51. Justice League

For a second, the Flash seems human. Then the tension fizzles and we’re back in toyland.

Flash sees the villain – a giant who swings a flaming ax, surrounded by winged demon henchmen – and gets scared. He pulls Batman aside to confess he’s never “done battle” before. Batman, leader of the Justice League, dispenses sage advice: “Save one.” Save one hostage. “Bird by bird,” as Anne Lamott says. And so the Flash saves one. Then another. Tuns out, it’s easy. Too fucking easy. After facing real fear, there’s nothing to it. He cracks jokes.

No good movie can be this tension-free. The characters are never in danger. Nothing has gravity.

I read that the actor (Ciarán Hinds) who plays Steppenwolf, the giant supervillian, never met his costars; his entire performance was motion-captured and digitized. You feel the disconnect. It doesn’t help that Steppenwolf looks intentionally generic; his whole body has a crinkled-aluminum-foil motif best described thusly: boring. Hinds’s face is buried behind a rendering who looks like no one.

Tragedy struck director Zack Snyder halfway through filming (his daughter committed suicide), and the movie was taken over by Joss Whedon. Neither director’s gifts shine through. Snyder proved himself master of Superman action with Man of Steel (a movie I love and hate simultaneously). In Man of Steel, when Superman fights other Kryptonians (in Smallville first, then above Metropolis’s skyscrapers), they move so fast they practically teleport, and their punches land like meteors.

Whedon’s talent for dialogue cultivated genuine superhero chemistry in the first Avengers movie and over a brilliant run of genre TV shows and X-Men comics. He should be ideal here, but the mix is bad. Snyder’s fast, heavy action and Whedon’s writing are diluted. Justice League is like a decent first draft.

They forgot to add tension. We know the superheroes will win; they always do. Pressure is making the fight compelling despite its preordained outcome, and Justice League whiffs. As Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and their superhero friends fight to prevent magic boxes from destroying the world, it feels as fake as watching someone else play with action figures.

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50. The Killers

Burt Lancaster had unique size and skill. In The Killers he plays a character, the Swede, invented by Ernest Hemingway, who epitomizes manly contradiction. A boxer with a bum right hand, he is both the strongest person in this movie and the weakest. The Swede wouldn’t argue if you called him an ultimate sucker. After being warned that hitmen are coming, he sits up and waits. They kill him easily. He lets them.

In flashbacks, we learn why. The Swede takes his nice blond girlfriend (real marriage material) to a fateful party where he meets Kitty Collins. Swede embarrasses the girlfriend by staring hard at Kitty all night. She’s sharp, dark, alluring. Black hair, black dress.

Later, Kitty is caught with a stolen broach, her perfect emblem: a spider made of diamonds. So snared in Kitty’s web is the Swede that he stupidly takes the pinch for her, and goes to prison for three years.

When he gets out he still wants her. Menace gushes. (“Stop listening to those golden harps, Swede. They can land you in a lot of trouble.”) Shady characters connive a hat-factory heist. Double crosses eclipse double crosses. The stakes are a quarter million bucks and their souls. (An old woman begs the Swede, when he almost jumps out a window, “You’ll never see the face of God! You’ll burn until the end of time!” Later, a tough copper barks at Kitty “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell!”)

The best part in all this rich, inky noir is the nameless killers of the title. Their faces impress. One hitman is fat with a mustache; the other’s chiseled and bug-eyed. In the first scene, they walk into a diner and get deathly rude with the manager, the cook, and a single customer. They reek of murder even before they blast the Swede.

As the plot puzzles out why the Swede had to die, we don’t see them again until the very end. Their reappearance, their sheer presence, is chilling. They don’t say a word. They killed the Swede, and stole his movie.

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49. The Killing

Betrayals are exposed. Blood splattered. Breathing men turned to corpses. A meticulous racetrack heist, with a God-money payoff, undone by her, by a no-good, nosy little tramp who’d sell out her mother for a piece of fudge. And then, at the end, amidst the gore and heat, emerges the true X-factor, the character to finish Johnny Clay for good: Sebastian, a poodle with a little bow between his ears. Some tubby grandma snuggles the spoiled mutt to her jowel, and beseeches an airport employee: “We haven’t seen Daddy Sweetums for such a wong, wong time. Would the nice man wet us wait outside so we can wook at the airpwanes?”

Sebastian joins Kubrick’s evil game for a reason.

