Kent’s 25 Favorite Damned Movies of 2017 (#20-16)

20. MINDHORN- The “Three Amigos” formula has been kicked around for about thirty years now, with variations like A Bug’s Life and Galaxy Quest being particularly memorable. Now another joins their ranks. Mindhorn, a cyberneticly-enhanced detective who is equal parts Steve Austin and Michael Knight, is a relic of the 80s. Richard Thorncroft, the actor who portrayed him, is as well, after leaving his hit show at the height of his fame for a film career that never came to pass. When a murder suspect has trouble separating fact from fictional cheese, he sees a chance to help (while getting some good publicity along the way) by bringing back Mindhorn to help with the police investigation. From that premise, The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt manages to create a singular character that is somehow still likable despite being the greater part of a narcissistic knucklehead who has managed to alienate everyone in his life, his professional community, and most of the Isle of Man. Considering how despicable he can be, and what the film is willing to do for an uncomfortable laugh, it’s actually a pretty major accomplishment that he can still wring sympathy from the audience. While I’m usually not much for cringe-inducing comedy, I can stomach it when it’s well done, and this one struck me pretty much head on.

19. HAPPY DEATH DAY- There’s an understandable knee-jerk reaction to automatically assume the worst from PG-13 rated horror films. After all, the field is littered with bad examples of genre fare that have been watered down to meet that “magic” rating, due to the strange fact that it’s seen as a sure-fire formula for higher revenue. A formula that is wrong so often, it is more than a little surprising so many executives still try to make it work. (Does anyone else think there’s an odd trend going around where it’s easier than ever for teenagers to see R-rated and adult material at home, but harder than it’s been since the 70s to see it in the theater? But I digress.) When it comes to such a specific horror subgenre as the stab-happy slasher film, being dubious seems doubly logical. However, Happy Death Day, a crackling mix of Student Bodies and Groundhog Day, is one of a handful of recent entries that manages to overcome whatever shortcomings it may be hobbled with by the studio. It turned out to be good, old-fashioned fun, even as some gore fiends confuse it’s lack of viscera and sense of humor for “childishness.” A case of having your birthday cake and eating it too, the film is relentlessly inventive as our heroine, inexplicably named Tree, manages to have a fully-fledged character arc, complete with understandable, frustrated backslides, while still getting the everloving crap killed out of her in a hundred different ways. Rather than focus on what could have been, what IS turns out to be a blast, having a ball with slasher conventions and actually turning in a mystery that’s better than the vast majority of the 80s Halloween knock-offs that make up the crudities of its DNA.

18. BATMAN VS. TWO-FACE- The Lego Batman Movie was a fine tribute to the Dark Knight in all his various forms, but an even better one slipped under the noses of many as the “Bright Knight,” Adam West, gave his last performance as Batman in this stellar animated feature that also brought back Burt Ward, Julie Newmar, and introduced William Shatner as the title’s Two-Face. Even better than last year’s similarly Direct to Video “Return of the Caped Crusaders,” it makes West’s passing this year even sadder, as this is obviously a film series that could have lasted much, much longer. Taking advantage of the animated medium, it captures the technicolor shenanigans of the ‘60s animated series and its characters perfectly, while forgetting about budgetary limitations and throwing in forty years’ worth of references from the depths of Batmanalia. (In this regard it is a kissing cousin of the also-excellent “Batman ‘66” comic book that DC published for a while once the TV series rights were ironed out at last.) Eschewing the grim foundations for one of Bats’ most iconic bad guys is a risk, but Two-Face’s new, and frankly bizarre, origin is more befitting of the show and the way they would lean heavily on a villain’s gimmick, so it works. And while there are a few too many eye-rolling jokes about the dynamic duo’s relationship that feel like a 20-year-old SNL bit that shall not be named, they aren’t nearly enough to impede the fun in any way. It’s hard to think of a better send-off for the man that embodied the concept of Batman for so many.

 

17. THE SHAPE OF WATER- A meditation on The Creature from the Black Lagoon in which the question is asked, “but what if the girl actually loved the Gillman?”, I’ll admit, I have some misgivings about the plot of The Shape of Water. Thankfully, any issues with the presentation of the late 50s/early 60’s, or problems with the characters’ behavior can largely be dismissed due to its nature as a modernized fairy tale. As beautiful a film as has been released all year, Guillermo del Toro continues to show he is a master of mixing fantasy and horror in varying amounts to varying results. It is charming, yet grotesque. Depressing, yet optimistic. Funny and unsettling in equal amounts. Wonderfully cast and gorgeously shot, it is a film that inspires big feelings, even as I wasn’t always sure what they should be. See it and weep over the fact that he turned down Universal’s offer to let him oversee the revamp of their horror universe.

16. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2- It would be purely within James Gunn’s rights to rest on his laurels after taking a rag-tag team of Marvel’s former C-listers and turning them into box office gold. He could have simply repeated the formula of the first film and most audiences would probably have been satisfied. Thankfully, he doesn’t know how to do anything conventionally. Heck, he won’t even let you get bored during the closing credits. In Guardians 2, we find Peter Quill’s father, the living planet Ego, and see that his daddy issues are there for a reason. Between Kurt Russell’s predictably strong turn as Ego, and Michael Rooker tearing into his breakout role of Yondu, Quill has more than enough to cause him anxiety. Strangest of all, with Russell, Rooker, Chris Pratt, Karen Gillan and more of the cast putting forward some very strong work, Dave Bautista practically runs away with the film thanks to his comedic timing being sharper than Gamora’s swords. Shockingly, he’s supported by a much bigger portion of dramatic chops to boot. What a long way he’s come from his days in Riddick. While the first one may be stronger overall with its simple space opera pleasures, the second film is a richer, more complex experience (mirrored by the increasingly obscure, and all-important soundtrack) that delves into the nature of family and what we expect from those in our lives who’ve been thrown together with us, by blood or fate.

<The Best of 2017 (#25-21)                                                       The Best of 2017 (#15-11)>

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Wind Rises

The Japanese North by Northwest

Author’s note: This review is for the original Japanese language version of film. There is a dubbed version also being shown in the U.S., but I have not seen it. Check your local listings to see what is being shown in your area if you’re lucky enough to have it screening near you.

Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is a little tough on us history majors, especially those of us who’ve studied World War II. Tough because the focus is on the creator of Japan’s Zero fighter plane, Jiro Horikoshi.

The film is a true story only in slightly more of a sense than was, say, Disney’s Pocahontas. Minus the anthropomorphic tree and plus fantastical sequences where he interacts with an Italian plane designer in their dreams. And that’s the tricky part. Jiro’s creations were used by the Japanese military to kill a lot of people. It would kind of be like doing an animated film where Wernher Von Braun is the hero. Regardless of the person or their intentions, they were working for some horrifying regimes.

In response to this, there are some things placed into the movie about Jiro speculating that Japan “will blow up.” At one point he is sought after by the Japanese “thought police” as one of his bosses refers to them, perhaps as a way to distance him from the people that would use his machines, though this is a plot thread left dangling and unresolved. But it can still be difficult to wrap your mind around the central character arc of the film, especially as a Westerner. We want to see Jiro succeed because Miyazaki makes him very sympathetic and human. But we also don’t want him to succeed at all because of what his success means. Jiro’s obsession and passion is creating “beautiful airplanes.” He wanted to be an aeronautical engineer since he was a boy and he worked hard for it. But we know his creations will be used in Japan’s attempt to conquer China and kill many Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Zero itself went on to become the plane most often used in kamikaze runs when the war was reaching its end.

As for the film itself, moral implications of its story aside, it is classic Miyazaki in tone and beauty. Like many of his films, it is mostly quiet, contemplative and often gentle, taking its time to unfold before the viewer. It is a story about feeling the need to create, regardless of what it takes. Jiro dreams of flying, but with his eyesight it is impossible. So he does the next best thing; he creates aircraft. (Seemingly under the direction of a Japanese version of Bob’s boss from The Incredibles.)

The film mixes elements about the driving nature of creation with a romance featuring no less than three “meet-cutes.” While the way the relationship comes together is ridiculously coincidental in the way that can only happen in cinema, the actual interactions between them are charming and tender, helping you care what happens to them. Despite its typically Miyazaki design and a color palate that is often quite bright, this is far more of an adult feature than most of his work. If Ponyo was for small children, this film is for the parents. There is definitely humor built into the storytelling, but the film is often moody and introspective.

It isn’t, as a friend of mine mused, Grave of the Fireflies-level depressing, though. Far from it. And it isn’t completely static, either. Early on there’s a stunning rendition of an earthquake that is such a new way of representing such an event, I was actually puzzled as to what was going on until a character explained. It is far more interesting than just a shaking camera with things falling over.

What’s great about the film is that it exactly what an American animation company would never do. Instead of an animated film, this is the kind of film we’d see made as a mid-level, live-action biopic starring someone trying to win an Oscar. For some reason, people are blind to the opportunities of the art form and put it in a box. But for Miyazaki, it is a way to capture a bygone era of Japan’s recent past. It is a way to show Tokyo being destroyed without resorting to spectacle. It is a way to show fanciful dream sequences that would be considered out of place and tone deaf in a live-action film. It is a way to resurrect dead technologies. There are so many logical reasons to film this story this way, but it isn’t an inherently family film or a straight comedy, so I have the sinking feeling some American audiences will come out of it confused based solely on their media conditioning. (Though for the record, there’s nothing in it that I’d be worried about kids seeing unless you’re fervently anti-smoking, because damn, the guy’s like a chimney.) If I’m wrong, I’ll be ecstatic about it.

Miyazaki has said this will be his last film, but then he’s said that before. Perhaps it would be wiser for him to say that he’s done until he finds another story that he feels a driving need to tell. If there’s any one thing that a person should probably be taking from The Wind Rises, it is probably that standing in the way of a creative passion is pointless.

(Four damns given out of five)