(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: Ocean’s Twelve is a brilliant chapter in what may be the best trilogy mainstream Hollywood has ever produced.)
If sequels are hard to pull off, then trilogies are the hardest of all. Hollywood is overstuffed with franchises, but few of those series are straight-up trilogies, and even fewer of those are good from start to finish. Even the existing trilogies that might be enjoyable have built-in caveats. Like most people, I love the original Star Wars trilogy, but it’s not a closed-off trilogy, telling three stories as opposed to being three stories in a larger, more massive series of films. The original trilogy is great, but it’s not, in its own way, standalone. Even great mainstream trilogies like the Toy Story films aren’t going to be trilogies for much longer, as the fourth Toy Story is on the way in 2019.
This week, as we prepare for the release of Logan Lucky, a new heist film from iconoclastic director Steven Soderbergh, it’s time to acknowledge perhaps the best mainstream trilogy of all: the Ocean’s trilogy.
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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: an argument that the 1997 television adaptation of The Shining is a worthy companion to the iconic Stanley Kubrick film.)
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of The Shining ranks right up there with The Exorcist as one of the greatest horror films of all time. One person who has always been less than enamored with Kubrick’s film, however, is author Stephen King.
The Shining was King’s third published novel, released while he was on a hot streak in the 1970s, writing some of his most popular page-turners, like Salem’s Lot and The Stand. Over the years, King has been vocal in the press about his dissatisfaction with Kubrick’s adaptation. But in 1997, around the time of the book’s 20th anniversary, he was finally able to “correct” the problem, as Delbert Grady would say, penning and producing a much more faithful mini-series adaptation for television.
We are now about as far removed from the original airing of that mini-series as the mini-series itself was from the novel’s publication. Indeed, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the tale of the Torrances and the Overlook Hotel. And with two more high-profile King adaptations on the immediate horizon (namely, The Dark Tower and It), perhaps the time is right for a reevaluation of Stephen King’s The Shining, the 1997 TV mini-series.
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(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or TV show, or sets their sights on something seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: a defense of M. Night Shyamalan unjustly maligned The Village.)
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” –C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
M. Night Shyamalan’s career has been bumpy. He found monumental success with his 1999 ghost story The Sixth Sense, and continued to garner acclaim and stellar box office returns with its two follow-ups, Unbreakable and Signs. Yet after Signs, a rift began to form between Shyamalan’s work and how the public perceived it. Eventually, the filmmaker fell almost completely out of favor, only managing to climb back on top slowly with recent films The Visit and Split. Nothing can quite capture the meteoric rise of Shyamalan’s early career, though.
While Lady in the Water might have been the film that torpedoed the last remaining shreds of good will towards Shyamalan’s work, it was 2004’s The Village (which came out 13 years ago yesterday) that started the dissent. More often than not, when people want to hold up examples of Shyamalan’s lesser work, they tend to lump The Village in with misfires like The Happening.
This is a mistake.
The Village is one of Shyamalan’s most interesting films, and perhaps one of his best. A melancholy meditation on grief and fear, it radiates sorrow in ways his other films do not. Yes, it does have that expected Shyamalan twist – two of them, in fact. But the film is more than its twists, and deserves to be watched with fresh eyes.
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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: why the failure of Valerian the City of a Thousand Planets allows it to join the club of overlooked space fantasy that already includes the magnificent Jupiter Ascending.)
I saw Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets last week in a practically empty theater, and I left with a smile on my face. Once again Luc Besson gave us a fully immersive, beautiful universe, a romantic fantasy quest in an extraterrestrial setting, with a powerful message similar to that of The Fifth Element: Love conquers all. Inspired by the French comic books by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, Luc Besson took us on a welcome journey to somewhere colorful and hopeful, welcome in a year filled with darker sci-fi tales like Life and Alien: Covenant. And yet, no one saw Valerian. It is destined to join the ranks of movies that we discuss for their financial failures instead of their successes.
