Ah, What a Day for Inisfree!


One of the undiluted pleasures of cinema to me is its transportive value, especially when the sense of setting is so powerful a movie makes me absolutely dream of one day finding and living in the place it takes place in. The Irish town of Inisfree, where the 1952 romance The Quiet Man, is not a real place except in the dreams of the filmmaker* but the Irish counties of Mayo and Galway where it was shot certainly are real and The Quiet Man certainly made me desire to one day witness the beautiful lush seemingly endless landscapes of brilliant lively greens in every possible shade met by an unblemished cool blue sky as cinematographer Winton Hoch captured in loud Technicolor. Nor of his serene and wonderfully sleepy view of the streets and churches and fishing holes and all the other domesticities of the town proper, designed and shot with a rustic adoration and intimate amiability.

Yep, you’d have to expect whoever the hell directed a movie that lays its eyes on the Irish lands with clear-eyed endearment with the island. One might even suspect that director to be Irish himself and would be pretty right that there is Irish in the blood of a man who swears his name to be Sean Aloysius O’Fearna or O’Feeney, though we better know him as the All-American director of mostly John Wayne Western vehicles, Mr. John Ford. Which would make it no surprise as well that he brought along Wayne to star this particular film, as the American returning to his birthplace Sean Thornton. What brings Thornton to his old family farm is matter screenwriter Frank S. Nugent leaves to mystery for most of the movie, but in a remarkably unstressed way that doesn’t stop it from striking the film as such an easy comic work where Thornton tries to adapt to the new culture he’s now living within, standing out in his being played by John Wayne, an actor as broadly American from his amused observations to his tall but slightly lazy gait about a land he hasn’t travelled since he was a child.


Absolutely soon as Thornton steps foot into the green glades of his new home, he’s rapt with attention at the young woman wearing cool blue shirt to offset her blazing red hair and skirt shepherding the sheep and who takes immediate moves to avert his gaze. We later learn her to be Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) and even without Thornton’s courting of her, Mary Kate’s eldest brother and the man of the Danaher house Squire “Red” Will (Victor McLaglen, another Ford collaborator who gives a performance as red-faced and sputtering in its mask as in his Oscar-winning turn in The Informer) has his own grievance to hold against Thornton. Squire Danaher had his eyes on White O’Morn, the cottage of Thornton’s birthright residing right in view of the Danaher house, for purchase. Thornton’s return and easy friendship with every town in contrast to Red’s tolerated but undangerous antagony makes it sure quick for Thornton to take back his spot.

Tradition favors the way that Squire Danaher imposes between Thornton and Mary Kate unless Thornton takes up his fists to defend the honor of their courtship and yet Thornton refuses to indulge in that sort of violence, for reasons related to his escape to Ireland. The movie is generous to two separate points of view: the reasons of Thornton’s refusal to fight Squire Danaher are completely understandable and so the issue is not that Thornton refuses to fight a man, but that he doesn’t seem to take Mary Kate’s dignity seriously enough to fight for it in anyway, particularly once they’re married and her brother refuses to the dowry.

This is the least of the places where The Quiet Man could afford Mary Kate some dignity. Nothing really knocks off O’Hara’s proud and fiery approach the character as a woman of her own strong wills, but we may as well identify now that The Quiet Man‘s gender politics are more than a bit regressive when there’s the matter of how one of the movie’s famous kisses is essentially by force. And yet, I can’t help my male privilege showing by getting intoxicated and swooned by how the power of that kiss, not just because of Wayne and O’Hara’s posture as she collapses in his strong arms, but the force within the wind itself blasting into the room from the open doors and windows, threatening to extinguish any flames except their own body heat, practically pushing the two of them together. It’s only one moment of the high-charged eroticism in that restrained 50s visual vocabulary that gives the The Quiet Man the excitement it demands (and it’s not even my favorite – rainy scenes and cemetery scenes are my personal catnip and that particular kiss also has the benefit of not being as manhandling, just so much more tender) and I think that O’Hara and Wayne are able to accomplish that is what makes me move past what is understandably non-preferable material.


And nothing really gets me past the fact that the movie has an extended sequence in the third act where the butt of the joke is “John Wayne drags Maureen O’Hara uncomfortably across a field”. It’s my least favorite moment in the whole film. And yet The Quiet Man doesn’t find Mary Kate contemptible and finds her grievances with Sean’s lack of action the most valid thing, finding her victory even in that dragging scene when it culminates with Sean and the Squire go head-to-head and insisting that the way of life in Inisfree is certainly more pleasant and preferable and possibly even more dignified to Sean’s rigid Americanism.

And what a brilliant fight that is, extended and exaggerated and full of barreling throws and close-ups of Wayne and McLaglen’s faces taking a wallop and wondering what just happened, rolling in lakes and hay and grassy hills. The traveling manner of the fight and the way that practically every single male figure in the vicinity has to involve themselves and exclaim and cheer (including a very wonderful moment involving a man on his very deathbed) just piles on the good humor and nature of this conflict so much so we can’t imagine Sean and the Squire coming out of this with any more bad feelings for each other.

Early in the film, the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) who sells Sean his home mutters “Inisfree is far from heaven”, but Ford absolutely does not believe that and spends the whole movie proving her wrong with a joyous eye for picturesque locations with sequences indicating the idyllic aspect of living in this Island, like a rousing horse race on the shores of Lettergesh or the quiet fishing hole which the easy-going Father Lonergan (Ward Bond, another Ford mainstay) could be found praying for a bite, all blanketed by Victor Young’s arrangement of Irish airs and bouncy slights. And the cast populates it all in unsubtle Irish caricatures full of personality and bouyancy in joy, most of all in the small impish and grinning Barry Fitzgerald’s turn as jaunting car driver Michaeleen “Óg” Flynn. Nothing about the high-spirited sense of humor feels spiteful, it’s just in service to accenting how colorful this community Ford and Nugent and company wanted to erect as a grand collection of all the things that make Ireland great in their eyes.

That’s what animates The Quiet Man, nothing but love from Ford. Love for a people and a land that Ford is aware he comes from turning over into love for a place and characters that he invented, thereby making that love impossibly infectious to leave the movie without. Every inch of Ford’s directorial ability is spent trying to turn Inisfree into a complete wonderland of color and wind, earning him his fourth (and last) Best Director Oscar and making two hours in the most low-key lovely place feel like such a rush that I can’t wait for the next time I go back.

*There IS an island called Innisfree but it’s not the same place.



Ocean Man


There’s gonna be something weird about finally writing about The Shape of Water after it had won its Oscar, as though I’m raining on somebody else’s celebration since I don’t have much happy things to say. But, I plan to eventually review every Best Picture winner and I need to get this out of eventually. And I may as well be happy that Guillermo Del Toro, decidedly one of my favorite filmmakers working today, is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. It’s just not for a movie I have much love for and I’d argue it’s his most ordinary movie yet, which is a hell of a claim for a Gill-Man romance.

Besides Terry Gilliam, nobody stacks up rejected projects like Del Toro. The man collects them like Pokémon. And while the scrapping of Silent Hills and At the Mountains of Madness certainly hurt more, the hurt for his proposed romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake is still searing right there in my heart, so when the trailer for The Shape of Water came out earlier in 2017, I was pretty much giddier for the project than I’ve ever been for a Guillermo Del Toro film in my life. And then when it was announced at the Venice Film Festival that it won the Golden Lion, I was even more sold than I’ve ever been. “They gave their top prize to the movie where Sally Hawkins fucks the gill-man?!” I exclaimed to my friend in excitement when I found out.