Stanley Kubrick is beloved, and considered brilliant by consensus because (though this is putting it too simply) he mastered all arts in filmmaking, writing to cinematography to everything else. One of the generational talents in his tool box was precision, and The Killing keeps a tight clock. Literally, a narrator with an important newscaster voice tells us the exact date and time at the start of each scene. As Johnny Clay plans the heist with six other guys, none of whom knows all the details (for good reason), The Killing jumps time to arranged pieces on the board. We get the gist at the beginning: One guy’s gotta shoot a horse, another starts a fight to distract the cops, etc. We watch one players’s day up to the big race, then go back and watch another’s. The entire time, the narrator updates exactly when we are. It’s brilliant. It’s chess with guns.

And then the floozy – the femme – and her stupid lover Val muck it all up, igniting a nasty climax drenched in death.

Never do a heist; it’s not worth it.

At the end, arf arf. It is antithetical, in a story this hard-boiled and mean, for goofy Sebastian to enter the game. This is not the finale of a film that takes itself too seriously. It’s like a lesson from Kubrick: Have fun.

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48. The Witch

The witch in The Witch is such a bad witch.

I watched this movie alone on Halloween Night 2017, while my young daughter slept a room away and my wife worked late hours photographing a wedding. I swear something kept moving in the backyard, stepping on fallen leaves.

A pious father’s disagreement with the church gets his family banished from their Puritan plantation. This is America in the 1600s. They move far away, to the edge of some woods. The oldest daughter, a teenager, is outside with the youngest son, a baby, playing peek-a-boo. She covers her face and coos, uncovers and says “Peek-a-boo!” She covers her face for a few more seconds and… “Peek-a-boo!” The baby giggles. She does it again, uncovers her eyes, and the baby has vanished. He was under his sister’s nose one second, gone the next.

This is scary, and it is only the beginning, and The Witch is not ambiguous. We see, in a dark scene, what happens to that baby. He is not coming back.

That leaves the teenage daughter and her pious father (whose voice sounds like God), suicidal mother, brave and slightly younger brother, and bratty little twins. What happens to these people next is motherfucking crazy.

The Witch is all bad in the best way. There are no scenes of levity. An outcast family is terrorized by a witch in the woods. The genius is in their destruction being so simple and profound simultaneously. Reality and black magic work in tandem. Paranoia reigns.

It seems that in over a century of films, no major release had ever been titled The Witch. Witches are time-honored horror fare, and here is the small, scary movie to finally give them their due. The title was waiting, and the witch in The Witch is such a bad witch.

After it ended, I turned on a light and inspected the backyard. Nothing but a breeze. Then I walked to my sleeping daughter’s room and put my hand on her back. In the moments before she moved, I contemplated a black abyss and felt absolutely terrified.

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47. Ex Machina

The realistic monster in Ex Machina might kill us all.

It’s a game between three characters: a drunken tech tycoon, his duped employee, and a female android who wants out of her room. No one in the triangle is completely honest. Each wants something. And at stake, essentially, is humanity’s future. Micro, macro. Nathan, the drunken tech tycoon, says “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa: an upright ape, living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”

Ava, the female android, asks Nathan “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?” Yes! Knowing you’ve helped an inevitable apocalypse might also be strange. No wonder Nathan drinks so hard, and fucks and dances with his robots.

You don’t fuck with Ava, though. She is a classic movie monster. Her sculpted body is twinkling robot components, and her soft face is inspired by a quantifiable ideal (porn). Her movements are unnaturally lithe, yet her eyes are so expressive. Caleb, the duped employee testing Ava, believes her fear. He believes her love.

Here’s potentially real horror: Superstar scientist Stephen Hawking told a conference in London “Computers will overtake humans with A.I. at some point within the next hundred years.” He warned “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” He co-wrote a column that said A.I. could eventually outsmart our financial markets, out-invent our researchers, manipulate our leaders, and make “weapons we cannot even understand.”

That’s the macro, but for all its dire technology the movie is more Hitchcock than Cameron. Its war is fought through three characters talking, not space soldiers blasting a robot army in epic battle.

Behind the secrets is another important question: How could the CEO of a search engine build a computer with enough data to achieve consciousness? Ava’s wetware brain is beautiful, and built with information we hand over via phones, tablets, and laptops. We gift him our interests. We’re inside his machine.

Now we wait to be massacred.

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46. Blade Runner

Skip this review. I want it to run after the review for the new sequel, so I can’t move on until 46. Blade Runner. But I keep putting it off.

