About Kyle

My name is Kyle, and I'm just your average aspiring journalist who loves film and pop culture. Like, a lot. Seriously, it's unhealthy. This blog is the only thing that can make me well again.

Wonder Woman review

It’s hard to imagine why it took more than 70 years to get a Wonder Woman movie made. Certainly one of our most iconic superheroes, the Amazonian warrior known as Diana is essentially DC Comics’ female counterpart to Marvels’ Captain America. She’s patriotic, savagely intelligent and fiercely committed to the values of justice, dignity and peace. She’s also no slouch when it comes to kicking bad guy booty.

After the utter failure of female-centric superhero adaptations like Electra and Catwoman, comic fans would be forgiven for thinking that all hope of seeing Diana on the big screen was lost. But then, Marvel came with its rich female ensemble heroes like Black Widow and Gamora, and Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games fame ruled the box office for years.

But DC Entertainment’s road to Wonder Woman was not a smooth one. Fans began to lose hope after a series of disappointing films that betrayed basic tenets of beloved characters. Superman kills now. Batman is a gun-toting vigilante. I, along with many fans, feared that Diana would be betrayed in a similar way. No brooding, tortured Wonder Woman for me, thanks.

I’m so glad my fears were unfounded. Wonder Woman is, simply, a wonder, filled with breathtaking visuals, thought-provoking themes and a sense of fun and gravitas missing entirely from recent DC fare. Any way you slice it, this summer blockbuster is a home run.

The film takes place against the backdrop of Greek mythology, where Ares, the god of war, slaughtered the other gods in an attempt to take the throne. But Zeus defeated Ares, leaving his ultimate fate unknown. As the story goes, Zeus made man in his perfect image, but Ares corrupted the creation, turning men against each other and fostering hatred and fear. A tribe of Amazon women, living on a secluded island, was tasked by Zeus with standing at the ready in case of Ares’ return.

Into this story comes Diana (Gal Gadot), carved from clay by her mother and breathed to life by Zeus himself, or so the story goes. From a young age, Diana longs to wield the god-killer sword and hunt down Ares, or at least obtain proof of his extermination. While her mother, Hippolyta, does not want her to become a warrior, her aunt, the fierce fighter Antiope (Robin Wright), secretly trains her in the art of combat. These skills soon come in handy when a British spy fleeing the Germans during World War I crash lands his plane in the ocean just off the island. Soon, pursuing Germans attack the beach, and the Amazons are forced to defend it with their lives.

The man whom Diana saves from a watery grave is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an idealistic young soldier. Diana has never seen a man before, but after the German onslaught, she is convinced that Ares is behind this “Great War” of men, and sets out (much to her mother’s protestations) with Steve to return to the front and take down Ares. Steve, for his part, is happy enough to have an unstoppable badass warrior fighting on his side to hopefully eliminate the nefarious Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the brilliant German scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), who has been testing a villainous new mustard gas that, if perfected, could turn the entire tide of the war.

There are certain tropes that almost have to be included in a superhero origin story. Thankfully, the film flies through the typical fish-out-of-water clichés (Diana trying on evening gowns, for example) to spend most of its time on the meat of the story. The film is dramatic but light on its feet and, dare I say, fun. After the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, DC seemed to start thinking that “gritty” and “dreary” were necessary attributes for all their films. But Nolan’s films set up an astonishing and consistent moral universe, something sorely missing from the dull Man of Steel or the tonally schizophrenic Suicide Squad. Thanks to assured direction from Patty Jenkins and veteran TV writer Allan Heinberg’s dense screenplay, Wonder Woman is the first DC film since to present the kind of stark, good-versus-evil weight that put DC on the map.

Wonder Woman nails the balance between gravitas and fun missing from so much modern comic book fare.

Say what you will about Marvel Studios’ often excellent output, but DC has always had the potential to present a weightier, more compelling universe. Marvel is brilliantly done popcorn fare, but popcorn fare nonetheless. DC, at its best, presents something more, and this is what Wonder Woman gets right where so many others got it wrong.

Diana’s central moral quandary is, what if humanity is not, on the whole, as flawless as she was raised to believe? What if it is not Ares that drives men to be wicked, but rather something deep inside humans themselves? Something that causes them to kill one another, to be dishonest or cheat and steal? Would such an inherently flawed creature still be worth protecting? This is so much more gripping than the humorous fish-out-of-water shenanigans of say, Thor, and it’s this major conflict that propels the film to a higher level than many that have come before it. Everything is given a spiritual, existential weight, but none of it feels forced. If Diana is meant to embody a messianic motif, this is apparent only in the choices she makes; the heavy-handed Jesus imagery of Batman vs. Superman is blessedly absent here.

But the film’s philosophical heft is only one of its strengths. There’s also the performances, filled with marvelous character actors (hello, David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner) and some of the best work Chris Pine has ever done. There’s a mix of good-humored charm and seriousness Pine possesses that few actors can rival. Then, there’s Gadot. Anyone who made it all the way through Batman vs. Superman know how good she already is in this role. She feels like she was born to play Wonder Woman. This comes through in her physicality, her mischievous smile and her expressive face. She is unbelievably marvelous.

Speaking of marvelous, seeing Diana kick German ass is pretty satisfying. Armed with her glowing lasso of truth, her bullet-deflecting bracelets and her legendary shield (no invisible plane here, sadly), Diana is a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. The moment where she emerges from the grimy trenches, where the soldiers have barely made any headway in a year, and busts out her shield as bullets bounce harmlessly off of it, is a moment of pure awe. A later scene where Diana leads the soldiers in a takedown of an entire village of German troops is simply astonishing, and should go down as one of the finest action scenes in superhero movie history. The action and visuals are stunning throughout, though I suppose folks who are not fans of slow-mo may tire of the effect. I think it’s used effectively throughout, and, unlike, say, 300, it’s not overdone, but it does occasionally come off as a tad cheesy.

I’m grasping to try to find things to criticize here. There are a few origin story clichés, but they’re easily overwhelmed by all of the good stuff. Wonder Woman does far more than right DC’s rickety cinematic ship. It stands tall as one of the finest superhero films to come along in some time, maybe ever. It’s also proof that the world is ready for female superheroes (and female directors!) as long as they’re attached to a quality product. I say, bring it on ladies, and long live the Queen!

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 review

Given the earth-shattering success of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, it can be easy to forget that the film was quite the gamble. Based upon a relatively obscure property, many wondered whether Marvel’s galactic stories about a bizarre ragtag group of selfish bounty hunters and wannabe heroes would transfer well to screen. Maybe a gun-toting squirrel and an anthropomorphic tree were just a little too strange for audiences to fully embrace.

Aren’t we all so glad we were wrong? Not only did the original film crush it at the box office, it also earned some of the strongest reviews in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. That was mostly thanks to the film’s colorful visuals, its likable case of characters and its hilariously irreverent and whip-smart dialogue. But lightning rarely strikes twice, and though anticipation for the inevitable sequel was high, you would be excused for being wary. I’m happy to say that, with a stellar returning cast, writer-director James Gunn’s sure guiding hand and a heartfelt story, Volume 2 is an all-around home run, one that is sure to thrill fans while living up to the pedigree established by its predecessor.

We find our original heroes a few years after the events of the original. They’ve taken their moniker to heart, guarding the galaxy from all sorts of nefarious threats and learning to work as a team after reluctantly banding together. The de-facto team leader is Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), whose happy-go lucky, retro music loving ways fail to hide his unease over never knowing who his father was. There’s also the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), with whom Quill has an “unspoken thing,” according to him, at least. They’re joined by the socially awkward warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), the foul-mouthed raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and the adorable Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), who has become relatively helpless after being reborn from the ashes of the original intimidating Groot, who sacrificed himself to save his team.

