by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Film

Off Beat | The Blockbusters We Missed in 2018

January 4, 2019

There are a lot of movies released in a year — and that’s even once you cut the crop down to just those that receive a wide release. Among this past year’s blockbusters there was also a lot of probable-dross, stuff we just didn’t feel the need to get to right away; and there were films that we did see and felt that we could do more justice to given a little time to marinate; and of course there were films that we just plum missed, because we have lives outside this stuff, y’know? You’ll find all of these shapes and sizes and varieties in the selection of releases below, which covers as many blockbuster films as we could think of that we didn’t review in #BlockbusterBeat this year. The usual #Blockheads Matt Lynch and Daniel Gorman are joined, this time, by the rest of our staff, in an effort to sift through it all — from the the beefiest of summer tentpoles (Avengers: Infinity War) to the battiest of big-budget fall season prestige pics (Suspiria); from a dirtbag action movie beloved by a German filmmaker (Den of Thieves) to a “Brechtian” one and no that isn’t a good thing (The Strangers: Prey at Night); from a film starring real-life NBA players in old-age makeup (Uncle Drew) to a film starring real-life soldiers eating sorbet (The 15:17 to Paris) — and plenty of others to seek-out/vigorously avoid. Sam C. Mac

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Look, at this point you’re either with the Marvel Universe or you aren’t. And if you aren’t, that’s fine! Certainly, the sheer number of superhero movies being dumped onto screens in recent years can be downright numbing, especially when most of them are terrible (looking at you, DCEU). But Marvel has gotten a lot right over the last ten years, perhaps most importantly the casting of key players in their fictional universe. And that’s really the primary pleasure of Avengers: Infinity War: seeing all of these disparate players and characters come together in a universe-trotting adventure that does a pretty decent job of approximating a big summer-crossover comic book event. Brothers Anthony & Joe Russo have become the marshals in charge of corralling all of this stuff together, and they’re good at, cutting between multiple storylines, giving each hero and villain a little something to do, and keeping all of the big battles and CGI showdowns legible and exciting (of course, your mileage may vary). At the very least, the epic throwdown in Wakanda is large-canvas, event movie making that you can’t attempt without the massive resources Marvel and Disney have at their disposal. Bottom line is, Marvel is a behemoth, at least for now, and they’re doing some important work in bringing women and minorities to the forefront of their storytelling, both as actors and filmmakers. At the risk of giving a giant corporation too much credit, we can at least all agree that representation matters, and right now there’s no larger spotlight than a Marvel movie. Daniel Gorman

1_Lrz9v1OMWj15yM_Tcg6TEA (2)The latest feature from the criminally under-appreciated Jaume Collet-Serra, The Commuter is yet another indication of how adept this filmmaker is at crafting compelling cinema on a (relative) budget. A high-concept mystery thriller set aboard a train, The Commuter is full of interesting twists and turns and exemplifies much of Collet-Serra’s appeal as an architect of old-fashioned mystery stories framed within 21st century settings. Both this and Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop exhibit the hallmarks of classic mystery fiction, drawing on work from masters of the genre, such as Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock. While Non-Stop, a whodunit set on an airliner, was a canny modern spin on Christie’s acclaimed 1935 novel Death in the Clouds, The Commuter is a B-movie thriller born of a similar premise as Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, its story of a commuter train packed with suspects who may be linked to a wider murder conspiracy similarly slow-burning in its distillation of suspense. A typically relatable turn from Liam Neeson, as a just-fired insurance broker and former police officer, makes for a perfect ‘wrong man’ to anchor this ever-escalating high-stakes plot; Neeson’s commanding presence and forceful energy prove a still-potent engine for constant tension. Most notably, though, even as the film offers some bracing action set-pieces, what’s refreshing about The Commuter is that there’s a real focus on the film’s central conflict being solved through ingenuity and know-how, rather than as a result of the superior strength that Neeson’s made his late-career trademark. Calum Reed