So, when I walked out of the movie nowhere near as ecstatic as the folks I saw the movie with, it may very well be a part of my expectations not exactly being met (FULL DISCLOSURE: It may also be that I was suffering a numbing amount of after-work migraines in the film and chose unwisely to join them at a 10:10 pm screening), but I hope I can express well enough – against the tide of praise – why The Shape of Water only occurs to me as fine rather than great. I mean, fine should not be the way I feel after I got my romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake that I’ve been wanting for so damn long.

Except I only got it after sitting through an hour of Guillermo Del Toro’s Crash. I mean, it’s a significantly better version of Crash as directed and co-written by an actual talent and it’s theses about race and society are not as patronizing as Paul Haggis’. But they’re arguably as shallow and distanced, with little interiority afforded by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay to some characters (ie. Octavia Spencer once again having to do the heavylifting for his character with a pretty much one-sided portrayal of a dead marriage displayed 90% via monologue) and used mostly as just more window-dressing to setting the film in the racially, gender-wise, and diplomatically messy time of America on the verge of the Civil Rights. And while the argument could be made that The Shape of Water is in the end not really about these observations, it doesn’t really assuage me when Del Toro and Taylor devote more screentime to these surface level themes than the “fish-fucking” that people like to praise the movie for. And I know Del Toro is intelligent enough to work with these concepts.

That’s a lot of talking about the script without actually establishing what The Shape of Water‘s story is. The straightforward premise of The Shape of Water is how Elisa Esposito (Hawkins, a Mike Leigh alum who I’m always ecstatic to see in movies), a mute janitor for the US government-contracted Occam Laboratories, witnesses them bringing in a mysterious monster (Doug Jones, Del Toro’s reliable monster man) at the height of the Cold War insisting its danger and the potentials of winning the space race from studying the creature. And how after a time, Esposito and the Asset (as it is referred to in the film and credits) come to fall in love to the point that when the authority on the research of the Asset, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon playing an unchallenging part he can do in his sleep, though that doesn’t detract from how far he excels at it), eventually orders its death for dissection, Elisa and her friends craft up a plan to rescue and release the Asset.


It’s pretty much fairytale stuff here and Del Toro is more than aware of that in Paul D. Austerberry’s production design of the early 1960s as a drowned-in green caricature of urban and domestic ghosts left over from the likes of American Graffiti which feels like the least creative design of Del Toro’s career since Hellboy, frankly mundane and even within the transparently sinister laboratories and the unglamorous period settings – or in the very calm and paternal delivery of the narration like lulling somebody to sleep by Richard Jenkins’ character, Elisa’s best friend and closeted advertising artist Giles (who is both the best performance in the film and the most shaded of all the characters arguably, given his very own subplot in regards to an infatuation he has and the depression brought about by the state of his career).

And yet The Shape of Water takes its sweet time trying to correct its course on tone between self-conscious social commentary, government thriller, monster movie, or broad romance and Del Toro for the first time can’t perform this function without every scene transition feeling thudded and sudden (including a huge gap in the developing relationship between Elisa and The Asset that feels rushed because of how overstuffed the social commentary makes The Shape of Water), which is why it’s no surprise that when the movie finally dedicates itself fully to thriller once Elisa and her friends decide to take action for The Asset’s survival. It’s much more focused and tighter at that point and even does more to earn the swooning final beat of the whole film than any of the slightness that inhabited the first half of the movie.

That The Shape of Water catches its footing the more it progresses as a narrative is a good portion of why it doesn’t distress me as much that I came away kind of disappointed. There are more than a few inspired elements within the film even before I feel it sticks the landing, like Alexandre Desplat’s tender score inputting delicate passions and vulnerabilities to underscore the characters’ living situations, the way that Giles is an unabashed movie fanatic which can’t help feeling informed by how much of a cinephile Del Toro is (sure, it’s part of what makes the movie overstuffed but it at least feels… real), and of course to say nothing of the wonderful texture and sleekness (slimy but not disgusting) of the monster suit Jones dons as The Asset, living and breathing and moving on its own terms and brought to life even further by post-production effects that surge lights through its body to shape a divinity into the creature and make him fascinating and scene-stealing with big round cutesy eyes to sell it as… well, a fish out of water while Jones moves with apprehensiveness and curiosity at the world around him.

It’s not a total loss, that’s just a fact. But I’d rather had a wholly great film like Del Toro has often given me than a halfway good movie. Still in the end, Del Toro will be ok and will hardly care what I think about the movie that got him two Oscars, the success of which probably ensures less adversity in his developing projects as he had faced all throughout his career. And he’s had more than enough great movies not to lose an ounce of good will from me just on account of The Shape of Water. Most of all, there’s no real context by which I could claim Del Toro was really… uninspired. The man loves making movies and feels like everything he makes comes from a labor of love. Just sometimes that doesn’t result in something every single one of his fans dig and that’s a-ok. We could do worse with our passion projects sometimes*.

*I say as I side-eye Mute.


Capsules – The Oscar Nominees I Haven’t Come Around to Reviewing

So… in the immediate future is definitely The Shape of Water (now that it fa sho won) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (ideally leading up to that Han Solo movie nobody asked for) but in the meanwhile there are definitely some of the other Oscar nominees that I totally have words for but don’t feel like writing a whole review for because it’s fucking March and the only 2018 movie I reviewed so far is fucking Maze Runner. I gotta move on (and get my Year-End post in soon)

I’m sure there’s eventually going to be a context where I can provide full reviews for most of these movies (like I will not die before reviewing every Spielberg movie for example), but in the meantime… here’s my capsule thoughts on particular Oscar nominees:


Call Me by Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino, Italy/USA/Brazil/France)

It’s cut like hell. Like, “I need to use up different takes of the same shot and so lemme try to paste them together with this cross for 3 seconds” hell. OK, got that out of the way.

It’s also no less sensual a film than any of Guadagnino’s other pictures, aided by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s soft humid summer photography and the relaxed staging of every character to malaise us enough that gives us patience through the slow simmer of the central romance and follows up by making every moment of extreme passion feel like a punctuation to a wonderfully lazy summer film. Definitely in the upper tier of the Best Picture nominees.

I am not at all qualified to talk about the age gap controversy.


Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, USA)

An explicit lesson in how movies can totally not be for me, like independent coming-of-age movies with ordinary aesthetical decisions usually are, and still be a fine movie without any real deficit to its existence. I’d definitely the lion’s share of that credit to the cast and their ability to live-in the characters Gerwig drafts out of her clearly autobiographical script. I’m especially annoyed Metcalf had to lose against Janney (Manville moreso but she didn’t really have a chance and Metcalf had such a good shot and gave such a great performance).

Also fuck Kyle and also Julie is fucking MVP.


Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)

(This one I kind of want to write a full-length review for soon, but if I can’t find the time…)

I’m still kind of shocked that Paul Thomas Anderson made one of the few movies here I was rooting hella for during the Oscars, but it does help that he has three superlative possibly career-best (albeit Krieps is just starting) performances at the center of it and he developed… actually no, I don’t wanna say he developed a sense of humor because his movies kind of always had that, but Phantom Thread‘s sense of humor is so much more on my wavelength than anything else he made. It’s probably not better than There Will Be Blood, but I wonder if it’s not better-made if you understand what I’m saying: it’s a movie so self-consciously aware of its own craft and the payoff is that the craft is in and of itself impressive. Such would have to be the case when your art is about artists.


The Post (dir. Steven Spielberg, USA)

I think we can all agree that Spielberg got to a point where he stopped trying with every project he made and just made movies because it’s the only way he can breathe, but even when he’s absolutely not giving a real damn about the project except as something to keep him busy in the middle of the damn video game movie, The Post is still mostly tight.