In one of the most creative openings credit sequences I’ve seen, the team is fighting off a large tentacled beast while Baby Groot dances in the foreground. This beast is there to destroy a valuable power supply created by the golden-skinned race known as the Sovereign.

The mission is an initial success, but after Rocket takes offense to the race’s haughty tone, he decides to pocket the golden batteries, which should fetch a fortune. This sets in motion a massive manhunt, with the Sovereign fleet overwhelming our heroes until a mysterious and powerful stranger saves the day. This stranger, known as Ego (Kurt Russell), claims to be Quill’s father. But, if that’s true, why did he abandon Quill to be raised by the uncouth bounty hunter Yondu (Michael Rooker)? And where has he been all these years? As Quill attempts to untangle his complex past, Gamora is dealing with family issues of her own. Her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), still smarting from her defeat in the first film, is single-mindedly obsessed with destroying her sister and everyone she loves. Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is a hilarious and heartfelt follow-up to the smash-hit original.

If the plot sounds a little overstuffed, that’s because it is. The story is never confusing, but there are a lot of moving parts, and separating the team for a good chunk of the running time doesn’t help matters. The film lacks the laser-sharp focus of the original, and removing a few side characters (Sylvester Stallone’s appearance as a legendary outlaw seems almost entirely unnecessary) would have helped improve the pacing.

With many films, these inconsistencies would be a major issue. But, with a film as off-the-wall as Guardians, it really is a minor complaint. Everything else about the film is absolutely wonderful.

James Gunn proves once again why he’s one of the best writers in film. His dialogue is brilliant and beyond hilarious. I found myself laughing more than I did in the original, thanks to Rocket’s and Quill’s playfully antagonistic banter and a bevy of brilliantly conceived running gags (Taser Face stands as my personal favorite). The jokes are rapid-fire, and I couldn’t recall a one that felt flat. This is the kind of movie you’ll want to see again to catch all of the little lovingly crafted details and blink-or-you’ll-miss-it gags.

In addition to being the funniest Marvel film, Volume 2 stands with Doctor Strange as the most visually engaging. In an era where summer blockbusters feel the need to make everything drab, gray and “gritty,” there’s something so refreshing about a movie with color. From the shimmering skin of the Sovereign to Ego’s Edenic home planet, everything here feels lovingly crafted in a way that effects-heavy films rarely are. One action scene in particular, featuring Yondu’s legendary whistling red arrow, becomes a brutal light show that feels like a true work of art.

Volume 2’s humor makes it good, but what makes it great is the heart at the center of it. Like the original, the film contains characters you will care deeply about, from Star Lord to seemingly minor characters like Ego’s antennaed assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). And, as Quill’s relationship to his birth father begins to reveal its layers as he ponders his relationship with his adopted father, the movie imparts a valuable lesson about the importance of family, whatever that word means. Family is blood, certainly, but it’s also whoever has your back no matter what. It’s anyone who would lay down their life for you, who would stick by you until the bitter end.

I’m grateful for this unlikely family of lovable misfits, and I imagine many moviegoers are too.  As long as the Guardians films remain this thrilling, funny, heartfelt and lovingly crafted, I’m on board to witness their exploits for years to come.

The Circle review

“Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.” So goes the mantra of Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) one of the men in charge of technology giant The Circle. James Ponsoldt’s film, names after the company, imagines an organization not too far from reality, a powerful but potentially unholy blend of Google and Facebook, with maybe a bit of Disney thrown in.

Based upon Dave Egger’s prescient novel, the film, which Eggers helped adapt to screen, is a sometimes insightful but ultimately fairly mundane examination of the question, what would the world look like if we valued knowledge and access to information as a right above privacy?

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a talented young woman wasting her youth (and her art history degree) working for the local utility company and living with her parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton, in one of his final roles). But Mae’s life changes when her long-term friend Annie (Karen Gillan) snags her an interview with the most powerful and trendy tech company on the planet. It’s the kind of place that features weekly Ted-esque innovation talks, Friday night concerts from Beck and more clubs and activities than one could possibly do in a lifetime.

Mae succeeds in getting a job in Customer Experience, where many budding circlers start their meteoric careers. She is, at first, predictably overwhelmed. There’s her customer satisfaction score (1-100), as well as her social circle account (like Facebook, but with a specific popularity rank number tied to it). Then, there’s her weekend trips to her parent’s to help take care of her ailing MS-diagnosed father. Between all this, the poor girl barely has time to indulge in her favorite activity: kayaking.

But none of this is enough to stop Mae’s determination. Her work ethic soon gets the attention of Bailey and fellow company leader Tom (Patton Oswalt), along with the mysterious Ty (John Boyega), who warns her that abandoning privacy completely and “completing the circle” will have an irreversible cost.

Mae is skeptical. Look at what good The Circle is doing for humanity. We’re on our way to complete transparency, where tiny marble-sized cameras can be placed anywhere and camouflaged, unseen to the naked eye. With everyone afraid of getting caught, crime could be almost eliminated overnight. No more theft, no more shootings, no more dictators committing massive human rights violations. The Circle envisions a perfect utopia of accountability, where people behave within the confines of law and decency, because the only other choice is to be seen and known. There will be no shadows to hide in, and that is something Mae wants desperately to be a part of, no matter the cost. As Mae rises through the ranks of The Circle, she is forced to consider the moral imperative of the company’s efforts, along with its potential pitfalls.

Eggers’ and Ponsoldt’s script follows all of the main beats from the novel, and in a few cases adds some interesting twists to the equation. But the story still feels rushed; even with the elimination of some extraneous plot threads, there are so many interesting characters that don’t feel like full flesh-and-blood people. This somewhat deadens the emotional impact of some of the film’s more dramatic scenes.

The Circle raises some provocative questions in the information age, but doesn’t have enough gripping character moments to sustain interest.

This missed opportunity extends to the acting (and I’m not just talking about Watson’s dubious American accent). There is a very talented cast here, but many of the major players feel underutilized. Oswalt, Boyega and Hanks don’t get as much screen time as they deserve, and, when the film’s revelations are brought to light, we still don’t know much about their backgrounds or how they play into the proceedings.

The visuals are the film’s most interesting bullet point. The screen is often filled with pop up messages commenting on events in a variety of languages. This commentary is sometimes relevant but often delightfully random, and it contributes to the film’s growing sense of unease and dread over just how invasive technology can be. Without giving much away, this visual element is directly tied to a major story point, so it feels natural but never excessive or distracting.

One of the film’s major faults may lie with its marketing. The previews sold The Circle as a techno-thriller, with Mae discovering shady dealings inside the company and speaking out about them. That’s not what happens in the book, and I’m thankful that the film sticks closer to Mae’s inner moral conundrum regarding the necessary limitations of technology. But, this type of story is decidedly smaller and less high-stakes, and those looking for a grand conspiracy at the center of the story should check their expectations.

Egger’s script is also a bit softer and less acerbic than his novel, and that is most prevalent in the character of Mae. In the book, she turns from an idealistic young go-getter into a complete monster, alienating her family and friends for the “greater good” of the company, but the film makes her decidedly more sympathetic. I recall a great sense of tragedy reading about this slow moral degradation, but the film misses out on that character arc. Making Mae into a slightly more heroic figure probably makes the film more commercially palatable, but it also makes it less interesting. Her mixed motivations muddy the message a bit, particularly in the ending, which is still kind of cool but takes her ultimate decision in a different direction.

The Circle asks some extremely important questions, ones well worth mulling on. Are there some things we are not meant to know? What are the limits of science and technology in a connected world, if there are any? Is knowledge more important than privacy? Where is the line between privacy and secrecy? The film does an admirable job tackling these big questions, but it does so at the expense of truly interesting and memorable characters. It’s a fine film, but the center of this circle feels a bit hollow.

Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt: 12 Angry Men and the true nature of justice

The opening shot of 12 Angry Men shows us the towering pillars of an unnamed court building. At the top of this building, we see a quote from George Washington: “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.”