Maybe the most misunderstood movie of the year, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a total shock, invested so thoroughly in defying its legendary, beloved source material that it seems to have confounded just about everyone. Can’t say I blame them; but Guadagnino wisely realized that he was playing a zero sum game and simply swung for the fences in every respect. Argento’s lush subconscious death dream has been replaced by a Fassbinder-esque brutalism, a rain-soaked Berlin in the throes of leftist terrorism. The mystery of just what’s going on at this scary dance academy is solved immediately, and we’re left with the story of a coven of witches who were forced underground during wartime, who’ve become politically activated, and who care deeply about their art which is simultaneously the engine of their power. Their structures mimic those outside but without clear analogues; there are no “good witches” here, but all are concerned with what it means to exercise their power. Beyond Suspiria’s tantalizing pretensions, though, there’s still a wild, gorgeous, dreamlike and go-for-broke horror, hidden passages and horrible monsters, ugly-sharp murder utensils, Tilda Swinton playing three separate roles (simultaneously a joke and an emblem of the film’s up-its-own-ass arthouseness), and two of the gnarliest sequences of the year (the rag-doll psychic murder of a dancer and the literally blood-soaked, explosive finale). For good or ill, there’s nothing like it out there. Matt Lynch 

Tostitos-Scoops-Tortilla-Chips-Party-Size-in-Game-Night-6 (2)Someone decided it would be a good idea to drop a comedy into the middle of David Fincher’s The Game — and indeed, it’s pretty hilarious! After years of Apatow-style, dude-bro, improv heavy comedy and mumblecore junk that’s just various riffs edited together in post, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a mainstream comedy that looks like it was actually designed and directed, with storyboards and everything. A group of friends gather for their weekly game night, thinking that someone has taken it up a notch by playing a kind of live action, LARP-style kidnapping scenario, only to discover that someone’s been actually kidnapped and that they are dealing with real criminals. Game Night has an interesting tension between the life and death stakes and the character’s nonchalant attitude towards their predicament, with the slowly dawning realization that things aren’t what they seem. Certainly, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, and writer Mark Perez, understand that there is comedy to be rung from an audience knowing more at any given time than the characters. There’s also just a bunch of great set-pieces here — with Rachel McAdams digging a bullet out of Justin Bateman’s arm while using her phone for instructions being a true masterclass in physical comedy. The whole endeavor kind of falls apart after one too many twists; when the narrative is forced into wrapping up its many lose ends. But up until the then, Game Night‘s laughs are constant and the appropriation of Fincher’s film, and his long time cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s signature ice-cold digital aesthetic (complete with tilt-shift lenses!), is absolutely spot on. At the very least, you’ll never laugh harder at someone lip-synching to “Semi-Charmed Life” at a seedy dive bar. DG

l_baf6354b-db95-4d6c-af89-7ca4f022fb01 (2)Charles M. Schulz once said that the reason he had Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang play baseball was that the slow-paced nature of the sport best suited the relatively stationary medium he was working in. If that’s the case, then film would be the best means to capture basketball in all its incessantly energetic glory — with the use of rapid editing, agile camera movement, and an accelerated sense of temporal placement. Uncle Drew comes close to capturing this dynamic vitality, and as well the general ethos of “the love of the game,” by simply capturing current NBA stars alongside retirees (caked in old-man prosthetics) sinking three-pointers, jab/sidestepping around the competition, and dunking on ludicrously douche-y villains. The actual narrative of sheepish loser Dax Winslow (Lil Rel Howard) recruiting all of these legends to win a local tournament can’t keep pace with the onscreen street balling. Yet director Charles Stone III understands that nobody is here for the “gripping” story of if Dax will overcome his fears or whatever the fuck the goal of winning some prize money is; the primary concern at all times is moving each scene along as quickly as possible so we can get to the good stuff, with an expeditious pace that even the most dedicated of players can get behind. Paul Attard

