The Lobster is hilarious satire with a distinct voice

As any desperate stand-up comedian would love to tell you, relationships are weird. The idea that one person will be perfect for you, and that you should spend your life with them, is patently absurd, yet remains one of the default human experiences. Deconstructing relationships and love is hardly a new thing for movies to do, but The Lobster somehow finds new things to say and skewer about couples culture. It’s far from subtle, but makes up for it’s directness with its depth, hilarity, and humanity.

The Lobster could be described as dystopic, but exists in more a funhouse mirror reality akin to Snowpiercer rather than anything resembling the world we live in, like Gattaca. In this world, single people are sent to a hotel where they are given 45 days to find a suitable mate. If they do not, they are transformed into an animal of their choice to live out the rest of their days. Discovering the inner workings of this world is one of the chief pleasures of the movie, but any real-world sense has to be left at the gates. Every rule and scene seems to be strictly allegorical, the inconsistencies and arbitration meant to mirror our own world. For example, single people are required to wear the same clothes unless they commit to being alone, and even the cops are always found in couples. It seems overly cute at first, but it commits thoroughly, and is a fascinating movie to dissect.

The world the film builds sells itself primarily through its distinct candor, which saves it on multiple levels. All characters, even those supposedly rebelling, speak like they learned about human interaction in a book. Its not exactly robotic, but what little small talk these people seem capable of is awkward and nonsensical (sample conversation starter: “Do you know how much a volleyball weighs?”). It introduces a necessary distance between our world and theirs, allowing us to overlook any nonsense in the mechanics and defusing some surprisingly gruesome moments. It also is absolutely hilarious; even if you find the satire too blatant or uninteresting, this is a very funny movie.  The deep bench of actors sell it completely, particularly Colin Farrell as our protagonist David, Ashley Jensen’s biscuit woman, and Ben Whishaw’s limping man. And the score, which seems to consist of nothing but the most dramatic string noises that can be found, underlines the absurdity perfectly.

The movie is populated with fantastical oddities, but in its second half manages to find something resembling real humanity and warmth. It seems for a moment like it may reject its central thesis, but goes forward on a note of ambiguity not only about the characters but about the concept of love in general. The Lobster is an incredibly original work which manages to be hilarious while layering allegory on top of allegory. It will be alienating to some, but is an incredibly rewarding cinematic experience when approached with an open mind.

A

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The Lobster (2016)
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, Lea Seydoux, and Olivia Colman
Rotten Tomatoes (91%)

SPOILERS (highlight to read)

The question at the end of the movie: Did David blind himself for the Short-Sighted Woman? I think he did based on the world the movie presented, but it’s mostly immaterial. Importantly, even when finding love in a more natural way than the hotel, David still needed to drastically change himself to make the relationship work. Relationships like David’s with the heartless woman and the limping man with the nosebleed woman were built on lies, and left behind a wake of devastation. But even things that work require a great deal of self-sacrifice.

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The Lobster is hilarious satire with a distinct voice

Midnight Special glosses over brilliance

Despite being the most obviously otherwordly of writer/director Jeff Nichol’s latest films, Midnight Special is plotted in a much more grounded manner than either Take Shelter or Mud. It feels very much like a product of the 80s, underlined by engrossing synth motifs and a portrait of federal police that feels very much in line with E.T. It also feels very much like a television show, owing to an episodic feel from its road-trip nature and a very Abrams-esque sense of mystery (albeit of a more intriguing variety than Abram’s own Super 8). Like Nichol’s previous films, Midnight Special is one that very much requires patience, and while moments within pay that off, its hard to say how much it adds up to.

Midnight Special is about a young boy named Alton with special gifts, which include giving others a deeply religious experience when they look into his eyes as well as picking up passing radio signals.  An early Superman reference is apt, as abilities are added pretty haphazardly until well past half the movie.  The more apt comparison is religious in nature, and indeed the film opens with Alton on the run from the cult in which he was raised which is now devoted to him.  The cult aspect is a touch familiar, but the twist in perspective is neat; while its nice that it doesn’t let this aspect become too familiar, it leaves a lot of room open to explore.  Alton is also on the run from the FBI, who become aware that the messages spread through the cult contain high sensitive information.  Aiding his escape are his biological father Roy (Michael Shannon) and a mysterious accomplice named Lucas (Joel Edgerton).

