Brandon’s Top Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2018

1. 2.0 The more I watch big-budget Asian cinema the more I understand that it’s common for a single movie to touch on as many genres it can instead of sticking to just one. This Kollywood flick fully lives up to that ethos, melding technophobic sci-fi, Environmentalist political advocacy, ghost-possession horror, android-on-android romance, slapstick farce, superhero action spectacle, and philosophical debate into one lumbering, silly-ass beast. I loved it all, both for the surprise of its novelty and for its audacity to go big & so silly.

2. The Misandrists Queer punk prankster Bruce LaBruce’s latest work is a little too cheeky & misshapen to stand out as my favorite movie of the year but it is the most John Watersiest film I’ve seen all year, which, close enough. The Misandrists has clear thematic & aesthetic vision and a distinct political voice, but its commanding ethos is still aggressively amateur & D.I.Y. Its burn-it-all-down gender & sexual politics are sincerely revolutionary but are also filtered through a thick layer of sarcasm & over-the-top-camp. You might be justified in assuming it was a film school debut from a young, angry upstart with a still-fresh appetite for shock humor & pornography, but it’s got the clear vision & tonal control of an artist who’s been honing their craft for decades – like John Waters at his best.

3. The First PurgeThere’s nothing subtle about The First Purge’s political messaging in its depictions of white government operatives invading helpless, economically wrecked black neighborhoods to thin out the ranks of its own citizenry, nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times. What I didn’t expect, though, was that the film would be willing to push the imagery of its volatile racial politics to the extremes it achieves as the violence reaches its third act crescendo. I greatly respect its bravery & lack of restraint, almost enough to finally give the rest of the series a chance.

4. Blockers This modern teen sex comedy shifts away from the bro-friendly humor of its genre’s American Pie & Porky’s past by approaching the subject from a femme, sex-positive perspective. I don’t quite understand the narrative that its mold-breaking challenge to the gendered politics of the typical high school sex comedy is revolutionary. If nothing else, The To Do List already delivered an excellent femme subversion of the trope to a tepid critical response in 2013 and 2014’s Wetlands has set the bar impossibly high for what a gross-out femme sex comedy can achieve. Blockers is a damn fun addition to that tide-change, though, one that’s surprisingly emotionally effective in a John Hughes tradition beyond its sexual buffoonery.

5. A Simple Favor Mainstream comedy mainstay Paul Feig shakes up his usual schtick with a tongue-in-cheek Gone Girl riff. The performances, writing, and costuming are all naughtily playful at the exact perfect one, especially in how they converge to create a career-high showcase for Blake Lively. The wild shifts in tone from dark humor to dime story mystery novel intrigue can leave unsuspecting audiences more befuddled than amused, but this has serious cult classic potential among the weirdos on its distinctly modern wavelength.

6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Into the Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium that should be a total drag but is instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity here.

7. VenomTom Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout the film as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

8. Hotel ArtemisUnlike most overwritten post-Tarantino crime thrillers, this misshapen gem is genuinely, consistently hilarious. With the hotel setting and absurdist mix-ups of an Old Hollywood farce, Hotel Artemis embraces the preposterousness of its exceedingly silly premise in a way that more cheap genre films could stand to. However, the joys of watching Jodie Foster waddle around the titular hotel and lovingly tell patrons they look “like all the shades of shit” are very peculiar & very particular. That kind of highly specific appeal can be a blessing in disguise for a scrappy, over-the-top genre film, and I can totally see Hotel Artemis gathering a dedicated cult following over time.

9. Overlord There’s nothing especially nuanced or unique about the message “Nazis are evil & gross and must be destroyed,” but in the context of 2018’s political climate it still feels damn good to hear. This is especially true when said Nazis are shot, set aflame, and exploded in an over-the-top action spectacle that cares way more about cathartic fun than it does about historical accuracy. We may be living in a world where war thrillers & zombie pictures are all too plentiful, but there can never be enough condemnation of Nazi scumbaggery.

10. Black Panther I can’t pretend that this movie hit me as the mind-blowing, form-breaking revelation most audiences see it as (mostly because its titular hero is something of a moralistic bore). I’d even feel comfortable calling it the least of Ryan Coogler’s works, even if it is his best-funded. As an Afrofuturist sci-fi spectacle with a killer villainous performance from the consistently-great Michael B. Jordan, however, it’s easy to cite this franchise entry as one of the best of the MCU canon. My appreciation for Black Panther might be relatively subdued when compared to others’, but I could contently watch spaceships fly around Wakanda while Michael B Jordan chews scenery & background actors model Afrofuturist fashion designs for a blissful eternity.

11. How to Talk to Girls at Parties A jubilant, musically-charged mess of bisexual, youthful rebellion that’s half theatre-kid earnestness & half no-fucks-given punk. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s (incredibly short) short story of the same name, How to Talk to Girls at Parties finds John Cameron Mitchell crafting his own Velvet Goldmine vision of pop excess, except set in England’s early-stages punk scene, years after the demise of the glam scene lauded in Todd Haynes’s film. The film’s future-kink set design, punk needle drops, irreverent culture-clash humor, and performances by indie scene heavyweights Elle Fanning (as a babe-in-the woods space alien rebel) & Nicole Kidman (as a parodic Vivienne Westwood knockoff) are all intoxicating pleasures that readily distract from the fact that Mitchell has greedily bitten off more than any human could possibly chew, only to spit the overflow into the air in defiance of tastefulness.

12. Halloween Like with The Force Awakens, this Halloween sequel/remake/reboot has the impossible task of pleasing everyone, ranging from devotees of the original who want to know how Laurie Strode’s doing 40 years later to first-weekend horror-gobbling teens who just want to see some jump scares & interesting kills. I believe it did an excellent job of satisfying the most extreme ends of that divide by treating them as separate tracks, then giving them a substantive reason to converge. The tension between the original Halloween’s storyline’s need to logically seek closure & the slasher genre’s need to propagate random, senseless violence makes this film one of the best examples of its franchise – one that has something substantive to say about Fate, Evil, and self-fulfilling prophecies.

13. Marrowbone If you’re not especially in love with the atmospheric feel of the traditional haunted house genre, this film’s aesthetic details and bonkers third act might not be enough to carry you beyond the sense that we’ve seen this story told onscreen many times before. More forgiving Gothic horror fans should find plenty of admirable specificity to this particular story, though – the kind of tangible, unhinged detailing that allows the best ghost stories to stick to the memory despite their decades (if not centuries) of cultural familiarity.

14. Assassination NationUpdates & subverts the Heathers formula by adopting the glib, dark humor of Twitter-speak, where all human experience – even the worst misery & public embarrassment imaginable – is fair game for a flippant, casually tossed-off joke. This weaponized, empathy-free brand of online humor sits on the stomach with an unease, only to gradually erupt into full-on, gendered violence once it escapes the anonymity of the internet and devolves into a public display. Assassination Nation may be costumed like a glib, modernist Heathers descendant, but it’s ultimately less interested in making you laugh than it is in making you sick to your stomach. Once you catch onto that nausea being its exact intended effect, it’s an incredibly impressive work.

15. Mom and Dad A wickedly fun satire about traditional families’ barely concealed hatred for their own; a chaotic portrait of selfishness & self-loathing in the modern suburban home. This movie hides behind tongue-in-cheek touches like a 70s exploitation-themed credits sequence & stylized dialogue like “My mom is a penis,” but just under its ironic camp surface rots a charred, bitterly angry heart, one with no respect for the almighty Family Values that mainstream America holds so dear. Show up for Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing “The Hokey Pokey;” stay for the pitch-black humor about “successful” adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with the right career & the right family bitterly unfulfilling.