download (4)Den of Thieves is the low budget, blue collar Heat rip-off we didn’t know that we needed. In fact, it even made a little retrospective splash on ‘Film Twitter’ a few weeks ago, when acclaimed director Christian Petzold listed it as one of his favorite recent films on a top ten list for the Grasshopper Films website. All kidding aside (who would take a January dumping ground Gerard Butler picture seriously?!), it’s not hard to see what Petzold (or this writer) like so much about Christian Gudegast’s action-thriller/heist-gone-awry genre pic. Despite a bloated run time and an admittedly useless subplot involving Butler’s crumbling marriage, Thieves is a pretty delightful treat. Wallowing in tough-guy dick measuring clichés, Butler tears up the screen as a drug fueled, alcoholic asshole cop who, you guessed it, bends the rules to get the job done, dammit (critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky opined that Butler “looks like he ate Russel Crowe,” which is about as eloquent a description of Butler that we are ever likely to get). The actor is well-matched here by a roster of pretty good, authentically tough-looking character actors, with only Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson and Ice Cube’s look-alike son dropping the ball a bit. The action scenes are tight, brutal, and sharply choreographed, with a nice use of location shooting and a step-by-step procedural element to the central heist that’s well put together. This is one of those movies destined to live forever on Sunday afternoon basic cable — but also one you won’t be able to turn it off once you start watching it. DG 

15-17-to-paris-spencer-stone (2)With a casualness of form that’s at times indistinguishable from outright ineptitude, The 15:17 to Paris extends Clint Eastwood’s interests in archetypal American conceptions of heroism. Like Sully before it, the film concerns a true-life act of bravery: here, that of three Americans (Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone, all playing themselves) who foiled a terrorist attack while taking the titular Paris-bound train on August 21, 2015. Unquestionably the work of someone with many — perhaps too many—years of experience, The 15:17 to Paris evinces no desire to impress through its filmmaking prowess; for better or worse, the 88-year-old Eastwood now seems be relying on pure instinct. In some ways, though, this is entirely apropos: In re-enacting their story, this unlikely heroic trio must rely, at least in part, on muscle memory and intuition, traits never more apparent than during the attack scene itself, where functional, fluid action (owing to the ostensible plainness of Eastwood’s methods) continually feeds into a kind of jarring cognitive dissonance (derived from our awareness of the film’s stunt casting). Unfortunately, this superbly realized scene constitutes only a small fraction of 15:17’s 94-minute runtime, the bulk of which is devoted to stories of childhood in Sacramento, and banal European travels, which all lead up to the fateful day. Still, it can’t be said that this film is without purpose; in drawing a link between the three men’s early years, and that eventual train ride, Eastwood delineates the cradle-to-the-grave conditioning of (conservative) American masculinity, which encourages jingoistic militarism alongside Christian ideals of self-sacrifice. He soberingly deconstructs heroism — the highest form of fulfillment for some — as a confluence of recklessness and good fortune. (“We got lucky,” Skarlatos says in the aftermath of the attack.) Thematic resonances notwithstanding, 15:17 still boasts some of the sloppiest filmmaking (and acting) of Eastwood’s recent career. There are traces of a genuinely good movie somewhere within this ramshackle whole, but as with the miraculously foiled attack, it’s hard not to think of them as anomalous. Lawrence Garcia 

