Thursday, May 18, 2023

Review: "Fast X" is fun, and that might just be enough

You know what? Maybe there’s some gas left in this tank after all. 

I wasn’t sure after the last two entries in the Fast & Furious saga, 2017’s The Fate of the Furious and 2021’s F9, the two worst films in the franchise. The former had its moments, but with a dark and miserabilist story that split Vin Diesel from the rest of the ‘family’ right at the moment the franchise first had to craft a film from the ground-up without his on-screen best buddy Paul Walker, it miscalibrated how grim the series could go before it became dull and off-putting. F9 inherited many of these problems, once again sending Dominic Toretto off on his own in a too-dour plot, but it floundered even harder because it felt like a movie being made by someone who was fundamentally unhappy to be making it. Justin Lin made the series the singularly silly (but deeply lovable) international success it is today with his run of entries from Tokyo Drift through Fast & Furious 6, but with F9, any joy he once had smashing these characters and cars together felt like it was long gone, and it wasn’t particularly surprising when he walked off the set of Fast X a week into production. Whether Diesel had simply become too demanding to work with, or Lin just didn’t have another one of these movies in him (both perfectly understandable, and both probably true to varying degrees), a change had to be made. 


Fast X (eventually helmed by Louis Leterrier, of Transporter fame) is not the series in its prime – even as it makes copious references to the most beloved entry, Fast Five – but it is a surprisingly solid return to form. While Lin’s fingerprints are still all over the film – he co-wrote the screenplay, and surely had most of the set-pieces thoroughly mapped out – Leterrier does seem happy to be here, and there’s a general energy to the finished film that was sorely lacking in the last two installments, an energy that can only be described as ‘fun.’ Diesel glowers less, and has some real human interactions (with Dom’s son ‘Little B,’ with Michelle Rodriguez’ Lettie, and a few others over the course of the adventure) while the supporting cast has a greater pep in their step, and the action feels invigorated by its physics-defying stupidity, rather than weighed down by the labor of it all, as I felt watching F9. The film successfully recaptures at least some of the scale and insanity of the series’ best entries (Fast Five and Furious 7, if you’re asking me), and while it has its fair share of issues, by the time we make it to the bonkers, go-for-broke cliffhanger ending, I was on board again. This is, at least in part, the series I fell in love with; the spark, which I feared completely extinguished this time two years ago, is still flickering.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Review: "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" hits the right notes

Depending on how you look at it – and how the next few years of superhero movies turn out – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is either a strong return to form for a Marvel that’s been mostly creatively wayward since Avengers: Endgame, or a stirring eulogy for the kind of movie the studio simply has no interest in making anymore. Either way, James Gunn’s return to this corner of the MCU brings with it all the things Marvel’s post-2019 films (and Disney+ shows) have been missing: Color (literally and figuratively, in that it’s a film filled with both many rainbow hues and a lot of personality); texture (real sets, real costumes, amazing make-up and prosthetics, and CGI that is used smartly and judiciously and displays real artistry); humor (not machine-generated ‘quips’, but actual character-driven gags that are authentically funny); craftsmanship (there’s actual blocking and choreography and cinematography and honest-to-god production design here, not just confused actors standing in front of blurry video walls); and most of all, heart and humanity. This is a movie made because somebody had a story to tell and a passion for realizing it, not because somebody in Disney’s C-suite picked an IP out of a bucket and put it up on the calendar years ago. It is arguably overlong and definitely shaggy in places, but what it isn’t is a soulless sequence of loosely connected events filling in boxes on a checklist or setting up future stories for the content mill. It’s a real movie, warts and all, and Marvel hasn’t made one of those in a while. 

Friday, March 24, 2023

Review: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 is an absolute action masterpiece

God. Damn. 

Calling John Wick: Chapter 4 one of the great action films in the history of the cinema feels like underselling it, somehow. It’s bigger than that. It’a a tour-de-force of kineticism on par with the silent film greats that inspired Germaine Dulac to declare ‘movement’ the essence of cinema, the definition of cinégraphie, or Jean Epstein to declare animism the soul of cinema. It is a testament to light and color and shapes in constant motion, in a breathtakingly synchronized dance, the possibilities of the art form itself made manifest in the incredible images captured here and the relentless momentum with which they are strung together, pushing the viewer into a powerful out of body experience. 

Put less prosaically: It’s possible no movie has ever kicked more ass than this one. 

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Jonathan Lack's Top 10 Films of 2022

Let’s try something different this year. 

This is, as it says on the tin, a Top 10 list. It includes 10 numbered items counting down from 10 to 1, and it is indeed about my favorite films of 2022. It’s not quite a Top 10 films list, since it includes 21 movies, some listed on their own, others grouped together thematically. As I surveyed everything I saw this year, I realized that while this was in many ways a great year for movies, it was also a deeply (and enjoyably!) weird one, and my experiences with cinema these past 12 months didn’t feel like they would fit neatly into the traditional Top 10 format. 


So I’ve blown things up a little this time out, as you shall see, arranging 21 films into 10.5 slots that combine to tell a story about which movies – and, perhaps even more importantly, which kinds of movies – meant most to me this year. I wrote my first year-end Top 10 list in 2006, a full 16 years ago now, and I’ve never really messed with the format much. After letting myself play with it here, I don’t know if I can go back the old, rigid format – this is some of the most fun I’ve ever had putting a list like this together. 