16. Batman Ninja The concept of mashing up Batman with anime sounds like a nerd’s wet dream, a juvenile pleasure impulse Batman Ninja attempts to live up to in every self-indulgent frame. With intense character redesigns from Japanese manga artist Takashi Okazaki and an impressive team of traditionalist animators, this movie is almost well-crated enough to pass itself off as an art piece instead of what it truly is: nonstop over-the-top excess, a shameless sky-high pile of pop culture trash. Batman Ninja seems entirely unconcerned with justifying its own for-their-own-sake impulses. Its experiments in the newly discovered artform of Batmanime seem to be born entirely of “Wouldn’t it be rad if __?” daydreaming. It’s a refreshing approach to Batman storytelling, as most of the character’s feature-length cartoons are much less comfortable with fully exploring the freedom from logic animation affords them.

17. Ghost Stories For most of its runtime, this movie pretends to be a very well-behaved, Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level horror anthology with open-ended, unsatisfying conclusions to its three mildly spooky vignettes. It turns out that dissatisfaction is deliberate, as it sets the film up for a supernaturally menacing prank on an unsuspecting audience. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent-enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure us into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith.

18. Revenge “Resolving” rape through gory bloodshed may be a faulty narrative impulse, but the way Revenge filters its all-out gore fest indulgences through psychedelic, sun-rotted fantasy is an especially novel mutation of a rape revenge genre formula that must evolve to be sustained (or, better yet, must be destroyed for good). The trick is having the patience in watching the film participate in that despicable genre long enough to be able to explode it from the inside.

19. SuperFly A modernized retooling of one of the most iconic titles in the blaxploitation canon, this low-budget, high-fashion action thriller sets itself up for comparisons that jeopardize its chance to stand out on its own from the outset. The soundtrack may have been updated from Curtis Mayfield funk to Future trap, and some of the nihilism from the original may have been supplanted with wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it is still largely the same story of an ambitious hustler with beautifully over-treated hair struggling to get out of the cocaine business with one big, final score. It’s a gleefully trashy, hyperviolent action cheapie with more of an eye for fashion & brutality than any technical concerns in its visual craft or its debt to stories told onscreen in the past. It’s entirely enjoyable for being just that.

20. Truth or Dare – There are two competing gimmicks at war with each other in the gleefully idiotic trash-horror Truth or Dare?. As suggested in the title, one gimmick involves a supernatural, deadly version of the schoolyard game truth-or-dare that drives the film both to explorations of contrived ethical dilemmas and to even more contrived novelty indulgences in demonic possession clichés. As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Films like Unfriended, #horror, Afflicted, and so on are doing more to preserve the history of modern online communication than they’re given credit for, specifically because they’re willing to exploit pedestrian trash mediums like Skype, Candy Crush, and webcasting as foundational gimmicks for feature-length narratives. For its own part, Truth or Dare? has earned its place in cheap horror’s academic documentation of online discourse by exploiting Snapchat filter technology as a dirt-cheap scare delivery system. As silly as its titular gimmick can be, it wouldn’t have deserved camp cinema legacy without that secondary Snapchat filter gimmick backing it up.

-Brandon Ledet

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Into the Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium combo that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t seen the feat achieved onscreen with my own two eyes – which are still sore from the vibrant, hyperactive swirl of interdimensional colors & spider-people that assaulted them in gloriously uninhibited 3D animation.

Even if Into-the Spider-Verse had stuck to a single, straightforward Spider-Man origin story, it chose the exact one that could have kept the formula fresh for a modern audience. Afro-Latino teen dweeb Miles Morales is a welcome deviation in representation from the countless white-boy Peter Parkers who have swung across the screen over the years. Miles inhabits a hip-hop centric version of NYC that’s largely missing from the rest of the Spider-Man canon- represented in graffiti bombing, boomboxes, earbuds blaring legitimate radio-rap tunes, and a social pressure to code-switch when attending a predominately white school for the gifted. It’s a refreshing perspective for a Spider-Man universe NYC . . . until the obligatory machinations of the Spider-Man origin story take over the plot. When Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, the audience has an all-too-clear idea of where his story will & should go as he transforms into an unlikely, geeky superhero. Except, Phil Lord immediately dislodges this story from that well-established groove to chase something much more unpredictable & self-aware.

Two distinct narrative deviations disrupt the typical Spider-Man origin story trajectory once Miles is bitten by that spider. First, he becomes aware that he’s living in a comic book. His inner thoughts become deafening narration he cannot escape, and his world is suddenly contained in Ben Day Dots and sectioned-off panels. Second, he becomes aware that his is not the only Spider-Man comic book. In fact, there are countless variations on the Spider-Man origin story that exist in a vast multiverse that begins to perilously overlap with his own. These variations include novelty spider-people like Spider-Man Noir (Nic Cage) & Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), whose outlandishness could not be further from Miles’s grounded hip-hop version of reality. Miles’s first-act run-in with a radioactive spider (and subsequent heartbreak with the tragic death of a family member) may be as consistent with Spider-Man lore as the NYC setting, but the comic book environments & quest to reconstruct the multiverse in proper order that result form that bite feel wildly imaginative for the material.

Those comic book environments & psychedelic multiverse overlaps do more than just open the Spider-Man origin story to exiting new avenues; they also allow for experimentation in CG animation that feels like a huge creative breakthrough for the medium. Where most modern animation pictures feel flat & unimaginative in their design, Spider-Verse is overflowing with ideas. The Ben Day Dots, panel divisions, and deliberately off-set screen-printing effect of its comic book design afford it a distinctly retro visual style, one enhanced by the claymation effect of its off-kilter frame rate. The endless possibilities of its collapsing multiverse also invite a total surreal meltdown of psychedelic colors & shapes, transforming Miles’s grounded NYC into a melted-candy nightmare. I usually dread CG animated kids’ movies even more than I dread the latest needless reboot of Spider-Man. Both of those well-worn mediums subverted & exploded my expectations for what they could achieve in this out-of-nowhere visual stunner, often multiple times in a single scene.

The only arena in which Into the Spider-Verse falls a little short is in eliciting a genuine emotional response for Miles’s journey from geek to hero. It’s a little difficult to lose yourself in his story when the visual language of the film is so (literally) flashy, and when other Spider-Men are on-hand to make self-aware, Deadpool-lite references to things like the character having “an excellent theme song & a so-so popsicle.” Every time a new, outlandish spider-person appears to announce, “Let’s start from the beginning one last time,” it’s an amusing joke at the expense of the character’s endless parade of reboots. However, by extension that also means it’s at the expense of Miles Morales, who likely deserved to have a straight-forward, gimmick-free Spider-Man origin story more than any other version of the character we’ve seen in the countless live action adaptations before him—one that’s likely to never arrive now.

The most emotional I got in Into the Spider-Verse was in an end-credits acknowledgement of the character’s creators – Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, who both died last year. Whether or not its boundless creativity left room for genuine pathos, Into the Spider-Verse feels like as perfect of an encapsulation of everything that collaboration inspired as you’ll ever see – both in its scramble to gather every variation of the character it can and in its vivid graphic artistry. I went into Spider-Verse expecting a humorous, satisfactory reboot of a character who’s been through the ringer too many times to yield any true surprises. I was frequently surprised and more than merely satisfied by the psychedelic, playfully meta spectacle that unfolded, then imploded before me instead. By the end of the film I could only cite one unturned stone that felt like a true missed opportunity, and then that exact gag ended up being a standalone scene after the end credits. The movie is that good.

-Brandon Ledet

Venom (2018)

The latest cinematic dispatch from the Spider-Verse, Venom, is paradoxically one of the blandest superhero movies of the year and one of the year’s best comedies. These two conflicting modes mix like water & oil, with at least the first half hour of the film treading water as a C-grade superhero origin story before it then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy. If those two halves arrived in reverse order, it’d be understandable to walk away from Venom dejected & exhausted, feeling as if you’d finally been ground into dust by the oft-cited affliction of superhero fatigue, maintaining no interest in the future of the genre. As is, the resulting effect is much more enjoyably bizarre. The origin story doldrums of Venom’s first hour lull you into a false complacency. The film’s macho leather-and-guitar-riffs aesthetic feels like it’s been rotting in stasis on the big screen at least since the gritty genre cinema that arrived in the wake of The Dark Knight a decade ago. Then, once its sci-fi body horror hijinks finally get started, it transforms into something much goofier, much rarer, and (most surprisingly) much queerer than what we’ve come to expect from mainstream superhero blockbusters. It arrives cumbersome, but it leaves you in a great mood.

Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, an unemployed loser who once worked for a VICE News-type media outlet before ruining his engagement to Michelle Williams by incurring the wrath of an Elon Musk-type (Riz Ahmed) with a boneheaded act of gotcha journalism. I could recount in mundane detail how Eddie’s feud with Not Elon Musk results in him gaining superpowers through a parasitic alien creature (named Venom) that effectively snatches his body & causes city-wide havoc, but it’s those exact origin story checkpoints that risk tanking the entire film’s entertainment value in familiar, leaden plot machinery. That’s not really what’s important about Venom; what matters here is how fully committed Tom Hardy is to the role once the parasite (or, in the movie’s parlance, “symbiote”) infects his body and the movie decides to become fun. Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

The only aspect of Venom that matches the absurdly committed, manic-comic energy of Hardy’s physical performance in his own vocal work as the titular space alien symbiote, who he banters with telepathically throughout the movie (once it gets fun, anyway). Venom’s voice falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo, Audrey II, and Tim Curry’s performance as Hexxus (the toxic ooze from FernGully), so it’s a blessing upon us all that the film does not ask you to take the voice seriously. When Venom and his fellow space alien symbiotes ooze around the ground as sentient collections of grotesque, black goo, they’re appropriately horrific. As a voice in Eddie’s head, however, Venom is a laugh riot. He admits to Eddie, “I’m kind of a loser on my planet,” so it makes sense that all his menacing threats come across as embarrassingly dorky, such as when he promises to rip off a criminal’s limbs so that they roll around “like a turd in the wind.” He’s also got a Scooby-Doo appetite to match the voice, driving Eddie to eat straight-up trash & copious amounts of tater tots (always frozen or burnt, never the proper temperature). Their relationship as parasite & host even becomes oddly sweet, if not outright romantic, over the course of the picture – with Venom inventing an elaborate scheme to win Eddie back after a passionate separation by making out with him through Michelle Williams’s surrogate. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying both losers – Eddie & Venom – as separate, distinct goofballs who often share one absurd body so that neither is ever alone again. It’d almost be beautiful if it weren’t so goddamn silly.

Full disclosure: there was already a comedic body-horror this year where a Tom Hardy type (Logan Marshall-Green) transformed into a superhero via an implanted sci-fi parasite that telepathically struck up humorous banter with its host and helped them wage war on an Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade is a smarter, grittier, more satirically pointed version of Venom, a superior film on every count. Still, and this pains me to admit, Venom’s highs are much funnier. It’s a Herculean task on Tom Hardy’s part that this otherwise drab, by-the-numbers superhero pic is even watchable, but his dual performance as Venom & Eddie is so weirdly, consistently funny that the movie achieves legitimate comedic greatness once it gets its genre requirements out of the way. The back half of Venom is so thoroughly absurd that the grim, guitar-riffing machismo of the first half almost plays like parody in retrospect. Upgrade wastes no time getting into the comedic genre payoffs of its premise and is one of the best films of the year for it. Still, the surprise of the delayed buffoonery of Venom almost bests that film in genuine laughs, likely because there’s so much tension built up & relieved in the contrast between its warring halves. It’s a dumb, misshapen, big-budget beast that doesn’t deserve to be half as entertaining as Tom Hardy makes it. Yet, it would fit just as well on any midnight-movie docket as Upgrade would, even with frozen tater tots as a built-in, themed snack that could be thrown at the screen Rocky Horror style in drunken excess. It just requires a little patience before those bizarre, comedic payoffs arrive.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Boomer’s Top Films of 2017

What a year it’s been! 2017 was a pretty mixed bag, all things considered. I had a pretty bad fall and busted my arm so bad that I had to have four screws put in, and that forced me to miss a few releases. On the other hand, between the Alamo Drafthouse showing Inferno back in January and closing out the last Terror Tuesday at the Ritz with the mildly-Christmasy Deep Red, plus the 4K remaster of Suspiria that screened at Austin Film Society, I got to see three Dario Argento films on the big screen last year, which is nice. On top of that, for the first time in my life I can say that I was definitively both smarter than the president and more attractive than the “Sexiest” Man “Alive” (surely I wasn’t the only person who read that news and was immediately concerned that Michael B. Jordan had died, right?).

As is my personal tradition (see here and here), let’s start out with a look back on the year, and specifically mention the things I wish I had seen so that this list could be more complete, but which I (for whatever reason) missed. Austin was lucky enough to be one of the premiere cities for The Square, but my roommate passed out at a friend’s house and his phone died the night before we were supposed to see it, and it ended up being only a one week engagement. Call Me By Your Name has yet to appear in my market (and Beach Rats completely passed me by while I was laid up with a broken arm for most of the summer), and although Austin Film Society hosted screenings of both Dolores and Carpinteros, both films were gone before I could get my ducks in a row. I kept putting off watching Brian Jordan Alvarez’s Everything is Free (I loved The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo) because it didn’t seem like it was going anywhere, but an attempt at a recent viewing party with friends was thwarted when it turned out the film had been removed from YouTube. I am keeping my fingers crossed that this means it’s getting an actual release, because that would be lovely. A Ghost Story, Baby Driver, The Lego Batman Movie, Beatriz at Dinner, and especially I Am Not Your Negro were all movies that I planned to see, but it’s been a long, weird year, and some things are bound to fall through the cracks. Brandon didn’t care for The Bad Batch, but given that he and I have vastly different opinions of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, I would likely have ended up giving Ana Lily Amirpour’s latest a more favorable rating, or at least a place on this list. As it is, however, I missed it (and my roommate, who responds to the mere mention of A Girl Walks… with a fervent hatred that is the only rift between us, is unwilling to give it a try despite the fact that it is on Netflix). And, unfortunately, I completely forgot Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was going to be a thing before it came to theaters. Finally, it should be noted that I’m composing this list prior seeing The Last Jedi or the released-at-the-very-end-of-the-year-for-some-reason of Downsizing, which I’m pretty excited about given how much I love Alexander Payne. But let’s get to it!

Movies I saw but you won’t be seeing on this list in any form, so let’s put them here now so that you’re not holding your breath:

1. Alien: Covenant: I didn’t hate this movie. It would have had to make me feel something in order to hate it. Instead, I feel mostly indifference and disappointment at the wasted potential, and I hate what it represents. You can read a more in-depth discussion of the film’s faults here. An excerpt: “Before Scott dreamed up a reason to call it an ‘Engineer,’ the Space Jockey was just one more part of an unsolvable riddle: a giant dead body from an unknown race, seemingly eviscerated with its chest open, fossilized. It’s a tableau that induces anxiety because the riddle doesn’t seem like it can be solved, with the perpetrator and the victim both lost to time immemorial–or so it seems until the monster is born again when a group of little humans, completely unprepared for the horrors that exist beyond the fragile atmosphere of their world, stumble into the killing fields of an implacable star beast they cannot comprehend or reason with. Until Prometheus came along, there was no reason to believe that the Space Jockey had anything to do with the creation of the xenomorph; instead, he seemed to represent a previous incarnation of the cycle of violence, another innocent stargazer who happened upon a living nightmare in an earlier time and succumbed to it, its titanic stature further cementing just how fucked Ripley and her comrades are.”

2. Blade Runner 2049: I love the original Blade Runner, despite all of what the modern audience might consider faults, both inaccurately (i.e., introspective pacing) and accurately (i.e., the fact that Deckard is a straight up sexual assailant). When the sequel was announced, my reaction was more “Whyyyyyy? And why now?” than excitement; over time, though, as Denis Villeneuve was announced as director and more news came out, I came around on the idea of a Blade Runner sequel, even building up a modicum of excitement for it. But for all of this film’s beautiful vistas, stunning colors, and strong acting, I was left completely cold by it. Maybe it’s the largely unfocused nature of its narrative, or the fact that I find the idea of considering Rachael and Deckard to be endgame to be gross, or that I could live the rest of my life without another “born to be the chosen one” narrative. I’ve never seen a prettier film that left me feeling so empty.