truthordareAri Astor’s Hereditary dominated much of the horror conversation in 2018, and while it’s hard to deny the handsomeness of that film’s compositions and the savviness of its marketing, its appeal can’t match that of another, much less hyped tale of demonic possession. Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare takes a campier, more gonzo approach to interpreting this genre than Hereditary will allow itself to, but the cheesy conceit and convoluted rules belie a much deeper movie. It begins with the first of many fateful decisions: College undergrad Lucy Hale opts-out of her planned community service project to participate in the classic American tradition of running amok in Mexico for Spring Break with an odd collection of college archetypes in tow. This choice sets the tone for the rest of Truth or Dare, which proceeds to poke and prod at Hale’s ostensible altruism and the solidarity between the friends with which she shares and keeps so many secrets from. The influence of Eli Roth is felt throughout; director Jeff Wadlow displays the same sense of contempt for the unchecked entitlement of the American collegiate. In fact, the machinations that set Truth or Dare into motion would fit with a Roth script — brutal, karmic justice as a means of punishing the sins of American appropriation and colonialism. In a sense, this is a more indulgent take on Hostel, or even a more successful take on Green Inferno, albeit grounded in the supernatural. But Truth or Dare distinguishes itself from its predecessors because Wadlow follows his conceit to an extreme end, engineering a solution to his film’s conflict that serves as both a display of elegant screenwriting and a final, damning critique of millennial solipsism. This script doesn’t afford its characters much in the way of good faith; instead, it chooses to undercut a demographic that speaks of universal conscientiousness and empathy, but that can’t truly see beyond themselves. Perhaps it’s a bit jarring to approach these ideas in a movie, uh, with notoriously comical CGI face warping and a name swiped from a teen drinking game. But the results are far more worthwhile than much of what ate up 2018’s horror movie discourse. M.G. Mailloux

SearchingWith the Unfriended franchise proving that films featuring desktop-based mise-en-scène can see box office success, Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching provides a welcome alternative by utilizing this gimmick to explore a dramatic, missing-child scenario. There’s still a relative novelty to witnessing action take place on computer and phone screens, but what Searching does best is use its limited means of presentation to seamlessly navigate viewers through its narrative. The film finds David Kim (John Cho) restlessly searching for his daughter Margot (Michelle La), and much of the runtime is spent observing him dig through her computer to find clues as to where she may be. Chaganty understands how looking at hard drive files, search histories, and social media pages allows for a piecemeal-delivery of information, opening up numerous convoluted pathways for the story to develop. The amount of twists that the film employs would be laughable in most circumstances, but they’re ostensibly natural here given the familiarity of the evidence. As such, Searching succeeds, if only because it repeatedly exploits the quotidian nature of experiencing the internet, rendering every message log and live-streamed video as a potential step towards solving the mystery. At times, the film egregiously favors dramatization over reality (e.g. a mouse cursor lingering over a search button for an extended period of time), and La’s acting is painfully unconvincing in certain scenes, but much can be forgiven of a film that makes the everyday experience of staring blankly at screens slightly more compelling. Joshua Minsoo Kim

RAM_T1_037r.0 (2)Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson managed to star in three different films in the last 18 months that all waste his time and talent in various ways. Rampage is probably the most egregious of them, a boring monster mash based on a plotless video game that doesn’t even have fan boy nostalgia on its side. Brad Peyton proves that San Andreas was no fluke, that the director’s craft really is that band and uninspired. For all the CGI mayhem on display here, there’s a dearth of imagination and an absolutely absurd insistence on muddled plot and perfunctory character development — since labored backstory is obviously what we all want from a film that promises to pit a giant ape against a giant wolf and a giant crocodile (or is it an alligator? I don’t care). The Rock and co-star Naomie Harris manage to have zero chemistry together, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan goes way over the top as a gunslingin’, hony-tonk, devil-may-care, good ol’ boy Fed who is basically just his Negan character from The Walking Dead stumbling into the wrong fictional universe. The film’s only (mildly) successful bid is the casting of Joe Manganiello (pretty recognizable from Magic Mike and from a brief introduction into the DCEU, or so it seemed) as a badass soldier of fortune who enters the fray and is quickly, and unceremoniously, eaten by aforementioned giant wolf. At least one thing in this movie defies expectation. DG