I mean, mostly.

And like Lady Bird, it also has a cast that is so much more dedicated than the script asks them too, including Bob Odenkirk starring in his own personal little thriller within the movie and Meryl Streep giving her best performance in a long time drowning in expectations and uncertainties.


I, Tonya (dir. Craig Gillespie, USA)

This industry isn’t really doing right by Margot Robbie when she’s able to knock out performances like this often for whatever slumming picture she’s in (and I, Tonya is absolutely not slumming… Gillespie has seen Goodfellas and gotten all the right lessons from it) and she’s still not Le Movie Star right here right now.


All the Money in the World (dir. Ridley Scott, USA)

This movie was not worth salvaging but at least we got another great Christopher Plummer performance out of it.


The Disaster Artist (dir. James Franco, USA)

That this was ever in consideration for the big Oscars still makes my brain hurt. It has such contradictory problems: it’s devoted to providing a dumbass “follow your dreams” narrative for a man who is a monster that the movie isn’t nearly as incisive and indicting towards yet still wants to treat as a fucking alien for cheap giggles. It’s sloppy in the way only a filmmaker like Franco who thinks himself a higher artist than he actually is could make.

It’s also self-congratulatory in every unbearable manner, especially in the fact that it only exists to show off James Franco’s bland Tommy Wiseau impression.


Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich, USA)

Like Spielberg, there definitely came a point where Pixar stopped trying and like Spielberg, they’re still kind of nailing it. Coco isn’t necessarily revelatory in any narrative sense, but it’s still effective as tearjerker (especially since I saw it days after my grandmother passed away) and eyewatering as spectacle based in festive oranges and blues.

Plus, hey, it’s fantastic to me how positive about death the movie is as a result of its respect for Mexican culture. And I don’t need to mention the positives of Latin representation, which makes me very very happy Coco won its Oscar.

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour (dir. Joe Wright, UK/USA)

Hahahahahaha who the fuck thought this Seth MacFarlane workplace comedy was a good fucking movie? Is it just because Bruno Delbonnel can never not make movies look so fucking gorgeous?

Predictions for the 90th Academy Awards

You know how it is, let’s do this.


  • Call Me by Your Name
  • Darkest Hour
  • Dunkirk
  • Get Out
  • Lady Bird
  • Phantom Thread
  • The Post
  • The Shape of Water
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

PREDICTION: The Shape of Water
MY PICK: Phantom Thread

There’s still talk of it being a five-horse race or something and I just don’t see it happening at all. The only two horses I see battling in this is Shape of Water and Three Billboards, with the momentum highly in Shape of Water‘s failure while Billboards is tripped up by its lack of Director nomination. The only possible thing in Shape of Water‘s way at this point is the blunt fact that it’s a movie about fucking a fish, but c’mon… my mom loves the fish-fucking movie. My mom is not the sort of person who’d love a fish-fucking movie. The fish-fucking movie is taking it.


  • Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread
  • Guillermo Del Toro – The Shape of Water
  • Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
  • Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk
  • Jordan Peele – Get Out

PREDICTION: Guillermo Del Toro
MY PICK: Paul Thomas Anderson

If I had time-travelled four years into the past to let past me know that I was going to be rooting for Paul Thomas Anderson to win over Guillermo Del Toro, Past Me would have shot Future Me thinking he was an imposter. And yet here we are and while Del Toro is possibly my least favorite entry in this slate (I’m honestly not too fond of Gerwig’s direction myself), I’m still more than ready to see a filmmaker I adore who has an open heart for cinema win his Oscar. I’ll pretend it’s for The Devil’s Backbone or Cronos instead, but just because he made one movie I’m not a fan of doesn’t mean I stop being a Del Toro fan by any means.


  • Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water
  • Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
  • Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
  • Meryl Streep – The Post


Have we ever had another Oscar Season where every single one of the categories felt as locked as they do here? I mean, the Actor category is a bit shaky but I’ll get to that in a moment. Meanwhile, Frances is on her way to a second Oscar and boy would it have been great to see her give Casey Affleck an earful if he hadn’t chickened out.


  • Timothée Chalamet – Call Me by Your Name
  • Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread
  • Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
  • Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour
  • Denzel Washington – Roman J. Israel, Esq.

MY PICK: Having not seen Washington’s performance, I’m going with Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m also giving longing looks to Kaluuya.

So, do we think the Oscars give a damn enough about Oldman being a dick to not give him his career Oscar? I don’t.


  • Mary J. Blige – Mudbound
  • Allison Janney – I, Tonya
  • Lesley Manville – Phantom Thread
  • Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
  • Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water

PREDICTION: Allison Janney
MY PICK: Lesley Manville

*shrug* I can see Metcalf maybe inching in, but Janney seems set on that award.


  • Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project
  • Woody Harrelson – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Richard Jenkins – The Shape of Water
  • Christopher Plummer – All the Money in the World
  • Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

PREDICTION: Same Rockwell
MY PICK: Willem Dafoe

*shrug* lock.


  • Guillermo Del Toro & Vanessa Taylor – The Shape of Water
  • Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
  • Kumail Nanjiani & Emily V. Gordon – The Big Sick
  • Jordan Peele – Get Out
  • Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

PREDICTION: Martin McDonagh
MY PICK: Jordan Peele

This is kind of anybody’s call. But I can’t see Three Billboards only winning acting Oscars, even if this is possibly the only place we can also expect Gerwig and Peele to take things home.


  • Scott Frank, James Mangold, & Michael Green – Logan
  • James Ivory – Call Me by Your Name
  • Scott Nuestadter & Michael H. Weber – The Disaster Artist
  • Dee Rees & Virgil Williams – Mudbound
  • Aaron Sorkin – Molly’s Game

MY PICK: Dee Rees & Virgil Williams

The one best Picture nominee here versus a not-that-well-celebrated Sorkin and three other nominees just lucky to be there? I mean, come on.


  • The Boss Baby
  • The Breadwinner
  • Coco
  • Ferdinand
  • Loving Vincent

MY PICK: Loving Vincent



  • A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
  • The Insult (Lebanon)
  • Loveless (Russia)
  • On Body and Soul (Hungary)
  • The Square (Sweden)

PREDICTION: A Fantastic Woman
I have no pick because I saw less than half of these movies.

It would probably feel like an insult to invite the star of A Fantastic Woman to present without giving her the aware in consideration of the distance she’s traveling and the politics. It’s also just the most beloved of the nominees by a lot. I could see The Square – with its Palme d’Or mileage – taking it, but pls no.


  • Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
  • Faces Places
  • Icarus
  • Last Men in Aleppo
  • Strong Island

PREDICTION: Faces Places
MY PICK: Faces Places

I have too much hope and maybe my head is just so much in the sand, but like… Faces Places is so likable. The only weird thing is the idea of her winning an Honorary Oscar AND a competitive Oscar in the same ceremony, but I dream for the best nominee in the whole ceremony.


  • Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049
  • Bruno Delbonnel – Darkest Hour
  • Hoyte van Hoytema – Dunkirk
  • Dan Laustsen – The Shape of Water
  • Rachel Morrison – Mudbound

PREDICTION: Dan Laustsen
MY PICK: Bruno Delbonnel

This feels a lot more open game than you’d expect, which should be promising to Deakins except he’s also Deakins and he’s going up against three Best Picture nominees. I picked the one certain to win Best Picture just to pad its numbers up a bit even though I’m not convinced it ain’t the worst looking of these nominees.


