File Under 2018 #10: Seeing Allred

seeing_allred_1h18m35s113061f_slide-b5eb298e7a158d7257e82f2da1f34655993e79d8-s900-c85.jpg

For the second straight year, in line with the increased goals in their original film release schedule, Netflix invaded the Sundance Film Festival and began releasing their acquisitions almost immediately thereafter. The first to end up on the streaming service this year is a likely and comfortable one: Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman's documentary profile Seeing Allred.

Profile docs have become a particular niche on Netflix and, honestly, one of the best pieces of evidence for those who champion the way Netflix has changed the way we watch films. It has offered a home for hundreds of films that wouldn't have an easy space or platform otherwise. Sure, there is HBO and PBS and CNN and a few other channels that will showcase a special interest documentary from time to time, but none of them have the reach of Netflix.

As for Seeing Allred, Netflix is a good match for a few reasons. Though the film is a study in the entire life and career of its subject, Gloria Allred, it tries very hard to be a film of the now. Given Allred's career achievements, yeah, that makes sense. But it also goes heavy, especially near the end of the film, to tie her as a hero of the post-Trump election movements -- there is even a moment where Allred is surrounded by people chanting her name. I'm not saying this is disingenuous [I mean, this happened in a natural course] but it is definitely convenient to give the film an extra push that is easy for Netflix to market.

What’s it about: Gloria Allred is the highest profile civil rights attorney taking on women's’ rights cases. From humble beginnings and a tragic marriage, Allred realized civil rights were worth fighting for while hearing others’ stories in college. And after her own horrific personal life experiences, working to protect women from abuse, sexual assault, and other injustices became not just her work but her passionate drive. Seeing Allred jumps through many of her most important cases, most notably the Bill Cosby controversy which is chronicled during the filming.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Through a blitzing opening montage, showing the multitude of television appearances and high profile figures addressing Gloria Allred, Seeing Allred quickly establishes how it is interested in presenting Allred. She’s the hero willing to stand in front of the cameras and shout down anyone in her way, misogyny be damned! What’s more, she doesn’t care that this is her persona, that people don’t like her -- as Greta Van Susteren says, Allred clearly isn’t concerned with popularity contests because she’s already lost on those grounds.
  • As for the particular topics that the film washes over, it rarely engages in any of them particularly well. Especially the heart of the documentary, the Cosby lawsuits, isn't ever dissected or discussed. We see Allred standing with the accusers and footage from other news programs but no real new thought. Once it gets to that point, the film seems ready to move on to another big issue -- this is most egregiously done with the tacked on conclusion involving Trump and the election. The last 30 or so minutes with Allred's newest political and social issue to tackle should be a film all its own.
  • One of the more interesting things that the film accomplishes is showing how the public persona of Gloria Allred is unintentionally tied up in the issues that she champions. One statement is heard over and over again throughout the film from a widely diverse set of voices: the simple fact that Allred is involved with the women coming out to talk about their abuse, there must be something else going on -- either these women are plain lying or there is are political aims in hard. Overall, it isn't exactly subtle, because they really hammer in how others feel about her, but it doesn't directly state how this works within the film's themes.
  • There seem to be two major aims for the film: to personalize Gloria Allred and showcase how her persona and work have helped shaped how our society thinks about women’s rights issues. The second is absolutely met, if a bit scattershot -- it is a great showcase for a very important woman and the very important work she has done. To the first aim, it is a little more complicated. The interview with Allred doesn’t reveal much other than the facts of her life -- for better or worse, she presents herself as the straightforward personality we see on television. If the doc wants to try to get us to understand Allred in some different, deeper way, it will only solidify your previous opinions of her, whatever they may be.

File Under 2018 #9: On Body and Soul

onbodyandsoul_06.jpg

In the changing way we think about theatrical releases, On Body and Soul is the first film of 2018 that really is a 2017 film but might be a 2018 film. I recognize that this is probably uninteresting and unimportant to basically everyone, but when you challenge yourself to write a blog about every 2018 film you've seen over the year and you see On Body and Soul [a film you watched on Netflix streaming about a week ago] show up on the official list of NYC theatrical releases, you would feel obligated to at least make some sort of effort to write something up.

If you've heard of On Body and Soul it is probably because it was named one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language film at the upcoming Academy Awards. It is actually a pretty inspiring choice for a nomination, though I don't like its chances to pull of a victory. With the Academy, Best Foreign Language is one of the most unpredictable categories, they don't always go for the front-runners [which would probably be The Square or A Fantastic Woman this year], but that's usually because they tend to choose something on the "safer" side, a film that has more appeal over the large voting body.

