2017’s Watchable Flops

I figured I’d write a fun countdown leading up to my best films. These are films that either underperformed at the box office or panned by critics, but films I still thoroughly enjoyed. Here are my top five watchable flops!

5) Justice League – I expected Justice League to flop given the DCEU’s track record. Thanks to Joss Whedon stepping in (though under unfortunate circumstances), Justice League was a fun adventure movie instead of more destruction porn. Also, kudos to Whedon for finally getting Superman right!

4) Colossal – This quirky indie film was sadly overlooked last April. Colossal is part dark comedy and part giant monster movie, focusing on two self-destructive characters (played wonderfully by Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis). That’s all I’ll say without spoiling Colossal.

3) Power Rangers – As a 90’s kid, I had some serious excitement for the new take on Power Rangers. I was pleasantly surprised with the movie’s craftsmanship, the ensemble performances, and the film taking on social issues without pulling too hard on my heart strings. Power Rangers is a lighthearted superhero movie that never takes itself too seriously.

2) Alien: Covenant – I get why some fans loved Alien: Covenant (it was arguably the best Alien film in 30 years) and I get why some fans hated it (what was the tone?). I enjoyed Alien: Covenant specifically because it explored the androids’ mythology, depicting them as gods to the xenomorphs. Perhaps people wouldn’t have been disappointed if the film were titled Android?

1) Logan Lucky – Steven Soderbergh’s directorial return is a blast. Think of Logan Lucky as a satirical version of Ocean’s 11, but in the South. It’s a shame Logan Lucky flopped since it’s one of the funniest heist films and features a great comedic performance from Daniel Craig.

What were your favorite underrated movies of 2017?

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

I saw a funny tweet earlier where mentions fans hated The Force Awakens for being “too safe.” The tweet also mentions how fans hate The Last Jedi for “taking too many risks.” Can we just all stop being angry fanboys and agree that The Last Jedi is fun?

Without spoiling anything, Rian Johnson’s follow-up to The Force Awakens takes place right after the first one ended. We focus on four storylines:

  1. Rey (Daisy Ridley) trains under the guidance of Luke Sywalker (Mark Hamill), but questions his guidance.
  2.  Finn (John Boyega) meets a Resistance member Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and they embark on an adventure to stop the First Order from defeating the Rebel Alliance.
  3. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) rebels against the Resistance leaders while trying to outrun the First Order in a never ending chase.
  4. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) questions his destiny and must choose his destiny.

The Last Jedi has a lot going on within 150 minutes. I admire that auteur Johnson expands on the Jedi and Force mythologies; The Last Jedi excels when it focuses on Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren. Part from that, I found The Last Jedi fairly disappointing. I attribute the disappointments to the film’s running time, which should have been 120 minutes.

Starting with the pros, the opening act is a mini Poe Dameron adventure reminiscent of the prologue of The Force Awakens. Isaac once again delivers a charismatic performance and has much more to do in The Last Jedi. Laura Dern plays a seemingly antagonistic admiral to Poe. When they meet, it’s built as a predictable Top Gun narrative, but I was left surprised. Poe’s story brought a lot of humor and heart to The Last Jedi. We’re also treated to the late Carrie Fisher’s final outing as Leia, who now acts as a mentor to Poe.

Johnson also turns Kylo Ren into a more complex character filled with anger, contradictions, and guilt. We see him go from mercilessly attacking the Rebel Alliance to briefly regretting his actions. Kylo Ren’s arc is unpredictable throughout the film and easily the strongest character arc. Driver’s portrayal of Kylo Ren here is a huge improvement over The Force Awakens.

Rey and Luke’s segment together is the film’s highlight due to Johnson’s fresh take. Hamill delivers a multi-layered performance as Luke; Luke is no longer a whiny kid, but a burned out Jedi in his prime. Ridley is just as good in this segment as she goes from idealistic to disillusioned. Also, we get to see the cute little Porgs here.