When Sydney Lumet’s debut feature was released 60 years ago in 1957, it’s safe to say he and many Americans may have felt those words to be hollow. What was justice to the hundreds of black men being lynched across the nation? Although “separate but equal” facilities had been outlawed three years earlier, the justice system surely didn’t feel like a safe, reliable institution to many African-Americans and other minorities whose wounds were as fresh as their memories.

Today, we have the world at our fingertips. We were promised technology would erase these divisions, these wounds. That scientific progress would necessitate a moral shift. Anyone who spends time on the internet would quickly find such a promise to be unfulfilled.

What’s so astonishing about this classic courtroom drama is that it speaks so clearly to the current state of public discourse and justice in the United States, just as it did 60 years ago.

The film’s set up is simple: a jury of 12 men is tasked with deciding whether to send a Puerto Rican teenager to the electric chair for murdering his father, or declare him not guilty of the crime. Eleven of the men are immediately prepared to declare him guilty, but one abstains. Juror number 8, played by Henry Fonda, offers up a simple request: “I just want to talk.” Number 8 reminds the other jurors that the point of justice is to prove culpability beyond a shadow of a doubt. We have no doubts, the other men say. And yet, over the next few hours, he slowly and methodically convinces every single one of them to admit that they don’t have all the answers, and in fact are relying more on their own prejudices and preconceptions than any objective view of the facts.

Of course, none of the other men are aware of this. In their mind, the evidence is clear. But the jury deliberation room is sweltering, and they all have lives to get back to, after all.

This past election cycle, I was reminded of how entrenched most Americans are. We have our own news channels, our own friend group and our own community gatherings. We have a hard time putting ourselves in others’ shoes because we don’t know what an “other” looks like, what he thinks and feels and believes. Our opinions validate us, and so we fear changing them, even when the facts would otherwise compel us to consider a different perspective.

According to the film, that’s a damn shame. Many of the other jurors are, perhaps understandably, upset at #8’s insistence on having a discussion. Doesn’t he see what’s staring him right in the face? His main opposition is juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), an emotional man who nonetheless proclaims a firm commitment to the facts. What about the multiple eyewitnesses? The boy’s flimsy alibi? The physical evidence, such as the unique knife found at the scene? How can you go against such overwhelming evidence?

The answer, according to juror 8, is simply to ask questions. “We’re talking about someone’s life here,” he says. “We can’t just decide it in 5 minutes. Supposing we’re wrong.”

12 Angry Men reminds us that true justice is impeded as long as we refuse to question our assumptions or admit that we might be wrong.

In post-truth America, “wrong” might as well be a swear word. We’re taught that if we feel a certain way about something, than it must be true. But…what if.

“I don’t have personal feelings about this. I just wanna talk about the facts,” juror 3 says, as if doing so were even possible. Our emotions often make true impartiality impossible.

One of the things that makes 12 Angry Men so memorable is the fact that there are no villains. The men who most vehemently oppose juror 8 aren’t monsters, they’re simply doing what they feel is right. But right and wrong should never be determined by how we feel about something.

This is driven home in perhaps the film’s most powerful scene, when juror 10 (Ed Begley) loses himself in a racist rant about “those people” who live in the slums.

“Violence—that’s their nature,” he says. “Human life doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to us.”

Slowly, each man stands up and turns his back to juror 10, as he continues to fumble for words. Even in an environment where everyone has a voice, not all viewpoints deserve equal treatment. The look on juror 10’s face as he realizes how deeply entrenched his prejudice has become and how blind it has made him is a true acting feat, and it’s the moment that sways the stubborn man’s verdict. He knows now that the things he believes in the shadows, spoken out, are heinous and underserving of acknowledgement.

How do we treat the racists we encounter, the people who refer to African-Americans as “thugs” or even make causal jokes about Asian drivers? Thanks to the internet, the Alex Joneses and David Dukes of the world have a platform to speak their controversial opinions. But we often acknowledge these thoughts by trolling them on Twitter, by reacting against them in force. Like the jurors in the film, I wonder if protesting such hate speech would be more effective if we simply stayed silent, a universal sign that some opinions are not valid and will not be acknowledged as such.

“Wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth,” Juror 8 says towards the end of the film. And, in this room full of average, relatable, well-meaning men, we certainly see plenty of that adage in action. My initial reaction to that quote is to remind the juror that prejudice is everywhere, and that’s why the “true administration of justice” is so hard. We are not, by nature, factually driven, rational animals. We are not Spock.

But, I can hear the juror responding, we don’t have to be. True justice begins to peek between the curtains of blind hatred and prejudice when we take the simple step of acknowledging that we might be wrong. This isn’t a decision someone else can make for us. And, in an age of Twitter flame wars and internet trolls, it’s not an easy one to stand by. But to do otherwise is to risk our own humanity.

Sixty years later, I pray there is still time to take the lessons these 12 Angry Men have learned to heart.

Logan review

Without a doubt, Logan aka The Wolverine is one of the most iconic and celebrated characters in all of comic book history. And, since the original X-Men film released in 2000, he has also been an iconic screen presence. This is thanks mostly to Hugh Jackman, who has played the adamantium-clawed mutant in one form or another across nine films. Now, the actor is hanging up the muttonchops, closing the book on a character he has embodied for 17 years.

With Jackman’s final outing, Logan, he returns with The Wolverine director James Mangold for a much darker, more brutal take on Wolverine’s legacy, one that is filled with complex emotions, shocking violence, and more than its fair share of homages to classic cinema (particularly the western). Does the film live up to the character’s storied cinematic legacy? Absolutely. A few quibbles keep me from declaring Logan the best comic-based film since The Dark Knight. But, it’s pretty damn close.

The film jumps forward in time, bringing us to the year 2029, where Logan is working as a limousine driver near the Texas border. From the start, this is a different Logan that what we’re used to seeing; greying and weary, he would rather mind his own business than pick a fight. But, the film spares no time showing us what happens when the claws are forced to come out; within the first few minutes we see the bloody results when Wolverine’s famous rage is forced to come out and play.

At this point in the story, Logan has been alive for hundreds of years; thanks to his miraculous healing abilities, he ages much more slowly than the average human (or mutant). This is a future where mutant kind has been all but wiped out, and the X-Men we know and love are long gone. The man who once fought in the Civil War is tired, and beyond ready to die. In fact, he keeps an adamantium-laced bullet on hand to force his passing, if necessary. But Logan still has a mission—taking care of the ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is being kept in a silo across the Mexican border. The most powerful mind in the world has been prone to seizures, of the earth-shattering, potential to destroy the world type. The silo keeps Xavier’s mind trapped, as does a series of medications administered by his caretaker, the mysterious albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant).

But, Logan and Xavier are soon forced to go on the run after a mysterious man named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) comes asking about a little girl with strange powers. It’s obvious this man means the girl harm. As it turns out, a woman has been following Logan, asking if he can escort said girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) to a mutant safe-haven known as Eden, which may or may not actually exist. Logan is understandably reluctant—why chase after a fairy tale? And how can this girl be a mutant, when one hasn’t been born in decades?

As events draw them together, what follows is essentially a chase film mixed with a classic road trip, as Logan, Laura and Xavier make their way to North Dakota, all the way pursued by Pierce and his men, backed by the genetic research organization Transigen. What could they possibly want with this girl? And how powerful is she, exactly?

From the get go, the film exudes a quiet, soulful mood, so far removed from the flashiness of X-Men films past. The script heavily references the classic western Shane, and, in many ways, the film feels like a Western. The lonely wanderer, forced to defend someone from violent attackers who slowly comes to learn more about himself through the process is an ancient tale. But nothing like this has ever been attempted in a Marvel film before, and that helps to freshen the approach.