To that end, On Body and Soul meets some broad genre requirements as something like a romance, even a romantic comedy, but its weird vibes and unrelatable characters [not a knock] are often aggressively antagonistic toward the viewer.

What it's about: Endre is the Chief Financial Officer for an Hungarian slaughterhouse who has vivid dreams of being a deer doing deer things -- walking around a forest, foraging for juicy leaves, drinking from streams, you know, deer things. A new quality control employee at the slaughterhouse, Maria, has vivid dreams of being a deer doing deer things, too. It is uncovered  that they share these dreams when an office psychologist is brought in to analyze the employees for maleficence. But Endre and Maria are both awkward people and their attempts to come closer together outside of their dream lives is a difficult process.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The real highlight of the film is Alexandra Borbély, who plays Maria. Her performance is enchanting. The character's autistic tendencies aren't overplayed, but the mix [or lack] of emotions that Borbély puts on Maria's face throughout the film is endlessly fascinating to watch. She becomes a character that is hard to decipher and at times frustrating emotionally, but you will care for her and her journey.
  • I've seen some comparisons of On Body and Soul to the work of Yorgos Lanthimos. The comparison works because of the films quirks, but it is far from perfect. On Body and Soul is more traditional in how it builds its characters -- they might be unconventional characters, but they live in something like the actual world. It also isn't quite as dark as the bulk of Lanthimos's work, but when it does go dark, again, it goes for things that are work on a realistically emotional level.
  • A lot of people are going to be immediately turned off by On Body and Soul, not by the quirky characters but the very graphic slaughterhouse scenes. The film doesn't pull punches on what these people do for a living, which is an interesting touch. There are some parallels between what they do and the dreams they have, but the setting works mostly as an antagonizing choice.
  • The best scene in the film comes near the climax where Maria goes to a music shop to find "love music." It isn't just a great way to explore the character's emotional and social ticks without being on the nose, it is one of the funniest and clearest comedic moments.
  • Overall, On Body and Soul is a difficult film to recommend, Oscar nomination be damned. It will be far too emotionally distant for many and those who are ready for something weird might be expecting too much. Alas, it is currently streaming on Netflix, so the cost of entry is low. You might as well give it a shot, just don't blame me if you hate it.

File Under 2018 #8: Basmati Blues

basmati_blues_h_2017.jpg

There is a thin line between being earnestly fun and eye-roll inducing silly. It is hard to define exactly what makes the difference. Especially when actors are giving it their all and seem to be having a lot of fun making a film that they believe in, it feels cruel to judge. But Basmati Blues, the debut film of Dan Baron, is an awkward experience.

This is a full-throated musical fantasy, precisely the kind of film that can have a hard time towing that line. And it certainly comes with some charms: it is brightly colored, beautifully photographed, taking all the advantages of its rural Indian setting. It has its heart in the right place and with its musical trappings, joyously expresses the emotions on its sleeve.

But there is a disconnect. In trying to be a Bollywood-style production for an American audience, it has a an obvious inauthenticity. Basmati Blues thankfully doesn’t play its Bollywood style as tongue-in-cheek but I just couldn’t help but think of it as a lesser version. Maybe Basmati Blues can offer to be a gateway into Indian cinema for some. I would suggest just diving into one of the many Bollywood films you can see on Netflix -- that might be more of an abrasive experience for a newcomer, but it would undoubtedly offer a purer experience of the culture.

It isn’t a surprise that, despite being released this weekend, Basmati Blues was made in 2013 and has since sat on the proverbial shelf. It explains how this small, strange film landed an Oscar winner in the starring role. It also explains, to an extent, why the film feels so out of place and out of time. Usually films that are shelved for so long have some sort of trainwreck quality and Basmati Blues definitely has some trainwreck qualities. The thing is, Basmati Blues isn’t uninteresting or unwatchable. It is bad. But it is also weird. An oddity you don’t need to see, you’ll just have to trust me that it exists.