3. I really wanted to like XX. I really, really wanted to. While the overall quality averaged much higher than other recent anthology horror films like Holidays or The ABCs of Death, it had neither the highs nor lows that made those films so memorable. Considering Holidays in particular, XX never plumbs the depths of bad storytelling and stupidity like the former film does in shorts like Halloween, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, but neither does a single frame of it have the same staying power as the images in Mother’s Day, Easter, or especially St. Patrick’s Day. While XX’s The Box is a small, personal story that haunts you, it’s impossible to say that it’s not at least a little narratively unsatisfying. The short Her Only Living Son can take credit for giving me a really strange dream while under the influence of painkillers after my arm surgery last summer (the plot of which was basically the same as that of the short, but also starred Tyne Daly as a desert mystic and leader), but while its creep factor is decent, it was still underwhelming. Most disappointing is the short Don’t Fall, as it contains not a single frame of film you haven’t seen before, and doesn’t do anything really inventive with its bare-bones premise.

4. Justice League: It’s big, loud, inexplicably cheap looking, and completely absurd! I may have given this a relatively decent star rating (with the Camp Stamp, of course), but no way does it belong anywhere on the list of best films of the year. You can read my review here. Here’s an excerpt: “I’m not going to lie to you: this movie is clearly half-baked and it makes a lot of mistakes. When you think that it’s being clever, it’s actually just a goof. […] The most important thing I can tell you if I’m trying to give you an idea as to whether or not you should see this film is this: Justice League works, if you accept it not as part of this franchise, but as an entry into the larger cultural understanding of Superman specifically and DC in general.”

Honorable Mentions:

1. I was a big fan of Train to Busan. It technically didn’t get a release in the US until 2017, so in some ways, it could fit on this list, but it would be a bit of a cheat since it was produced and released in 2016. Starring a literal train’s worth of very attractive folks to fit everyone’s type, the film is a pretty great watch. Here’s an excerpt from my review: “Train to Busan doesn’t reinvent the wheel; in fact, there’s an awful lot of 28 Days Later in its DNA, what with the Rage-like zombies, the urban environments, the involvement of military forces (although there’s no unsettling discussion about repopulating the earth by force here as there is in Days), and the ending. Still, placing the action on a train puts a new spin on things, as when one group of survivors is trying to reach another group in a distant compartment, with the horde between them. The interplay of light and darkness, the addition of color, and a child character who’s actually quite likable (serving as her father’s conscience) are all touches that this genre was missing. It’s such an obviously great idea that I’m honestly surprised it was never done before (despite searching my memory and the internet, I can find no evidence of previous zombies-on-a-train films). It’s worth checking out at the earliest opportunity.”

2. Like its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 comes blazing right out of the gates and barely lets you catch your breath. I missed the first John Wick when it came out because I couldn’t be bothered, frankly. No one expected the movie to be such a fantastic return to form both for Keanu Reeves and the action genre as a whole. Fifteen years ago, no one could have predicted that the shaky-cam aesthetic that The Bourne Identity introduced to the world and which made that film feel so fresh would eventually become the de facto shorthand for “This is action!” Since then, that style has been beaten into the ground, buried, resurrected, and beaten again, and the first film brought us back to the good old days of yore, with extensively choreographed action sequences and beautifully balanced camera movement that never distracts or tries to hide any flaws (of which there are none). This second film builds on the first’s strange but rewarding decision to create an underworld society of high class assassins, enlarging the scope of this world and taking it international. It’s definitely worth seeing, especially as a double feature with the original.

3. I can’t in good conscience say that this was one of the best films of the year, but I will say that the first ten minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (and just the first ten minutes) makes for a perfectly composed short film about an idealized human future in space. The rest of the film doesn’t live up to those expectations, unfortunately. You can read my review here, and here’s an excerpt: “The effects in Valerian are so effective at rendering a beautiful world that you can’t help but get lost in it. It’s so engrossing that, when a supposedly emotional moment is happening between Laureline and Valerian near the end of the film, you forget to pay attention to the plot, such as it is. Combine that with some heavy-handed (and questionable) use of the Noble Savage trope, a dramatic “reveal” of the film’s villain that is anything but, and a notable lack of chemistry every time DeHaan and DeLevigne are on screen together, and you’ve got a beautifully imagined world captured in a fairly lackluster film.”

And now… Boomer’s Top 15 Films of 2017

15. Nothing pleased me more this year than when Brandon sent me a screenshot of a tweet from one of his podcaster friends complimenting my review of Killing of a Sacred Deer. You can read my review here; here’s an excerpt: “The emotional distance evident in dialogue is a resounding success here, as the cold world of surgeons and diagnoses, children getting slapped (and worse), long walks with ice cream, and even awkward sexual advances are all treated with the same clinical dispassion, instilling the film with a feeling of extreme detachment that resonates in every scene. This only increases the mood of growing tension that is intentionally invoked, as the audience feels their anxiety rising like a tide while the characters observe the changes in their world and worldview with infuriatingly cold tempers.”

14. No one is more surprised than I am that an X-Film about my least favorite popular mutant was not only a great movie, but actually a favorite for the year. Logan the comic book character is, as I described him in my review, a straight white male power fantasy for people with aggressive tendencies. Logan the film, on the other hand, is a somber meditation on age, obsolescence, loss, and death. This is a neo-western in a dystopian, dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. It’s perhaps the starkest look into our likeliest future that came out all year, and demands to be seen for that reason if no other.

13. I will let my opening lines for my review of Kingsman: The Golden Circle speak for themselves: “I approached this sequel with a fair amount of trepidation. The first Kingsman was an anomaly in that it seemed to fly under most people’s radar (it was in its third week when I saw it, on a Thursday afternoon, and there was not another soul in the entire theater) but was successful enough via word of mouth (after all, there is a sequel now) that it became a bit of a cult film almost instantaneously. The press for the film has been overwhelmingly negative, and I had reservations about seeing how far a follow-up to one of my favorite films of 2015 could possibly stray into territory that garnered such negative feelings. And frankly, I just don’t get it. This movie is awesome.”

12. I recently finished Haruki Murakami’s infamously long novel 1Q84 after letting it sit on my shelf for nearly five years; I simply never felt ready to tackle its 1157 page girth. That’s about 20 pages more than most editions of Stephen King’s novel of IT, but never during the reading of Murakami’s work did it ever feel like the book was desperately in need of an editor, as I did when reading IT, even as a teenager. Even if you’ve never read it, you were undoubtedly assaulted last year by dozens of thinkpieces about the film and the novel on which it was based (and every single one of them seemed to think they were the first one to be reporting the hot scoop about the book’s creepy sex scene, even though Cracked was all over that more than a year ago). If you managed to somehow dodge all of those slings and arrows, then you should know that IT is a lengthy screed about friendship and the loss of innocence (and other things) upon the road to maturity, and also that I’ve never in my life read anything that could compete with the book for “Product Most Obviously Created by a Coked-Up Lunatic.” It’s not King’s best work (for my money, that’s The Dead Zone), but last year’s adaptation finds the kernel of perfection in that work and brings it to life, and I couldn’t recommend it more. Read Brandon’s review here.

11. When people have asked me about my 2.5 star review of mother!, the question that I get most often is if I really thought it was that bad. After all, it’s certainly a much more technically proficient film than a lot of things that I’ve given higher reviews. And there’s no mistaking that this is a sumptuous movie with intriguing visuals, haunting imagery, strong performances, an excellent cinematic eye, and an amazing cast. Even as I was writing my piece on it, I knew that I was going to be giving the film a negative rating but also that it would be on my list of 2017’s best films; this is a movie about which it’s impossible to be apathetic but completely acceptable to feel ambivalence, the perfect execution of an utterly flawed concept, and the most highly budgeted student film of all time, with all the heavy philosophical implications and themes that are so important to sophomores who just smoked weed for the first time after school with their tree-hugger friend. Those are all backhanded compliments, but they’re also completely sincere. Normally, you could call something like this a “pretentious pile of shit,” but it’s not; it’s a pretentious pile of razorblades masquerading as… diamonds? I hate it, but I also love it.