The tone and pacing of Logan are absolute home runs. Like Marvel’s recent Netflix shows such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the film feels as though it takes place in the real world, where people die and forgiveness is not easily earned. Take, for example, the moment where Logan spies one of Laura’s X-Men comics and proclaims that the vast majority of those stories are made up. Such a technique can easily come off as cheekily self-referential, but here it manages to ground the story in real space and time.

Logan is an emotional and grueling journey, but one well worth taking for fans of thought-provoking comic book fare.

The effect can be jarring, especially when the characters reference the events of previous films, so wildly different in tone and setting. But there’s still plenty of splashy action amidst the more contemplative mood. A sequence that takes place at a casino is one of the best in the X-Men franchise, and we get plenty of chances to see Wolverine go full-beast mode, particularly in a jaw-dropping battle set in a forest.

But, the emotional core of the story is the character relationships, and it is here that Logan transforms into something special. These are characters fans care deeply about, and seeing them fully wrestle with their lives and legacies is deeply moving. The emotion is driven in by the soulful performances. Take a look at Jackman and Stewart and tell me if they’ve ever been better. Keen is also a revelation. As Laura, she is asked to carry the weight of the film, acting as the catalyst for Logan’s journey. She is incredible both in her ferocity and her subtlety, and her relationship with Logan is beautifully rendered and achingly poignant.

Perhaps one of the film’s great strengths, and also its greatest weakness, is its air of mystery. We’re asked to piece together what exactly happened to the rest of the mutants in the missing years, as well as how Logan and Xavier ended up where they did. Sometimes, a clue can be a single line of dialogue. This works well for some revelations, but others fall flat. Caliban, for example, is an intriguing character that we don’t really get to know. Most of his purpose was served in the past, but, since he was first introduced in this film, we’re not able to form the same kind of connection with him as we can with the other characters. I suppose you could say that the villains are fairly weak, but, since this the film is much more about Logan’s inner journey, this is much less of a complaint as it can be in other Marvel fare. There are also a few plot points that could have been fleshed out more—explanations and motivations are sometimes interrupted by shocking violence, never to be picked up again.

Speaking of violence, Logan is a ridiculously bloody movie. Those who have read the Old Man Logan source material should not be shocked by this. While people have been clamoring for an R-rated Wolverine flick for some time, there is something to say about a tad bit of restraint, and, when it comes to violence, the film has none. The deft, subtle hand shown in so much of the rest of the film is absent from the action and violence, which is relentless and graphic. Expect tons of sliced torsos, decapitated heads and gushing limb removal.

Whether you like Logan or not may ultimately depend on what you think the comic-based superhero film is supposed to be. Logan is thought-provoking, emotional and painfully intimate. It is not, however, a very “enjoyable” flick, and not one I recommend munching popcorn while watching. I see room for this kind of film alongside stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy. They may not have the same audience, and that’s okay. For those looking to be “entertained” by a Wolverine movie rather than challenged, I recommend one of the character’s previous outings.

When thinking of Logan, I pause less on the brutal violence than the brutal emotions, the painful intimacy and raw emotion of the whole affair. This is a gorgeous, moody, wonderful film for those ready to submit themselves to the experience. It asks us to ponder what it means to have a legacy, what it means to have a family and how one can wrestle successfully with the sins of the past. Best of all, it takes risks. They may not all completely pay off, but when was the last time you associated “risk” with a Marvel movie?

My top 10 Best Picture Oscar winners

With the 89th Academy Awards ceremony right around the corner, it’s a great time to reflect upon the storied history of this prestigious ceremony. Thankfully, I’m in a great position to do that, having recently finished watching every winner of the Academy’s top prize, the coveted Best Picture.

The history behind this award alone is enough to fill volumes, and it certainly doesn’t come without controversy. For every Godfather, there’s a baffling winner like Tom Jones or The Broadway Melody, films that may have had something to say in their time, but by today’s standards seem woefully inadequate. Then there’s the good films that nonetheless remain divisive choices. How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane? Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction? Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas? The King’s Speech over The Social Network?

Despite some headscratchers, it should come as no surprise that the Best Picture statue counts among its members some of the finest films ever made. I’m here to share what I think are the very best of the best. These are not necessarily the most iconic winners, or the “best” by snooty critic standards (although I think most of them are). They’re simply my favorite. So please, enjoy and for heaven’s sake, disagree. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be any fun.

10. On the Waterfront (1954)

There are few performances more iconic that Marlon Brando’s blistering portrayal of Terry Malloy, a down-on-his luck former boxer turned longshoreman who risks his job and safety to protest his corrupt union bosses. Even the casual moviegoer can probably recite the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech, whether they’ve seen the film or not. Thankfully, the film surrounding Brando is equally top notch, filled with typically sensational direction from Elia Kazan and a potent and powerful message of perseverance in the face of persecution.  The film has certainly stood the test of time, and it doesn’t seem set to go out of style anytime soon. It is currently ranked 19th on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films of all time.

 

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The conclusion to Peter Jackson’s fantasy epic broke the mold in more ways than one. It was the first fantasy film to take home the top prize. And, like Lawrence of Arabia before it, it redefined the default when people think of the quintessential Hollywood epic. Some would say that the Academy’s overwhelmingly lavish praise of the film (it took home a whopping 11 statues) was a way to honor the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, if that’s the case, at least they saved the accolades for one of the finest franchises ever put to screen. What’s not to love about Tolkien’s timeless tale? Jackson, along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, crafted a near-perfect adaptation, with pitch-perfect casting choices and some of the finest battles sequences ever put to film. Even better, ROTK never lost the emotional core of the story, the friendship between hobbits Sam and Frodo. Both tragic and stirring, heartbreaking yet hopeful, gigantic and yet, at times, painfully intimate, this was truly an epic for the ages.

8. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

One of the finest war films ever made doesn’t contain a single battle sequence.  William Wyler’s timely drama deals instead with the aftermath of soldiers returning home from war. The film follows three soldiers as they return from the war and attempt to re-adjust to civilian life. But each faces their own particular struggles, from Homer’s (Harold Russel, in an Oscar-winning role) insecurity over his battlefield deformity to Fred’s (Dana Andrews) difficulty in holding down a job. This is an intimate, often painful yet ultimately hopeful tale. Bring the tissues, because it’s a weepie in the best sense of the word. Even in its more melodramatic moments, it earns every emotion. The Best Years of our Lives is pretty much perfect, and a fine example of Hollywood message making done right.

7. Unforgiven (1992)

Who would have thought that Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of the western genre that made him famous would end up being his finest? Unforgiven earns major accolades as we see in retired gunslinger Bill Munny (played by Eastwood) what kind of man the actor’s earlier roles may have turned out to be. Rarely has the audience felt more guilty watching a western—the violence is brutal, the emotions pained, and the ramifications of revenge given their full weight. Not since The Searchers has a western so painfully pulled the audience into its world of greed, corruption and men who think they’re above the law. Throw in a fantastic villain (played by Gene Hackman) and a sensitive companion (Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan) and you have a classic that manages to be a gripping genre piece while throwing away so much of what made the classical western what it was. It’s truly unforgettable.

6. Schindler’s List (1993)

No top Best Picture list would be complete without Steven Spielberg’s tour-de-force, an iconic film about one of the worst things to ever happen in the history of humanity. Making a holocaust film is no easy task, and the normally fanciful Spielberg faced much skepticism as to whether he could pull off a story with so much weight. But pull it off he did, to uniformly spectacular results. The black-and-white cinematography is striking, as is the haunting and brutal imagery. This is a tough film to watch, but one that dares you to look away. It’s also one of the most “important” films to ever win Best Picture, but don’t let that turn you off from just how good it is. At the center is Oskar Schindler, and Liam Neeson plays him with an enviable amount of heart and depth. Schindler’s transformation from willing Nazi accomplice to active resistor and eventual saver of thousands of Jews is the emotional crux of the film, and Neeson doesn’t miss a beat. Schindler’s List is a great tragedy about a great tragedy, but it restores hope in the resiliency of the human spirit and the capacity for goodness in the midst of history’s great evil. An absolutely essential film.