  • Paul Denham Austerberry, Shane Vieau, & Jeff Melvin – The Shape of Water
  • Nathan Crowley & Gary Fettis – Dunkirk
  • Dennis Gassner & Alessandra Querzola – Blade Runner 2049
  • Sarah Greenwood & Katie Spencer – Beauty and the Beast
  • Sarah Greenwood & Katie Spencer – Darkest Hour

PREDICTION: Paul Austerberry, Shane Vieau, & Jeff Melvin
MY PICK: Dennis Gassner & Alessandra Querzola

The Shape of Water gotta rolling up them Oscars like Pokémon if it wanna win the big boy awards. Gotta flex.


  • Consolata Boyle – Victoria & Abdul
  • Mark Bridges – Phantom Thread
  • Jacqueline Durran – Beauty and the Beast
  • Jacqueline Durran – Darkest Hour
  • Luis Sequera – The Shape of Water

PREDICTION: Mark Bridges
MY PICK: Mark Bridges

I’m going by the logic that the Academy has eyes, but they did fucking nominate Beauty and the Beast.


  • Jon Gregory – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Paul Machliss & Jonathan Amos – Baby Driver
  • Tatiana S. Riegel – I, Tonya
  • Lee Smith – Dunkirk
  • Sidney Wolinsky – The Shape of Water

MY PICK: Paul Machliss & Jonathan Amos

War film that’s also a Best Picture nominee and an structural experiment? It’s pretty damn obvious.


  • Carter Burwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water
  • Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread
  • John Williams – Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Hans Zimmer – Dunkirk

PREDICTION: Alexandre Desplat
MY PICK: Alexandre Desplat

I still throw up a bit in my mouth looking at this slate and so I had to pick one of the two nominees that don’t give me hives to maintain my sanity.


  • Darkest Hour
  • Victoria & Abdul
  • Wonder

PREDICTION: Darkest Hour
MY PICK: I’m good, fam.



  • Baby Driver
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Dunkirk
  • The Shape of Water
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi

MY PICK: Dunkirk


  • Baby Driver
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Dunkirk
  • The Shape of Water
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi

MY PICK: Dunkirk

War! Huh! Yeah! What is it good for? Sounding real fucking good!


  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  • Kong: Skull Island
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • War for the Planet of the Apes

PREDICTION: Blade Runner 2049
MY PICK: War for the Planet of the Apes

Man, this is way impossible to take a shot at and I’m just really hoping Star Wars doesn’t get it because if there’s a reason The Last Jedi disappointed me, it’s in the effects.


  • “Mighty River” – Mudbound
  • “Mystery of Love” – Call Me by Your Name
  • “Remember Me” – Coco
  • “Stand Up for Something” – Marshall
  • “This Is Me” – The Greatest Showman

PREDICTION: “Remember Me”
MY PICK: I’m good, fam.

“This Is Me” is kind of treated as a joke, isn’t it? It’s the only one that can possibly knock off Coco, but I’ve never heard somebody say something nice about that song.


  • Dekalb Elementary
  • The Eleven O’Clock
  • My Nephew Emmett
  • The Silent Child
  • Watu Wote/All of Us

PREDICTION: Dekalb Elementary


  • Dear Basketball
  • Garden Party
  • Lou
  • Negative Space
  • Revolting Rhymes

PREDICTION: Negative Space


  • Edith+Eddie
  • Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405
  • Heroin(e)
  • Knife Skills
  • Traffic Stop


As always, I am approaching the short films from an angle of “I HAVE NO FUCKING IDEA WHAT I’M DOING”. I just picked Dekalb and Heroin(e) out of “Importance” as a rubric. I mean, Traffic Stop could still clear that rubric too but from what I heard, it doesn’t have much else going for it, so…

We Are Two People in One Body. Nanas of the Old and the Force of the New.


Being the first feature film theatrically distributed in the United States – a release as regrettably recent as 1991 – should be the kind of milestone that ensures a director’s subsequent commercial success and a mainstay in cinema history and yet here we are and I didn’t even know the name of UCLA graduate Julie Dash until literally a year ago, despite a familiarity with the L.A. Rebellion cinema movement for several years and having actually seen and vividly remembered one of her movies from a high school viewing – the underrated television movie The Rosa Parks Story with Angela Bassett. And while there are plenty of great filmmakers I’m unfamiliar with and personal anecdotes is no real method to measure the popularity of an artist, the fact that Dash has been almost entirely relegated to television work since Daughters of the Dust‘s premiered at Sundance 17 years ago and won a very much deserved Best Cinematography award at that same festival for Arthur Jafa.

Maybe Dash likes working in TV, maybe she can’t find the actual funding for the cinematic projects she wants to do. It’s a goddamn shame either way that she doesn’t return very much to the big screen or that her works are generally hard to find, because Daughters of the Dust is one of the most arresting cinematic experiences in all my life of movie-watching. Every syllable of its language – in terms of mood, in dialogue, in terms of structure – there’s very little I’ve seen like it. The movie’s closest sibling to me is Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé in how they both seem to exude these intoxicating atmospheres from lush settings to a manner where it makes the film feel so organic and yet they’re both still worlds AND cultures apart.


The culture at the center of Daughters of the Dust is the Lowcountry-based Gullah community, isolated descendants of African slaves developing their own creole language and dialect while mixing in Western dress and housing with the traditions and religion of their West African backgrounds, deep in the forests of lonely islands. I don’t know how much of the mainland formal dress of the characters in Daughters of the Dust is specific only to our subjects, the Peazant family off the coast of Georgia in Ibo Landing, but it is undeniably part of what gives the film such a heightened fantastical atmosphere that we have such a small functioning community cut off from the rest of the world in its rusticity and how fluidly it could mix in with the Caribbean spiritualism that is highly in practice from the primary matriarch of the film Nana (Cora Lee Day).

You see why the dresses and suits and the technological modern elements brought by photographer Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks) would possibly be seeping into the lifestyle of the Peazants and the rest of the Gullah people in this film is because of how most of them intend to leave Ibo and move into mainland America and adopt modern lifestyles, leaving behind the Gullah way. There are those, such as the traditional Nana or the young smitten Iona (Bahni Turpin), who object to the concept of leaving behind the site or ways. And in many a manner, alongside the florid elegant costumes – given wonderful aged tactility by Arline Burks Gant – and Mr. Snead’s enthusiastic explanation of the science behind his work, there are signs that Western culture has already intruded into Ibo Landing’s Gullah community, such as the return of the Christian Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) and the liberal Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), both of them having already made a life outside of Ibo Landing within the cities and both of them clearly at odds with each other. Mary herself brings along her outsider lover Trula (Trula Hoosier), disrupting the isolationism status of the island. And there is also the recent rape of Eula (Alva Rogers) by a white man, which evidently resulted in a pregnancy that distresses her marriage to Eli (Adisa Anderson). There’s already been intrusions in this community that urges their leaving behind their cultural identity for a world that doesn’t care about them or to remember them, responded to by an all-too-impeccable cast. There’s already a fear that their history with slavery has injected homogeneity and disenfranchisement, even when they’re far away from the white man’s clutches.

In fact, Dash and editors Amy Carey & Joseph Burton do something really radical with the structure of all this sprawling internal family drama, which is to first establish these tales told in patches with no specific point of view from which we observe this family’s final gathering before the migration up north splits them apart except Eula’s future daughter (Kay-Lynn Warren), playing a much more direct reflection of these events than something like Linda Manz in Days of Heaven and at some points having her present in these settings impossibly. The effect is simple yet powerful: we’re watching essentially a memory, maybe an oral history being passed down by the daughter to generations. It feels present, it feels absolutely vivid thanks to Jafa’s beautiful awareness of how to dry the tones in the slowly dying community yet ramp up the inky blues and reds and oranges of the coastline as in to look forward to what’s beyond the horizon rather than the cracked graveyards and humble abodes of the characters (there is also some brilliant character-based color design in some of the rooms, painterly and revealing).