10. The Netflix original flick Clinical is one of my favorites for the year. As I wrote in my review: “Response to this film has been overwhelmingly negative, which is both disappointing and a demonstration of just what a negative and profound impact the past decade of ‘jump scare’ horror has had on western film consciousness and casual criticism. It’s not a good sign that every armchair critic is complaining about how ‘slow’ and ‘dull’ this throwback gem is, or bragging about how early they caught on to the ‘twist.’” Brandon tells me that my review of the film is currently its highest rating on Letterbox, and I couldn’t be prouder. It also prompted me to send him my impression of the kind of person I assume wrote such negative reviews, which I’ll reproduce here for posterity: “Hi, my name’s Chet and my favorite horror movies are Insidious, Insidious 2, and the last 8 years of Obummer lol jk but not really. My favorite movie is Boondock Saints (seen it 50 times!!!). I wish I could give Clinical ZERO stars because it’s soooo boring af!1!! The only hot chick in the movie is covered in blood the whole time and there are no jump scares or tits. Avoid this movie!”

9. I first saw this film on a date (yay!) with someone who later ghosted (boo!), but as with Winter Soldier, any movie that accompanies a personal tale of woe but upon which I can look back with fondness has a special place of reverence. That’s the case for Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. At the time I went to see this sequel, I hadn’t seen the first film, although my date had (albeit without subtitles). There was a valiant attempt to explain the backstory, but this one holds up enough on its own that I don’t think an understanding of the first film is strictly necessary. The movie is a completely new story set in a magical fantasy India of the past, although when I first saw the film I was under the impression that it was an epic film adaptation of a classic Indian myth, like a Tollywood The Ten Commandments, although I was later disabused of this notion. The story follows the journey of Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas), the nephew and foster son of the Queen Mother Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) and heir apparent of the real ancient city Mahishmati, much to the dismay of her trueborn son Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubati) and his wicked, conniving father Bijjaladeva (Nassar). Although he possesses superhuman strength, Baahubali is sent to wander the kingdoms in order to better learn to be a great leader, accompanied by Kattappa (Sathyaraj), a slave and leader of the Kingsguard; Baahubali chooses to pretend to be a simpleton in order to see how the people of various areas treat those who are “lowest” in society. While on this journey, he meets and falls in love with Princess Devasena (Anushka Shetty), but his evil uncle manipulates things back home so that she is betrothed to his cousin instead, resulting in a schism between Baahubali and the Queen Mother when he returns and leading to tragedy. Imagine a colorful, fanciful, and a little bit over-the-top amalgamation of King Arthur, Moses, and Hercules, but originating in the culture of the subcontinent instead of the western or Judaic traditions, and you’ve got the right idea. Both the original film and this sequel are currently available on Netflix (in three different languages!), so if you’ve got 5 (or just 2.5) hours to spare, check out this modern epic. Also, as we enter 2018, make it your resolution to have some decency and don’t ghost people; that’s just rude.

8. It wouldn’t really be fair to the rest of the films on this list to break the MCU’s output this year into separate segments, as that could end up pushing out a pretty worthy competitor. The year started strong with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which followed up on the threads left by the previous film while also being the most successful MCU follow-up since Winter Soldier. Further, it features an improvement over much of the franchise’s output by creating a film that is motivated entirely by character development, rather than having a plot that relies on setpieces, action sequences, and character familiarity to produce audience investment: Peter and Rocket, Gamora and Nebula, Peter and Ego, Peter and Yondu, Rocket and Groot, even Mantis and Drax. Spider-Man: Homecoming followed up on this ably, with a plot that showed us the motivations of villain and hero alike and went in depth to show how a world really would be altered by the consequences of the kinds of earth-shattering events we’ve seen in previous films. It didn’t hurt that it was charming and hilarious, either, or that every actor was charismatic as all hell (except for Downey, who I never really like, although he was used perfectly here). Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok closed out the year on another light-hearted, fun note. Check out my reviews of each of these movies for more information, and be on the lookout for our continuation of the Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. now that we’ve built up enough of a backlog for it to be fun to proceed again.

7. I wrote my review for The Shape of Water less than a week before submitting this list, so all of my ideas on the film are already on paper and too recent for me to have any additional insights, other than to say that I loved this movie and I don’t care who knows it. So, allow me to present this excerpt in lieu of a new blurb: “Strickland is a villain in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal: a terrifyingly familiar figure of fascistic adherence to a nationalistic, ethnocentric, exploitative, and phallocentric worldview. Whereas Vidal was the embodiment of Fascist Spain and its ideals, Strickland is the ideal embodiment of sixties-era Red Pill morality: a racist, self-possessed sexual predator empowered by his workplace superiority. Strickland is a man who professes Christian values out of the left side of his mouth while joking about cheating on his wife and threatening to sexually assault his underlings out of the right side. He mansplains the biblical origins of Delilah’s name to her while, for the sake of her job and perhaps her safety, she plays along with his assumptions of her ignorance. This is above and beyond his inhumane (and pointless) torture of the Asset, an intelligent being that he cannot recognize as sentient because of his own prejudices and assumptions about the world.”

6. In his review of I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Brandon referenced Falling Down, a film about an unhinged person who goes on a spree following a traumatic event and triggered by the kind of acts of aggression that most of us see but ignore in our everyday life (with a few exceptions). When I saw I Don’t Feel at Home, I felt it was more of a spiritual successor to Bobcat Goldthwaite’s 2011 opus God Bless America, in which an unassuming insurance salaryman learns he has a brain tumor and spends the rest of the film tracking down and doling out justice to those individuals he believes are responsible for the ills of society. His is a sporadic cross-country trek that involves the destruction of Super Sweet 16 brats, reality TV judges who destroy people on national television, and the occasional real monster. Our heroine in I Don’t Feel at Home isn’t on quite that level, and her pursuit–not of justice but of an apology–is much more reasonably presented and linear, and thus favorably compares to Goldthwaite’s picture. There’s the same vacillation between grave-dark humor and truly grotesque outbursts of violence that Bless has, but there’s also more heart and more subversiveness. I also love that Elijah Wood is essentially playing a gender flipped Manic Pixie Dream Girl in this movie, with his bizarre fashion sense, eccentric behavior, and lack of any apparent life outside of assisting the protagonist in reaching his, or in this case her, potential. It’s refreshing but also highlights how real people would consider such a person to be, as he says he has been accused of being, “obnoxious.”

5. In her review of Wonder Woman, Alli wrote “I’m going to admit up front that this movie was not made for me.” That’s reflected in the film’s 3.5 star rating, which will haunt me to my grave. If there’s one superhero movie that came out in 2017 that belongs in the Swampflix canon, Wonder Woman is it. Not only is it visually stunning, hilarious, exciting, empowering, and overall just a hell of a lot of fun, it actually manages to bring the overall average of DC’s output up by several points. I loved this movie. I loved, loved, loved it. It was everything I wanted and more. As I noted in my Justice League review, when I was a kid, the DC comics characters were much dearer to me than Marvel’s, and it’s for that reason that I’ve been so disappointed by DC’s attempts to ape the success of the House of Ideas, not out of any loyalty to Marvel. In fact, when I was a kid, my favorite character was Batman. I never wanted to be Batman, though, I wanted to be Wonder Woman, because she was the coolest. With her lasso, jet, magical creation (I’m not about these retcons that she wasn’t made from clay), royal heritage, tiara, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and her personality as the living embodiment of compassion, truth, and justice, she was an amazing model of citizenship and a role model that one could aspire to be. Gal Gadot is perfection in this role, and she perfectly encapsulates all the traits of Diana, Princess of Themyscira, that made my childhood heart soar. Every actor in this film is perfectly cast, and I have never been happier to see an actress have a career renaissance than I am every time I see Robin Wright on screen. In almost any other year, this would be my number one movie, despite the fact that the ending does peter out a bit (the climactic finale gets a little first-draft nonsensical, but that hardly drags it down).

