2017: Movies

 

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Death Note

Propulsive and unapologetic, Adam Wingard’s Americanized Death Note finds beauty and terror in teenagers gaining God-like status and still losing control. Light Turner’s use of the titular book (which allows him to kill anyone whose name is written into its pages) goes through phases, burning through personal vendettas before encouraged to enact bloody vengeance on larger-scale bad actors. Rather than follow the popular storytelling model of other Netflix originals, wafting along on retreaded plot beats, Wingard barrels forward, exploring its premise–and the sociopolitical response to same–through pure momentum, expecting audiences to keep up as its messy protagonists get drunk on power, then come crashing down.

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

The movie that basically cemented the idea I’m never ever ever going to see eye to eye with the zeitgeist when it comes to movies. Guy Ritchie’s loving pisstake/British caper comedy version of modern fantasy epics takes the loose template of Zach Snyder’s DC movies (which, to be fair, means it’s overlong by at least 30 minutes), exploding it into a series of snappy, funny montages. The storytelling is timed to the blustery, bullshitting exchanges of friends and colleagues, pulling a fast one on a bunch of dimwitted fascists alongside a Hero’s Journey. Also: DEATH DEALER!

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Headshot

Iko Uwais seems to be modeling his career on Jackie Chan’s. Rama in The Raid films and Ishmael in Headshot are both fundamentally decent men thrust into insane circumstances which demolish their bodies. Ishmael’s arc even broadly recalls the plotline of Chan’s Who Am I?, though writer/co-director Timo Tjahjanto constructs a more personal threat for the amnesiac ex-assassin. Fights progress on psychoanalytic terms, going from impersonal grunts to fellow enforcers and hitmen from the same syndicate, onto an extended, brutal confrontation with the crime boss who kidnapped and tortured them into brainwashed killers. Damaged past aside, Ishmael’s firmly rooted identity allows him to endure body-shredding violence to destroy the source of his trauma.

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Raw

Jumbled metaphors and frustrated angst are all over Julia Ducournau’s cannibal film. Justine, a vegetarian, enrolls in veterinarian school to get into the family business, only to eat meat as part of a hazing. This has the unfortunate effect of triggering a craving within her, spiraling her life out of control. Where other films might make this progression obviously linear, Raw instead spreads into all aspects of the freshman’s lifestyle. Every interaction Justine has in the film, from casual chats with classmates to the gaudy humiliation parties to lusting after her gay roommate, is filtered through the act of consumption. Other students are equally carnivorous, enacting their wills onto others for their own pleasure. Justine’s expression is a literal expression of her own conformity. To that end: her older sister, Alexia, serves equally as guide and tormentor, driving Justine to pursue her urges, then humiliating her for it.

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Blade of the Immortal

100 movies in, Takashi Miike is at once settled into a groove and still pushing himself. Blade of the Immortal is bookended by two bloody, apocalyptic battles, swordsman Manji (Takuya Kimura) cutting through waves of mooks. The latter fight juggles four conflicting groups, enemies becoming tentative allies and going at each other’s throats again as the fighting ebbs and flows. Miike makes it look effortless, with blocking and editing expressing clarity and momentum, condensing Hiroaki Samura’s epic manga into 141 minutes that breeze by.

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Detroit

Marketed first and foremost as austere docudrama, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit instead hews uncomfortably close to the grimy verisimilitude of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Generations of social movements giving backdrop to the ever-tightening focus of the Algiers Motel murders, pushing through to zero in on one man’s escape from trauma into community. Consequently, as the stakes get more personal and human, the threat becomes more abstract.  While Detroit‘s obvious villains are the trio of white, racist cops, using the pretense of law & order to brutalize black men (and a pair of white women, for being around black men), the literal army which passively looks on with mild disgust, along with John Boyega’s self-preserving security guard, are harbingers of the social structures which will permit this and countless other atrocities.

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John Wick: Chapter Two

John Wick 1 is about a man who, when robbed of healthy outlets for his grief, falls back into what’s clearly an addiction. Keanu Reeves’ (ex) retired hitman can’t stop feeding his anger and need for adrenaline rushes. He chose to leave so he could marry and settle down, but the craving was still there. John Wick 2 deals with the man back in the life he left, the toll it takes on his mind and body. Wick is put through a gauntlet after being strong-armed by an old acquaintance to pull off one more hit. The assault comes from all sides, in varying shapes, sizes, and motivations, battering and bloodying the anti-hero. The film does what sequels do, taking a singular idea and exploding in a million new directions. Its lead, however, strips down even further to something elemental, until he’s going through a blood-stained hall of mirrors, asked to contemplate his soul. The world Wick is in complicates itself, inventing rules and masking its inherent savagery in the language of upper-class sophisticates (guns are talked about like they are wine, for instance). He’s able to navigate it, but getting out has made him less tolerant. All he wants is to ventilate the craniums of everyone who won’t leave him and his dog be, even if doing so burns down what remains of his life.

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Get Out

Equal parts jokey inversion of horror tropes and utterly devastating, Get Out stresses all-consuming danger. Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris doesn’t have conversations so much as get subjected to them. His white girlfriend’s parents, brother, and various friends stage well-meaning liberalism while demeaning him through invasive words and touch, before using hypnotism to subvert his very identity. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut moves on micro-aggressions against Chris and dismissals of his lived experience, the Armitage household becoming a monument to an entire system designed to exploit the African-American body.

Also Liked: Dunkirk, Rough Night, Logan Lucky, Catfight, Free Fire, Baby Driver, The Void, Good Time, The Villainess, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Colossal, Atomic Blonde

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Get Out

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Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out stresses an all-consuming danger. Its lead, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), has a knowing wariness of every interaction around him. A black man driven up to visit his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) family, he doesn’t get into conversations so much as get subjected to them. He’s questioned, touched, studied, physically challenged, at times even mentally subjugated (through hypnosis), yet reassured by his hosts that, yes, they would all have voted Obama a third time if they could. They apologize for “how it looks” that they have black servants. Chris isn’t allowed a space to just be, he is constantly reminded of his outsider status. At best–as when Bradley Whitford’s neurosurgeon patriarch Dean shows a picture of Jesse Owens, before gushing about the athlete’s historic Olympic win–they offer a lurid idealization of the black man’s body. While there are signifiers of plantation lifestyle (even an auction block, with Chris’ photo on display), there’s an altogether different form of capitalizing human beings at play.

While this subtext is driven by a series of script flips (particularly about the suburbs being dangerous, a jokey inversion of a common horror trope), Peele is far more interested in the difference between genuine and rehearsed behavior. Even before overt malevolence sets in, the Armitages are stagey with their behavior: Dean’s drawling “thang” and repetition of “my man”; the way Rose dismisses Chris’ discomfort (and, later, suspicions about the cagey hired help) with a wink; the apologism. It’s all routine to them, an attempt to approximate well-meaning liberalism. Chris finds this off-putting. All he wants is a nice weekend with the parents. Unfortunately, he’s only welcomed so long as his hosts can benefit from him.