The subtitle of the third John Wick installment, Parabellum, is Latin for ‘prepare for war’ and is majestically intoned by Ian McShane’s Winston at a pivotal moment. A viewer might assume that the war takes place in the film itself, but it’s instead mere skirmishes and more preparation in a franchise that started strong and has since become plotless and clogged with borrowed mythology. Maybe the war will come in John Wick 4 upon its release in 2021, or maybe in subsequent sequels after that one. I’ll never know because after the drudgery and repetition of a franchise that has wholly turned itself over to video-game action and episodic filmmaking, I say goodbye to Mr. Wick.
The 2010's as a decade personally represent the crystallization of a hobby that's grown to take up more and more of my life. That hobby is capital-A amateur film criticism, as manifested by a well-maintained Letterboxd page and the thousands of words and dozens of hours of podcasts on this website. So why did I write almost 1200 reviews over that period of time? More importantly, why didn't I take seriously that guy that Bryan and I met at Ebertfest who wanted to promote our website? Where would we be now if that guy turned us towards writing with an environmentally-conscious message? Would climate change be solved by now? We'll never know.
While romantic comedies are in the midst of a comeback thanks to Netflix’s finely tuned algorithm, Long Shot aims its genre attempt at the world of politics at a time when no script can match the absurdity of the real world. The film not only asks the viewer to imagine something like a return to governmental normalcy, but it also proposes Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen as a credible couple. These are big requests, one of which the film pretends doesn’t exist and the other it constantly interrogates. Jonathan Levine, a deft director who knows his way around the line between drama and comedy, accomplishes some of what he needed to with Long Shot, a film that entertains but doesn’t elevate.
The tortuous world lurking under the glossy surface of Toy Story gets taken out once again for more puzzling philosophical questions. Already appearing to be immortal and indestructible, the toys in Pixar’s flagship franchise now seem to be borne out of the slightest humanization, such that a box of googly eyes are the equivalent of god breathing life into Adam dozens of times over. Toy Story 4, like the previous entries, implies endless and interminable torture in the lightest possible package. The animation has never looked more realistic as the animate inanimate objects of the film struggle with a new kid to entertain and the redefinition of their existences. Just don’t think about it too hard.
Documentaries are rarely served by the documentarians themselves appearing in front of the camera. Overheated navel-gazing ensues, or less irritatingly, they fail by being less interesting than the subject they’re filming. The exception to this is Agnes Varda, a distinctive and unique presence who is welcome to talk about herself onscreen for as long as she wants. In her beautiful Faces Places, the iconic French director teams up with youthful photographer JR for a trip through a lesser-seen France, far away from the streets of Paris. The unlikely duo bring joy wherever they go, both to the blue-collar inhabitants of the countryside and to the viewer.
WWE Studios making a biopic about one of its wrestlers immediately stinks of corporate propaganda, and Fighting With My Family doesn’t allay those concerns. Famous past and present wrestlers like The Rock and Big Show make cameo appearances, and there’s little sense of the seamier side of the business as exposed in Beyond the Mat. The film also seems to misunderstand the matches themselves, pretending that they can be won with grit and determination instead of predetermined outcomes based on who management is promoting this week. However, with a strong cast and some subversive moments, Fighting With My Family is nonetheless an entertaining sports flick. The true story of pro wrestler Paige’s emergence from a hardscrabble English life to the lights of the WWE is an amusing charmer that’s more perceptive and warm-hearted than it needed to be.
Liz Lemon from 30 Rock spent an episode traveling back home for a high school reunion that didn’t go as she thought it would. She imagined herself as bullied and overlooked, but her misremembered talent for the perfectly cutting remark meant that she was the bully, pushing her peers into plastic surgery clinics and therapy couches with her emotional brutality. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut finds her own teenage Liz Lemon in Beanie Feldstein’s Molly, a valedictorian who passed on partying to focus on her accomplishments and developed an antipathy towards her less disciplined classmates. With best friend and cohort in teetotaling Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) by her side, who needed all these drunks and skanks who were surely going to peak in their teenage years? Booksmart hilariously follows Molly and Amy as their worldview is turned upside-down in their final days of high school. In this gender and ambition-flipped Superbad for a new generation, the bittersweet emotionality is replicated and the jokes are updated for current sensibilities, losing nothing in their potency.
DC comics movies continue to operate in the shadows of the Marvel juggernaut, but they’ve at least figured out how to avoid critical derision. Wonder Woman took stirring advantage of its place as the first female-led superhero film of the previous ten years, and Aquaman used a mythic, anything-goes approach to bludgeon its audience into awed submission. Both went back to the well-trod heroism well and left Zach Snyder’s overwrought approach, grasping futilely for insight, behind. With Shazam, DC continues its embrace of adolescent filmmaking with some old-fashioned wish fulfillment, while retaining, in pieces, the violent and dark tone from Snyder’s earlier output. This collision produces whiplash and makes it impossible for the very different parts of Shazam to work in harmony.
Laika Studios suffered its biggest failure with Missing Link, an unjust treatment by the moviegoing public for a group of true artisans. The stop-motion animators, increasingly backed up by the largesse of CEO Travis Knight’s father and Nike founder Phil Knight, consistently make beautiful creations and complex stories for the family. Missing Link is no exception, it currently reigns as the biggest box office animated bust of all time. Hopefully, Laika can withstand this blow, because in a sea of CGI, no one else makes movies like they do. Missing Link isn’t up to the standard Laika has set by previous greats and personal favorites Paranorman and Kubo and the Two Strings, but there’s still plenty here to warrant success instead of historical failure.
One of the most indelible images from Mad Men occurred in an episode where Don Draper takes new wife Megan to try out a Howard Johnson chain in upstate New York. He raves about the sherbet, and a serving is brought to Megan in all its unnatural orange glory. The color of the dessert leaps off the screen, though its brightness doesn’t stop Megan from discarding it after a single, disagreeable bite. Those colors are all over a film that may well have inspired Mad Men, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. In its 1950’s setting of wealthy Connecticut, the cars are sparkling pastels, the clothes pop with brightness, and the autumn leaves serve as a tourist advertisement, but all the lives contained within are allowed none of this vibrancy. Haynes’ film is both luxurious and repressed, a clenched fist wrapped in silk that skewers northern self-congratulatory liberalism and looks incredible doing it.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.