There are a lot of intriguing pieces of the board, clearly enough to expand into a miniseries if so desired. Rather than rush through an explanation of the inner workings of each, Midnight Special is content to let your imagination do the work, and comes across a bit cold because of it. This is fine for the cult, which would inevitably be confusing and disappointing to dive into, and the FBI, who are best left a monolith, but makes it difficult to connect deeply with Roy. Michael Shannon gives a stone-faced performance, which works miracles in big moments, but doesn’t always fill in the blanks that it needs to. There’s a great story in here somewhere about being Jesus’ dad which is touched upon, but demanded more exploration. Eventually, we meet Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who is similarly underserved by the written words. Joel Edgerton’s Lucas benefits the most from the minimalism, as a quasi-audience surrogate who convinces us of how deeply moving the Alton Experience is, but he outgrows his usefulness to the plot early. Meanwhile, Adam Driver hangs around as an NSA tech who sole purpose is provide minor exposition, but feels as if he could be cut out entirely, as his entire purpose in the end is already contained within Lucas’ arc.

While Midnight Special is often sparing in details, its also very willing to spend the time needed to establish a mood. Very few guns go off in the movie, and when they do, they carry the appropriate weight. The scene playing under the opening title card is magnificent in setting a mood, from the sound design to the score to the font chosen for that title card. A later scene involving a road block ratchets up the tension naturally. But the actual ending disappoints a little, not answering any major questions while also not being particularly wonderous. The patience that Nichol’s asks for is fair, but the payoff doesn’t necessarily justify it. The journey is memorable, but there’s something to be said for the destination.

C+

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Midnight Special (2016)
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Jaeden Lieberher
Rotten Tomatoes (82%)

Midnight Special glosses over brilliance

Ant-Man tries to fit a weird peg in an MCU-shaped hole

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not without its share of oddities. Perhaps most notably, the Guardians of the Galaxy occupy a Star Wars-esque universe and count a talking raccoon amongst their numbers. Thor is a Norse god who shambles onto Earth speaking old English and wearing shining armor. Both of these examples originate in distant (read: non-Earth) lands, which gives their inherent weirdness an immediately foreign anchor and allows us to suspend all notions of “real-world”. Sure, Iron Man and Captain America are the things of fantasy, but they have to obey at least some level of reality to keep us invested (or have Thor come along to justify the big bad). Ant-Man is Earthbound like the latter two examples, but is a concept so absolutely off of its rocker that it should feel more at place with Thor and Guardians. By making it fit the mold of the Avengers, Ant-Man doesn’t get a chance to let its freak flag fly, and instead feels like a clear stop-gap on the way to getting him in the Avengers.

Not to say that a movie about a super-science (read: magic) suit that lets Paul Rudd get really small isn’t without its touches. It gets nicely ludicrous in the final act (albeit mostly in scenes glimpsed in the trailer), but doesn’t have as much fun with the material as you would expect for the first sections. But it doesn’t go as cartoony as you would hope, although it thankfully doesn’t get overly dark either. The training montage, which should be a plethora of zaniness, is pretty straightforward, with some funny moments but no memorable or original uses of the concept. The secondary ability, where they can control ants through unrelated super science (once again, magic), never feels natural in the world they build, but does lead to at least a few laugh lines. As a minor quiblle, the physics are fairly inconsistent, which only stops being an issue in the last act when the joy of the mayhem finally becomes great enough to overlook it. Things that get shrunk (such as vehicles) seem to not weight their full amount (and are carried around like a toy car), but Ant-Man supposedly is still a regular-weight dude, which gives his little punches power. And the quantum stuff sprinkled throughout is pretty boilerplate “Uncertainty means abstract” stuff.