4. Every single trailer for Lady Bird made it look like exactly the kind of cloying, overly sentimental coming of age piece that I could live the rest of my life without ever seeing again. When we saw the preview as part of the coming attractions at our screening of Killing of a Sacred Deer, my roommate and I turned to each other in unison and made the “finger at the throat means puke” gesture, and made a rude noise or four. I wouldn’t have even given the movie a chance except that a friend I don’t get to see enough desperately wanted to go, so I joined him. Never let it be said that I cannot admit when I’m wrong: this movie was beautiful. I cried three times, big beautiful tears rolling down my face. Saoirse Ronan is fantastic, but the real MVP here is Laurie Metcalf, who’s been hiding out of sight for too long. Every performance is pitch perfect, and Greta Gerwig captures the honesty and earnestness of youthful dreams and the anxieties of class distinction (and how that distinction affects families at every level, and how class reverberates through a person’s whole life regardless of talent, brilliance, or desire). I want to wrap myself inside of this movie like a warm blanket for days on end. The cynic in me is sick to the point of near death when it comes to narratives about people who want to move to New York; I honestly feel that people whose sole desire in life is to move to The City are shallow people with unimaginative dreams. Sure, every one of us has had that desire at some point in their life, but even a deeply entrenched cinephile like me who can’t have a single conversation that doesn’t involve pop culture knows better than to let television and movies make my choices for me, and I’m not an idiot so I’m deeply conscious of the fact that the “New York” that everyone dreams of moving to hasn’t existed since the Giuliani administration Disneyfied the whole place. But in this movie, as the shallow dream of a deeply real, flawed teenage girl who doesn’t understand just how good she has it, it works for me, against all odds. No one needs to be told that this is one of the best movies of 2017, as it’s been all over the place, but if you’re feeling contrary like I was, listen to a coal-hearted Grinch like me: it’s worth it. (You can also read Brandon’s review here.)

3. Lady Bird wasn’t the only major feature to star Lois Smith last year. Smith is also featured as the title character in Marjorie Prime, a deeply introspective and meditative film about the nature of grief, memory, loss, and family. I can’t recommend it more highly without going too deep into the film and revealing more than I should, so I suggest reading my review for a clearer picture of whether or not this film will touch you as it touched me. Perhaps it’s that my grandmother, who passed away last Christmas, was very much like Marjorie in her own last days, but there’s a verisimilitude to this story that transcends personal experience as much as it is informed by it.  “As Tess (Geena Davis) points out, when we remember an event, what we’re actually remembering is the last time we remembered the event, back and back and back, like a series of photographs slowly fading out of focus in a recursive loop. Or, as underlined in another of the film’s conversations that mirrors the plot, one of Tess recounts how one of her students had inherited their father’s parrot, which sometimes still spoke with the dead man’s voice, even twenty years after his death. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age, and the ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to this imperfect personal narrative.”

2. I’ll try not to repeat what I already wrote in my review of Raw (original French title Grave). I recently rewatched the film with a different group of friends following its release on home video, and loved it even more the second time around. We ordered a pizza, and I asked if they were still down to watch Raw even though we were eating. Friend 1: “Wait, is the movie gross?” Me: “I think that we’ll be finished eating before it gets gross.” And boy, does it! Friend 2 had to turn away from the screen during a certain scene (at the risk of giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it, it’s the scene with Alex’s finger), which was also the point in the film that infamously prompted audience members at Cannes to flee, vomit, or faint, all of which are completely reasonable reactions. Roommate of Boomer was delighted, however; he had also seen the trailer for Raw at the Alamo Drafthouse many times and assumed it was going to be a basic horror movie with delusions of grandeur, and was pleasantly surprised to find that, although there are horror elements at play, the primary genre the movie fits into is that of dark (dark, dark) comedy. Raw is gross, but it’s also hilarious, and surprisingly endearing and sweet at certain moments. It’s also now streaming on Netflix, so check it out while you can (and if you think your stomach can handle it).

1. What else is there to say about Get Out that hasn’t already been said? What tiny pieces of information could I pick up, turn over, and inspect for a deeper meaning that haven’t already been inspected to the point of total knowledge by various other critics, people talking about their lived experience, the black twittersphere and blogospheres, and every other person under the sun? This is the best movie of 2017. There’s not much more to say about it that you haven’t read elsewhere and from a better writer than I am. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Let it flow through you and inform you about the daily experiences of people of color in our country. Let it teach you a lesson about the power of cell phone video as a liberator, and about the frequent hypocrisy of white liberalism. Let it be the light for you in dark (and sunken) places. Let its truth live in you and affect your daily life, teaching you to recognize the toxicity within yourself. Live it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a delightful movie. Featuring baby-faced Brit Tom Holland reprising his role from Captain America: Civil War as the eponymous arachno-person, the film has already met with widespread approval from most critics and fans. It’s not difficult to see why; even when playing an exasperatingly ebullient modern teenager complete with inappropriately timed self-videoing, Holland has a magnetic screen presence and brings a lot of charm to the role, not to mention that he actually looks like a teenager and not just Tobey Maguire in his late twenties wearing a backpack. This newfound verisimilitude when it comes to casting young people as young characters is reflected in the rest of the cast who portray Parker’s classmates, including Laura Harrier (27 but looks younger) as Peter’s love interest Liz, Jacob Batalon as his best friend and confidante Ned, Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Tony Revolori as bully Flash Thompson, and Disney debutante Zendaya as Michelle alongside others.

While recently watching The 3% on Netflix with my roommate, he remarked that he found the show to be “effortlessly Tumblr friendly,” which is also true of this film. One thing you may notice about the cast list above is that, other than Holland, all of the actors listed are people of color. This is a great step forward as far as diversity goes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is something that I have written about here before, especially in regards to the largely white-washed and underwhelming Doctor Strange. More admirable than that, however, is the fact that the film has largely cast actors with strong comedic ability beyond any arguable (or marketable) “tokenism”  in what is probably the funniest film that the MCU has produced outside of the Guardians movies so far. Other notable comedians in the adult cast include comedic actors like Hannibal Buress as Coach Wilson (who has some of the film’s best lines), my beloved Donald Glover as two-scene wonder Aaron Davis, and Orange is the New Black‘s (admittedly underutilized) Selenis Levya, making her the second actress to break free from that program into a superhero film after Elizabeth Rodriguez’s appearance in Logan earlier this year.

Rounding out the adult cast are Marisa Tomei as Peter Parker’s Aunt May, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man (yet again), and Michael Keaton as the Vulture. Downey is essentially the same in this appearance as he is in all of his appearances as this (and frankly every) character, the rich asshole who is less charismatic than he thinks he is. Those of you who were wondering if he would express any regret or mixed feelings about his role in drafting what is essentially a child soldier into his personal grievance with Captain America in last year’s Civil War are bound to be disappointed, although probably not surprised. It’s still a nice touch that the film acknowledges in its text, if not in its characters’ self-awareness, that (once again) the film’s villains are created by Tony Stark and his lack of foresight. Keaton’s Vulture, nee Adrian Toomes, is a blue-collar Salvage worker whose contract with the city is rendered null when Tony Stark creates a new government agency to deal with the cleanup of the Battle of New York, forcing Toomes and his associates to find a new line of work. As is so often the case in the real world, these working-class men have no choice but to turn to crime, in this situation the theft and customization of advanced technology into weapons, in order to support themselves and their families.

