2016: Film

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Nerve: A mixed media rom-thrill-com about social media crossing over into real life. Like the teen comedies it’s a modern re-skin for, Nerve tries to eat its cake and have it, too, positing the wider world as both a threat best avoided and the mechanism by which its fussy good girl lead can grow. That it confronts this contradiction with a preachy, hamfisted ending doesn’t negate the often funny and thrilling sequences of teenagers navigating uncomfortable (if not, outright deadly) situations while strangers live vicariously through the screen.

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Batman v. Superman: Ultimate Edition: Smoothing over the theatrical version’s problems is one thing,  the extended, R-rated version of Zack Snyder’s much (and probably unfairly) maligned superhero fantasia manages to rejig the tone entirely. Rather than a messy treatise on two broken boys, Ultimate Dawn of Justice is Superman’s narrative. Footage of Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent pursuing leads in Gotham City’s ghettos not only enunciates the point of Ben Affleck’s Batman having gone insane (and makes Kent’s plea about journalism deciding “what matters” more than the self-serving justification it was in the theatrical cut), it also better contextualizes the conflict. Kent is set against the 24/7 news cycle, peppered with real talking heads happy to turn ghoulish for ratings. Normal people, whether it’s Kansas isolationists, disaster victims, or urban poor are vilified or weaponized, if they’re acknowledged at all. Batman is simply the result of this nightmare society, a Death Wish vigilante reacting to tabloid headlines, easily (perhaps willfully) manipulated because it serves his bubble of comfort. This Superman, then, represents something truly alien: someone more concerned with doing right by all, even a Batman that’s turned himself into a monster,  rather than simply pulp his enemy for the amusement of plutocrats–even when doing so would be the simplest choice. A proper throughline sussed out, the film’s strengths–its haunting, surrealist digressions and Milleresque touches–are better appreciated.

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The Invitation: What’s great in Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is the way it toys with audiences. There’s already something amiss about the film’s get-together, that much is clear. The host couple don’t bother hiding their cult leanings, so we’re already conditioned to side with Logan Marshall-Green as the ex-husband. Every social blunder and misconstrued voicemail even points to confirming suspicion. When his/our paranoia threatens to bubble over, the rug is seemingly pulled out. And then it’s not. The beats are overly familiar, but Kusama’s timing (the lengths she goes to encourage our fears, only to bat them away) turns a boilerplate Manson family narrative into a social battle. The cultists don’t want to butcher these people, but welcome them into blissful ascension (which happens to involve them dying). Like a dinner party, they want it to be just right. Why can’t you ignore what you think and be happy like them?

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Green Room: Post-election, Green Room‘s nastiness no longer seems like mere grist for excellent thrills, but a portent. The film’s rock group, while leery of playing in a Nazi skinhead bar, mostly regards their audience as a joke. An opportunity to show how punk they are with a flippant Dead Kennedys cover. It’s only after walking in on a dead body and some of the proprietor’s goons do they realize the shit they’re in. Green Room is a scramble, children deep in the guts of a machine. As the leader of the skinhead gang, Patrick Stewart falls back on a mental script for this scenario. He’d rather get back to business as usual, pushing drugs and white supremacy. Meanwhile, the kids are fighting to survive. Doing so is bloody, the psychic cost high. It always is. A good reminder going into 2017.

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The Wailing: Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing straddles so much territory, it’s easy to get lost in it. It’s opening stretch is a bumbling, backwater detective story which seems straight ripped from Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, before veering off into xenophobic hysterics, possession, mysticism and confidence games. Na’s poor, tragic policeman struggles to keep track of who is on what side in a supernatural battle for his daughter’s soul (with enough contradictions on all sides to implicate or exonerate all parties). The most confounding event is a death hex ceremony, where a slick, moneyed shaman puts on an elaborate display backed with deafening percussion timed to chicken slaughter. It plays a duet with another, secret battle within the woods, a girl’s screams marking their back-and-forth. Your thoughts on this event ultimately rest with how you interpret the ending. However it’s parsed, though, good and evil in The Wailing are remote things, engaged in proxy war through the normal people they chew up.

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The Nice Guys: Shane Black’s latest makes gallows humor out of our encroaching environmental doom, the elite class crooks who got us here, and our own inability to affect the mechanisms which keep it going. His buddy comedy protagonists cross paths, stumbling into conspiracies while chasing down private gain. Their conversations, in between crashing porn industry parties in the Hills and getting into shootouts with psychotic hitmen, steer towards Richard Nixon and colony collapse disorder, one of them in a near-constant state of intoxication–Chinatown as if written by Hunter S. Thompson. Action is panicked and flailing, Black showing off his love of cartoon slapstick but with more blood spatter, as Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe attempt to process and survive the nonsense they’re thrust into. Their victories never come decisively, and only ever on the most disposable edges of something much bigger than them. The Nice Guys doesn’t promise anything as hopeful as revolution, only the thought maybe you’ll drink less and do right more on the way out.

Also Liked: The Witch, Midnight SpecialKeanu, Arrival, Under the Shadow, The Neon DemonDon’t Breathe, Blair Witch, High-Rise, Train to Busan, Hail, Caesar!

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