What it’s about: Linda [Brie Larson] is a agricultural scientist who has created a grain of super rice that is naturally more abundant, more resistant to pests. It is the kind of game changer that could solve world hunger, diminish poverty. But her company is having a hard time selling it to lowly Indian farmers. So, looking for a friendlier face, they pluck Linda out of the lab and send her across the world to build relationships with the Indian people and help them see the virtues of their scientific breakthrough. In India, Linda meets Rajit [Utkarsh Ambudkar], a college dropout who is duly skeptical of this deal, too good to be true. As they spend time together, the tension between Linda and Rajit turns into an emotional bond. But the things Linda doesn’t realize about her company’s aims may destroy the people she is enthusiastically trying to help -- including the man she is falling for.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The musical numbers are something between the Bollywood style and La La Land, so they never reach the exuberance or artistic merit of either. Trying to play it as a mix of its straight influences and a more poppy modern sound makes the music an infinitesimally light version.
  • The film falls into most of the worst traps of telling a story about an American experiencing a foreign land. India is presented wholly as a delicate paradise. The poverty of its people is something noble or precious. To its credit, though, it combats this a bit by directly commenting on Linda’s [America’s] naivety but ends up just trying to play it both ways.
  • Perhaps the most interesting thing about Basmati Blues is that it asks the question of scientific virtue vs. corporate control. This is a worthwhile theme to explore. The difficulty, though, is that Linda is so purely altruistic and the corporation is so purely, mustache-twirling evil that it doesn’t really explore much of anything. Linda is impossibly unaware of the corporate aims.
  • Donald Sutherland plays the head of the corporation as a lighter version of President Snow. He gets a few musical numbers, which is something. Not his strong suit.
  • The two leads, however, are a bright spot. Brie Larson’s talent still shines through despite the lackluster script. She’s naturally funny. She can sing and dance. She has a magnetic personality. She’s opposed by Utkarsh Ambudkar [The Mindy Project, Pitch Perfect], who is incredibly charismatic. They are able to have natural chemistry even when the film’s romantic plot is incredibly cliched and honestly not very developed. Whenever the film is just the two of them on screen, it is better.

File Under 2018 #7: Day of the Dead: Bloodline

05tvcol-dead-master768.jpg

Usually a remake of a horror film isn’t going to have much upside. If it isn’t outright terrible, it’s at least uninspired. For some reason, however, remakes of classic George A. Romero horror films have come out better than most. Aside from all the subgenre films that wouldn’t have existed without Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, even the direct remakes have turned out pretty well. The Return of the Living Dead [not exactly remakes, but an offshoot] are a more raucous take for bloodthirsty fans; Tom Savini’s 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake is a solid and faithful one that shifts the social messages just enough to give it its own identity; Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is a fun and slick and utterly modern; away from the zombie flicks, The Crazies is a taut, underseen little thriller.

Romero’s third zombie film, Day of the Dead, hasn’t yet had that quality updating, though it seems ripe for one. The medical bunker examination of the zombie breed speaks both to the meta analysis of modern horror and the post-apocalyptic grimness that has been re-popularized on The Walking Dead. Unfortunately, Day of the Dead: Bloodline isn’t the rightful flag bearer.

I haven’t seen Day of the Dead in years [I wasn’t much of a fan when I did see it] so I’m not sure how much of a direct re-telling Bloodline is. It feels completely uninspired, though. All of the bad horror movie trademarks are present: bad acting, cringe-worthy dialogue, plot contrivances, a lack of new ideas, nothing particularly compelling by the special effects or filmmaking.

It is likely that Bloodline will end up one of the worst films of the year. Knowing that, I feel a little better about the rest of the year knowing I've already had this experience.

What it’s about: Zoe was a promising medical student who survived the dawn of the zombie outbreak. Five years later she lives at a military base that houses surviving refugees and serves as an institution of studying the undead with the hopes of understanding their affliction and secure an antidote. With the base low on medical supplies and a new threat of a contagious pneumonia outbreak, Zoe leads a group to her old medical campus to collect medication that will keep the colony safe. Bad news: they unknowingly lead a zombie from Zoe’s past [her obsessive attempted rapist, in fact] back to their base. The good news: his unique genetic makeup might make him the key to crafting a cure for the zombie disease.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The movie starts with a medical class looking at a dead body, assigned to identify the C.O.D. Our bright leading lady identifies it was influenza with practically no evidence -- she can’t immediately identify the specific strain, however, which is incredibly embarrassing for her. Look, I’m not a medical professional but this is a ridiculous scene and also quite indicative of the level on writing on display throughout the film.
  • Bloodline is a horror movie where the zombies make more rational, intelligent, human-like decisions than the humans. Oh, I don’t think that was an intentional message.
  • Ah, but it is a movie where the humans are the *real* monsters … I haven’t seen that before!
  • As noted above, the main zombie villain in Bloodline is the attempted rapist psychopath obsessed with the main character. It is upsetting, to say the least. What’s worse, though, is the explanations for why he is special is so ill defined that it actually lessens the realism of the scientific genius that is happening around him. The ultimate cure for the zombie problem should be an interesting and exciting approach to a modern zombie film, but how can we follow an intellectual focus when the film around it is so very stupid?
  • The main zombie design is, however, pretty decent. The make-up is a bit muddy [thanks, Face Off]. I’m not sure if it is an effect or just performance, but the size of his mouth and how wide he can open it is quite off-putting. That’s as nice as I’ll be.
  • I’ve seen many bad horror movies in my life and can find myself enjoying myself while looking past terrible dialogue and performances as long as the genre elements deliver. Bloodline’s do not. The horror/action setpieces are all speed ramping and loud noises [seriously, can someone explain why the undead stop sounding like humans and more like a bear-lion mix?]. The gore effects are minimized by the camera effects.