5. The Deer Hunter (1978)

For a time, I considered Michael Cimino’s brilliant examination of soldiers coming home from Vietnam to be my favorite war film. It’s still up there. In terms of films that deal directly with the Vietnam conflict, The Deer Hunter was the first and, in my mind, the best (with all respect to Apocalypse Now, which somehow lost the top prize to Kramer vs. Kramer one year later).  Like The Best Years of Our Lives before it, the film deals painfully and intimately with the ramifications of the war on those returning home, as well as the loved ones waiting for them. This is a much darker film, dealing explicitly with the terrifying depths man can sink to when he no longer knows anything but violence. Christopher Walken represents this theme in one of the great tragic roles, but the film is filled with a who’s-who of acting greats in their early days, including Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and John Cazale. The film is probably best known for it’s “Russian roulette” sequence, but even in its quieter moments, it remains gripping and essential.

4. Gone with the Wind (1939)

One of the most lavish and iconic films in Hollywood history, Gone with the Wind took home the top prize in what is often considered Hollywood’s greatest year. It beat out legendary films like The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights. Watching the film today, it doesn’t take too long to realize why it rose above such advanced pedigree. It’s the absolute crowning jewel of the Hollywood studio system, one that pushed the boundaries of what we though was possible in film, from its gorgeous color cinematography to its epic Civil War setting and four-hour run time, not to mention its (for the time) gasp-worthy swear.

Equally iconic are the performances, from Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh’s portrayal as on-again off-again lovers to Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal as Mammy the house servant. McDaniel won an Oscar for the role, being the first black woman to win best supporting actress and showing an early sign of the Academy’s occasional clear-headedness in pushing the boundaries of diversity in film. Gone with the Wind set the standard for the grand Hollywood epic, and, almost 70 years later, it still hasn’t been beaten.

3. The Godfather (1972)/The Godfather Part II (1974)

Normally, it would be easy to pick The Godfather for this list, but, surprisingly, its sequel also took home the top prize two years later. Because this is my list and I can do what I want, they’re both getting the mention here. Not since Gone with the Wind had a film so enraptured audiences and critics, and, since its release, The Godfather has arguably surpassed even that legendary film (it ranks 2nd on AFI’s top 100, just behind Citizen Kane; Part II ranks 32nd). It’s so easy to see why Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping crime epic pulled a two-fer—both films share the same panache for grand scope, perfect structure, iconic moments and some of the finest performances ever put to film. From Marlon Brando’s legendary role as Don Corleone to Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall (not to mention Robert DeNiro in part II), every performances is flawless.

There’s not much to say about these films that hasn’t already been said. They’re perfect, and no film has quite matched their pure craftsmanship since. Every mob film since lives in their long shadows.

2. Casablanca (1942)

The greatest romance ever put to screen, Casablanca has arguably the most memorable dialogue in movie history (even if people still misquote the “Play it Again, Sam” line). The Morocco-circa-WWII-set classic is also a profoundly successful genre mashup, mixing classic Hollywood romance with war and mystery/thriller trappings. Certainly, the stark black-and-white cinematography and unforgettable performances from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman help to solidify this as an undisputed classic. But what truly cements it for me is the screenplay, perhaps the finest ever written (with the possible exception of my number one choice). Despite the fame of its many classic lines, the dialogue never exactly calls attention to itself. It’s memorable simply by being really damn good. This is essential viewing for anyone with a pulse.

1. Amadeus (1984)

Anyone who knows me well would expect this film to occupy my top slot. Not only my favorite Best Picture, it is perhaps my favorite film of all time (certainly a solid top 5). Peter Shaffer’s adaptation of his stage play about the artistic rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) has been the envy of screenwriters everywhere for more than 30 years. How can one script pack in so much depth, so much emotion, so many thought-provoking themes about the nature of artistic expression? It’s beyond comprehension, and to watch the film is to be in pure awe of its sheer brilliance.

Sure, Amadeus plays fast and loose with the facts of history, but it was never meant to be a historical biopic. Instead, Shaffer and director Milos Forman use historical figures as a jumping-off point for a far more fascinating exploration of the nature of the relationship between God and man. Salieri is the traditional good boy, one who prays with devotion and follows all of the rules in hopes that God may touch him with artistic genius. He’s the classic legalist, expecting and (eventually) demanding that God reward his good behavior with earthly success.

As Salieri’s foil, Mozart is the man gifted, seemingly from birth, with brilliance, touched by the hand of God. Mozart’s genius is surely unmerited—he’s a hedonistic blaggard, a foul-mouthed, immature and petulant child, which of course enrages Salieri all the more. Why would God grant such a gift to one so undeserving? These questions and themes are given more thoughtful consideration here than in any other film I’ve seen, and the result is breathtaking.

The script’s brilliance is bolstered by the potent performances, including Abraham’s Oscar-winning turn as Salieri. It’s a savage and tragic character study, as a devout man slowly but quite deliberately turns into a vengeful monster. And Hulce’s work as Mozart is much more nuanced than it initially appears. Perhaps, for a good chunk of the film, the audience actually sides with Salieri. But, as Mozart begins to reveal shades to his character, we actually see that he perhaps doesn’t quite deserve Salieri’s vengeful wrath.

Naturally, the music only elevates the film even further. It’s some of the best ever written, and seeing it performed on screen is nothing short of a revelation. Amadeus is a gift to the world of cinema, and one I will never tire of watching. It is, in my opinion, the best Best Picture.

Runners-up: It was a tough job narrowing my list down to 10. These are the next 10, in no particular order, which would get my vote:

The Sound of Music

My Fair Lady

West Side Story

Lawrence of Arabia

All About Eve

12 Years a Slave

It Happened One Night

Ben Hur

In the Heat of the Night

Gentleman’s Agreement

The Top 10 Films of 2016

The general consensus on the year 2016 was that, well…it sucked. And that is mostly true. But one area of exception was the cinema. I thought this past year was a rather glorious one for film lovers. Which makes picking my 10 favorite films so much more difficult. Surely, another 10 could have easily taken the spots of what I chose here. And yet, these are the choices. They’re the films that left me profoundly moved, or in tears, or rejoicing. Film is an emotional medium, and every movie featured here earned that emotion in ways both big and small. Without further ado, here are my top 10 films of 2016.

10. Sing Street

This feels like the proper follow-up to John Carney’s sensational indie Once, rather than the underwhelming Begin Again. Thankfully, the director proves he’s more than a one-trick pony, with a much more upbeat and joyous tale about a Catholic schoolboy in the 1980s who starts a rock band to (of course) impress a girl. The film is a marvel of clever humor and pure, simple emotion, something Carney excels at. There is a cornucopia of references to the music scene of the 80s, but more impressive are the original songs. They’re catchy, creative, and feel like they could have come straight out of the time period. Carney’s passion for music shines through in every frame, and that’s not something you can fake.

9. Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water may at first seem like your typical cops-and-robbers tale, but David MacKenzie’s richly textured, deeply human drama is so much more. In the era of Trump, this is the film that got white, blue-collar dissatisfaction and ennui better than any other. That’s mostly due to Taylor Sheridan’s dialogue, which is poetic but still feels very lived-in (it’s also, blessedly, quite funny). But it’s also due to the soulful performances. Chris Pine and Ben Foster have never been better as brothers pushed to the edge of their circumstances by people with more power and wealth than they, and Jeff Bridges is, again, a marvel as the ranger tasked with hunting them down. His Marcus Hamilton’s friendship with fellow sheriff Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) is more affecting than the vast majority of on-screen romances we saw this year. It’s characters like this that prove to us this film is operating on an entirely different and completely successful level.