This creates the backdrop of the film, which tells a much more grounded story than more excessive, loftier films like The Avengers. The stakes are largely personal, especially in one particular story beat that is obvious in retrospect but I didn’t see coming and won’t spoil here. Of course, just because the fate of the world isn’t on the line, that does not mean that the stakes are small. One could be easily forgiven for assuming that this movie would be a cliche teenage film that just happens to be filtered through a superhero lens, especially given the film’s subtitle of “homecoming,” but everything feels like it is awarded the dramatic weight that is warranted and appropriate given the setting and the tone. I’m hesitant to say more in this review as I want to save some of my insights for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but I can say that this is one of my favorite films of the year so far and definitely worth the price of admission. I may be any easy sell (especially anytime a film uses “Space Age Love Song,” aka the best thing Flock of Seagulls ever made), but I’ll admit there are a few jokes and nods to the source material that don’t quite land, and I can confess that I had a fairly unpleasant viewing experience due to the loudness and phone usage of the film’s target audience (which is probably what I deserve for going to a screening on opening weekend that was not at the Alamo Drafthouse). All in all, however, I can all but guarantee you’ll have a good time.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Thor (2011)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: The ironic thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it owes so much to the success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but Thor owes its placement in the MCU to the failure of that series of films, although I’m getting ahead of myself. Sam Raimi initially conceived of making a Thor film after he finished production on 1990’s Darkman, one of the best films ever made about a costumed hero even before one takes into account that it was not based on a previous intellectual property. This project never got off the ground, but after the success of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film in 2000, interest in the potential of adapting Marvel’s Thunder God was renewed, although by that time it was being considered for a series adaptation for UPN. After a few years of discussion, the project was again tabled until Kevin Feige started dreaming up the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In 2007, Mark Protosevich, fresh from having written the screenplay adaptation of the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, based on the novel by Richard Matheson, expressed interest in drafting a Thor script. That same year also saw the beginning of the definitive 21st Century arc for Thor comics in the wake of Civil War, penned by J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski was already well known in nerd circles for having created Babylon 5 (and would become even more so following the publication of One More Day, the notorious Spider-Man arc in which Peter Parker makes a deal with Mephisto that costs him his marriage and unborn child). This new direction, envisioning a newly recreated Asgard hovering over farmland in the American breadbasket, featured interaction between Asgardians like Thor, Sif, and Balder and locals. You can see a definite influence from that story in this film, even if the specifics are quite different.

Ultimately, both Protosevich and Straczynski ended up with story credit on this film, with the screenplay credit going to Ashley Edward Miller & Zach Stentz alongside Don Payne (the ampersand here indicating that Stentz and Miller worked together on their version of the script). Stentz and Miller had also previously worked together on television series as varied as Andromeda, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Fringe, where they created the scripts for several episodes of the second season, including the premiere. The last screenwriter, Don Payne, had a series of one-to-two episode stints on utterly forgotten sitcoms in the nineties, like Hope & Gloria, Pride & Joy, Men Behaving Badly, and something called The Brian Benben Show. His breakthrough big screen work was 2006’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend, which is the antithesis of the above-cited Darkman, in that it is one of the worst films ever made about a costumed hero, even after taking into account those others which were not based on previous intellectual properties. As Payne also had the critically and popularly reviled 2007 Fantastic Four sequel on his C.V., there was much speculation about whether or not Thor would be the MCU’s first artistic and financial failure (which was later the speculative case for Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man).

At the same time, over at Sony, the Spider-Man series was running out of steam. The goodwill that was built up by the first two films had been virtually obliterated by the backlash against the third when it was released in 2007. Jokes about Peter Parker’s pseudogoth makeover following his bonding with the Venom symbiote persist to this day, even after an entire reboot series in the interregnum between Tobey Maguire and the new kid set to reappear when Spidey finally shows up in the MCU. A script for a fourth film was solicited, and concept art even appeared in Wizard Magazine showing designs for the costumes of Vulture and his daughter (supposedly to have eventually been played by John Malkovich and Anne Hathaway, which seemed farfetched even then). Ultimately, however, Spider-Man 4 was cancelled following friction between Raimi and Sony, and the release date for Thor was bumped up. Kenneth Branagh, who was most well known for his adaptations of Shakespeare, including Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, was brought on as director. With such a long time in development limbo and with so many fingers in the pot creatively, there was much debate as to whether Branagh’s film would be any good.

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three star

Brandon: At this point in the MCU’s trajectory I was just desperately hoping for a movie that didn’t involve Tony Stark in any way. It’s no surprise, then, that Thor ended up being my favorite film in the franchise so far, especially since I had set the bar so underachievingly low. The silliness is cranked to deliriously enjoyable heights in this film, a nice change from the wealthy douche fantasy fulfillment of the Iron Man movies & the somber romance machinations of The Incredible Hulk. Thor is essentially a fish-out-of-water action comedy about a Norse god stranded in Modern Times America once he is banished from an Oz-looking palace on a planet where gods live for being “nothing but a little boy trying to prove himself a man.” This is a film where a one-eyed Anthony Hopkins plays a space lord in a golden Jack Kirby getup similar to Skeletor’s at the end of Golan-Globus’ Masters of the Universe. Idris Elba, also playing a golden space lord, serves as a “Gatekeeper” for a “rainbow bridge” that can transport these gods to any location in the Universe (although they often end up settling for America, because of course they would). And then there’s the copious amounts of lush, reverent shots of a magical mallet, a.k.a. Thor’s hammer. It’s all quite ridiculous.

The comedy didn’t work nearly as well in Iron Man because it was coming from a nasty, misogynistic place. The Incredible Hulk had flashes of comedy spread throughout its runtime, but they were mostly buried under an overwhelmingly grim tone. After watching the self-absorbed antics of a playboy billionaire & the pensive longing of a blood-poisoned scientist, it was thoroughly refreshinging to watch an empty-headed, naive, absurdly trusting bimbo of an ancient god bumble his way through political relations between warring planets & through the logistics of life in modern America. And because Thor is played by handsome/buff/charming actor Christ Hemsworth, there’s an absurd lean towards shirtless beefcake here that’s a nice change after two movies’ worth of Tony Stark’s grotesque womanizing. Natalie “What Is She Doing Here?” Portman is also pretty refreshing as Thor’s Earthling arm candy, which is somehow less gross than it is when Tony Stark’s endless parade of faceless hotties fill that role. It’s at the very least amusing when Portman’s smitten scientist easily gives in to her boy-toy’s explanation of the Universe’s nine realms & his own origins in a place “where science & magic are one & the same”, disregarding all skepticism that would be necessary for her to sustain a career in her field.

I’m not saying that the film is entirely successful. It’s just that it’s silly enough to pass as an entertaining trifle. Most of what gets in the way of Thor being a thoroughly winning film is director Kenneth Branagh’s over-reaching personal style. I know that it’s a common complaint that Marvel Studios doesn’t allow for enough of a personalized touch in its films & relies heavily on a “house style” (especially considering the way they homogenized the typically-recognizable work of Edgar Wright & James Gunn), but I gotta say that most visual traces of Branagh’s touch are distracting in this particular case. I suppose he was well suited for the task based on the Shakespearean nature of Thor’s home life on the magical god planet Asgard, but the melodrama is laid on fairly thick here. Far worse is the director’s perverse use of Dutch angles, tilting the camera so drastically left to right to back again that I swear it was mounted to a seesaw. The effect was downright nauseating. There were also some generic superhero movie problems afoot here presumably out of Branagh’s control. The CGI “Frost Giants” serve as pretty bland, vaguely-defined villains. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has a thoroughly unsurprising heel turn in the second act (Could anyone ever buy him as a “good guy”? Don’t answer that). There’s a pretty annoying false-death crisis (or “Disney Death” if you will) in the third act, etc.