I watched the first half about a week ago, and it was cool but I got sleepy and stopped it, figuring I’d finish later. I don’t think I will, though; too many other movies and shows I wanna see. My neighbor watched the entire second season of the Netflix show Stranger Things the day it dropped. That’s nine episodes. I am jealous. Because we have a young daughter and I try to write novels, I figure I must be judicious about what I spend time watching.

I am no hater. I’ve seen Blade Runner probably six times. But I cannot seem to think about it without remembering what personal idol Chuck Klosterman wrote in Esquire, in an essay about robots enslaving mankind: “I suspect Blade Runner might have also touched on this topic, but I honestly can’t remember any of the narrative details; I was too busy pretending it wasn’t terrible.”

Brutal, but there’s another personal hero I also remember. My favorite college professor, a crazy rabbi, loved this flick. The lecture was fantastic. He told us Eldon Tyrell’s first name means, in Hebrew, “God is the judge.” Eldon created the humanoid robot slaves, and his important moments are preceded by a replicant owl; Athena, goddess of technology in ancient Greece, was likewise accompanied by an owl.

Also, Tyrell looks like Josef Mengula, a Nazi doctor who aspired to make a better human.

Blade Runner ponders whether memories define us, because what else are we? Its robots resent their mortality, because why should a creator decide we must die? Yet better works have grown from this richly sapient soil. Ghost in the Shell is a tighter action movie with robots questioning existence. The television show Westworld, likewise, is similarly dark and philosophical about androids and the soul, but it is also insanely entertaining.

So let’s move on. Blade Runner inspires, blows minds, and/or bores. Love it or hate it, you’re probably right.

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45. Blade Runner 2049

The robot, K, and his hologram, Joi, are in love. Real love. Blade Runner 2049 is often dark and violent, but the romance is sweet. Two scenes – one in the rain and one in the bedroom – feel genuinely tender. K and Joi make a great couple.

Yet as K, an LAPD cop, works his case, he is literally surrounded by reminders that Joi is a product, something mass-produced for purchase. In a late low moment, K is approached by a giant 3-D ad of Joi, naked, selling sex. How will K reconcile his relationship with the truth of their existences?

Just kidding. Ain’t no reconciliation in Blade Runner! BR2049 stays baffling, and bless its ambiguity. It exists to baffle. Movies are pop art and cannot tell us whether, say, you must be born (“pushed into the world, wanted”) to have a soul. But, if bold, they can ask very well.

The masses might not like this – Blade Runner 2049, like its predecessor, was not a hit in theaters – but artsy power is real. The look – dusky daytimes and wet neon at night – mixes with tech and philosophy into an experience that lingers. The real world felt strange to me after seeing BR2049.

Not that it isn’t fun. K chases and fights other robots. He is hunted by a terminator-esque villain (named Luv) with knife skills and bomber drones. The plot unwraps a massive conspiracy, and does resolve. Harrison Ford is brusque yet likable, even if his contribution has been oversold in the movie’s ads.

Action, melodrama and marketing aren’t the priorities, though, and so Blade Runner 2049 takes its sweet time with freaky details and vexing diversions. It is long (almost three hours) and literary. A new robot spills slimily from a bag, and we are told she has no soul because that was not birth. But it looks like birth. And if K has no soul, how can he love Joi? And if Joi is a product, how can she love K?

This movie is a product – huge budget, major stars, hot director – so how can I love it? Idon’tknowIDon’tKnowIDON’TKNOW!!!

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44. Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins is not about Mary Poppins, because a perfect person makes a lousy protagonist. Our eponymous nanny/witch is the change agent for Mr. Banks, whose soul is saved when he finally puts family above money… before being handed more money.

It’s evil?

And easy to miss. We remember Mary Poppins for jaunty fantastical adventures. They save a cartoon fox from hunters, and stop a man from laughing too hard. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is performed in ‘toon land, and a room cleans itself while they sing A Spoonful of Sugar.

Between goof-offs, though, this flick is hardcore class-war. In the Oscar-winning Chim Chim Cher-ee, Burt sings of working as a chimney sweep: “Though I spends my time in the ashes and smoke/ In this whole wide world there’s no luckier bloke.” The message is clear: a heart full of song beats money.

In Feed the Birds, an old woman outside Mr. Banks’s bank asks passers-by to spend two cents (tuppence) on a little bag of pigeon food. Banks’s kids want to spend their tuppence to feed the birds, but dad has a different idea. He and other bank managers sing a song (Fidelity Fiduciary Bank) about investing that tuppence, to one day know the feeling of conquest via compounding interest. It’s hilarious.