File Under 2018 #6: Maze Runner: The Death Cure

maze-runner-the-death-cure-dylan-obrien-giancarlo-esposito.jpg

After The Hunger Games kicked off the YA sci-fi craze in 2012, two years later The Maze Runner premiered and became the unlikely best of the bunch. With a good mix of action, genre conventions, and science fiction stakes, the three Maze Runner films have build a complex world filled with many familiar tropes.

The first film is a stripped down, Twilight Zone adventure. The Scorch Trials vastly opens up the world, introducing the all-controlling evil corporation and a zombie apocalypse. With The Death Cure, the franchise becomes a bit less detailed in specific genre elements, turning into a more bloated but also more adult thriller. As the characters [and their fans] age out of their teenage years, the stakes have to be raised.

Despite these aims, though, The Maze Runner has always been its best when it played to its inherent B-level film instincts. I wish it realized this in The Death Cure more than it did.

What it's about: The gang of teenage heroes led by Thomas [Dylan O’Brien] are still on the run from WCKD [pronounced “wicked” because of course] in the dystopian wastelands. Their friend Minho has been captured, so they have no choice but to travel to the mythical last city and break into the evil empire stronghold to rescue him. Meanwhile, Teresa [Kaya Scodelario] may have unlocked the cure to the deadly virus that turns those infected into man-eating zombies. But in order to truly unlock this cure, she must make amends to the group she betrayed.

Unorganized Thoughts:

  • This movie is 142 minutes long. One hundred and forty two minutes.
  • This runtime leads to a lot of the films problems -- though I have to be a little grateful that they didn’t take the easy route of finishing the trilogy by splitting up the last film into two.
  • The biggest problem is there is just too much going on. Too many characters. Too many subplots. Too much filler. The Death Cure at its peak would have been a great full-on John Carpenter style siege film.
  • The greatness of the large ensemble cast is limited because many of them don’t get much to do. Aiden Gillen and Patricia Clarkson as the dueling baddies get one pretty good scene together. Barry Pepper is in the movie, then goes a way for a majority of it, and then is brought back in literally with the film saying “look who we found…” Giancarlo Esposito is great when he is on screen, which obviously isn’t enough. Walton Goggins shows up as a half-zombie, which, OK, is totally awesome.
  • Even the young main core have to be relegated to hitting the emotional and narrative beats pretty hard because so much is jammed in. The two most interesting characters in the series, Scodelario’s Teresa and Will Poulter as Gally, are too one-note serious. Thomas Brodie-Sangster [Liam Neeson’s kid in Love Actually -- he’ll never live that down] is reduced to puppy dog eyes as the film desperately makes him the emotional heart. I think Dylan O'Brien could certainly become a movie star, but this movie doesn’t give him much of a chance to actually act.
  • As the overall narrative becomes less interesting and more difficult to follow, the film can rely on a number of set pieces to get you through: the opening scene is a fun little desert train heist; there is a Metal Gear Solid style busting into the heavily guarded corporate facility; a bus gets craned through a city; there are some fun, well realized action moments.
  • I don’t know if anyone has really thought of director Wes Ball as a filmmaker, as the three Maze Runner films is pretty much his entire filmography. He’s grown, though, and I think he could make some cool little action films in the future if that is the direction he wants to take. As I’ve said, The Death Cure has a lot of elements that would have been really interesting films in themselves and Ball hits on those elements well. It just unfortunately has to be the finale of a franchise that has grown too big.