Now for the cons, I hated Finn’s segment. There, I said it. I’m in the minority and liked Finn in The Force Awakens, but his adventure with Rose is pointless. It serves no purpose to the film and neither does Benicio Del Toro’s eccentric thief character they encounter. This segment is an excuse to see another part of the galaxy and serves no purpose to Finn’s arc. It also causes several pacing and tone issues when we transition from this segment to the others.

When the segments tie together in the final 45 minutes, The Last Jedi is sensational. Johnson choreographs some innovative and brutal lightsaber sequences, gives us some stunning visuals, and writes some emotionally satisfying moments that made the final scenes unforgettable. I’m already looking forward to the next film because of The Last Jedi’s ending alone.

The Last Jedi is arguably the most polarizing Star Wars film of the franchise, but I still admire it for its risks. It’s downfall are Johnson’s overlong script and lack of restraint on callbacks. Maybe he’ll learn from his mistakes when his trilogy is released.

Grade: B

 

 

“The Shape of Water”

The Shape of Water

Who can make a movie that has the kinkiest sex scene, the creepiest sex scene, and one darkly funny cat death? I’d say Guillermo Del Toro since The Shape of Water has all of those scenes.

Mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor at a military facility where an amphibian creature called The Asset (Del Toro veteran Doug Jones) is imprisoned. The lonely Elisa sees something special in The Asset as she shares eggs and music with him. Elisa’s closeted neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and neurotic coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are concerned for her, but agree to help her free The Asset after sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) vows to kill it.

The Shape of Water is the closest Del Toro will get to making either a romantic comedy or Beauty and the Beast. This is an R-rated Disney movie; Elisa and The Asset are the Princess and Prince Charming while Zelda and Giles are Elisa’s comic relief sidekicks. In addition to the obvious homages to Disney films and Creature from the Black Lagoon, Del Toro explores ostracism and loneliness.

The film takes place during the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement; Elisa, Zelda, and Giles are all outcasts. Elisa is often taken advantage of for being mute, Zelda’s discriminated against for her race, and Giles often finds harsh rejection instead of love. Hawkins, Spencer, and Jenkins are all wonderful in their performances and portray characters in pain. Hawkins in particular is a strong Best Actress candidate as the expressive Elisa.

As Elisa, Hawkins is committed in portraying a lonely, caring, and devilishly clever hero. We feel bad for Elisa when she makes a tough decision with The Asset, but we also root for her when she taunts Strickland through her sign language.

Shannon owns every scene as Strickland. Del Toro has a knack for writing memorable villains and Strickland is my new favorite of his. Unlike the film’s heroes, Strickland has it all. He’s a respected authority figure, has a beautiful wife, an active sex life, loving kids, a big house, and a teal Cadillac. Yet Strickland’s strive for perfection, acceptance, and decaying hand make him increasingly unhinged.

MILD SPOILERS ABOUT STRICKLAND

There’s a great visual motif with Strickland that emphasizes his growing insanity. After The Asset bites off two of his fingers, he gets them reattached, but we see them turn black and more infected as the film progresses. We also see him grow increasingly unattached and uncontrolled as the hand rots. It’s a gross visual motif, but a brilliant one.

I have to praise Del Toro for restraining himself and exploring psychologically complex characters. This is Del Toro’s most character-driven film to date. Yes, the film has some gore and a couple of bizarre sex scenes, but unlike other films, the sex serves a purpose. Elisa and The Asset’s sex scenes are intimate and highlight their love for each other while Strickland’s disturbing sex scene subtly depicts his lust for Elisa.

Though the film is set during the Cold War, I wasn’t too invested in Michael Stuhlbarg’s soviet spy character. Every time he appears on screen, The Shape of Water derives from its dark fairytale roots and turns into a spy movie, losing some focus and tone.

Still, The Shape of Water is a visual treat and delightful to watch. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a huge competitor for all visual categories in the awards season.

Grade: A-

“The Disaster Artist”

 

I did not hate The Disaster Artist. It’s not true. It’s bullshit! I did not hate it. I did naaaaaaaaaht…. Oh, hai reader!

Set between 1998 and 2003, The Disaster Artist follows Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) and Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and documents their bizarre friendship. They meet in an acting class where Tommy’s fearless and unapologetic nature inspires Greg. After they encounter brutal rejection in Hollywood, Tommy suggests they make their own movie. And that’s how we got the 2003 awful-yet-entertaining cult film, The Room.