One way this year was odd is that many of the best movies to hit American shores in 2022 were international or festival holdovers from 2021, the date you’ll see attached to many of the films here if you look them up on IMDB or Letterboxd. My rules for Top 10 lists have always been simple: if it was commercially released for the first time in the United States in 2022, it’s eligible. Thus, if a film premiered in its home country in 2021, but didn't become commercially available in the US until 2022, then for my purposes, it's a 2022 film. Same for films that had festival debuts in 2021 (or earlier!) but didn't become commercially available in the US until 2022. So even if, in the history books, quite a few of these films will be listed as 2021, these are films that opened in theaters or debuted on streaming in the US this year. 


Without further ado, let’s get right down to it – we have a lot to get through, and I’m very excited about all of it. 

Friday, December 16, 2022

Review: Holy cow, "Avatar: The Way of Water" is actually really good

It’s hard to describe what, exactly, I was feeling walking into Avatar: The Way of Water. When we revisited the original film on The Weekly Stuff Podcast in September, I described my main takeaway as ‘a bad script brilliantly directed,’ putting a bit more emphasis on the ‘brilliantly directed’ part given how aesthetically bankrupt Hollywood blockbusters have for the most part become in the years since its release. The ‘bad script’ part absolutely shouldn’t be overlooked, of course; it’s a film with ludicrously thin characterizations, often laughably terrible dialogue, and a ‘white savior’ narrative so extreme and overbearing it makes past Hollywood ventures into this territory, like Dances With Wolves, look positively sober and progressive. But it’s a film that imagines and executes on a greater creative scale than virtually anything else the industry is capable of these days, and even though I’m sometimes on the less enthusiastic side when it comes to James Cameron – I think the original Terminator and Titanic are genuine masterpieces, but I’m less high on Aliens and Terminator 2 than most – I’m never going to deny that he’s one of the most formidably capable cinematic craftsman in the media’s history. There’s plenty of good raw material in that first Avatar to mine for a sequel, and especially with this second film heading to Pandora’s oceans – underwater-aficionado Cameron’s home turf – I was cautiously optimistic The Way of Water might be something special. 

In short: It absolutely is.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Review: "The Fabelmans" finds Spielberg the master and Spielberg the sentimentalist in a war for autobiographical supremacy

If they live long enough, many if not most great filmmakers wind up making a reflexive piece about their life and/or art: Fellini’s 8 ½ , Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Kurosawa’s Dreams, Malick’s The Tree of Life, Cuarón’s Roma, or (in a slightly more oblique way), Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. That Steven Spielberg would eventually join these ranks was probably inevitable, but some directors are better equipped to do this than others. How the ‘creative autobio’ piece would work for this particular filmmaker was a genuinely open question for me going into The Fabelmans. 

Spielberg is unquestionably one of the greatest to ever sit in the director’s chair, and clearly one of the most preternaturally talented. The man speaks in film more fluently than most of us speak our native tongue. His skill for visual storytelling, across a wide array of genres, is second to none, and has not waned one iota with time. To see him reflect on a life in the pictures and where those talents and impulses come from, how he learned his craft and what role it played in his foundational memories of adolescence, would of course be welcome.  


But Spielberg is also a director who, over time, has developed a parallel streak as a cloying sentimentalist. I say this with love, as many who have made the same observation do. While his talents behind the camera have never wavered, they have sometimes been unfortunately tempered by an inability to land the punch, to go for the gut and push towards the deepest possible truth, instead of pulling at the heartstrings for a more surface-level catharsis. Where he could once end a movie with savage honesty – most obviously in Close Encounters of the First Kind – he gradually turned into the guy who’d ease up before making the follow-through, like in War of the Worlds when the son inexplicably survives, or let an otherwise note-perfect film like Lincoln continue five minutes past a hauntingly perfect, suggestive conclusion to rub our nose in the tragedy. For all the films he’s made that can comfortably be considered masterpieces, up to and including last year’s West Side Story, there’s also dreck like Hook or War Horse that are drowning in unearned sentimentality, cloying at the heart without a center of substance, Thomas Kincade paintings springing into motion and leaving a unpleasant aftertaste of false sweetener in the mouth. Would a lightly-veiled memoir film about his childhood bring out the best in Spielberg, or invite his worst impulses to run rampant? 

Saturday, November 12, 2022

If I Had a Sight and Sound Ballot – My Picks for the 10 (And 100) Greatest Films of All Time


Every ten years, the British film magazine Sight and Sound conducts a poll of prominent critics and academics to determine what are the ‘Greatest Films of All Time.’ It is the most notable and prestigious version of this list, the place where Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane cemented its reputation over the decades as the most commonly cited ‘greatest film,’ and where its dethroning by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the 2012 edition became big news (that was a ridiculous result – Citizen Kane is emphatically the better movie). With ten years having passed since the last edition, we’re on the cusp of getting the 2022 version of the list, with results expected in late November. 


I haven’t been asked to participate this time – maybe in 2032, with this whole doctorate thing wrapped up, I’ll be in the running! – but I’ve always wanted to take a stab at the intellectual exercise of naming what I think are the ‘greatest films of all time.’ It’s a tough task – very different, I think, from saying what one’s ‘favorite’ films are. That’s relatively easy; everybody has favorite movies, and you only need to justify them by saying how they’ve spoken to you, personally. Identifying the greatest movies ever, in a critical and historical sense, is a different exercise altogether. I don’t think I would have felt remotely qualified to even attempt an answer until relatively recently; but having crossed into my 30s and nearing completion on my PhD in film studies, I think I can provide an answer with a reasonable degree of experience and authority, using the knowledge gathered from a decade as a film academic and two decades as a film critic to try putting my finger on what I would call the ‘best’ movies ever made.