Maybe the biggest problem is that none of the characters really stand out, given that the Marvel universe is generally great at providing memorable heroes. Paul Rudd is always better either laid back or playing an unrepentant bag of dicks, and doesn’t quite work as a hero/electric engineer. Michael Douglas is introduced with some very impressive de-aging CGI as super-scientist Hank Pym, and is fine as an exposition machine but plays it fairly straight. His relationship with his daughter Hope is pivotal, but he and Evangeline Lilly don’t seem too invested. While Marvel loves its heroes, its non-Loki villains are near-uniformly uninteresting, and Ant-Man’s Yellowjacket is no exception (although far from the bottom of the barrel). The Yellowjacket villain is well-designed, but Corey Stoll doesn’t make the role memorable, even when they let the character do some seriously manic mad-scientist stuff, what with turning people into boogers. The arc of him being rejected by his mentor Pym doesn’t fully land since Pym isn’t the center of the movie; had it taken its own advice and let Hope Pym be the super-spy, maybe the familial tie would bring it all together. As it is, Lang and Pym’s side stories feel very disconnected, despite both ostensibly being about family. However, on the sidekick side, Michael Pena is fantastically bug-eyed and optimistic, and is perfect in every way, and his centrepiece lip-synced exposition montage is the best scene of the movie.

While not batshit enough to leave a visual mark, it is batshit enough that, when it does crossover with familiar Avengers, it feels a bit off. The compromise necessary to fit these two styles together may have prevented Ant-Man from having its own wacko voice, and it will be interesting to see how current outlier Guardians of the Galaxy manages to fit itself in. It also gets to feel a bit like a cheaper cousin, as when it does overlap, only one Avenger shows up (Anthony Mackie’s Falcon) with no backup (even from SHIELD) at what is ostensibly a major base. Ant-Man may end up bringing some nice flavour to Civil War and Avengers 3, and even the next Ant-Man movie may be able to get out from under the Avengers shadow and work its own magic. As an entry, Ant-Man is among the more skippable entries in the still-reliably entertaining MCU machine.

C

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Ant-Man (2015)
Dir. Peyton Reed
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, and Michael Douglas
Rotten Tomatoes (80%)
On Netflix

Ant-Man tries to fit a weird peg in an MCU-shaped hole

Mississippi Grind is a solid character study with nothing new to say

The gambling movie is familiar territory at this point, usually involving flashy suits, lots of yelling, and a big guy with a baseball bat saying something about kneecaps. Mississippi Grind is much more restrained in tone (the baseball-bat equivalent is a stern talking-to from Alfre Woodard), but equally extravagant in unlikelihoods. Nothing in this movie can be said to be completely unlike anything you’ve ever seen, except for perhaps one moment where the title of the movie is used to create a sense of dread simply because we know its the title of the movie.

What saves it is the great character work from the central buddy-gambler duo. Ben Mendelsohn plays a desperate man, and the depth of his addiction is slowly and painfully revealed to us. His worst enemy is himself, in ways we expect but nonetheless are painful to watch. The real mystery to the movie, and the perfect foil for Mendelsohn’s sad sack, is Ryan Reynolds’ mysterious free-wheeling good-luck charm, whose charisma and willingness for anything convince Mendelsohn to go to New Orleans to try his hand at a 25k poker table. At first, I was convinced that Reynolds only existed in Mendelsohn’s mind, as he is essentially a Jesus figure. But as the movie goes on, his own arc comes into focus in ways that counter-balance the depths to which Mendelsohn sinks. It’s effective drama, if not a touch minor, but its an interesting character study with some great shots and two great performances at its centre. It’s only a touch ruined by a lack of originality and a deeply unsatisfying third act.