One close cousin to Valerian is the Wachowski’s delightful 2015 space opera, Jupiter Ascending. Perhaps the reason I so enjoyed Valerian was because I also happen to be a part of another small group that adored this visionary take on a space fairy tale starring Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum. Admittedly, my love for Jupiter Ascending was a bit of a slow burn. It wasn’t until I went to bed the night after watching it that I realized how wonderful it really was. The more times I watched it, the more my love grew. It’s the kind of movie that I imagine watching with my future children and yet, I rarely ever get to talk to people who actually went to see it or have bothered to rent it. However when I do find someone who is part of this club, we have conversations built of pure joy and enthusiasm.
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(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or TV show, or sets their sights on something seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: a defense of Interstellar as one of Christopher Nolan’s greatest movies.)
“If I can fix every detail of this time in my mind, I can keep this moment always.” –Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Christopher Nolan makes cold films. At least, that seems to be one of the biggest complaints frequently lobbied against the filmmaker. Film after film, from Memento to Insomnia to The Prestige to the Dark Knight trilogy and beyond, Nolan’s work may be technically proficient and visually dazzling, but some audiences and critics alike come away wondering where the heart is. He’s not a humanist filmmaker the way Steven Spielberg is, but more akin to Stanley Kubrick (before you crucify me for this statement, I’m only comparing Nolan and Kubrick on the emotional front, or lack thereof; this is not a comparison of their directorial abilities).
Yet anyone looking for heart in a Nolan film need look no further than the expansive 2014 epic Interstellar, which may very well be his masterpiece. With Interstellar, Nolan intertwines the grand adventure of a space exploration film with a beating heart. “To me, space exploration represents the absolute extreme of what the human experience is,” Nolan says. “It’s all about trying, in some way, to define what our existence means in terms of the universe. For a filmmaker, the extraordinary nature of a few select individuals pushing the boundaries of where the human species has ever been or can possibly go opens up an infinite set of possibilities. I was excited by the prospect of making a film that would take the audience into that experience through the eyes of those first explorers moving outwards into the galaxy — indeed to a whole other galaxy. … That’s as big a journey as you can imagine trying to tell.”
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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: The World’s End is Edgar Wright’s best movie. By far.)
This week at the movies represents an oasis in the summer-movie desert, with the arrival of Edgar Wright’s latest film, Baby Driver. This new action film represents a slight change for Wright, who’s a) never made a film set and shot in America before and b) hasn’t been the sole writer of any of his past projects. He’s best known as the co-writer and director of the Cornetto Trilogy, comprising Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, all genre hybrids co-starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
Now that Baby Driver is headed to theaters, there will no doubt be various (justifiable) appreciations written of Edgar Wright’s films to date; as a still-young filmmaker, he’s only now made six films (including A Fistful of Fingers, which, until recently, hadn’t been released in the United States in any form, so I’m excluding it from this essay). At the top, I want to emphasize something before I delve into the Unpopular Opinion at the core of this piece: I’m a big fan of Wright’s filmography, including the delightful, exuberant, and intense Baby Driver. Each of his films is remarkably assured and confident, hybrids that all feel singular instead of like carbon copies of their forebears.
But I feel now as I felt the moment I walked out of the theater in 2013: The World’s End isn’t just the best of the Cornetto Trilogy. It’s Edgar Wright’s best film, period.
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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: a defense of Gus Van Sant’s misunderstood Psycho remake.)
Marion steps into the motel shower without a hint of hesitation. She adjusts the hot and cold valves until they’re just right. The water streams out of the shower head, and she lets it wash over her, rinsing away her poor past decisions in the process. This shower is a cleansing not just of body but of spirit. She can feel the wrong-headed choices that brought her here, to this nondescript motel nestled in the middle of nowhere, circling down the drain. Marion, so enamored in her baptism-by-shower, fails to notice the shadow darkening the shower curtain; the shadow of an individual raising a long, sharp object in their hand.
