(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: The Dead Don’t Die has been critically panned, but it’s far more insightful than it’s being given credit for.)
I get it, okay? The Dead Don’t Die can be a really hard film to like. It’s a bitter, cynical, downright abrasive film that takes more pleasure out of being smug about zombie films than it does about being a zombie film. It’s understandable that it’s going to turn a lot of people off with its extensive-bordering-on-excessive commitment to deadpan humor and its absolute disdain for what is surely a large portion of its target audience. It’s a comedy that is hostile and bleak, paradoxically playing off our collective despair in a way that only a fraction of the audience was ever going to be able to laugh at.
But I am more than happy to be in that minority of folks who can enjoy it.
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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon plays a non-binary character in John Wick: Chapter 3 and that means more than many people may realize.)
As a non-binary person who loves cinema, I’ve resigned myself to the reality that I won’t ever see my gender represented in mainstream popular culture. There have been major advances in binary transgender representation – particularly for trans women, though there’s still a long way to go there too – but for those of us who don’t fit neatly into the categories of men and women, there isn’t a whole lot out there specifically meant for us. I find myself identifying with the masculinity of some characters, the femininity of others, and the gender-bending expressions of specifically queer art often scratches an itch for seeing gender-nonconformity represented in the works I’ve spent my life adoring and analyzing. But I never get to see a person who looks like me in the artistic medium I love, at least not without some major caveats.
But John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum offered me something new. But we’ll get there in a moment.
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(To celebrate the release of Missing Link, we’re revisiting the stop-motion animated films of Laika this week and discussing why they’re so special. Today: Kubo and the Two Strings is a moving parable of love and remembrance.)
Memory is a fragile, fickle, formative thing. It’s manipulable and elastic, but it’s also the base of our identities, the metric by which we measure our personal growth and change, the mechanism by which we form opinions and make judgments about the world. This is why we tell ourselves stories, to give our memories a continuity of purpose and meaning, and if there’s one thing that stop-motion animation studio LAIKA understands about those self-told stories, it’s that they are our primary connection to those who came before us.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a story about holding on to family through our memories, and how love is born from memories, even when we don’t have conscious access to them or simply have stories to go by.
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(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation is a best case scenario situation.)
I will be the first to admit that Zack Snyder’s interpretation of Watchmen isn’t perfect. In fact, in some respects it’s a very strangely paced and plotted film, very long with meandering diversions into the psyches of its large and often disconnected cast to the point that it’s a turn-off for casual viewers looking for just another superhero movie. However, it’s one of the few comic book films that attempts a faithful adaptation of a specific and limited comic run, rather than just of the characters or brands that usually inspire the films of the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. Because of this, the film is often maligned as either being too faithful to its source material, not faithful enough, or even decried for its very existence, as comic author Alan Moore has in no uncertain terms.
10 years on (Watchmen opened on March 6, 2009), it’s easy to look back on Watchmen and recognize what the film was attempting and the ways it succeeded rather than failed, and while Moore’s comic is still the gold standard for telling this story, Snyder’s commitment to making a cinematic parallel made for probably the best version of this film we could possibly have hoped for.
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Here’s a blunt truth: The LEGO Movie should not work as a movie, let alone work as a great movie. On paper, even the premise of a movie based on a line of toys with no singular identity of its own, a line that explicitly develops playsets themed around licensed properties as an extension of managed brands, sounds like the most tedious sort of late-stage capitalist cynicism. It sounds like the sort of corporately-driven idea that is designed from the ground up to act as an advertisement to children that their parents must pay for them to see in the theater, normalizing the practice of brands selling themselves on name alone regardless of intrinsic value or quality of output.
And, on one level, that’s exactly what The LEGO Movie is. It absolutely is a product made for the express purpose of self-celebration, giving the LEGO brand a platform to proclaim its own cultural impact. But it’s also a film that is surprisingly self-aware of that motivation and doesn’t really try to hide it, instead leaning heavily into the ethos that if the film is good enough that the inherent anti-artistry of the premise ultimately doesn’t matter.
And it works! But why does it work? The answer lies in some very smart and well-informed decisions baked into The LEGO Movie’s writing, and perhaps as importantly, in the subversive brilliance of its writers and directors.
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As a franchise, Rocky has almost always been defined by the hubris of its star and creator, Sylvester Stallone. The original film is not actually so much about boxing as it is about the boxer, a working class guy who has only one skill in the ring and desperately wants to achieve more for himself, and what Stallone gradually lost sight of in writing and directing the sequels is that it was that character struggle that made his film resonate with people. As reflected in the franchise’s gradual decent into farce, Stallone felt the key to keeping Rocky Balboa a relevant pop culture icon was to make the fights bigger and the characters in perpetual awe of Rocky’s greatness, and the films suffered for it, finally attempting to pull out of the dive with the attempted drama of Rocky V and only finally approaching the heights of the original after a sixteen year hiatus with Rocky Balboa, though even that retained some sillier elements that harken back to Stallone’s worst impulses.
This is why Creed felt like such a revelation upon its 2015 release. The decision to make Rocky the supporting character for the son of his greatest rival, Apollo Creed, was an inspired bit of torch-passing, allowing Stallone to remain in the spotlight as a new name took on the legacy of the Rocky series. And that’s what Creed is largely about, as Adonis Creed struggles with the legacy and identity left behind by a father he never knew, and while the boxing matches are among the best of the whole series, Creed feels most like a rebirth of the parts of Rocky that struck people so strongly that a franchise was able to form in the first place.
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