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Friday
Jan122018

Bright (2017)

Color. Cut. Clarity.

I'm beginning to understand why so many people hate critics. In late December, Netflix debuted their $90 million stay-at-home blockbuster, Bright, an urban buddy-copy fantasy that quickly became one of 2017’s easiest punch lines. When the movie dropped, I was still playing catch-up with awards season and decided not to bother with something that had struggled to gain 27% approval on Rotten Tomatoes.

My wife and I finally watched Bright last weekend, darkly drawn in by the sustained critical assault against the “year’s worst movie”. We paused several times in that two-plus hours, wondering what, exactly, we were supposed to hate. By the time the credits rolled, we’d grown to enjoy the rocky chemistry between Will Smith’s bitter L.A. cop, Daryl Ward, and his partner, Nick Jakoby, a not-quite-gentle giant of a hulking blue orc, played by Joel Edgerton. We wanted to spend more time in writer Max Landis’ alternate reality, as realized by director David Ayer.

You’ve probably read that Bright is little more than a rehash of Alien Nation, mashed with Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings/Every Other Fantasy Movie. It’s a fair assessment, but an unfair criticism. In fact, all of the nitpicking about plot holes, ridiculous dialogue, and done-to-death story arcs can be just as easily leveled at movies everyone is supposed to love—including one of 2017’s biggest critical and box office successes, Wonder Woman. There’s no question that Patty Jenkins spear-headed a milestone for female filmmakers, but her record-breaking superhero flick is also just another overlong, predictable origin story.

You may have also heard that Bright is a weak race-relations allegory. Another surface point that only partially rings true. In Landis’ version of world events (which is similar to both Tolkein’s writings and last summer’s Justice League), the evil Dark Lord was defeated by the combined forces of humanity and elf-kind two thousand years ago. The orcs found themselves on the wrong side of history after their leader was vanquished, which explains their present day status as second-class citizens. Jakoby’s position on the police force is a first for his kind, and an early incident involving partner Ward and an orc-perpetrated robbery makes an already politically complicated situation untenable. Don’t look for the depths of Jakoby’s struggle in Landis’ action-movie-retread dialogue; watch for it in Edgerton’s wounded eyes, and in the disgusted, judgmental looks of his fellow orcs as he and Ward roll through the city. For all its popcorn-movie trappings, Bright is a movie rich in peripheral details of character and environment.

Ayer and Landis were, perhaps, the only ones who could have made Bright. Ayer has perfected his vision of grimy, gang-ridden, ultra-violent hellscapes and crooked cops in films like Training Day (which he wrote) and Sabotage (which he directed). Landis continues his unique experiments in genre bending and audience provocation with movies like Chronicle (found-footage superhero adventure) and American Ultra (conspiracy theory love story). I can only speculate that a string of poorly received would-be blockbusters from both creators (Suicide Squad, Victor Frankenstein, etc.) led them to Netflix; whatever the case, I'm glad they found each other. Bright is an entertaining if imperfect blend of elaborate oddball fantasy and the kind of well-tread buddy-cop formula that's easy to slip into.

Cinema obsessives will no doubt pick apart the references to The Fifth Element and a half-dozen on-the-run-all-night cop flicks. And I'm sure there have been a thousand eye rolls at the obvious trilogy setup.* But Ayer, Landis, Smith, and Edgerton appear to be really invested in creating a new paradigm--one whose edges will hopefully be smoothed out in the recently announced sequel, and whose potential for spawning imitators and innovators is unlimited.

You see, while critics were feasting on holiday snark, "real" people** were streaming Bright and, by most accounts, enjoying the hell out of it. Consider me officially stuck between two worlds, hoping for the best, but mildly concerned about getting caught on the wrong side of history.

*Our cop anti-heroes must stop Noomi Rapace's elven assassin from finding three wands that will resurrect the Dark Lord--wands that can only be handled by "one in a million" humans. And guess who just happens to be on the case when Wand #1 shows up?