C+

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Mississippi Grind (2015)
Dir. Ryan Fleck and Anne Boden
Starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

Mississippi Grind is a solid character study with nothing new to say

Deadpool is shabbily amusing and amusingly shabby

Superhero saturation is in full swing, an epidemic only tempered a bit by the strange fact that the majority of the big-budget superhero movies are shockingly good. The studios have been self-aware about this for a while, hiring Joss Whedon to inject some much-needed smarm into the The Avengers. The indie studios have been even more self-aware, putting out varying-quality anti-superhero movies like Kick-Ass, Defendor, and Super (Super’s director, James Gunn, even went on to direct Guardians of the Galaxy). It was only a matter of time before a studio got fully on-board with taking down the genre, and thus: Deadpool. With trailers making it look like every fourteen-year-old boy’s favourite movie, the rapturous commercial response to Deadpool was no huge surprise, but that it was coupled with critical praise was a bit of a shock. The secret sauce might just be that Deadpool is violent and crass without being mean-spirited, enjoyable just by being a good time at the movies. That same feature prevents it from being very distinct against the very movies it parodies, and the seams of its budget show, but it’s still a highly enjoyable lark.

Deadpool opens in-media-res, teasing out its origin story while intercutting a fight scene occurring roughly halfway through the movie. This move makes sense, partially to make one action scene seem like twenty, and partially since the origin story is not particularly exciting or colourful, outside of just being able to spend some time with Ryan Reynolds’ charismatic Wade Wilson and his love interest, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Reynolds was born for this role, as expected, even if he’s finally starting to look his age, and he makes Deadpool a funny asshole without coming across as annoying, petulant, or unlikable. Baccarin is equally important to carrying these portions, and her barbs are every bit as potent as Reynolds’; it makes it a small shame when she inevitably takes a damsel-in-distress role, but its not as egregious a case as it has been before. When Baccarin is plotwise unavailable, TJ Miller’s bartender Weasel steps in as Deadpool’s foil. Miller has been hyped up for this as if he’s the second coming of Comedy Christ, and he’s alright and all, but is essentially a fairly replaceable white guy sidekick.

What really hurts Deadpool is that it never builds up its world into something interesting, which is never more apparent than in its second act (where Deadpool signs up for military research). It’s all dark and grimy, but the kinds of things we’ve seen before. The villains are nondescript, especially main bad-guy Francis played by a very uncharismatic Ed Skrein. Even outside of this point, it still feels small-scale. This is a great boon in terms of its scope; there are no overstated, bland threats against the whole planet, giving it a personal feel. But it’s artifice is never hidden, and it’s hard to get lost in as a result. At one point, Deadpool knocks on the door of Xavier’s School for Gifted Children. Negasonic Teenage Warhead, one of two X-Men we meet over the movie (along with Colossus), answers the door, and Deadpool notes that the studio must be skimping if they can only afford two X-Men. Being aware of its shabbiness is great and all, but it doesn’t negate said shabbiness. Compare its similarly shabby cousin Kick-Ass, which doesn’t have nearly the quality of jokes but does have a sense of world-building. The mercenary bar gets close in Deadpool, but could have used a bit more fleshing out.

Deadpool doesn’t have the sense of identity I was expecting or hoping for, but its great fun nonetheless. At 1h40m, it’s a quick and breezy distraction with plenty of great gags and memorable visuals. I’m not hoping for a Deadpool Expanded Universe or crossovers necessarily, but I do hope the inevitable sequel has a bit more colour outside of its central performance.

B-

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Deadpool (2016)
Dir. Tim Miller
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, TJ Miller, and Ed Skrein
Rotten Tomatoes (83%)

Deadpool is shabbily amusing and amusingly shabby

The Voices is less subversive than it is deeply unpleasant

If there is a positive to find in The Voices, it’s that it clearly takes risks. It’s problem is that almost none of those risks really pay off. It’s premise, in that its told from the warped perspective of a delusional murderer who talks to his pets and the severed head of his victim, is definitely original and has the ingredients of a wicked black comedy. While it clearly wants to go that angle, based on its general demeanor (there are multiple song-and-dance scenes), the problem is that its never funny. Most of the jokes boil down to the-cat-said-a-curse, which wears thin. The moment where it breaks the perspective and shows the true horror are effectively unsettling, but given that the more colourful portions aren’t very entertaining, the whole movie just ends up feeling gross. This is a deeply unpleasant viewing experience, and not one with anything really to say, be it about mental health or isolationism. The Voices feels like it was built off a central premise, with no ideas about how to build off of it or give it a real ending. Instead, it makes its point early and then plods along until the end mercifully comes.