8. Jackie

Much ado has been made about Natalie Portman’s astonishing transformation into Jackie Kennedy for this film. And the praise is well-deserved. But the film around her, which follows Jackie in the hours and days after her husband’s assassination, is equally worthy of recognition. Pablo Larrain’s drama is emotionally gripping and gorgeously shot by Stephane Fontaine, who fills scenes with delirious close-ups as we begin to feel the claustrophobic anxiety Jackie surely felt in the aftermath of one of the most devastating days in American history. Mica Levi’s Oscar-worthy score also contributes to that mood. But the main reason Jackie stays in my mind is its message that trials shape the people we become, that hardship refines us and, perhaps, even gives us a glimpse of God’s grace. For a culture that tries to actively avoid pain, that is an essential reminder.

7. Kubo and the Two Strings

Pixar often gets the highest praise for creating quality animated films both kids and adults can enjoy, but stop-motion auteurs Laika have been given them a run for their money for years with unforgettable stories like Coraline and ParaNorman. Kubo and the Two Strings is their masterpiece, and the best animated film of the year. The impossibly gorgeous papercraft-like visuals bolster an epic and emotional journey through ancient Japanese myth, as Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) enlists the help of a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed samurai (Matthew McConaughey) to take down his menacing sorcerer aunts (Rooney Mara) and grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Finnes). This is a wondrous tale about the power of storytelling itself, with a strong voice cast and richly defined and memorable characters. It’s an adventure that will hopefully be treasured by kids and adults for years to come.

6. Silence

Martin Scorsese’s long-in-gestation passion project is an incredibly faithful and reverent adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s seminal novel about Jesuit priests in 17th Century Japan. It’s also one of the most powerful films about faith in crisis ever made. As part of the legendary director’s unofficial “spiritual” trilogy (which also includes The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun), Silence is the best. Scorsese and Jay Cocks wisely took much of their dialogue straight from the novel, and refusing to mess with perfection turned out to be a smart move. This grueling but deeply moving journey is an important one for our time, where a Christian is martyred for their faith every five minutes. Andrew Garfield has had a pretty great year, but I think his performance as the tortured priest Sebastian Rodriguez surpasses his work in Hacksaw Ridge. And Adam Driver and Liam Neeson’s supporting performances command attention every minute they’re on screen.

Silence is a very personal and spiritual film, but, like all good art, its questions run deeper than their specific context. What does it mean to love? What does it mean to suffer? And, can a God of justice allow both of those things to exist, perhaps simultaneously? The film is probably too long, and Scorsese’s touch is a tad less subtle than Endo’s (particularly in the ending). But movies don’t get much more passionate, personal and powerful than this.

5. The Lobster

The Lobster is the funniest, and also one of the saddest, movies of the year. Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurd, pitch black satire is one of this generation’s most brilliant commentaries on modern romance (and, naturally, the loneliness that lies therein). The ever-brilliant Colin Ferrell leads a marvelous cast as we spend some surreal time at a hotel where single people are sent to find mates. The catch? They have 45 days to succeed, or they will be transformed into the animal of their choice. “Guests” can extend their time by hunting down and tranquilizing escaped single people in the nearby forest.

The film sounds absolutely bonkers, and it is. But Lanthimos is a mad genius, and he always leads us somewhere interesting and profound. Despite its absurdity, the film has some very deep things to say about modern humanity’s isolationist tendencies, and how such existential loneliness seeps into our relationships. Whether it’s brilliantly insane or insanely brilliant, it’s not a film anyone who sees it will soon forget.

4. Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece has been the darling of the indie and awards circuits, and it’s easy to see why. This is painfully intimate filmmaking of the caliber we rarely see in contemporary cinema. In terms of movies that ponder what it means to be a man in the modern world, it’s right up there with Boyhood in terms of its lingering and haunting impact. Jenkins’ camera focuses on three periods in the life of a gay black man in a rough neighborhood of Miami. But the story stays universal in its ruminations on modern masculinity. As someone who is neither black nor gay, I still found plenty I could relate to. Men are taught not to be fragile, and black men in particular feel the pressure to act tough, to be someone who can handle himself on the streets. This theme is built into the film’s very structure, where the main character is referred to as Little (as a child), Chiron (as a teenager, his real name) and, finally, simply Black.

Jenkins conveys the cycle that exists in many black communities, when Chiron, himself a victim of drug culture, ends up as a drug dealer. It’s devastating but realistic, as is his complicated relationship with his childhood best friend, Kevin. The script is brilliant, but the film is pushed even farther by the impeccable camerawork and the unforgettable performances. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron at the three stages, but Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali provide equally praise-worthy supporting performances. This is what you might call “essential” cinema; not always easy to watch, but so very valuable and unforgettable.

3. Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s films have a sneaky habit of winding up on my top 10 lists, and Arrival does little to break the trend. In fact, it’s his most accomplished film to date, and, in my mind, and instant sci-fi classic. It takes a complex and fascinating look at the fact that, despite humanity’s access to technology, we are worse at communicating than ever. Amy Adams gives one of her best performances as Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is asked to board one of twelve mysterious floating pods that have appeared around the globe. The question: what are our mysterious tentacle visitors’ intentions, as they stay safely nestled in their pods? Why have they come, and how long before they get tired of waiting for us to figure them out?

Focusing the story on a linguist was a brilliant move, and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay deserves high praise for keeping the layered and sometimes jargon-heavy dialogue from becoming unintelligible. In fact, the film’s focus is clear, as is its message that fear does not motivate successful politics. In a fraught and divisive election year, this was a grave reminder. Like the best science fiction, Arrival speaks to our modern world with a clear and prophetic voice. The fact that it’s so deeply human, that it’s filled with haunting imagery, stellar performances and amazing music, is much welcome icing on an already delicious cake. You won’t be getting this one out of your head for a long time.

2. La La Land

What a miracle of a movie this is! Hot off the heels of his stellar Whiplash, Damien Chazelle has crafted a musical both modern and old-fashioned in its sensibilities. This is the kind of film where the passion of its creation radiates from every frame, bolstered by amazing performances (who knew Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone could sing and dance?), unforgettable music and the magic of pure Hollywood craftsmanship.

La La Land is a love letter to so many things that make this world wonderful: jazz music, movies, Los Angeles and impossible dreams. It’s joyful, but refuses to settle for the happy Hollywood ending. It’s simple, but manages complexity from its richly layered characters and astonishingly good cinematography and production design. This is a film that truly fires on all cylinders; every aspect is given the utmost care and attention to detail. I remember watching it and thinking, “they didn’t have to make it this good.” Indeed, they could have gotten away with much less. But here’s to those foolish dreamers who had a vision and put 110% into it all the way. The result? A little more joy in the world. That’s something we should all be grateful for.

1. Manchester by the Sea

Movies don’t get any closer to perfection than this. Every aspect of Kenneth Lonergan’s tragic, funny, relatable drama has been polished to a fine sheen. The performances? Casey Affleck has never been better, Michelle Williams left tears in my eyes, and Lucas Hedges brought the feels with his layered role as a teenager coping with the loss of his father. The writing? Heartfelt and lived-in. Every line has an impact, every scene filled with the meaning needed for that particular moment. The direction? We are clearly in the hands of a master. The musical score? Incredible.

Manchester is the best manifestation of the themes present throughout the films featured on this list. Coping with grief. Persevering in the midst of suffering. Holding onto hope, to dreams, to goodness, to identity; even when the world around you threatens to strip those things away. It’s a film with many brutally sad moments, but, amazingly, it’s not a sad movie. It reminds us that life is very much worth living, even when things are hard. Even when things don’t make sense. We may not always see the grand plan, but persevering through everyday ordinary living is its own form of sacrifice. And such sacrifice does not go unrewarded.

