Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies, somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, Natalie Portman arrives with kaleidoscope eyes. Television legend Noah Hawley of Fargo and Legion promises as much with his feature film directorial debut, but even the thought of a film about a woman’s journey to outer space and back sounds too good to be true after fittingly being named for a Beatles song. Yet as Lucy rises up to the sky, you’re wondering where all the diamonds are, for Lucy in the Sky doesn’t shine as much as you’d want something that sounds like a jewel to do so. It isn’t a bad movie per se, but given the sort of potential that this could have been considering the talent involved, Lucy in the Sky should have been a diamond – but it just never quite gets to that level.
I love him! I love him for the man he wants to be! And I love him for the man he almost is!
Dorothy Boyd, Jerry Maguire; written by Cameron Crowe
Well folks, it’s the end of the year. You may have forgotten what that feels like since this year felt about as long as ten years, but as we all go through our various end-of-year rituals, us critics have to start thinking about the best movies we’ve seen this year so we can pick our horses for the Oscar race and yell at everyone who doesn’t agree with us.
In addition to our best of lists, however, many of us like to publish “Worst Of” lists. Not me. To be clear, I don’t mean to be judgmental of those who do; looking over my Letterboxd Diary it seems I’ve only seen 78 films from this year. There’s one more I’m hoping to squeeze in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a little low for someone who calls himself a film critic, and as much as I rag on critics who build careers out of hating movies, I respect the urge to just go “fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you” at all the films that wasted your precious life one last time before you have to move on.
I’ve yet to hit that point, though, so dwelling on the stains of the year just doesn’t interest me. What does interest me, however, are movies that missed their mark in whole or in part but still get at something interesting or worth looking at. I don’t think we do enough to acknowledge these interesting, perhaps noble failures, and while I’ve got this platform, I think I’d like to put my money where my mouth is.
Enter The Maguire Awards, a non-sequential list of five movies I saw this year that fell short in various ways but still get my respect and, yeah, my love. Maybe they left it all out on the field, so to speak. Maybe their successes were completely unintentional. Maybe they just had too much nerve to not be respected. Whatever the reason, I think they’re worth saluting as we close the book on 2018.
Enough preamble; let’s jump in.
I actually love this movie; as I said in my review, it’s strangled by some uninspired cinematography and editing in contrast to the original trilogy—which was already going to be impossible to live up to, given that those movies were directed, shot, and edited by a borderline living legend. Gary Ross tries his best, but he doesn’t have Steven Soderbergh’s cool hand; the film’s visual plan feels like a flat diet version of the master filmmaker’s style as a result. It’s disappointing, especially when you consider the multiple female filmmakers out there with dynamic styles of their own who could’ve given this film a more unique and appropriate identity.
Give Ross credit, though: He put together a hell of a crew for this spinoff—I’m tempted to go down the list to pad things out, but for these purposes it’s just easier to say that everyone kills—and he and Olivia Milch gave them a fun, solid script to work from that subtly comments on the patriarchal world these women live under without losing track of the fun heist flick we came to see. (It also winks at the absurd nature of the spinoff. Danny Ocean is supposed to be dead, but Debbie doesn’t believe it, and her denial barely registers as a point of drama because this is Danny F’ing Ocean we’re talking about here.)
No, it doesn’t live up to its progenitor, but it goes the distance, and god bless it.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture
It’s a biopic, with all the good and bad that comes with: the high highs of success, the low lows of drug use (there’s always drugs somewhere and it’s always bad), and the plot beats that you can set your watch to, especially after a quick Wikipedia lookup of the subject. If you wanted to be cheeky, you could say that A Futile and Stupid Gesture is aptly named, celebrating the genius of Doug Kenney and mourning his damage without really digging into how the two were linked and using his story to teach us anything beyond “Yeah, apparently even brilliant, funny people can have depression, it really sucks.” Arguably, if you can’t do that, what’s the point?
Damn if David Wain doesn’t try to do his subject justice, though. The director of Wet Hot American Summer can’t dig into Kenney, but he still did his damnedest to tell the National Lampoon co-founder’s story in a way that would have made Kenney proud. Whether he succeeds at that or not, I’m in no position to say. But the movie is genuinely hysterical, in ways that feel right at home with what I know of Kenney’s sense of humor (going off Caddyshack and Animal House). Key to that: An inspired framing device of an older alternate reality Kenney (played by Martin Mull) narrating the story and popping in every so often to crack wise at the necessary sanitization and even outright invention that comes with the biopic format.