It’s a story being told in a manner that is aware of the future for its characters to the point that it’s already sort of living in that future. And it doubles up on that temporal bending with Dash inputting the actual history of the Gullah people’s development and escape from slavery, especially the historical mass suicide of 1803 and what kind of sacrifices were made for the land that the Peazants are decidedly leaving behind. This contextualization, despite the history of Ibo Landing, isn’t entirely melancholic. It’s resigned but it’s also relaxed, essentially a movie you don’t really watch for the plot but sink into this world knowing that it’s going to leave soon and wanting to savor every last image and moment you can remain inside of it. Dash clearly has an overwhelming amount of love for the Gullah culture, it being a part of her father’s background and thus informing her existence and it shows in the detail with which she evokes so many different histories into this free-wheeling experiment attempting to translate the oral storytelling language of Gullah into cinema.

It’s not a perfect film, wearing both the modest budget and dating of the production in the 90s on its sleeve involuntarily. Jafa in particular, for all his experimenting with the imagery gives it so much character (and it’s never not a gorgeous movie), also has some false notes with slow-motion and deliberately fuzzy looks. But these are minor quibbles compared to the way that Daughters of the Dust challenges the viewer with storytelling that Dash’s future career ensures we’re probably never going to witness again and rewards that viewer with the dreamiest island environments and humanly messy conflicts one could be privy to before bidding the Peazants farewell from their home and us from the film’s living and breathing memories.


Blood’s Thicker Than Mud


I have only one criticism of Mudbound, Dee Rees’ sophomore feature adapting Hillary Jordan’s novel, so I’m gonna open with it and then be flatout done talking shit about Mudbound. Especially because it isn’t really an entirely fair criticism and it isn’t even close to justifying the amount of sleeping done on the film. But here I go anyway stating my obvious feeling about Mudbound: It is not as interesting looking a film as I’d like it to be. Much as I am happy to see Rachel Morrison’s name show up on the Oscar nominees for Best Cinematography (the very first woman to receive the honor), it is way too clean for the grubby tale of generational hardships in the South that Mudbound is, threatening to be the one element that gets in the way of allowing us to sink into the many points of view Mudbound provides because of how aesthetically picturesque the imagery is. It’s not as though Morrison doesn’t know how to settle the tone of the story, especially in the darker moments where she’s so mindful of shadows and rural color tones in a dusty olden manner, but it’s way too sharp in a modern way to not hold the viewer at a divide in the time setting.

But of course, “you’re too good at your job” is the best kind of criticism to have for some. And I like to think that my expectations were way too high on account of Dee Rees’ debut feature Pariah being handily one of the best-looking movies of the decade, possibly the century if I’m wildin’ a bit. And considering the quality of literally everything else in Mudbound, it’s still no excuse for the lack of marketing and campaigning on the part of Netflix, the lack of attention given to it by viewers, and the lack of love given it to it by an awards season that was DEFINITELY aware of its existence but still acted like better movies were around this year.

Yeah, I think at this point it should be obvious this is less a review than a rant, but I’ll try to reign it back after one more unqualified superlative: Mudbound is not only better than Pariah in otherwise every way, making the sort of evolutionary step in direction one dreams of out of the talented Rees, it’s also better than possibly all of Best Picture nominees this year*.


OK, wait one more superlative and this one I will be able to qualify: In spite of Bright and Mute‘s… *giggle* “world-building” and the production value of a Jolie film and all those super pigs, I handily believe Mudbound is the most ambitious film Netflix has released. Narrative and thematic ambition, mind you. There’s no super-pigs here. What Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams have managed to thread out of Jordan’s novel is a sprawling view of 1940s Mississippi and when I say sprawling, I mean sprawling. The screenplay casts its net wide on what it whats to observe about the state of existence in the years of and after World War II, what that means for a black woman to feel obligated out of survival to have to neglect her own children for the well-being of another, what that means for a black man to be in a position where he can build or earn his own property and yet the state of American society steels leaves him to be trampled underfoot, what it means to be a white woman resigned to domesticity too quickly to stifle her own romantic dreams and sinking into misery, what it means to be an entitled white man on the road to being the gargoyle of his monstrous father but desperate to establish a decent household in financially hard times.

The black woman is Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), the black man is her husband Hap (Rob Morgan). The white woman is Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), the white man is her husband Henry (Jason Clarke), son of the odious racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks). In the middle of all of this is still the perspectives of Florence and Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), both of whom are drafted overseas to Europe in the thick of the war and discover a vastly more different environment than America – especially Ronsel, treated less objectionably for his skin color (this watering down of Europe’s own racism would possibly be more objectionable to me if it weren’t co-written by a black woman) – then return to the same old miserable South they came from.


It’s a film of many themes and many perspective (pretty much all the characters I named except Pappy have their points of view adopted by the movie): masculine camaraderie, surrounding violence, both sides of abandonment (as we later learn more about Ronsel’s life in Europe), the trauma of war, the resilience of enlightened youth versus the resignment of tired old. Race, gender, class. It’s all explored in this tapestry of the toughness of life and all the angles they have to come from: man or nature or cruelty or desperation. None of these elements are approached with less than the amount of intimacy that Rees afforded her lead character in Pariah. It’s the kind of storytelling that makes me think that Rees could make any movie in the world from this point on and do a decent job with it.

But as Ebert said, it’s not what you’re about, it’s how you’re about it. All the Great American Novel approaches in the world could not get me over the moon about this movie if it weren’t an incredible piece of craftsmanship, such as how Mako Kamitsuna deftly cuts into moments to give ownership of the moment to a particular character so we can understand their inner commentary, sometimes to more than one character at a time just by mere patience and condensing all of the things Mudbound wants to say into a powerful 2-hour package.

And there’s an even bigger gambit in between all of the sound design making us feel the infertile soil beneath the characters’ feet reflecting off of their inability to grow out of their situation with the decision to use multiple narrative voiceovers for our six characters, which is just an insanely bad idea most times. Mudbound is not one of those times, Rees and the soundtrack fully able to space out those voiceovers to work for interiority of character and them lift off of them for sweeping grandiosity, a providing of several pieces of a larger picture of a time and place that is far in the past without having the same sort of divide the cinematography gives us. This isn’t necessarily something that would be easy without the help of one of the year’s best ensembles, who prove to be just as adept at soulful recitations of thoughts as they are at weary postures showcasing how hard life has stepped on them** and their struggle to still retain humanity and dignity in all of that, but the fact that Rees could make such an outrageous move in only her second feature and pull it off without a false note ringing in any of the voiceover work should be enough of a indication of what a miracle Netflix’s most worthy Oscar contender yet has been.

*The only real nominee that gives it a run for its money rhymes with Thantom Phread.
**And mind you after everything the characters go through, the ending feels so emotionally right. I felt like crying.


The Final Level


There’s some kind of consensus going around that producer Berry Gordy’s 1985 Motown martial arts vehicle The Last Dragon is a movie that’s only possibly enjoyable in an ironic sense. Its status as a cult classic is uncontested, yet it maintains a low critical score on Rotten Tomatoes at 44% (audience score is significantly higher at 86%) and is considered by critics as respected as Leonard Maltin as “strictly kid-stuff”.

And I’m just here to say that’s straight up fucking bullshit.

There are to be fair more than a few flaws and faults of The Last Dragon as a motion picture, but I think it’s massively outweighed by just how much entertainment value it has overall and the different ways it functions as such – as cheesy martial arts inspirational movie, as relentless and genuine 80s time capsule (especially pre-Giuliani New York City), as African-American representation. And it doesn’t function as those things individually in a perfect way, but altogether it’s a singular object of grin-forcing fun.