Honorable Mentions: As I said previously, this was a great year. It pains me to leave off stellar films like 13th, Hacksaw Ridge, Hail Caesar!, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Sully, Midnight Special, Green Room, Zootopia, Birth of a Nation, Last Days in the Desert, Rogue One and Captain Fantastic, to name just a few. But too many great movies is a pretty good problem to have!

Blind spots: Fences, Toni Erdmann, Loving, The Handmaiden, Love and Friendship, A Monster Calls, Nocturnal Animals, Moana and Lion, among others.

Christian film report card: 2016

Since a major focus of this blog is faith and culture, I thought I would try analyzing the past year from the perspective of Christian film. The “faith-based” film market has exploded in recent years, and everyone from indie filmmakers to large production studios like Sony are trying to cash in.

When discussing Christian film, the first task is to explain what exactly that even means. There are three major categories I‘d like to look at: faith-based films, films about historical Christianity (movies about the life of Jesus, in other words, even if they contain fictional elements/characters ) and larger market secular films that contain strong Christian themes/characters. I will assess each category before assigning a grade for the year as a whole.

ROUND 1: “FAITH-BASED” FILMS 

The faith based film market was alive and well in 2016, much to the chagrin of Christian moviegoers who desire movies about their faith to qualify as good art. Thankfully, 2016 was not quite as bad as other years. Sure, God’s Not Dead 2 came out, and it was still profitable, but it never seemed to capture the electricity of the original. I’m hoping this means that audiences have already had their fill of this pandering, insipid franchise. The same descriptors could also probably apply to Miracles from Heaven, this year’s “noble” studio attempt at providing soft, un-challenging spiritual uplift (this one backed by Sony’s Affirm Films). It netted a respectable but uninspiring $61 million at the box office.

Priceless is a great example of how to do a faith-based film right.

And…that’s about it! There were a couple of smaller films that I really enjoyed. The human trafficking film Priceless was an effective thriller with an empowering message. And Hillsong’s innovative concert film Let Hope Rise was all-around sensational. Some predictable duds here, but this sub-genre is finally starting to get wise to the fact that Christians might actually want quality films that speak to them, rather than easy religious pandering.

ROUND 2: FILMS ABOUT JESUS

Speaking of quality, there was a plethora of engaging and thought-provoking films about the life of Christ in 2016. Though they weren’t all a slam dunk (remember Ben Hur? Yeah, neither do I), this was an impressive group overall. Risen gave us a unique look at Christ through the eyes of a Roman guard (an always-impressive Joseph Finnes) tasked with finding Christ’s body after it disappears from its tomb three days after his death. This novel take on a well-trod story starts out fairly standard but gets more intriguing as it goes on. By the time it was over, I had tears in my eyes, and they were well-earned. This is a well-written, acted and shot adventure yarn, with a redemptive message that is irresistible.

Another buzz-worthy film was The Young Messiah, which imagines what the missing

The Young Messiah is an intriguing, speculative look at Christ’s adolescence, continuing the recent trends of Jesus movies that blend history with fictional elements.

years of Jesus’ childhood may have looked like. Based on a novel by Anne Rice, the film is sometimes dull but deeply reverent. I left the film feeling like its events could have actually been the real story of Christ’s adolescence, and that’s no small feat. Gorgeous cinematography and great supporting performances from the likes of Sean Bean ensure a decent flick.

The best Jesus-based film of the year by far was Last Days in the Desert, a provocative look at the tail-end of Christ’s 40 days in the desert. Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and the devil, and the result is electrifying. McGregor may seem like a strange choice, but I think his sensibilities work well with the material. Director Rodrigo Garcia’s screenplay doesn’t provide easy answers; it asks difficult questions about divinity, questions that may make some true-believer uncomfortable. But for those willing to probe a bit deeper, the film is well worth your time. It probably helps that three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is predictably stunning (the crucifixion scene, in particular, may be the best ever put to film).

ROUND 3: MAINSTREAM FILMS

This category gets an all-around A+ this year. We thankfully weren’t lacking for filmmakers looking to tell quality stories with courageous Christians at their center. This category mostly tackles the “secular” world of film, or at least the high-budget, A-list director realm. The big success story here is obviously Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. The controversial director’s first film in a decade lived up to the hype, telling the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector in WWII who, due to his Christian conviction, refused to even hold a gun. He did, however, earn the Medal of Honor as a combat medic after saving the lives of dozens of his fellow soldiers during the battle of Okinawa. It’s an inspiring story, and Gibson tells it in an earnest, gritty and effective way. It’s a powerful story told in a powerful way.

While we’re talking about controversial filmmakers, how about Nate Parker and his slave rebellion epic The Birth of a Nation? Here’s a film that garnered major accolades at the Sundance Film Festival, only to make nary a dent at the box office or the awards circuit. Many blame this on rape allegations that surfaced from Parker’s past, but it’s hard to see the fault coming from the film itself (although it didn’t garner quite the critical praise many expected). It’s certainly a troubling film, but one that should inspire conversations about the nature of Christian resistance and how far God’s justice extends to our own actions. It’s certainly an excellent work of art all-around, but an immensely disturbing one. I’m not sure I am comfortable with the conclusions Nat Turner came to, in history or in the film. But the movie is saturated with scripture, and even seeing someone misuse the Bible doesn’t change the fact that the Bible is very much front and center for the vast majority of the film’s run time. I highly recommend it, though I will likely never see it again.

Scorsese’s Silence exemplifies the recent contemplative spiritual mode of many prolific filmmakers.

The final major film about Christian resistance in 2016 is Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Long in gestation, the legendary director’s film about Jesuit missionaries in 16th-century Japan is garnering high praise all around. I have yet to see it, but critics are calling in some of Scorsese’s best work, though, like Birth of a Nation, it may be a film you’ll only want to sit through once. It’s dense, challenging and absolutely essential. Still, seeing courageous Christians martyred for their faith should engender in Christians thoughts and prayers for Christians all around the world martyred for their faith every minute. This is an important story to highlight at a time in our history where violence against Christians has never been higher.

FINAL GRADE B+

Despite a few artistically bankrupt duds (both of the indie and studio variety), 2016 was an inspiring year for Christian film. From innovative concert documentaries to provocative looks at the life of Jesus and famous historical Christians, every believer should find something from this past year to strengthen their conviction, inspire their resolve or lift their spirits. And, in a world filled with hardship and pain, that’s something we could all use a lot more of.

La La Land review

“People in L.A. worship everything but value nothing.” So says Sebastian in Damien Chazelle’s miraculous musical romance La La Land. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a passionate jazz musician with dreams of opening his own club, but he’s stuck playing bland Christmas tunes in dingy restaurants. He’s frustrated by the lack of passion people around him bring to their lives, along with the fact that he himself can’t hold a steady job as he pursues his own dreams.

Mia (Emma Stone) faces a similar predicament. She gave up college and moved from her Nevada home to pursue acting, but, despite numerous auditions, she can’t seem to get a call back. When she meets Sebastian, she’s initially repulsed, but quickly she begins to warm to his charms and his zest for life. A romance blossoms, but it isn’t long before reality comes knocking for these starry-eyed dreamers. Can these two build a life together, sharing in each other’s’ burdens and ambitions? Or will the cold hand of failure and the everyday struggles of life tear them (and their careers) apart?

The central question of the film is, how does one continue to hold onto hope in the midst of resistance? How can you reach for the stars when life only seems to give you gravel? It’s a profound question, particularly in a year like 2016, when so many have felt beaten into submission by the woes of human experience.

For anyone feeling downtrodden, La La Land is the greatest Christmas present you could ask for. This is a film that will keep a smile on your face during most of its run time, a joyous celebration of the desires of the heart, and the perseverance of hope through all possible obstacles.

The film is love letter to two of my favorite things: movies and jazz. Chazelle already examined the passion of jazz music in the stellar Whiplash, but that film was dark and emotionally brutal. In contrast, La La Land is an infectious, upbeat and ear-catching marvel. This is the kind of film where you can feel the love of movie-making stitched into every frame, a film where the depth of passion and vision behind its creation is palpable and, frankly, astonishing.