#1 1982: On Golden Pond

MV5BYzViNzNiMzItNDM3ZC00MmYxLTkyZTYtYzBmMWYyYWJlMGNiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjkxMjM5Nzc@._V1_.jpg

Let me take you back to January 22-28, 1982. During that week, a huge snowstorm covered much of North America, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls of all time, Air Supply was named as best pop/rock band at the American Music Awards, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opened on Broadway, Ryne Sandberg was traded from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Chicago Cubs, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman were married, and On Golden Pond was the #1 movie in America.

This is the first film in the series that managed to hold on to the #1 spot for more than a single week, which was definitely more of the norm at the time. This happened after an incredibly successful limited release, with theater averages approaching or exceeding $100k in two or three theaters over its first seven weeks. Once it then expanded to over 500 theaters [and eventually over 1,000], the word-of-mouth and good critics' reviews helped it gross over $6 MM per week for the next 11 weeks straight. It would hold on to #1 for 7 consecutive weeks, holding off such films as Raiders of the Lost ArkRedsTapsChariots of FireArthur, last week's #1 Absence of Malice, among others.

Undoubtedly, part of On Golden Pond's success was the bump it received from the Academy Awards. Because of its limited release at the end of 1981, it was eligible for the 54th ceremony which took place in March 1982. Overall, On Golden Pond received 10 nominations, the second most of the year [behind Reds, which had 12], including major awards nominations in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It would go on to win only three, but before the statues were handed out it was clear that this was considered one of the best films of the year and should be seen during its perfectly timed expanded release.

Even if you've never seen On Golden Pond you probably know that it stars screen legends Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in their last major roles. They star as an aged couple enjoying their quiet life at their vacation home on the title body of water. Can't really say that either were box office stars at this point -- partly because there just isn't much data, though mostly because neither star were actively in major theatrical films [Guess Whose Coming to Dinner was a hit, for example, but that was released 14 years earlier]. The novelty, for lack of a better word, casting these two icons in what must have been known as their last real go-round, coupled with the praise for their performances [they would both eventually win the Oscar] gave it more than enough legs.

It also helps that this is a film with the most possible narrative appeal. It is perfectly wholesome, a quaint and simple drama. It may have been looked at differently at the time, but the way the film approaches topics of sex, in particular, is awkwardly cute. The way it reveals that its old stars aren't total prudes is fun. Still, crabby old people interacting with younger generations is a classic comic blueprint and On Golden Pond is just funny enough to add seasoning to the overall tone.

Is On Golden Pond a true classic today? Younger generations probably aren't going to care to discover it or have any sort of nostalgic connection, but it remains notable for its performances and success on the awards circuit and the box office. It also holds up fairly well as a modest, lightly comedic drama. And as I've seen my grandparents showing more of the effects of their age, On Golden Pond has more personal bittersweet poignancy.

File Under 2018 #5: Have a Nice Day

have-a-nice-day_still_3-2017-nezha-bros-pictures-company-limited-le-joy-animation-studio.jpg

Watching Liu Jian’s Have a Nice Day a few days after the Oscar nominations were announced, I can’t help but think of it in the context of the animated competitors from this past year. It isn’t unique for adult-themed films to be highlighted by the Academy but it is certainly on the rare side. This year, Loving Vincent took that slot.

Have a Nice Day is an entirely different animated film. These adult-themed animated films that are put on a pedestal typically come from a purely artistic angle -- they may blend narrative and documentary forms, focus the efforts on the artistic style over a kid-friendly story [or any story at all], or contemplate heavy philosophical questions. I don’t mean to say Have a Nice Day isn’t artistically inclined, it’s just cruder. It is darkly funny and very violent.

I doubt Have a Nice Day will have any shot at an Oscar a year from now -- I don’t even know if it will be eligible with festival releases throughout 2017. I hope, though, that it will sought out. If people see Have a Nice Day, it will likely be remembered.

It is definitely an unusual film, one that works better than the sum of its parts. It doesn't break any ground in terms of its style or plot, but the blending of the two makes for something unique.