And it gets that way because Gordy and director Michael Schultz approached the film’s production and style no differently than that of a music video. Apparently they did not wanting a single frame to be empty of something to show off and resulting in a film always energized with lights and motion, arguably at the cost of consistent narrative or thematic depth but that’s not rare in 1980s cinema to begin with and it don’t bother me none. The very beginning of the film is shot like an Olympic commercial, focusing on the shape and power of young martial artist Taimak. It’s all slow-motion backlit swift and controlled karate moves, the kind you want to linger on when you intend for the subject to be a remembered star — punctuated by Taimak’s real-life chopping of an arrow in mid-flight. An action force to be reckoned with is introduced to us and then we see how he is housed in the body of the boyish naive Leroy Green under the guidance of a master (Thomas Ikeda) who insists that Leroy is finally ready to move on beyond his training in achievement of the Final Level, at which point Leroy will receive The Glow. That last part is kind of hard to parse out to be honest, but it seems to be an achievement akin to Super Saiyan status.

In any case, he sends Leroy on his way to explore the concrete jungle of New York City in which they reside on his own and the first thing the now lost Leroy decides to do is his favorite pastime of catching Bruce Lee movies at the local 42nd street theater. Which is one of the ways The Last Dragon incorporates reflexivity unknowingly, the way that Leroy looks up to Lee and watches the O’Hara fight in Enter the Dragon with rapt attention and wonder at Lee’s abilities without the slightest distraction from the characteristically New York-ian raucous crowd surrounding him – it’s the most effective way to tell us how much the character wants to be Lee in a film where we hear him referred to directly as “Bruce Leroy” and respected because of his adherence to the discipline of the martial arts, enough to operate his own dojo in Harlem. That The Last Dragon also has some Orientalist bent in the third act including twists that are extremely ungenerous and feel mean-spirited, given how much that culture inspires and animates its very hero. Not to mention, it’s always a kindred joy to have a movie hero that loves movies just as passionately as the viewer.


There’s another sort of style that animates the film and that’s simply the music. Almost given as much screentime as Leroy’s Chinese inspirations is the apparent MTV-esque video music show 7th Heaven hosted by gorgeous VJ Laura Charles (Vanity) and Gordy and Schultz use that as the perfect opportunity to shove in a few music videos from the Motown label including Debarge’s “Rhythm of the Night”, which is the biggest nostalgia kick for me. 7th Heaven as a set alone is glimmering and flashy and shiny in such a loud 80s nightclub type of way, filled with dizzying mirrors sets and lasers, that it feels just at home for the impromptu pop setpieces that Vanity performs as an interlude to all the combat. And of course that’s to say nothing of the hilarious “Dirty Books”, a deliberately awful attempt at the vapidest New Wave knock-off you could find, performed by the lovable Faith Prince and with a gaudy bedroom set and even gaudier costumes for Prince to wear, basically literal trash attempting very transparently to pass off as fashion but completely betraying that it’s a traffic sign sewn over her butt and hazard lights over her breasts.

Between all of this, it’s no surprise that Def Jam Recordings later recruited Schultz for their own classic Hip Hop Artists musical vehicle Krush Groove (released later in the same year). Schultz also happened to direct Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is the closest predecessor in his career to a movie this music-based and so I’m mortified by the possibility that that atrocity could have inspired Gordy to hire Schultz for this movie but hey… we got The Last Dragon out of it and hot damn does it pay off in extravagance, musical number-wise and action setpiece-wise (I’m not really surprising when I say the Glow does make an appearance and it’s literally exactly what it sounds like and it is chintzy and awesome to see in action).


“Dirty Books” is more or less the element that ignites the closest thing The Last Dragon could call a plot as Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney), the gangster girlfriend to Prince’s character Angela, attempts continuously to blackmail and threaten Laura into playing the video on 7th Heaven only to be thwarted again and again by Leroy’s happening at the right place at the right time (and each time Laura’s infatuation with him grows to the anxiety of the clearly inexperienced Leroy). Eventually, it gets to a point where Arkadian decides to escalate his battle with Leroy to using the big gun and… well, by that point, we’ve already met the big gun but I held off until the very end to give one of my favorite characters of all time a proper introduction.

Arkadian, despite being more rooted in the plot, is not the main antagonist. No, our main antagonist is introduced in that same 42nd street theater we see Leroy watch Enter the Dragon in and immediately starts ripping the scenery apart with his angry jaws. He’s loud and bombastic, maintaining a tall stance and a twisted snarl on his face that telegraphs how clearly antagonistic the character is without making him any less fun to watch. He spits an exhaustive amount of quotable lines like “Kiss my converse!” and “You just get that sucker to the designated place at the designated time, and I will gladly designate his ass for dismemberment!” with dedicated oversold menace barely hiding how much joy he gets quipping like that. And every moment he’s on-screen is a highlight of The Last Dragon. For all it banks on personalities – especially given how easily Vanity plays celebrity seductress in a surprisingly clean way, I think she kind of needs more credit for that performance – the late, great Julius Carry gifts us with a personality that adopts the aggressive belligerence of 80s New York City to the unapologetic hamminess of movie villany from his wild hair to his loose black-and-red (the colors of EVIL!) gi. If there’s any one reason you need to watch The Last Dragon right this second (and there are many), it is this character.

Is he the meanest? Is he the prettiest? Is he the baddest mofo low down around this town? Well who is he? Who is he? He can’t hear you…


The Shogun of Harlem.


Cured of My Will to Live


So, here’s a thing: it’s already hard enough to get your ass up out to the theater to watch a movie you honestly don’t want to watch. Who wants to waste their time and money like that, right? It’s even more difficult when you’re in my previous position with Maze Runner: The Death Cure where I kept having to re-schedule the opportunities around my work and opportunities to see that movie do not come easily because it is 2 AND A MOTHERFUCKING HALF HOURS LONG, got damn. And yet, here I am having finally seen it and so very eager to get this franchise wrapped up that I started typing the moment I got home from the theater.

And I do have some words of praise to afford the filmmakers: first off, to actually seeing the franchise all the way to the end right at the cusp of when young adult dystopia material was reaching at its end, particularly in the wake of the Divergent series’ decision to give up. Several young adult franchises involved splitting the final book in their respective literary source series into two movies unnecessarily as has been the fad since Harry Potter‘s films and this is something Maze Runner did not choose to do, to my significant esteem. I suppose this decision may have been less spurred by narrative integrity than by the fact that as of the time Maze Runner: The Death Cure has been released, it has been a little under 2 years since The Divergent Series: Allegiant underperformed and a little over 2 years after The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 underperformed, a death knell to the type of material The Maze Runner operates in. But that circumstance is also why the tenacity of the filmmakers impresses me almost as much as the fact that they have been financially rewarded for their faith. And particularly since it’s no big secret that gap of time was prolonged by the unfortunate injury of lead actor Dylan O’Brien during filming, at which point the studio decided to hold off until he could recuperate properly because nobody needs to die while making a movie.


OK, and now with all that young adult adaptation background that I am very ashamed to have at my disposal, I can actually praise Maze Runner: The Death Cure for something actually within the text of the film itself: not only is it better than its predecessors – a low bar to clear – it might possibly be a decent watchable movie. That claim requires many caveats: to begin with, you have to have watched the first two movies because there is no hand-holding flashback or recap opening the film and – welcome in the wake of the exposition vomit that made up the scripts of Maze Runner and Scorch Trials – most of the movie is spent in actual narrative momentum with a clear objective in mind. That objective being, after the final moments of Scorch Trials where the evil corporation WCKD who accidentally invented desert zombies (zombies that don’t really appear as much in Death Cure except within the bookends) kidnaps several friends of our hero Thomas (O’Brien), he and his team arranges to break into WCKD’s walled metropolitan safe haven to specifically save Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Specifically Minho. I mean, sure there’s other folks that they mean to rescue but they only wanna mention Minho.

