Random Movies: Best to Worst

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is the rare sequel that tries to be interesting and relevant and original on its own merits, succeeds at what it was trying to do, and gets rewarded by having no one pay to see it in theatres. That sucks, because this movie pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of matching the tone and style of the original film while taking total ownership over the content and delivering something so fresh it’s actually amazing. Like, there is literally a climactic third act fistfight sequence that manages to do something nobody’s done before. That’s how hard everyone tried when they made this.

It’s not a perfect movie, and it’s not going to live up to Blade Runner, because nothing ever can, but it might be the best fucking sequel I’ve ever seen – at the very least, it’s one that’s wholehearted and sincere and made by people who were trying to tell a good story rather than milk a cash cow in the studio barn.

It has something to say about humanity and equality, and a more evolved take on the Special Important Man narrative that so many movies run on. Just as importantly, though, it was ambitious enough to try to do something really, really difficult, which is the thing I always value in a movie.

Phantom Thread

This is supposedly the last movie Daniel Day-Lewis is going to star in, and the content is about what the trailer would lead you to believe, with a little bit of a twist at the end. For me, the twist makes the whole movie and takes it from being kind of a dull story with really good performances to a clever, insightful story with really good performances – a very thoughtful, interesting meditation on the ways people use each other in relationships, and whether happiness is finding ways to get used you can live with. It’s an idea that I haven’t seen presented like this before.

Reading the commentary online has made me aware that different people are seeing really different things when they watch this movie. That’s normal and good, but the only thing I can really talk about is what I saw, which was a cerebral film that was at times uncomfortable, but not funny, romantic, or particularly invested in questions of feminism one way or the other. It’s something I’m very glad I saw, but that I don’t feel a pressing desire to see again.

Black Panther

Black Panther is probably my second favorite Marvel movie, though it is still a Marvel movie, which means it kind of wanders in the middle, and people change their strongly held beliefs quite easily when the plot requires them to. That said, Letitia Wright, who also appeared in Black Mirror last year, is an absolute treasure who made this movie delightful every time she appeared on screen, and, while I will not pretend that I understand Afrofuturism or any aspect of African cultures, Black Panther is showing us things that we literally don’t see in other mainstream movies, and it’s really cool. So is watching Lupita Nyong’o fight with a chakram like Xena (probably the best thing to come out of her contract with Disney). And, even though it wanders a bit, the story is at least topical and political in a way that most super hero movies aren’t.

The biggest struggle I have with the film is that, in my opinion, it doesn’t satisfactorily explain why we should be cheering for T’Challa, and not the villain, Killmonger. It seems like we’re just supposed to take it as written that T’Challa is, like, more correctly the king even though he straight-up lost their one-on-one battle, because he shares the same values and point of view as other Marvel heroes. I also have other problems with the way the bylaws of one-on-one combat seem to change conveniently from scene to scene.

Long story short, though, it’s good for a super hero movie, and interesting for any kind of movie.

Hidden Figures

The cultural value that a film holds is not the same thing as whether or not it’s well made or tells a good story, but it’s also not irrelevant to the question of whether the movie is “good.” Hidden Figures places really high on measures of cultural value for a lot of reasons – the biggest one being that it draws attention to the pioneering black women who worked at NASA in the 1960s – and it lands somewhere in the average range in terms of its story and execution.

It’s not bad, but it’s pitched so hard down the middle of mainstream American cinema that it’s hard to walk away with anything more than “Wow, I did not know those women were working at NASA.” That is a very good thing to know, but I don’t feel I was shown that thing in the most inventive way.

Crooked House (2017)

Crooked House – a murder mystery inside a wealthy English family where everyone hates everyone – is a pretty good film.There’s a certain sense in which the story doesn’t seem super relevant because it’s not much more than a game of whodunnit, but the game’s still fun. The lighting also looks normal, which puts it a step above my last experience with an Agatha Christie adaptation, and I’ve since concluded that I never actually read Agatha Christie, because I didn’t know how this one ended either.

Most of the actors get swallowed into the background, and I never learned most of the characters’ names, but everyone you would expect to see, from the alcoholic to the inappropriately blunt teenager to the failed actress to the breathy young wife of the deceased older man, is there. And, if you like that kind of thing, where it’s just a bunch of broadly-drawn characters crammed in house, disdaining each other and plotting murder, it’s a good time.

My secret dream – and anyone who wants to make it real, please do – is to watch, or read, or play a murder mystery with broadly-drawn characters in a creepy house who hate each other and plot murder where the story is somehow way more complicated and nuanced and surprising than that set-up would make it seem. Does this thing already exist somewhere? I don’t know. Crooked House is not that thing, but I found it ten times more satisfying than Murder on the Orient Express.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Ghost in the Shell is the opposite of Hidden Figures – it’s an idiosyncratic movie that has some interesting, memorable scenes, but is also culturally toxic. Because it’s an adaptation, the filmmakers made choices about what they kept and lost from the original manga and anime. I think it’s fair to criticize those choices, and I think  “Let’s keep everything super Japanese-looking except the people” was an off-putting choice.

Outside of that, the film has some other problems with pacing and dialogue, but there are a handful of scenes that really work – including one lifted straight from the anime. It’s messy, but it’s not a terrible movie.

The thing is that I actually do think it was possible to make an adaptation of Ghost in the Shell that had Scarlett Johansson in the lead role and didn’t make that weird – it’s just that that would have required more careful, thoughtful decisions about how the rest of the material was changed. The end result is that I’m kind of sad that Hollywood wasted its one chance to do a big-budget, live-action version of this story by doing things that made it feel so awkward.

Flatliners (2017)

I haven’t seen the original Flatliners, but this one’s really terrible. The advertising somehow made me think it was going to be an introspective story about consciousness and life after death, but it’s actually a jump scare movie about how a bunch of doctors purposely kill themselves to gain super powers and then bring something evil back with them when they’re revived. The experiment where they kill themselves, which takes up the first half of the movie, essentially means nothing once the evil thing starts scaring them. Which it seems to do just for fun. It’s really, really whack.

Image: Blade Runner 2049; Warner Bros. | February 23, 2018