What it's about: A dopey dude steals a million yuan [roughly 158 thousand American dollars] from a mob leader with the plan to take his girlfriend to South Korea for plastic surgery. The theft puts a number of colorful and dangerous characters on his trail, including a crazy cousin and a hitman called “Master Skinny.” This rat race makes for violent confrontations as the money passes through their hands.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Have a Nice Day is definitely a Miramax 90s indie era title to match its Miramax 90s indie plot.
  • Not a lot of films come to the U.S. from mainland China and the ones that do are usually martial arts or some other kind of epic. Seeing a small-set animated film is really pretty cool. Tonally, it is most like the dark social dramas of Jia Zhangke, though with more overt violence.
  • The animation style reminds me of the Liquid Television Asian influenced style of the early 90s, though perhaps a little less intense. It is has a simple, hand-drawn aesthetic that isn’t flashy, but effectively detailed. There is never a lot of movement on screen, which keeps the look clean.
  • One question I always ask myself when seeing an animated film, especially an animated film targeted at adults, is if the animation is necessary. Certainly Have a Nice Day could be made easily as a live-action film. Aside from a few weird tech touches, the film deliberately stays away from the fantastical. Its form does something to streamline. It somehow simplifies the style and story. If it were to be remade, the compulsion to make it a crazy violent gangster film would take it over-the-top. The choice to animate is an unconventional one.
  • There are a number of background markers of modern culture that I found interesting. The most noticeable examples were a Chinese version of a Fast and Furious poster [I think it was for the 4th installment] and a snippet of Trump’s presidential acceptance speech where he thanked Clinton for a hard fought campaign. These touches may not mean much explicitly to the plot, but it adds a strange contemporaneousness that you don’t normally get with an animated film. Given that these are both uniquely American touchstones, too, adds something.

#1 1982: Absence of Malice

Absence-of-Malice-images-acf1006f-9ecc-4b4d-8bf8-d7969dc331f.jpg

Let me take you back to January 15-21, 1982. On that week temperatures across the U.S. hit 100-year record lows, NBA star Dwyane Wade and musician Joanna Newsom were born, Ozzy Osborne bit the head off of a bat on stage in Des Moines, Iowa, Little Me opened on Broadway, and Absence of Malice was the #1 movie in America.

We kid about Netflix crafting entertainment through a fancy algorithm while Absence of Malice was made 37 years ago. It is a complete entanglement of prestige cinema: part newspaper investigation, part gangster film, pairing a classic star in Paul Newman with recent Oscar winner Sally Field, directed by Hollywood stalwart Sydney Pollack. There’s intrigue, there’s a dangerous romance, there are procedural aspects. It is a big, polished piece of entertainment.

While Absence of Malice may not have held up in the cultural conversation as these many parts may have been designed to, this is precisely the type of film we are thinking about when calling one of today’s crowd pleasing, Oscar-baity prestige pictures feeling something like a classic form the previous era of cinema.

In the film, Field plays a tough newspaper reporter who catches wind of a connection between the seemingly clean son of a known mobster and a missing union leader. Unaware that her source has intentionally misled her to put pressure on Michael Gallagher [Newman], she becomes entangled in conspiracy and a potential romance.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, which must have helped its pre-ceremony box office. It was Paul Newman’s fifth Best Actor nomination, though his first since 1969, so this may have been seen as a comeback for the star -- though he never really went away during the 70s with work in popular films like The Sting, The Towering Inferno, and Slap Shot. Former newspaper editor Kurt Luedtke’s nominated script [he would win a few years later for Out of Africa] brings insider knowledge and terminology of the journalism profession.

Frankly, much of Absence of Malice is pretty dull. It might be too specific to journalistic lingo while also being a pretty cheesy [and insanely unprofessional] romance. Also, unlike most journalism films, this isn’t about the intellectual heroism of the profession, but actually a pretty bleak look at the repercussions of when the news gets it wrong -- this may be a timely theme, but creates for a strange tone. The film is saved, however, by a fantastic conclusion, a 20-minute scene with all the principal characters locked together in a room to deliberate the legal implications of what the plot has covered. Wilford Brimley of all people shows up as the scene’s moderator in a fantastic supporting turn. With all these ingredients together, I can see both how it ended up at the top of the box office and a possible influence on other films while also not surviving as a classic in its own right.

The most interesting thing about Absence of Malice’s success is unquestionably its journey to the #1 film in America. According to Box Office Mojo records, Absence of Malice took 9 whole weeks before landing at #1, a feat that makes it #2 for all films it has data for [A Fish Called Wanda was in theaters for 10 weeks before being tops]. This phenomenon was much more likely to happen in the 1980s when fewer released films allowed for longer runs and the most distributed films topped out at little more than a thousand screens. That isn’t to say it is completely unthinkable today, as the most recent film to hit #1 after 5 weeks in the theaters happened in 2015 with The Revenant, a film that had a very slow and gradual release schedule before going mass after a slew of award nominations. January is actually a pretty popular month for this to happen, as well, with 16 of the top 26 films on the list opening at the end of the year before hitting #1 during the doldrums of the notorious dumping ground month.