We’ve seen this scene before. We know almost every frame and angle of it in our collective consciousness, even if we’ve somehow managed to avoid seeing the film the scene is from. But there’s something different about it this time. This time, it’s in living color. And the blood that’s about to splatter the shower tiles will be bright red instead of a dark brown rendered in black and white. Because this is not Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This is Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, the 1998 shot-for-shot remake that lead critics and audiences to respond with a resounding, “Why?”
And it’s a film worth revisiting.
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(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or TV show, or sets their sights on something seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: a defense of the final season of the ABC TV series LOST.)
LOST was once at the pinnacle of the early Golden Age of TV. Ambitious, awe-inspiring, and frustrating, it brought forth a new age in serialized primetime television and was perhaps the last great TV show to command the attention of audiences across the country before streaming and prestige cable shows dispersed them.
You remember those glory days, right? The connective flashbacks, the masterful character work, the scavenger hunt for hints, the jaw-dropping cliffhangers. It was like nothing on TV. And it ended seven years ago today, airing its series finale on May 23, 2010.
So it pains me that LOST, one of the most exciting and daring sci-fi TV series — and one of my favorite shows of all time — is met with derision because of its final season. To be sure, it’s an oddly opaque finale for a show that until then, had operated in grays — espousing realist and borderline nihilistic philosophies that called into question the nature and morals of man. But one of the charms of LOST was that it never tried to answer these questions. Yes, it bludgeoned you over the head with that “man of science, man of faith” debate between Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) and John Locke (Terry O’Quinn), but neither were able to ever really win the upper hand.
The finale changed that. The answer, it seemed to say, was faith. And in a show that depended so heavily on sci-fi tropes and staples, this switcheroo understandably angered people.
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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: a defense of Ridley Scott’s controversial Alien prequel Prometheus.)
Like most of you, I walked out of my first screening of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in some combination of confused and angry. That was the Alien prequel we’d spent the past two-plus years anxiously anticipating? The film that absolutely wasted Charlize Theron and Idris Elba, featured some of the worst character beats I’ve ever seen in a science fiction narrative, and bled all over the memory of Scott’s original Alien film? No matter how I approached the film – how charitable I tried to be in my interpretation of its story – all I saw was a barren wasteland where a promising Alien franchise might’ve stood. My hatred of Prometheus ran deep and pure.
And then a funny thing happened. A few months ago, as 20th Century Fox began to roll out new footage from Alien: Covenant and people in my social network started talking about Prometheus as if it wasn’t the worst thing since death and taxes. A few friends even argued passionately on the film’s behalf, suggesting that Prometheus, despite its flaws, was one of the boldest science fiction films to hit theaters in a good long while. This put me in an awkward position. I had spent more than four years nursing my grudge towards Scott’s film, and while I remained convinced that the film would only get worse on a re-watch, I knew it would be disingenuous of me to argue against the film without at least giving a second shot.
So I popped Prometheus into my Blu-ray player again, and wouldn’t you know it? That movie grew up a helluva lot in our four years apart.
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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: the massively popular Guardians of the Galaxy enters the crosshairs.)
Almost without fail, every published ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has the same two movies in the top spots: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. This trend is probably why most people give me a funny look when I tell them my favorite MCU movies are The Winter Soldier, Thor, and Iron Man 3. In fact, Guardians doesn’t even make it into my top five. It might not be at the very bottom of the barrel, but it’s certainly not at the top either.
James Gunn’s take on Guardians of the Galaxy quickly earned rave reviews in 2014 for its fun and colorful space opera take on a lesser-known Marvel team. When I first saw it, I enjoyed it too… and then I quickly proceeded to forget it. It isn’t that I consider Guardians an actively bad film, more that I view it as an actively average film with fundamental flaws that, when dug deeper into, make the film’s shining surface fade much more quickly.
Unfortunately, these glaring flaws prevent me from placing it among the best of the MCU and instead have soured the film for me, especially within the larger context of the MCU.
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