Beyond that, Wain has a blast recreating the little-dramatized comedy scene of the 70s. Watching this, there’s no doubt that he feels a great debt to Kenney and everyone involved with the Lampoon for inspiring his own work; the film is shot through with reverence for the subject. This can be dangerous, but considering the sheer number of outright legends that came from this era, such reverence feels appropriate and warranted (even if, by the film’s own admission, “everyone was a lot more sexist and racist than they appear to be”). Wain also gets excellent performances from his cast. As Kenney, Will Forte is in prime form, and Domhnall Gleeson is a great foil for him as Henry Beard. But nearly walking away with the whole show is Thomas Lennon’s utterly bonkers turn as Michael O’Donoghue. This is the versatile State alumnus’ best performance to date; wherever he pulled that from, I want more of it.
Ultimately, the film doesn’t stick with you the way it probably should have. But it’s funny enough and just unique enough to more than justify its own existence.
“You wanna talk about Russian interference? You wanna talk about election hacking? Pay attention dipshit: Peter Berg’s always been a smarter filmmaker than most of the mindless sheep of this world give him credit for, but my motherfucker lives in two worlds. In one world he’s a good liberal boy—maybe neoliberal or centrist but who gives a flying fuck unless you’re a goddamn commie or something, I dunno—who once fuckbarreled Mitt Romney for using ‘Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose’ in his presidential campaign. In the other, he’s a dude that comes from a Navy family who gets off on watching this country’s military and police flex on rude fucks who step out of line. So you get movies like The Kingdom and Battleship and Lone Survivor that revel in war but are also cheekily anti-war, you could write a whole fuckin’ book about that shit really, but he goes out and makes this movie, where all his characters are badass spec-ops types that seriously talk and swear just like this, like fuckin’ Lenny Bruce stubbing his toe on a cop’s dick while suckin’ on your momma’s titty. And they talk like this because they think if they make even one mistake it could literally be the end of western civilization, which simultaneously puts them under some real fuckin’ pressure while inflating their egos to the size of a meteor that could wipe out life on Earth. And it’s possible that the whole goddamn fuckin’ point of this movie as underlined by its twist ending is that these sad fucks and their ‘fuck you I’ll smoke you and your whole fuckin’ family if you step in my fuckin’ area you fuckin’ fuck-ass fuck’ approach to life might actually be a net negative for the world. It sure as fuck ain’t good for their interpersonal lives.
“But—partly because Berg’s working with noted Southie hate crime perpetrator Mark Wahlberg, who got to be the big fuckin’ hero in Berg’s three back-to-back movies about real-life tragedies—any meaningful message gets drowned out by basic-ass ‘hoo-rah’ Call of Duty Black Ops bullshit, Poe’s Law One-Oh-Motherfucking-One. Couple this with the decision to show much of the action on security cams that are constantly shaking, leaving you with no sense of geography in a movie with action phenom Iko Motherbitching Uwais, and you’ve got a real five-alarm four-star shitshow starring Brian D’Arcy James in a limited engagement at the Shubert Fucking Theatre. But that doesn’t mean you just wipe your ass with it like your three-year-old’s drawing of the family dog because my dude Peter Berg is a smart motherfucker and when smart motherfuckers fail, it’s still worth watching unless you’re gonna be a punk-ass bitch about it.”
“Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”
“AND I ASKED YOU, PERSONALLY, FOR A DAVE’S DOUBLE FIFTEEN FUCKIN’ MINUTES AGO! YOU KNOW WHAT COULD HAPPEN IN FIFTEEN MINUTES? ISIS COULD BLOW UP A DIRTY BOMB IN THE MIDDLE OF TIMES SQUARE STARTING A CHAIN OF EVENTS THAT WIPES OUT THIS GREAT FUCKIN’ COUNTRY THAT MADE DAVE FUCKIN’ THOMAS POSSIBLE, ALL BECAUSE YOU FUCKIN’ HOTSHOTS CAN’T MAKE A SIMPLE GODDAMN BURGER WHEN YOU’RE ASKED TO! STOP FUCKIN’ LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT AND GET ME MY LUNCH!”
There are two ways to look at John Woo’s big return to popcorn filmmaking. One way, it’s an absurd, cornball half-measure of a film with a plot that doesn’t seem to make any sense helmed by an unengaged director cashing in on his considerable reputation. The other is that Woo, even at his best, has always had an absurd cornball streak and is having a blast dusting off all his old tropes and twisting them in fun ways. For instance, his signature doves return, but this time Woo really leans into the spiritual symbolism of their presence by having them literally save the lives of our main characters through not one, but two freak coincidences, one after the other. The akimbo gunfighting style Woo popularized? Returns for a scene with a brilliant innovation that pays homage to Hitchcock, Woo’s favorite director. Just about all his old films and tropes get referenced at some point, right down to the final line of Broken Arrow—and then just for the hell of it, he drops “A Better Tomorrow” into a line of dialogue at the last minute.