File Under 2018 #4: The Commuter

liam-neeson-the-commuter.jpg

Jaume Collet-Serra is such a weird, interesting filmmaker. Most of his movies are on the spectrum bad. But they are the trashy, fun kind of bad that make for great random HBO cable views and January cineplex releases. His first release, House of Wax, became infamous for cheering on Paris Hilton's gruesome death. Orphan delivered a too-crazy-to-believe twist. His most recent film, Blake Lively vs. shark movie The Shallows is stripped down, fun survival horror.

But it is Collet-Serra's run with born-again action star Liam Neeson that has marked his career. Together, they've made four films over the last seven years. Aside from crime thriller Run All Night [which is the only of their collaborations that I haven't seen], their films have a pretty similar structure: Liam Neeson is some sort of bad ass, whether a cop or a former cop, there is a convoluted mystery going on, and Neeson is somehow being set up for it.

UnknownNon-Stop, and The Commuter creates an over-the-top trilogy with increasingly diminishing returns. The thing is, though, if you're seeing The Commuter, you know what you're getting into. And, for the most part, The Commuter delivers on that promise.

By the end, The Commuter doesn't hold up, wrapped up a bit too much in its conspiracy building. But if you're looking for something to do on a quiet Saturday night in about 6 months, flip on HBO and The Commuter will probably be on and you'll watch it and everything will be fine.

What it's about: Neeson plays The Commuter, also known as Michael MacCauley, a former cop who now sells life insurance, living the life of a regular ol' family man. After getting laid off after 10 years at his firm, his commute home that night is a bit different than usual. Approached by a mysterious woman [Vera Farmiga], he is posed a hypothetical question about making an anonymous decision that will greatly impact the life of a stranger. This actually isn't a hypothetical situation, though, and MacCauley quickly gets caught up in a cat-and-mouse conspiracy.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • If you read any review of The Commuter, it should really be this one, written by an actual train professional judging the film on the train details.
  • Be warned of spoilers from here on out. While I won't reveal specific plot details, I may talk about important structural elements of the film that may be important.
  • There are a lot of preexisting fibers that come together to make The Commuter. The two obvious ones are The Box for the hypothetical game premise and, more importantly, Murder on the Orient Express for the setting and mystery plot mechanics.
  • The game at the center is fun enough. It is simple, which allows it to grow into many different directions. It also has a pretty familiar build, with stops at "is this actually happening" and "is this really that serious" and "you're family is in danger if you don't play along" all along the route.
  • The way people react to Neeson's character is all over the map. He frequently does crazy, suspicious, violent things. At one point in the film the police are actively looking for him. And yet, complete strangers and authority figures on the train alike will treat him like he's the film's hero -- which, of course, he is, but no one else could know that. Let alone the action bits that go on without anyone else on this train seeming to notice.
  • In that way, the film would actually work better if everything happening was completely in his head, the ravings of a broke madman on the edge of sanity. Neeson delivers some wonderful crazy mumblings of nonsense. But, alas, the film goes out of its way to confirm its reality pretty early on.
  • Once the Agatha Christie-esque puzzle is solved, there is still so much film left. The mystery shifts to fill out the backstory of what is really going on here -- why MacCauley was chosen, what he was chosen for, etc. A larger conspiracy emerges that is inconsequential to most of the characters in the story. I can understand trying to be something bigger, but I was a little let down that this couldn't just be the sinister little game that was set at the start.
  • Above everything, the most ridiculous thing about The Commuter is its supposition that people who take the same train together every day actually talk to each other at any point ever.

File Under 2018 #3: The Strange Ones

the_strange_ones_h_2017.jpg

Nominated for best narrative feature at the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival, The Strange Ones is an alluring, albeit inconsistent feature debut for Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff, adapted from a short film they made together in 2011.

In a lot of ways, The Strange Ones very much feels like both a debut and an expansion of a short film. Even at just 81 minutes it feels a bit stretched. So little happens through much of the film until all the ideas come together at once near the end.

Wolkstein and Radcliff definitely have promise as filmmakers. They can find and maintain a strong mood. They clearly have an eye for craft in terms of cinematography and editing. They have the impulse to show instead of tell, which while The Strange Ones doesn't do enough of either, it is the right impulse to have. I'm definitely interested in seeing what they do next and hopefully it will have a bit more meat on the bones.

This is actually a pretty difficult film to write about. There simply isn't enough happening. In trying to be mysterious, it becomes too emotionally distant, making it hard to connect on any level other than an aesthetic one. Because of that, it is even more difficult to recommend to anyone without the most artistic tastes.