La La Land is an infectious ode to Hollywood, jazz and impossible dreamers.

La La Land is billed as a musical, and a musical is really only as good as its songs. Thankfully, Justin Hurwitz’s tunes are mostly great. I’ve been obsessed with this soundtrack ever since I walked out of the theater (and am a particular fan of “City of Stars” and “The Fools Who Dream”). The dance sequences are also phenomenal, from the Fame style jaunt in the midst of an L.A. traffic jam that opens the film to a gorgeous tap-dancing sequence that hearkens to Gene Kelley and a dreamy flight through the Griffith observatory that is its own wondrous creation.

Thankfully, Chazelle’s dialogue is every bit as masterful as the songs. The writing throughout is funny, relatable and emotionally resonant. But what really takes the film to another level is the performances. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are no Astaire and Rodgers, and that’s what makes them so good. Their dancing is charming, their singing voices more than adequate. But, two struggling artists shouldn’t be masterful performers; it makes more sense that the characters would be rougher around the edges. To keep them from perfection is to keep them relatable (though still impossibly gorgeous).

That’s not to discount the marvelous work by the two leads. This is Stone’s best-ever role, proving once again her talent for giving nakedly emotional and absorbing performances. I’m a big Gosling fan, and this role shows off both his comedic and dramatic talents expertly. Despite the film’s flashy style, I never felt like I was watching “movie stars” on screen.  I felt like I was watching Mia and Sebastian. These roles feel lived-in, and that extends to the supporting cast (including a surprisingly excellent John Legend).

La La Land’s ending is not exactly a happy one, but it feels authentic, just like the rest of the film. There’s not a false note in sight. It is in many ways a simple film, but it’s not simplistic. It has a lot to say about the importance of holding onto dreams, and even conveys the welcome message that being traditional and old-fashioned isn’t always a bad thing. Some may call La La Land itself old-fashioned. If that’s the case, then I say it’s hip to be square.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story review

From its opening moments, it’s clear that Rogue One is going to be a different kind of Star Wars movie than what we’ve seen before. It’s a risky move from Lucasfilm: create a non-numbered film in the beloved sci-fi universe (sans opening story scroll), a prequel of sorts that attempts to answer one of the biggest questions from the 1977 original. How did the Rebel Alliance obtain the plans to the Imperial Death Star, the ones that Princess Leia hands off to R2-D2 and which eventually prompt Luke Skywalker to initiate the most famous explosion in movie history?

It’s a question worth asking, and a story worth exploring. However, it’s still easy to believe that Rogue One may be more of a cynical cash grab from Disney, who now owns Lucasfilm— a desperate attempt to wring more money out of a famous franchise. I am very happy to report that such concerns can be safely put to bed, because Rogue One is a lovingly crafted and thrilling tale, and one that fans of the franchise will almost certainly dig.

The film opens with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as a young girl, watching her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) get carted off by the Imperial Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to assist in building a super-weapon that will turn the tide in the war between the Imperial Army and the Rebel Alliance. Jyn, however, successfully hides, and is rescued and trained by resistance leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

When we next see Jyn, it is 15 years later, and she is “rescued” from an Imperial prison transport by resistance fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his re-programmed Imperial droid, K-2SO, voiced by a quip-filled Alan Tudyk. Why does the resistance want Jyn? Because her father has been the principal mastermind behind the construction of the Death Star, and she may be the only one who can convince Gererra to help track him down and extract the location of the Death Star plans. To complicate matters, Imperial pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) has shown up, claiming to have a message straight from Galen regarding the Death Star plans.

Soon, Jyn is whisked away on a planet-spanning adventure to snatch the Death Star plans and save her father, if indeed he can be saved. Along the way, the resistance picks up some additional ragtag fighters, including the mysterious blind monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his heat-packing protector, Baze (Wen Jiang). But time is running short: the Death Star has already tested its formidable destructive capabilities, and the shadowy presence of Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) looms. Can they successfully storm the Imperial stronghold, steal the plans and turn the tide of battle once again?

We already know the answer to that question, and therein lies the tricky balance of a tale like this one. Can a story whose conclusion is forgone still manage to surprise us? Perhaps the biggest success of the film is that director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy so successfully make this story feel essential. This isn’t just a paint-by-numbers, fill-in-the-gaps mid-quel. It deepened my appreciation of the original, and even fills in a major plot hole and long-time complaint that could be leveled at it. Why the heck would the Imperial Army build the Death Star with such a small but fatal flaw? By films end, that head-scratcher is given a very satisfying answer.

Rogue One is a thrilling adventure, and a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe.

Story-wise, Rogue One is a success, but what about all these new characters? For the most part, they’re welcome additions. I felt more emotionally connected to the characters here than I did watching The Force Awakens. Jyn’s love for her father is a particularly strong motivator, and the camaraderie the resistance fighters share is palpable. The heart of Star Wars has always been its characters, and this one is beating and alive. I particularly liked K-2SO, who adds some much-needed humor to the proceedings, and Chirrut, who is just a straight-up bad-ass, and has a connection with the force unlike any we’ve seen in this universe so far.

But, when I start to dwell on particular characters, I begin to recognize my biggest complaint with the film. There are lots of new characters introduced here, and it’s understandable that not all of them would get fully satisfying arcs. But why did the best characters have to get the short end of the stick? I was glad to see the amazing Yen get such a major role, and his character’s relationship with Baze is affecting. But his motivations are vague and, although he’s meant to be mysterious, I felt like I didn’t get to know him well enough to have a major connection with him. He’s mostly there to look cool, and come along on the adventure because…he has nothing better to do? Or look at Saw Gerrera; a major role played by an A-list actor, and yet he’s sadly under-utilized. I wish some of these other characters had been given the same care and attention as the Ersos or Cassian.

The film also suffers from poor pacing in its first third. Characters are introduced haphazardly, and scenes cut back and forth chaotically. It’s a bit hard to follow at first. But man, does Rogue One ever get going once it hits its stride. Krennic is a great addition to Star Wars villainy, a sniveling ass-kisser with a lust for power and a persecution complex. He’s just unhinged enough to be menacing, but even he cowers in front of Darth Vader, which fans we be thrilled to see return to the screen. The legendary Sith Lord’s screen time is brief, but you feel every moment. His character is brilliantly utilized, with just enough fan service to satisfy without overdoing it.

Rogue One is often filmed closer to a gritty war film that a traditional Star Wars movie; the bright colors of The Force Awakens are almost nowhere to be found. We instead get lots of handheld footage, some shaky cam and lots of muted colors. This is the right design for the divergent tone of the film, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography, along with the stellar production design, go a long way towards selling the film. The action scenes are sensational, sure, but I’m more impressed with how much it looks like A New Hope. From the costumes, to the way the X-Wings and Star Destroyers fly to the design of the Death Star, every frame is crafted like a work of art. This is a gorgeous film, and one I highly recommend seeing in Imax 3-D.

There’s just something about the joy of being in the Star Wars universe that Rogue One gets, and that is perhaps its greatest triumph. We get to see tons of new planets during the film’s run time, and several interesting and original creatures. I’ve always loved the backgrounds of Star Wars films, filled with characters and stories we will probably never know. There’s so much mystery and creativity to it, the kind that spans hundreds of novels, video games and TV shows to attempt to fill in some of the gaps. It’s the most lived-in universe in all of cinema, and Rouge One invites us into that space and doesn’t let go.

Rogue One is not the most polished of Star Wars films. In fact, elements of it can be downright frustrating. But man, is this one cool movie, and during the sensational climax and pitch-perfect ending, I felt my complaints melting away. This is a must-see for franchise fans, and one I’ll be happy to include in my Star Wars marathon rotation for years to come.