As far as I’m concerned, this is The Maestro having fun with his own legend in the hopefully-long winter of his life. Does it work as a movie? Hell no. As mentioned, the plot goes completely off the rails, with a lot of disparate elements that, while not necessarily boring, probably could’ve been cut or reworked to streamline things without losing too much. Still, it’s a blast to watch; even if all it does is remind the world that nobody does Woo like Woo, it’s more than enough to get my thumbs up.
(Note: As you can see from the poster, this film was released in China in November of 2017 after bowing at that year’s Toronto International Film Festival. However, I’m counting it as a 2018 film as that’s when most of the world—and more importantly, I—got to see it.)
Bad Times at the El Royale
If this movie was somehow 30 minutes shorter, we’d probably be talking about a stone classic. Two and a half hours is way too long to be sitting for such a nasty little neo-noir like this, even one that takes such clear inspiration from Quentin Tarantino. I was in a weird position at the 100-minute mark of the movie, thinking to myself “Wow, this is great…but shouldn’t they be wrapping up soon? My butt’s kind of hurting.”
There’s a lot of strong elements here that can’t quite congeal into a strong overall package for whatever reason. Drew Goddard shoots a hell of a film with DP Seamus McGarvey, and his script, pacing issues aside, keeps throwing new surprises at you, even after you think he’d be tapped out. His ensemble is stellar; as (most of) the established names in this cast, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, and Dakota Johnson are rock solid, giving ample room for relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman, and Cailee Spaeny to break out with some juicy, ferocious roles of their own. Then there’s Chris Hemsworth, giving an outstanding against-type performance as a murderous cult leader who seems to dance in from a whole other movie to turn this one completely on its head. Now add in some gorgeous late 60s production design and a badass soundtrack, including score from the reliable-at-worst Michael Giacchino and a collection of 60s standards that fit the movie like a glove. I’ll probably associate Deep Purple’s “Hush” with this movie’s heart-stopping roulette scene for the rest of my life, and I’m more than a little mad that Erivo’s cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” isn’t available anywhere.
All the individual pieces of this movie are so, so, so good, which is why I wish it didn’t feel almost like a chore to sit through it the first time. Turns out you probably can have too much of a good thing.
So there you have it: Five films that don’t quite fall into greatness but still deserve to be admired for what they are and perhaps almost were. I’ll be back on Monday with my top ten of the year, but for the weekend, I’m throwing it over to you: I want you to tweet me @DivisionPost with five films from this year that you respect more than you actually like. Films that went big but fell short for you. Films with problems you recognize but don’t give a damn about. Because sometimes, the movies that demand our passion are the ones with the most glaring weaknesses to defend against.
It’s never a bad time to check in at the El Royale hotel, divided between the counties of California and Nevada, at the least that’s exactly what writer-director Drew Goddard intends to show you from Bad Times at the El Royale. Being his second feature film as a director after The Cabin in the Woods, Bad Times at the El Royale shows him coming back to create pure pulp fiction from start to finish (and yes, that pun was absolutely intended), and to say the very least, he’s already gotten a promise fulfilled on the spot. With Bad Times at the El Royale, what Drew Goddard has created isn’t a film shy of its own influences – Quentin Tarantino being one of the most present – but he also manages to make what could have turned itself into a stale genre film into something so enthralling for the duration of its running time. That’s only one thing that makes the title more fitting, because we may be watching some bad times happen over at the El Royale motel, yet Goddard promises a good time from start to finish.
Of the more accessible filmmakers consistently working in the comedy genre, Edgar Wright is quite possibly the most exciting. But like Wes Anderson his own films establish their own quirks in such a manner it’s easy to embrace the universe in which they take place whether it be the Cornetto trilogy or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. His latest film, Baby Driver, proves itself to be no different – riding in on Wright’s own love of pop culture but he always had an innovative use of music through every one of his films and right there is where the glory lies. Perhaps the most obvious thing that can be said is that the music is indeed very good, but moving away from the comedy genre with Baby Driver has only continued to prove why Edgar Wright was ever as exciting as he is, but in here there’s a greater comfort he found within himself that perhaps his own comedies haven’t fully embraced. But even if Baby Driver weren’t his best film, it has all the qualities to make it one of the most exciting wide releases of the decade.