and The Wandering Earth.
GRETA (Neil Jordan)
Greta is probably not the least fun version of itself it could possibly be, yet, ironically, it's hard to imagine it going any worse than it did without it becoming more enjoyable in the process, either by being actually enjoyable-on-purpose, which is self-explanatory, or by going completely batshit crazy, and therefore becoming enjoyable-on-accident. Instead, it aims directly for mediocrity and gets stuck beneath it: it is the very ideal of slick, bland, indifferent semi-competence, as applied to a pair of genres that by their nature were never going to reward any of those things. Greta, of course, stands astride two equally disreputable forms: in plot, it's a 90s-style stalker thriller that gradually (and very inelegantly) shades into the plot of a 90s-style serial killer thriller; yet it's a 90s-style thriller that's been pitched in the register of full-on post-Golden Age hagsploitation, taking on a famous and good actress of advancing years and giving her a howling psychopath to play with. And, look, I know I'm making it sound good. But that's the baffling pity of Greta: it really ought to be at least kind of great, and it should have been really easy.
I am not happy that Green Book won Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards. I can't be unhappy about it, at least not honestly—I'm pretty sure I would be unhappy, but I have not seen Green Book, and have no particular desire to, outside of the possibility that watching Aragorn getting fat and eating fried chicken for two straight hours might be amusing. Even so, I can't imagine it was anywhere close to 2018's best picture.
Nevertheless, Green Book winning does have one nice silver lining: it means Alfonso Cuarón's Netflix-distributed Roma did not. I did watch Roma; I can hate it. I don't hate it for the reasons Steven Spielberg apparently hates it—helping push Green Book to its Oscar win and presently trying his level best to have Netflix banned from Academy Award consideration—for the great filmmaker has never been more petty and out-of-touch in his motivations, nor, I'm sad to say, more on the wrong side of history, even if "Netflix" and "movie" in the same sentence don't conjure the most pleasant cinematic expectations, and even if there are many valid reasons to be suspicious of Netflix that don't involve giving a shit about movie theaters.
As usual, we're still cleaning up the previous year long after the mess has ceased to matter, but nevertheless, here's two reviews, for The Death of Stalinand First Man.
THE DEATH OF STALIN (Armando Ianucci, 2017 kinda, but we're counting it as 2018)
In 1953, Iosif Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) dies, and his inner circle jockeys for control of the Soviet Union. Two factions coalesce between Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) on one side and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) on the other.
The Death of Stalin is a terrifically ahistoric mish-mash that takes on the power struggle that defined Soviet governance over the months and years following its titular dictator's demise. It condenses that power struggle into a little less than one week's time—for cinema's sake—while getting tons and tons of things wrong, big and small alike. Somehow, it's the small things, like an overflight of several just-slightly-anachronistic jet bombers (probably Tu-16s) that are the most annoying. But the big things are pretty big, like a fictional massacre of Stalin's mourners by a security service that did not, in 1953, exist; or the implication that Stalin trusted Lavrentiy Beria any further than he could throw him, which he would've been likely to do (into a grave, that is), if Stalin had lived much longer than he had; hell, there're credible allegations (not in the film) that Beria got him first. But it gets at least one big thing right, and that's take Armando Ianucci's usual, cynical, somewhat tedious all-politicians-are-venal-or-morons-or-both approach to political satire (e.g., Veep), and applies it to a situation where total venality was, effectively, a necessary condition of literal survival. So that must be the other big thing it gets right: it makes for an effective black comedy that generates its uneasy laughs out of the nihilistic insanity of the very regime it inaccurately, but not quite untruthfully, depicts.
The Hidden World is a three-way race between deeply-unpleasant comedy, a mechanically-questionable screenplay, and the sheer majestic potential of animated cinema at the bleeding edge of 2019; it turns out that overwhelming visual perfection can outrun an awful lot of horrible sins. By the way, can someone get a cinematography Oscar for a cartoon?
Conceptually rich, yet insubstantial and entirely unsatisfying, Maquia takes a great idea and runs it into the ground, then under the ground, then it ends, too short to make any sense out of the world it's created, too long and too repetitive to not get really, painfully dull.
When one calls it "the worst LEGO movie," one's not bound to follow that assertion up with "but it's still pretty great!", or anything like that. In fact, it fails often and severely enough to be called an actual disappointment; but The LEGO Ninjago Movie isn't actually bad, either, and on the rarest occasion manages some of the coolest stuff the franchise has ever done.
2017 Directed by Paul Fisher, Charlie Bean, and Bob Logan
What we have is a movie essentially broken at its very core, depending on what you think its core is: its story (the broken part), or its lead performance (the pretty good part), but either way not exactly demanding that you spend your time on it.
A reasonably pleasant diversion for a film made at the behest of the U.S. State Department, Saludos Amigos has some pretty low lows, but its usual tack is genial, colorful, and funny, and if you showed it in a classroom today it's at least possible you might not get mobbed on Twitter, which for a Disney film made in 1942 about people other than Europeans is, frankly, a sterling achievement.
1942 (Brazil)/1943 (USA)
Directed by Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, and Norm Ferguson