OK, I’m going to admit at this point while I’m getting snarky that while I’m sure The Death Cure pays off significantly to those who have been invested in the struggles of Thomas, his right hand man Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Brenda (Rosa Salazar). As I’m sure anybody who followed the last two movies could figure out, I was not at all and while I concede that the movie does very well to collect all of the threads of the story and tie them into a neat conclusion, it ain’t my jam. For one thing, the kids’ acting got worse with the way they try to escalate and intensify their responses to each situation with puppy dog attempts at gruff exclamations of “shit!” and this is shoved in our faces when Brodie-Sangster has an arbitrary development to his character that feels nothing more than mean-spirited. He does little else with it than bark at other characters often and hyperventilate because Newt – like pretty much every other ally – doesn’t really have a personality beyond “is loyal to Thomas”.


It’s also shoved in our faces when the group’s mission is made complicated on the sudden romantic implication between Thomas and fellow Glader Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) that seems hella outta nowhere, especially considering how sex-less the first Maze Runner pointedly was about a girl living enclosed amongst boys and how little time they spent together in The Scorch Trials before Teresa was revealed to be a turncoat for WCKD. That the heroic group is apprehensive about Thomas’ desire to find some good in her again despite accepting the mid-film reveal of an easily guessable previously-thought-dead* murderous villain who apparently changed between movies from a violent psycho into a brusque senior rebel to look up to with few objections is just one of many inconsistencies that I rolled with because I wanted this movie to wrap up.

These threads are also the subject of an ending that really wants to sell you on the gravitas of the situation by suddenly taking stakes at the last minute that were barely on the ground before (though it ends on a much more hopeful note than that sounds) and add that to uncompelling performances from actors who are empty presences at worst and at best given little to do except Aidan Gillen’s evil militaristic Janson (which is essentially Gillen playing the same slimy contemptible piece of shit he built his career out of playing) and I’m just not here for the story, y’all. Power to those who are.


But if you’re watching Maze Runner: The Death Cure for the visuals of director Wes Ball and the cinematography of Gyula Pados, well… it’s actually a pretty good-looking movie. We’re not talking Deakins here, but the setting of the majority of the film in an area of urban ruins and sleek cold reflective surfaces as in the central Last City where WCKD centers itself gives Ball and Pados a lot of room to play with light and shadow to give Death Cure a more mature chilliness than any scene of young looking late 20-year-olds with guns could possibly have. In general, the design of The Last City feels like the modern response to the city from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a desperately authoritarian and insincere industrialization of survivalism all proven by how tall and closed-off the towers are. It’s not revelatory at all since we already had a feeling the makers were getting better within the sweltering desert heat of The Scorch Trials, but it’s impressive set-building and it does tell us what was the answer to The Maze Runner‘s visuals all along: keep Ball and Pados the fuck away from trees and grass.

A much more enjoyable benefit to yours truly: the action setpieces are all not only coherent and impactful, they’re also unhinged in a manner akin to the Fast and Furious movies. The central “break in and break out” heist of The Death Cure involves several “are you crazy?” type of stunts and actions on the parts of the characters that clearly would have killed any person in real-life physics – including a crane swinging a bus full of children by its front grill over a wall – and it’s the most joyous and alive the franchise has ever felt to me. And this isn’t something The Death Cure takes its sweet-ass time getting to: it opens on a kinetic grounded train heist that makes for great enough popcorn spectacle in the early months of the year.

So… is this enough to say I like Maze Runner: The Death Cure? Not really. Given how much I unexpectedly gave T.S. Nowlin’s final screenplay for the franchise, I’m starting to feel I spoke too soon in claiming it’s a decent movie. But it does recognize the job it has in closing out a franchise and establishing a brand new environment to blow to smithereens in its climax. And it sets its mind on completing that job no matter how messy it gets and for the franchise’s perseverance, I do admit admiration growing in seeing it finally reach the end of its own maze.

*I am aware that the character in question was revealed to be alive in the third book that this movie is based on, but I am not sure that his “apparent death” was as ludicrously severe as this character’s was.


Scorched Earth


In an effort for makeup work on writing a movie about nothing (and not in the fun Seinfeld variety), The Maze Runner‘s screenplay piled on a whole bunch of plot twists revealing the state of the world of the franchise and why the kids were trapped in giant circle for a long time, ending on its two most horrifying reveals.

The first is that Patricia Clarkson is forced to appear in this movie with a lifeless monologue to deliver, something she deserves so much better than. This is followed up by the more horrifying reveal that her character, Dr. Ava Paige, did not commit suicide as we were led to believe and is so Clarkson was shackled to appear in this franchise as its apparent long-term antagonist. I can’t imagine this has any impact on a viewer not familiar with Clarkson as an actor, since our knowledge of the character’s existence up until the movie tells us she died is less than 2 minutes and less than a minute passes after that to tell us she’s alive and the bad guy.

Anyway, now Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials came about to bring along a cast of regretful and overqualified veterans to stifle her loneliness. Giancarlo Esposito’s on autopilot, Alan Tudyk’s playing a gay stereotype, Lili Taylor is just dying inside, and Barry Pepper’s the only one that’s giving a performance could call “committed”. But before any of them pop up, we are introduced shortly to Aidan Gillen’s apparent guardian Janson kicking off the overqualified adult actors after Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), the franchise’s hero, has an inscrutable flashback before waking up in the helicopter we saw him and his friends get scooped up in at the end of the previous film. Janson offers them quarter in his industrial facility with the total amount of trustworthiness that a character played by Aiden Gillen can provide, which is like… nothing so it’s not a shock when we quickly discover he’s actually working for the evil corporation of WCKD (something pronounced “wicked” but I totally feel like pronouncing as “wrecked” because I don’t wanna do a damn thing this movie asks). Thomas and his crew wisely escape upon this discovery into the real world.


By the way, included in Clarkson’s final lines of the last film was an observation that more kids survived the events of The Maze Runner than expected and clearly The Scorch Trials thought this as well because the group Thomas escapes Janson’s facility with is smaller than the group Thomas entered that facility with, I swear to God. And they get split up anyway halfway through the movie in search of a resistance group against WCKD called The Right Arm, so there’s little interest in any character that’s not Thomas and being interested in Thomas feels just, like, a bad move.

But there is a good thing about this new quest they go through is that they’re not stuck behind walls and that means WORLD-BUILDING in what we now see (and Clarkson again told us in the final minutes of The Maze Runner) is a ravaged post-apocalyptic world since a virus known as the Flare destroyed most of the world. It happens to be a virus that Thomas’ clan is immune, the point of being trapped in that hole in a maze. Yeah, it still sounds stupid to me too, but when I’m about to praise the world-building of Scorch Trials, I’m not talking about the verbose and exhaustive attempt at mythology screenwriter T.S. Nowlin (now working alone, still based on James Dashner’s novel) tries to stretch out the concept. Nor am I talking about the totally unmoving addition of zombies called Cranks into the terrain replacing the CGI monstrosities in the original (and being no more convincing).