In some isolated sparks, viewed in retrospect, The Voices works. Reynolds does indeed imbue Jerry with some sympathetic qualities, which is the only thing keeping The Voices afloat. A later scene with him and Anna Kendrick when Jerry’s secret inevitably breaks is played for suspense, but what really sticks out is its deep sadness even if it isn’t fully earned. Jerry would love to not be Jerry, and as one potential future is ripped from him, the weight of that self-pity and despair is brought to the fore by Kendrick and Reynolds. It’s a shame that the movie’s desperation for irreverence keeps it from finding a groove more consistently.

TWO DAYS LATER EDIT: As much as my initial visceral  response to The Voices was negative, certain images and moments from it have stuck with me. I think it fails dreadfully as a black comedy, but succeeds partially as a character study and as a distinct work. So, while I still have many problems with the movie, I felt the need to temper my reaction a bit, and admit that it’s not entirely without merit. It’s an unpleasant, pessimistic experience, but one which at least partially succeeds in conveying its themes through its conflicted and troubled central character. So I’m switching that D- to a D+, and will try to let movies stew in my mind a bit more from now on.

D- D+

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The Voices (2015)
Dir. Marjane Satrapi
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, and Gemma Arterton
Rotten Tomatoes (72%)

The Voices is less subversive than it is deeply unpleasant

The Witch is engrossing in unexpected and creepy ways

The Witch opens with a man in front of a room of judges, his family behind him, being banished from his 1600s New England community for a difference in religious beliefs. Why did we leave England, he muses, if not for that very freedom from persecution? The problem with leaving due to religious quibbles, it turns out, is that the new land might turn out to be even less forgiving. Those with a strict ideology will often come in conflict with new surroundings, especially when their surroundings include servants of Satan himself.

That’s the premise of The Witch, a beautifully creepy horror movie that gets great milage out of its period setting. When the family’s youngest is stolen in broad daylight, their immense grief is supplanted with a deep suspicion; was this the work of a wolf, or something more supernatural (and titular)? The audience is told immediately in a deeply unsettling way, but the dramatic irony is used to great effect as the family starts to turn on each other.

The audience is given two main entry points: eldest daughter Thomasin and second-eldest son Caleb. Both are starting to mature into adults, and that process forms the second thematic backbone of the movie. Caleb is an exemplar of pubescent male confusion compounded by his insulated environment. At a point where he carries his father’s rifle, it is made clear that Caleb is still small and unprepared for the world. Meanwhile, Thomasin’s maturation into a woman is met with scorn and distrust, and thrusts her into direct conflict with her parents’ expectations.

But is it scary? The Witch’s hype brings to mind the buzz surrounding last year’s It Follows, which was similarly distinct and notably very very scary (and the second-best movie of the year). The Witch isn’t as terrifyingly tense in the moment as that film, but its the type of horror that sticks to your bones and leaves you staring blankly through the credits. All the pieces work to form a distinct tone, from the slightly-cliche stringed score to the dusty farm set we spend our time on (writer-director Robert Eggers cut his teeth as a costume and set designer, and it shows). It knows how to cut away from disturbing material the second the scene fully sinks in, disturbing without disgusting the audience, and it has more than its share of indelible images (one involving a raven sticks out in particular). Indeed, the one notable time it goes for a more traditional scare near the end comes across as cheesy. It stubbornly sticks to folklore-appropriate period dialogue (thy’s and dost’s abound), which can sometimes get confusing and cause a slight remove, but the characters are remarkably well-formed despite this barrier. All in all, The Witch is a memorable, original, and thematically rich creepshow.

A-

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The Witch (2016)
Dir. by Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw, Kate Dickie, and Ralph Ineson
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

The Witch is engrossing in unexpected and creepy ways