Random Movies: Best to Worst

The Neon Demon

So, Elle Fanning is a model in this movie and the other models kill and eat her, and that’s the least gross thing that happens. After turning it over in my mind for several weeks, and feeling compelled to talk about it with everyone I saw, my final verdict is that it’s kind of a donkey show.

Like, the reason I remembered it and wanted to tell people about it was not because it was so deep and powerful and smart – it was because it was such a fucked-up thing to see.

In some ways, that’s endemic of the horror genre. It largely exists to be spectacle, and, for things to be spectacular, they have to ratchet up and be more, somehow, than what the audience has already seen. In other ways, The Neon Demon seems unusually self-aware and intentional about the ways it’s juxtaposing violence to women’s bodies with sexual imagery, and the nausea-inducing quality of that could be read as a statement about the violence we do to women’s bodies in real life.

It could also be read as a confused mishmash of imagery that doesn’t mean anything. But, either way, this is a very interesting spectacle and, once you’re done with all the sympathetic vomiting you’ll do, it’s a movie you can discuss and have a spirited debate about.

Star Trek Beyond

I am officially pretending that Star Trek into Darkness didn’t happen. To my surprise and delight, Star Trek Beyond is much more the sequel I wanted – it’s cool-looking, it’s funny, it’s weird, it’s not (for the most part) a retread of the first movie or a remake of a previous Star Trek movie or both of those things into DARKNESS – and it has little Easter eggs for nerds.

The one thing I have against it is that, at this point, I am actually getting fatigued with watching space ships get destroyed – especially when all that happens is they get a new one at the end. Star Trek: Generations was not a good movie, but it was the last time it was legitimately shocking to see the Enterprise crash onto a planet and get torn apart – mostly because we had watched the characters live on that ship for seven years under the unspoken assumption that it would always be safe. The Enterprise of Star Trek: Beyond seems disposable by comparison, and the super long sequence where it gets destroyed is not only less meaningful than something that happened in Generations, but a retread of action scenes from the last two films.

Otherwise, though, I really liked it. I like their new alien friend, Jaylah (and they ended up sending her to Starfleet Academy, so I hope she sticks around somehow in the future). I like their weird upside-down space city. I like that they managed to find something for all of the primary characters to do and that they broke them into pairs we haven’t seen before. I like that the central conflict is eventually revealed to be a very topical clash between intergenerational values. I like that I finished watching it and immediately wanted to watch it again.

It’s going on my shelf beside Star Trek (2009) and we’re just going to forget anything that happened in between them.


I didn’t like this as much as I wanted to and, based on reading the reviews, it seems like your reaction will basically be the inverse of whatever you felt about Gravity.

The issue I have with Arrival is that it’s two different movies – one about a mother who has to make a terrible choice while coming to grips with the death of her child, and one about a linguist who has to learn how to talk to some aliens. Plot-wise, the two stories are closely related. Thematically, they’re worlds and worlds apart. This is the opposite of Gravity (which I loved), where the dead child and the sci-fi survival scenario are closely related theme-wise, but unrelated in terms of plot.

I’ve found that I really prefer the set-up in Gravity, where seemingly unrelated plot points are linked through the movie’s theme, as opposed to the set-up in Arrival, where a closely-linked plot just spills into two different theme buckets. I can’t articulate why I prefer it, but one of those things makes me happy and one of them triggers an OCD-like urge to clean it up.

The other issue I had with Arrival is that, like The Prestige, the final act is built around slowly revealing and explaining a twist ending. And, like The Prestige, if you understand what’s going on before the movie explains it to you, the explanation feels really long. And, in this case, the explanation also doesn’t make sense, but I can’t talk more about that without spoilers.

I liked Amy Adams’ performance in this, I liked the atmosphere Denis Villeneuve created, I like how understated it is for an alien movie, but I also don’t want to watch it again.

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train only makes sense in relation to Gone Girl, which is kind of a double-edged sword. Whether or not the novels were related in any way, the movie has clearly been packaged as a film for people who liked Gone Girl, and it seems like a lot of the artistic decisions have been made with an eye to mimicking Gone Girl’s appearance and tone. Through that lens, it seems like an inferior version of the original.

On the other hand, The Girl on the Train understands some things about sisterhood and domestic violence that Gone Girl could really fucking stand to learn. The women in this movie (and there are six of them!) actually talk to each other rather than clustering around some random dude. More importantly, The Girl on the Train doesn’t think the biggest problem we have as a society is people being too quick to believe women who say they were assaulted.

Technically, it’s a worse film than Gone Girl – it’s not as well made, it’s not as original, it doesn’t have the confidence and sense of voice that Gone Girl did – but, as a critical response to Gone Girl that challenges Gone Girl’s misogynist opinions on domestic violence, it’s very interesting.

The Shallows

Blake Lively is a very attractive human, and this movie involves staring at her in a bikini a lot. That’s what’s advertised and that’s what’s delivered. And, I actually don’t think she’s a bad actor, so I’m not sure why these projects keep happening to her, but The Shallows is about watching her shove a metal spike through her leg, and talk to a seagull, and hilariously lure random locals to their deaths, all while wearing a bikini.

Like, she could have gone surfing in a wetsuit. That’s a thing that could have happened, in this story that is allegedly about perseverance and the triumph of the human will and not looking at her in a bikini. You know, like how James Franco is a decently good-looking guy but, when he got squished by that rock, he was wearing a normal amount of clothing. “She was surfing, though” is not an infallible chain of reasoning that completely explains the costume choices in this film. Just saying.

Before I Go to Sleep

This movie was smarter than I thought it was going to be, without actually being very smart. It is a suspense movie about a woman with a very peculiar kind of amnesia, based around the idea that something in her life is Not As It Seems. To its credit, it addresses the two most obvious explanations for why things are Not As They Seem within the first 45 minutes, before moving on to a third explanation that is a tiny bit unexpected.

It’s still kind of stuck, because the only way the story works is for all of the characters with working memories to contrive reasons why they can’t ever talk to each other, and because there is a tense scene that revolves around discovering someone’s shitty Photoshop skills, but it was better than I expected.

True Story

True Story is not a very good movie, but it feels wrong to be glib about that when it is, in fact, telling a true story about a living man who’s admitted to killing his wife and children. The most disconcerting thing is that this story about murder is being framed as a story about lies, as though the deaths of all these people are just a curiosity in our ultimate search for the truth. The biggest question I came away with, which is not really explored in the film, is why the reporter who wrote this book decided to be and stay friends with a man who admitted to killing his family and didn’t seem very sorry about it. The most interesting part is the coda at the end where we’re told that the two of them still have visitation every month. What’s that about?

Image: The Neon Demon; Broad Green Pictures | March 15, 2017