I’m talking about the set design frankly, a place where director Wes Ball gets to use his background as a graphic artist and visually shape a world that feels completely abandoned by anything but heat and smoke. Most of the travels of Thomas and company take place in a giant desert filled with fallen edifices and drown metropolitan structures called The Scorch, which Ball and cinematographer Pados Gyula do a lot to make the landscape feel endlessly barren and dry. Which sounds like the same as the boring ol’ hole-in-a-maze of the first movie except without plants and with better color timing, but it’s not. There’s character in the Ozymandias structures these kids* run through and climb, the implication of our world past in some cases recognizable. In several cases to geographically confusing degree with the buildings we catch, but I’m trying to cease being mean to Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials for like two seconds.


And well before we even enter that desert, Jansen’s “sanctuary” to the kids is already so cold and character-less in a deliberate manner that it’s not surprising to find one’s self not entirely at ease when he leads the protagonists there with open arms (Good golly, could actually be visual directing of tone from Ball? Or was I just already on this movie’s bad side that my distrust extended to the textual context of its characters? Probably both.). Meanwhile, the little “guarded” hideout where we meet allies Jorge (Esposito) and Brenda is scrappy and desperate enough in its makeshift fashion that it’s kind of clear it’s the characters have some at-the-ropes alignment against WCKD and we can trust them. Tudyk’s corner is all unglamorous decadence in a bazaar-esque fashion, costumes and nightclub/opium den lair (with some drugged-up editing and lensing which seems… quite weird for a kids film, but aight).

Pepper and Taylor are living in a Western (Pepper’s performance especially reminds me of the one he gave in True Grit). It’s not a great Western but it’s a Western set with the same sort of texture and low-key design as the rest of Scorch Trials.

Basically, it’s not inventing the wheel in design and certain setpieces (The Scorch, Jansen’s lair) are a lot less interesting than otherwise (Pepper and Taylor’s home area), but it’s the closest Maze Runner: Scorch Trials has to feeling like it’s moving somewhere (it certainly has more momentum than its predecessor). And it doesn’t stop the story from feeling like a bunch of aimless wandering goose chases to find the legendary Right Arm until the movie decides to have WCKD show up to perform one “Very Evil Moment” yet again (but probably a godsend to one of the actors) and deliver another labored and contrived twist with one great big “is the movie over?” cut to black before returning for another scene to taunt me, but it’s something. Ball can use set design well enough once he’s out the gates and Lord let that keep me holding on when I dive into that one final Maze Runner movie and then forget this franchise ever existed.

*I have to note how weird it feels to regard these characters as “kids” when most of the actors are legit older than I am, but that says something about how I feel about Young Adult in general.


Like Rats in a Maze


So, like… I haven’t been in the target audience of Young Adult fiction for a little under a decade now and when I was part of it, I was already looking for the door, so I might not be entirely in the know about these works. To my memory, the only major series I’ve read were Harry PotterTwilight, and The Hunger Games. But, like, there’s usually some kind of social observation in the heart of it, no? Like hamfisted, absolutely undiluted social observation that you would have to be not paying attention to the unsubtle dialogue to miss. The Hunger Games had classism and the exploitative nature of the media, Harry Potter had a wizard version of the Ku Klux Klan that got more and more time as the main antagonists, Twilight for all that it ranks at the bottom barrel of things I’ve read and watched even has some muddled attempt at determinism (and Mormon looking views on romance).

So, we get The Maze Runner – one of these young adult works that I hadn’t even heard of until we suddenly had a film adaptation come out in 2014 and make enough money to have another aim at being the next Hunger Games-level box office franchise – and I just don’t get what the fuck it’s trying to be about.


I mean, I get what it’s trying to taking inspiration from – Terrence Malick’s landscape photography in consideration of how the majority of the movie takes place in an entrapped area of forestation (and I don’t mean to insult Malick but comparing him to a movie as terrible-looking as The Maze Runner), Lord of the Flies in how it revolves around a bunch of kids isolated from society trying to create their own community – but it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about any of that. Which is not only shocking, it just kind of makes me feel like I wasted my damn time worse than I already dreaded before spending two hours watching the thing. Like there was nothing to gain and it was philosophically and thematically empty from a genre that proudly wants to proclaim its themes and philosophies, adolescent as they may be, in a very urgent way.

Maybe the original novel by James Dashner, which I frankly have no intention of reading, does a better job of dicing up a message out of it. Maybe more likely is how the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (yes, the president of NBC News, that same guy. No sarcasm.), Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin is so distracted by the necessity of stacking exposition dump upon exposition dump to slowly seep out some summary of what is happening to actually concern itself with depth and theme. I don’t think that excuses itgiven that Divergent – another flipping Young Adult novel adaptation that’s desperately tried (and hilariously failed) to be the next Hunger Games – was also a movie packed to the brim with world-building exposition dump and you’d still be able to takeaway that story’s appeal to the importance of individualism, even if you had watched it blindfolded or with earmuffs or upside down (not at the same time, though. Be serious.) Still it’s just plausible that such was the case with The Maze Runner.

Those exposition dumps happen to be showing us how a young man we learn later to be named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is thrown into a large plain of grass called the Glade inhabited by several other boys mostly devoid of personality beyond their pragmatic status and none of these statuses seem remotely interesting except that of a Runner, the boys who are selected to run everyday into the walls that surround their little plain and try to find a way out of the maze within, running back to the community before the doors to the wall close every night and trap them in the maze lest they be attacked by a bunch of giant CGI monsters called Grievers. This is like… the premise of a movie, not a full on plot and yet it takes The Maze Runner more than 2/3 of its runtime to lay that all out. It’s not even world-building because everything they’re explaining and elaborating on is confined to the Glade and the Maze, nothing else.


And some of these things are of course delivered in some manner that has to do with the element of cutting and framing in cinema, like the sort of impressively trapped and uncomfortable flurry of opening shots where Thomas is practically launched into the Glade in unstoppable motion and quickly shifted from surrounding him from dark walls behind a steel cage into surrounding him from blinding light and laughter and boyish eyes no less confusing before he faceplants from fear. But that’s like it. That’s the only worthwhile moment conceived out of Wes Ball’s direction in the whole movie. The rest of that exposition through cutting is in the case of randomly clunked up flashbacks of Thomas’ time before the Glade, spurred on by Teresa’s (Kaya Scodelario) arrival into the Glade. Kind of glad there’s no “sexual tension” amongst these apparent teens played by guys in their 20s and 30s, but like… there’s practically no reaction to her arrival.

None except from the central antagonist Gally (Will Poulter), who brings the closest thing this movie could ever have to tangible conflict given how much of it is still just developing itself. Like all the other boys, Gally supplies more exposition but this time with a permanent scowl (without much effort, Poulter is best in show given how his face – particularly his eyebrows – compliments angry looks and he has an imposing build) and a tone of “I don’t trust these new folk” towards Thomas and Teresa (even though the implication is that THEY all were slowly sent into the Glade progressively so, like, aren’t they all new folk?).

Anyway, I think the film eventually figures out it’s running out of time and tries to have the reveals expand more in scope in a more accelerated fashion as it reaches its end and tries to actually make good on suggesting the state of a world beyond the maze, but it all felt like ambling and idling until the last three minutes when the literal plot police (I mean, fucking literal!) show up and tell them what’s going on with the franchise beyond before scooping them up and taking them out of the movie.

I mean, I get that maybe the premise of The Maze Runner isn’t my thing. But it’s not my thing because it seems like a concept that, unless under a skilled writer and director, can only be hamstrung be its self-imposed limitations. And I don’t think high enough of Young Adult works to think they usually house skilled writers and directors. And Ball and company have to work sooooo fucking hard to make a movie feel as unrewarding a waiting game as this. So why put myself through this? You assholes saw Maze Runner: The Death Cure enough to have it top the weekend box office and forced my fucking hand and now I’m covering it. I hate you all.