Acrimony (2)Tyler Perry is something of an odd figure in most critical circles. He’s most certainly an auteur at this point in his career, with directing credits for 20 films in a span of just over 10 years (most being adaptations of stage plays he wrote), a lucrative media empire to his name, and a defined thematic througline to his work, which concerns the black experience in contemporary society. Yet Perry’s films are constantly trashed for promoting negative stereotypes (especially certain characters in the Madea films) and for a general histrionic affect that might just be more suited for the stage than the big screen. Acrimony though, in many ways, feels like Perry pushing back against his harshest critics: Scorned woman Melinda Gayle (Taraji P. Henson), screwed over by society at large, divorces her husband Robert (Lyriq Bent) — who then magically transforms from degenerate bum to stand-up millionaire in the span of a couple of days — and decides to get revenge for the wrongs done to her. Acrimony is aiming for something in the Sirkian tradition of melodrama, but it just isn’t subversive enough to be a scathing critique of the ways in which black women are forced to put up with their significant others’ mistakes. Robert makes such a dramatic turn-around into sainthood, even going as far as paying Melinda 10 million dollars for the time she spent with him, that it’s difficult for the audience to really root against him anymore. Which is maybe the point: We, the spectators, are automatically taking the man’s side. But this feels like a cop-out considering how much deck-stacking Perry does to make Melinda unbearably deranged by the end of the film. If anything, Acrimony ultimately carries a strongly Christian subtext about keeping faith in your husband, even when things are looking bleak — a bizarrely muddled message for this material. The film confirms a lot of Perry’s supposed weaknesses as a screenwriter and a director; take any scene where green-screen is sloppily employed, and you’ll see why the multi-million dollar man should stick with cheap theatrics. PA

There’s only one viable reason that Johannes Roberts‘  The Strangers: Prey at Night could possibly exist, and it’s that horror films are cheap to make and easy to market. Here is a thriller so generic, so perfunctory, so uninterested in anything beyond the simple mechanics of creating a movie with a beginning, middle, and end that it almost becomes Brechtian; an abstract experiment in anti-movie making and an endeavor so perfunctory as to be almost a deconstruction of genre. All the pieces are there: actors saying words and hitting their marks, lighting that illuminates scenes, and a camera to capture these things so that they are technically visible to a potential human viewer. If this were being projected on a wall in a gallery we would be discussing it as a piece of modernist art commenting on industrialization or a comment on post-authorship or something; instead, it kind of proves Haneke’s Funny Games correct, which is a crime in its own right. At one point, one of the generic victims asks one of the generic killers why they are doing this. “Why not?” replies the generic killer. Truly, we are meant to gasp at the cold indifference of the universe, quake at the sheer existential malaise that arises from staring into this particular moral abyss. But it raises other questions, like, ‘Why not go outside and get some fresh air?’ or ‘Why not read a book?’ DG

Screen-Shot-2018-03-09-at-8.05.47-AM (2)Director Rob Cohen attempts to do for hurricanes what he did for street racing with The Fast and The Furious, with decidedly mixed results. I’m not going to sit here and try to pretend that Cohen is some unheralded auteur, but he has a knack for kinetic action scenes and fun, elaborate set pieces. He’s done good work with practical effects in films like Daylight and The Fast and the Furious, and he even managed some compelling moments in the (otherwise awful) Stealth and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Unfortunately, Hurricane Heist leans a little too heavy on CGI weather (at one point the hurricane cloud morphs into a skull) and the opening scene, meant to provide tragic backstory for our two main characters, is a direct rip-off of Twister. (Someone must have assumed that kids these days would have never heard of or seen a 20-year-old blockbuster.) Of course there’s also the requisite piss-poor acting that comes with this kind of obviously derivative endeavor. And yet — and yet — for fans of a certain kind of DTV-style action flick, Hurricane Heist still has its modest charms. Kudos to the scene where people use the hurricane’s gale force winds to turn hub caps into deadly projectiles, and as well a nicely choreographed chase at the end between three 18-wheelers trying to outrun each other and the aforementioned hurricane while stealing cargo. DG