**Yes, I understand that critics are real people. But going back to at least Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I've noticed an amped-up animosity brewing in the schism between cinematic populism and the relatively small coterie of thinkers who've been, historically speaking, tasked with assessing the arts. It's impossible to pick a side (as If I'd ever need to), since I frequently vacillate between despising the holier-than-thou condemnations of my fellow critics (The Belko Experiment) and wanting to vomit when mainstream audiences call movies like mother! and The Last Jedi "terrible"--or, worse, "boring".

Saturday
Dec232017

It Comes at Night (2017)

Were it not for televised news reports, it's entirely possible that Ben, Barbara, and the other doomed travelers in Night of the Living Dead might have believed they were combating an outbreak of violent mania, rather than a pandemic of resurrected corpses. Remove those two minutes, and it's a completely different story. Trey Edward Shults' It Comes at Night is that story, sort of. A family barricades itself in a wooded house, fending off an illness/supernatural (hyper-natural?) malevolent force. Supplies are as limited as trust in strangers, and oxygen masks and gloves are mandatory when stepping outside. Shults and company present danger, paranoia, and infrequent moments of hope subjectively--a technique that will leave some shaking their heads in frustration (who or what "It" is remains a mystery), and have others applauding the filmmakers' ability to focus our attention on fears so primal they'd make the bogeyman dive for the covers.

Thursday
Dec142017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

In the aftermath of The Force Awakens, Star Wars fans were left with myriad burning questions: “Who are Rey’s parents?” “Where did Snoke come from?” “Will the next movie be a retread of The Empire Strikes Back?” Though Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi may or may not have the answers viewers want, the film is just what we didn’t know we needed—a loving but brutal deconstruction and reassembling of the sacred Jedi/Sith mythos that have bound up sci-fi/fantasy geeks’ imaginations for more than four decades. The eighth installment is too long in places, too derivative in others, but most of it sparkles with the unbridled emotional energy that fused George Lucas’ original franchise with our pop culture DNA. This isn’t an obligatory “middle chapter” packed with disposable missions and tedious seed-planting. In fact, it feels oddly like a fond farewell—which begs an entirely different kind of question: “Where to next?”

Thursday
Dec072017

The Shape of Water (2017)

I’m done with cinematic “love letters”. Master filmmakers have every right to create dazzling homages to the movies that inspired them, but I’d rather see that passion funneled into innovation, instead of overlong indulgences that put the “old” in “old fashioned”. Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a technically perfect, very well acted Cold War fairy tale, a mash-up of Creature from the Black Lagoon and Hidden Figures,* starring Hellboy’s Abe Sapien. It also bursts with the same spaghetti-on-the-wall narrative carelessness that sank Pacific Rim. The screenplay's myriad distractions from the paper-thin and dreadfully predictable (for Del Toro fans) central story--such as a black-and-white musical sequence; movie-palace porn; and golly-gee social-justice smugness--are so on-the-nose they’re practically zits. Years from now, I hope someone apes the Del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth (or, hell, Crimson Peak), and not whoever this un-checked nostalgia whore is.

*Complete with Octavia Spencer!

Wednesday
Nov292017

The Disaster Artist (2017)

Tommy Wiseau may be the last hold-over from pre-Internet society. Despite having achieved global status as one of the worst filmmakers alive, he maintains an air of mystery as impenetrable as his ubiquitous black sunglasses. In adapting the book about the making of Wiseau’s defining (and terrible) relationship drama, The Room, writer/director James Franco embraces the auteur’s enigma. Instead of trying to out-do the quirkiness inherent in his subject’s truly alien persona, Franco steers into territory both meta* and base (foreign accents are funny!). The Disaster Artist isn’t as start-to-finish-hilarious as you’ve heard. But, like Ed Wood, it is a surprisingly tender and inspiring call to action for creators everywhere. No innate talent required.

*He plays Wiseau. Brother Dave plays aspiring actor Greg Sestero, who not only starred in The Room and co-wrote the Disaster Artist book, he became Tommy's surrogate brother in real life (complete with epic, crushing rivalries).