None of these faults register as too tragic, though. For the most part Thor is a decent example of what sets the MCU apart from other post-Dark Knight superhero franchises: lighthearted humor. This a fun, dumb movie, one with irreverent gags like its alien god protagonist demanding that a strip mall pet store provide a horse or a dog/cat/bird large enough to ride & getting called a “dumbass” when he mindlessly wanders into traffic. I suppose they mostly made this tonal choice to contrast the ridiculous/large-scale power its Norse god hero holds in comparison to the blood-poisoned scientist & rich douche with a mech suit heroes in the films prior. Whatever the reason, it was a welcome glimpse into the mindless fun of films I had previously seen from this “universe” before starting this project: the two Avengers movies, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy. It makes me a lot more eager to continue watching how this whole thing unfolds, as opposed to how Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies were beating me down.

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fourhalfstar
Boomer: I was a little nervous about rewatching this film. It was the first MCU movie that I saw in theaters (in 3D, even, because some of my friends were a little slow to realize what a cheap and useless gimmick that is and always has been); in fact, we went to the opening night, and I still have the half-sized poster the ticket taker handed out to prove it. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk had failed to make a huge impact on me even though I found them passable, but I was more hesitant to commit to a Thor movie. I had only been introduced to Thor as a character (outside of his involvement in Avengers and crossover events) as of the Straczynski run mentioned above. This was a character with a very involved backstory and so many supporting characters that I wasn’t certain how that would translate to the screen; moreover, this was a character that actually mattered to me as a reader, and I was almost certain it was bound to fail. My expectations were overturned, and I remember walking out of Thor and immediately texting several of my nerd friends in other cities about how it was one of the best comic book movies I had ever seen.

My concerns that the movie would not hold up turned out to be unfounded as well. The market saturation of the MCU and the omnipresence of superhero narratives has dulled a bit of the movie’s shine (not to mention some serious Loki fatigue brought on by the continual revisitation of that character), but it still holds up as a fun movie that manages to lend gravitas to the more outlandish and potentially cheesy ideas. Although it borrows the same tired opening structure as Iron Man—a bunch of characters in a vehicle encounter an event, and then the film flashes back to show the audience “how we got here”—the film makes this stupid in-media-res-then-[x time]-earlier thing seem fresh. In fact, considering that the film credits the story and script to a cumulative five people, the narrative is surprisingly streamlined and internally consistent, never splitting focus to the point where the audience becomes bored (as was the case with Iron Man 2).

I have to admit that I have never seen any of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, but coming from that world probably made him the person best suited to helm this film, especially considering that the title character and his entourage were always based more on Shakespearean drama than real Norse myth anyway. The Thor books always used characters from a largely dead religion with great dramatic license; one of the most noteworthy things about Marvel’s Thor is that he has blond hair, but traditional Norse Thor has a fiery red mane and beard. It’s fine that the comics (and thus the films) deviate from tradition, and it’s much more fun to accept the Elizabethan speech patterns than try to rationalize them. The plot is like someone threw a Shakespeare anthology into a blender with some Norse characters and made a smoothie that was not merely palatable but compelling: a Lear-like Odin has unwittingly instigated a rivalry between his roguish natural-born son and the Iago-esque son he adopted; he realizes that his son is not yet fit to lead, to so he banishes him to a far-off land to teach him a lesson, but falls ill before the prodigal’s return, allowing his even more ill-suited, manipulative son to take the throne.

Thor could easily come off as terribly unlikable (and some parts of the internet will defend any interpretation of the film which lends itself to positing that Thor was a bully and Loki was justified in his actions by default), but Chris Hemsworth deftly treads the line between aggression and exuberance. Ultimately, he keeps Thor sympathetic and the audience is invested in his evolution from an immature prince to knowledgeable leader with enough wisdom to know that he is not ready to be king but will be one day. Tom Hiddleston is also quite good in his role, and I really enjoyed watching his manipulations this time around. It’s hard to divorce the role from the overwhelming outpouring of Loki apologia that has haunted particular corners of Tumblr for the past five years, but he does well in keeping Loki grounded. Sure, Loki wants More! Power! just like Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, and General Ross, but this desire stems less from the lust for power itself and more from his need to demonstrate his worthiness to his father. Of course, whether or not that’s actually the case or just one more of his manipulations is never made utterly clear, which is what makes him so interesting.

As a character and in theory, Thor had the potential to be just as much of a jerkass as Tony Stark; as the potential future leader of the highest realm, he was an even greater child of privilege than Stark was (as much as Howard Stark swaggers, I sincerely doubt he ever gave Tony a “all the light touches will one day be yours” speech). The film is well served by focusing on his depowered earthbound adventures, as this allows Thor to be a newcomer who must learn the ways of the new world in which he finds himself. Instead of your typical origin story, this is a spiritual journey in which a man who believes that his way is the only way and that peace can only be achieved with subjugation becomes a man who understands the importance of self-sacrifice and the realizes that the most virtuous use of power is to show mercy. Those are hardly groundbreaking concepts, but they’re larger and more thoughtful than the topics tackled in superhero films before this point, and Thor represents a step in the right direction towards more heady ideas and more inventive plot structures for the MCU.

There’s a lot to love here, from the humor of Thor’s exploration of Midgard, the great interactions between Jane and her crew of ragtag science outsiders, Thor’s confrontations with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the early-bird introduction of Hawkeye, the incredible performance that Idris Elba brings to a largely thankless part, Anthony Hopkins’s pitch-perfect Odin, etc. In fact, the only element that rings a little false is Jane and Thor’s relationship, which moves too fast. As a narrative weakness, that’s pretty common, and may even be part of the intentional Shakespeare atmosphere, but it doesn’t irreparably harm the movie. Overall, this was the first truly good MCU flick, and proved that there was potential for Marvel projects that weren’t based on names with which mainstream audiences were already familiar.

Lagniappe

Brandon: Although I enjoyed this film more than any other entry in the MCU so far, it did backslide a bit in terms of making its inter-connected universe count for something. The exciting development in Iron Man 2 was that it finally gave non-Iron Man Marvel characters something significant to do in an Iron Man film, namely ScarJo’s Black Widow & Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury. Here, Nick Fury is again relegated to post-credits stinger status & future-Avenger Hawkeye basically just pops into acknowledge that he exists. There’s also a quick, throwaway reference to Iron Man in a climactic battle with a space robot where one of the members of S.H.I.E.L.D. asks “Is that one of Stark’s?”. Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D., they’re actually given the most do here as connective tissue, acting as total Big Government dicks even though they’re essentially on the same team as the scientists they overpower. That was a nice touch. I’m still getting the sense in these early MCU films that the studio was getting too ahead of themselves in promising the next big spectacle where all of this will finally pay off (in the first Avengers film) instead of making it count for something in the moment.

It’s also throwing me off how out of date & behind the times these films feel. This is mostly detectable in Thor by taking a glance at free spirit/comic relief Darcy’s (Kat Denning’s) wardrobe. I’d swear that her awful hats & scarves where purchased sometime in the early 2000s & not in 2011 if I didn’t know any better. Similarly, Thor’s ragtag group of immortal ass-kicking buddies are amusingly out of step with what’s cool & what’s corny (although I suppose you could argue that some of that effect was intentional). At some point in its lineage the MCU became the cutting edge of superhero cinema. I’m still not seeing it yet.

Boomer: Josh Dallas’s Fandral looks really silly here. Like, really silly. Every time he appeared in a scene, it really took me out of the moment. Also, how strange is it that his daughter on Once Upon a Time is played by Jennifer Morrison, who in turn played the wife of Chris Hemsworth’s character in the Star Trek reboot? That has absolutely no bearing on this movie but felt it merited consideration. As for how Thor fits into the rest of the MCU, this film features the return of fan favorite Coulson, although S.H.I.E.L.D. is outright antagonistic for the first time in this film in a way that will be explored further down the line. This is also the first appearance of Agent Sitwell, who was a total non-entity to me the first time I saw Thor, but his appearance here is noteworthy based on what comes to light later. Also, in retrospect, I can’t believe it took four films to finally introduce a villain who would recur later in the franchise (not counting General Ross, who is set to reappear in Civil War). It’s just too bad they’ll go to the Loki well so soon and so often that this goodwill will wear out.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Thor (2011)

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fourstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.