The Disaster Artist is a case of life imitating art. While Wiseau produced, wrote, directed, and starred in The Room, James directs, produces, and stars in The Disaster Artist. Unlike The RoomThe Disaster Artist is good. Scratch that. It’s great!

James directs and acts with the same level of passion and showmanship; his performance as Wiseau is the best performance I’ve seen all year. It’s much more than a great Tommy Wiseau impression. James brings life, humanity, and spirit to one of the strangest and mysterious celebrities. Sure, he brings on the laughs, but we also feel sorry for him whenever he’s dismissed or belittled (even though Tommy does it to himself).

As Greg Sestero, Dave delivers his best performance. Greg is the straight man, though he has a stronger arc than Tommy. We see Greg grow from a naïve baby face (Tommy’s pet name for him), to a confident actor, and finally to an annoyed-yet-loyal friend. The Franco brothers both show their strong fraternal bond through their characters.

Screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now) deliver an insightful script that depicts one of the most disastrous film productions in history. The Room was infamous for going over budget, over schedule, being shot on two formats, and several cast and crew members quitting. The Disaster Artist dives into the chaos of the production and we see that some of the depicted moments weren’t funny, but rather horrific. I found myself checking imdb to see how much of the production scenes in The Disaster Artist were true and found myself in awe. Though they risked losing focus with a tame subplot involving Greg’s girlfriend (Dave’s real life wife Allison Brie), I still found myself invested.

At one point, we see Tommy’s cast talking about The Room and actress Carolyn (Jacki Weaver) says the worst day on a film set is better than a boring day in real life This line is one of the many inspiring moments in The Disaster Artist. by the end when Tommy embraces his cult status, I felt provoked to make my own movie.

Grade: A

 

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

There are three reasons that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the very best films of the year. 1. Martin McDonagh’s raw direction and script. 2. Frances McDormand’s phenomenal work as a vengeful mother. 3. Sam Rockwell’s amazing performance as a redeemable sociopathic cop.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has grown rightfully furious over the lack of results in her daughter’s murder investigation. Rather than go after the killer herself, her solution is to advertise Sheriff Willoughby’s (Woody Harrelson) incompetence through three billboards. The entire town sides with Willoughby and harasses Mildred constantly, including Willoughby’s belligerent alcoholic deputy Dixon (Rockwell). That’s all you need to know about this film’s wonderfully dark premise.

Irish playwright McDonagh (2008’s terrific In Bruges and 2012’s underrated Seven Psychopaths) hasn’t lost steam with his third feature. If anything, he’s matured and more restrained. Three Billboards is just as shocking and foul-mouthed as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, but it’s more grounded. This is a film about three broken people who handle a tragedy in morbid fashion.

Mildred is a foul-mouthed force of nature. She isn’t afraid to drill a vindictive dentist’s thumb apart or ridicule a reporter on live TV, but she’s still human. Mildred doesn’t want revenge; she wants closure since she’s haunted by an argument she had with her daughter prior to her murder. McDormand delivers a fantastic multi-layered performance and is my frontrunner for Best Actress.

Willoughby is simply trying to maintain order and do right by Mildred. Not because it’s his job, but he wants to end his career on a noble note. He’s the ego to Mildred’s id and Harrelson is terrific as the ailing sheriff.

Then there’s Dixon. Dixon is a chaotic tornado of destruction who makes Mildred’s life a living hell. Despite his violent tendencies, Dixon is a flawed man who just wants a moment to shine. Dixon acts as the superego to Mildred and Willoughby. Rockwell delivers the best performance of his career and outshines Will Poulter’s evil cop character in Detroit.

McDonagh balances humor with poetic narrative and an attention-grabbing script. There are lines of dialogue that act as hypotheticals, but later become reality. He also has a cynical view of modern America that’s demonstrated in his depiction of the town community and Mildred’s morbid view of the Catholic Church. He’s not entirely wrong, though.