Banks’s kids run away, then weep that their father doesn’t love them.

Mr. Banks sees the light, of course, and quits. He tells a joke so funny that the bank’s CEO dies of laughter.

Banks is left jobless, disheveled, yet happier than ever.

Moments later, flying a kite with his kids, Banks is handed, right there in the park, a partnership at the same bank, replacing the boss he killed.

The End.

Mixed message, right?

You know, the Marvel superhero Iron Man’s personal arc sees him finding inner peace after renouncing war profiteering. Yet there are comic books out this week in which Iron Man teams with employees of defense contractor Northrup Grumman. The comics are sponsored by Northrup Grumman.

Marvel is owned by Disney. It’s the same old shit; know and show what’s right, but above all get that money.

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43. Citizen Kane

In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, the title characters, cousins making comic books together in 1940s Manhattan, see Citizen Kane. Chabon’s description of its inspirational affect is the great movie review that isn’t actually a movie review. Here’s the kicker:

Without the brooding shadows and bold adventurings of the camera, without the theatrical lighting and queasy angles, it would have been merely a clever movie about a rich bastard. It was more, much more, than any movie really needed to be. In this one crucial regard — its inextricable braiding of image and narrative — Citizen Kane was like a comic book. 

Kane’s technique, from composition of shots to the structure of its screenplay, was unique in its time and endures as the masterclass for how film tells a story.

But I like the rich bastard stuff.

The first line is “Rosebud,” spoken by Charles Kane before he dies. The movie follows a reporter digging into Kane’s life to find what Rosebud means. Through flashbacks, an epic story unfolds. As a young man he became a media mogul who manipulated the news. As an older man he ran for high office and was toppled by scandal. He craves ever more throughout his life, until dying alone in a castle surrounded by billions in accumulated artwork, wild animals, and all manner of expensive junk.

Spoiler alert, so stop reading if you haven’t seen this 1941 blockbuster everyone’s heard of.

Rosebud was his sled, a toy from before his impoverished parents gave him away to be raised by a rich man. Kane accumulates fortune and treasures beyond anyone’s dreams, but his sled is the meaning of life. It makes me think he regrets.

I live in a golden age of evil men running media and government, and I do not understand. Why don’t The Koch Brothers care about other people’s children? Is Dick Cheney haunted by the deaths he hath wrought? Does Trump equate success with lying?

Follow the money, but Citizen Kane says they’re missing something, and they know it, and they’ll die lonely and sad. It inspires me to hope.

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42. Watchmen

Adrian Veidt is weird. Wearing a gold costume, he sits alone in his arctic fortress watching a wall of TVs that switch channels every hundred seconds, because “meanings coalesce from semiotic chaos before reverting to incoherence.” Known as “the smartest man in the world,” he has his own action figures, loves to brag, and celebrates like he scored a winning touchdown when his plan prevails at the end. Even after killing half a city, he’s almost precious. And despite attacking New York, his opponents are in “moral checkmate” because it was undeniably for the greater good.

That’s the ambiguous, compelling version of Veidt in the ’80s graphic novel. There are countless ways 2009’s movie adaptation stinks, but let’s focus on what makes it worse than the typical cinematic bastardization of a beloved book. In adapting the un-adaptable, filmmakers twisted Veidt’s gloriously ambitious scheme – deceive and disappear the world’s top artists and scientists; frame or kill all superheroes; put world powers on the brink of nuclear war – into something provably gratuitous. Movie Veidt undermines his inspiration by being both charmless bore and blood-fucking madman. Writer Alan Moore’s book Veidt knows he needs just one phony attack; director Zack Snyder’s superterrorist Veidt destroys the world’s major cities, murdering 15 million. Why kill exponentially more people if it makes no difference plot-wise? It’s, again, provably gratuitous. It’s sick.

Further, it slanders Dr. Manhattan, the god-like nuclear-deterring former physicist who abandons humanity until an argument on Mars with his girlfriend convinces him all life is precious. Manhattan seems content at the end of the book, engaged again, and he deserves it after his hard road. Movie Manhattan (a shallow moper) flees the world as a despised enemy, framed by Veidt because the screenwriters didn’t craft a better ending despite adapting a book with a much better ending.

The flick is grim and shitty – iconic characters disgraced, wearing painted rubber suits (with nipples), their meanings and fates subverted.

Manhattan says he longs to see a thermodynamic miracle, “like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold.” This groundless and fake-looking slow-motion gore-a-thon is the opposite: it turned gold into garbage.

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