Three Billboards ends on a fittingly unresolved note that could make room for a potential sequel. McDonagh doesn’t strike me as the sequel lover, but I would hope he makes an exception in this case.

Grade: A+

“Justice League”

The DCEU is like a kid riding a bike; they crash on the first couple of rides, but slowly get better with practice. They’ve improved with Justice League.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) learn of a new CG-villain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) who plots world domination. Their solution – recruit Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and The Flash (Ezra Miller) and resurrect Superman (Henry Cavill) from the dead to help them stop the new baddy.

I’m a fan of comic book movies, but I also have a love-hate relationship with Zack Snyder. I love his earlier work (Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen particularly), but his DCEU films are huge misfires. Thankfully, Justice League is an improvement. It’s a B-superhero movie that’s just lighthearted fun. I admire that Snyder and Joss Whedon (who did extensive rewrites and post-production work) treated Justice League as a lighthearted superhero flick.

There are a few occasional dark moments with the best being a brooding opening credits sequence. It uses a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” to show how hopeless the world has become without Superman. Part from that, Justice League relies on one-liners and witty banter to make the movie fun. Even Batman makes jokes, which is shocking!

The cast has great chemistry and each actor does their character justice. Mamoa plays Aquaman as a debauched rockstar, Miller plays The Flash as an antisocial nerd, and Fisher portrays Cyborg as a man torn between his humanity and robotics.

Affleck and Gadot are once again great as Batman and Wonder Woman; they both sell their characters’ conflicts and opposing views of battling Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf is where the movie suffers. There’s no substance or originality with Steppenwolf and even with the underrated Hinds playing him, I wasn’t sold. Then again, does anyone ever watch a superhero ensemble movie for the villain?

The plot is a standard save-the-world formula we’ve seen done a thousand times. However, the final act is worth the ticket admission alone, thanks to Snyder and Whedon’s portrayal of Superman. He’s not recklessly destroying cities or brooding; he’s smiling and saving villages from destruction.

The DCEU sounds like it’s on its last leg, but I’m willing to keep going back since the movies are getting better.

Grade: B

 

“Thor: Ragnarok”

Replacing a franchise director can be risky. Putting Taika Waititi in charge of Thor: Ragnarok is just what our God of Thunder needed.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) learns that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) survived the end events of The Dark World and they have a bittersweet reunion. They also discover they have an evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett). Hela takes over Asgard and casts Thor and Loki to Sakaar where the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) forces Thor to become a gladiator. He also reunites with a certain angry green scientist (Mark Ruffalo) and they try to find a way to save Asgard.

Of the MCU franchises, the Thor is my least favorite. I found the first two films repetitive with too much focus on Thor and Jane’s relationship. Ragnarok is a breath of fresh air. Waititi replaces the rushed romance with a platonic friendship, removesThor and Loki’s brooding attitudes and amps up their wit, and he swaps out the Shakespeare undertones for a retro 80s aesthetics. I wanted to yell “YES,” in the theater like Thor does out of the happiness.

We see that Thor’s come a long way in growing up. He’s less arrogant, reckless, and is now wiser and accepting of Loki. Loki is still mischievous, but recognizes how much he cares for Thor. After four movies together, it’s easy to believe Hemsworth and Hiddleston’s chemistry as dysfunctional brothers.

Ragnarok is also the funniest MCU film to date. The jokes are physical, slapstick, and self-referential without ever being annoying. During the big battle between Thor and Hulk that’s in every trailer, we’re treated to some of the funniest cross-referencing jokes, thanks to Hiddleston’s comedic timing and facial expressions.

The action sequences are kinetic, flashy, and fun; they felt like a fantasy version of Guardians of the Galaxy due to the candy-colored explosions and retro soundtrack (yes, Immigrant Song is in the movie). Waititi had previously directed The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which spliced humor into over-the-top action sequences. He clearly loves both genres and will continue to make a strong impact.

The end battle is a tad anti-climactic, but is filled with enough character moments to suffice. Each cast member excels with Blanchett’s wonderfully evil villain and Goldblum’s eccentric secondary antagonist being welcome additions. I can’t think of another superhero movie that was this funny.

Grade: A-