What it's about: Two brothers with potentially strange powers [Alex Pettyfer & James Freedson-Jackson] travel across country under mysterious circumstances. When they become separated, the younger of the two begins working on a community farm, trying to start a new life. Their lies and troubled past catch up with them soon enough.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • There are slow building films and then there is The Strange Ones. That isn't exactly a bad thing, depending on your environment and level of attention. It'll be a hurdle for many, though.
  • The film opens in media res in an unsettling sort of way. With the general pace and lack of exposition, it starts you off without much of a handle.
  • Both Wlkstein and Radcliff have extensive work as editors [mostly of their shorts] and it shows. The last act of the film, when it begins unlocking some of the mysteries, it does so almost entirely through its editing.
  • Like an exceptional thriller Martha Marcy May MarleneThe Strange Ones confidently cuts to scenes where the place in time is not immediately known.
  • I've never really liked Alex Pettyfer, but he actually works a bit better as the hardened tough guy than the young heartthrob. Perhaps as he gets older he'll find more roles that work more naturally for him.

File Under 2018 #2: Proud Mary

proudmary2.jpg

If you watched any of the marketing for Babak Najafi's Proud Mary, the obvious comparison that likely came to mind was John Wick. A respected actor later in their career becomes a super assassin in a stylish-yet-stripped down action flick. This genre has become a staple at the movies in this early year graveyard going back to Taken and the countless Liam Neeson films (hey! another one is out now!). These films that have become so over-the-top ridiculous that the John Wicks and Atomic Blondes have risen as a more honest alternative.

The next in line, Proud Mary, stars Taraji P. Henson in the title role. In some ways, holding it up against John Wick makes a lot of sense. For the many differences in the films, though, it is a bit unfair.

Despite what you saw in the trailers, Proud Mary really isn't the high octane shoot-em-up you'd expect. Henson gets plenty of opportunity to shine as a complete killing machine, but this is a movie much more about an internal struggle and character relationships than free fire.

But in that vein, the differences in how Proud Mary and John Wick approach dramatic stakes possibly shows why one succeeds and the other has ended up a bit off. The emotional core of John Wick is firmly tongue-in-cheek -- it is a terrible situation, certainly, but the consequences for the characters are taken to a different level of reality. In Proud Mary, the film really wants us to care for the characters in a way that the characters feel for each other. Not helped by soft piano music stamped over everything, its dramatic stakes quickly become melodramatic when they are supposed to live in a world more like ours than John Wick's.

I admit that many of Proud Mary's problems are related to expectations. There has been a lot of wondering why Screen Gems didn't promote the film more. My best guess is they were trying to sell a movie in a specific way that wasn't as much like the final product as they wanted it to be.

What it's about: Tajari P. Henson is a super assassin -- that is certainly the film's most important hook. While protecting a young boy who works as a drug runner for a Russian mob leader called Uncle, things go bad when Mary confronts the rival crime boss. Her actions and the unfortunate aftermath spark a turf war, bringing both physical and emotional turmoil into her and her loved ones' lives.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The film's Leon-esque relationship between an assassin and a child offers the more enjoyable elements of the film. At least when it is trying to be fun, that is. There is far more gravity when they are simply shooting the shit, whether about the proper attire to wear to a friend's dinner party or their preferred hot dog condiment. These small moments connect much better than when it goes for dramatic heft.
  • Another thing you wouldn't exactly get from the film's marketing: Mary is far from a purely badass killer. The film is very invested in showing her as a character who is struggling to keep it all together, with mixed success. I appreciate them going for something a little more nuanced, but we don't know enough about who the character is to get why these specific circumstances affect her in this particular way.
  • Much of the film's aesthetic is pretty generic. There's really no visual or narrative flair that sets it apart from other low-budget pot boilers.
  • Another way it could have improved is jumping into the throwback blaxploitation elements that it was tangentially interested in. It simply wasn't gritty enough in that way.
  • At the end of the day, Proud Mary is a film I simply wanted to be better. It isn't actively bad for the most part, just sort of there.
  • To end on a positive note, Tajari P. Henson is predictably good, even in the film's less inspired melodramatic bits. There likely won't be many better performances in mediocre-to-bad films this year.

File Under 2018 #1: Paddington 2

paddington-2-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000.jpg

I've gotten used to going to a movie theater alone, but there is nothing like going to a theater alone to see a children's film. Nothing else piques one's self-conscious than being the only single adult male in a large group of people. What is everyone thinking about me? Why am I here? When the pre-movie announcements tells the crowd to report suspicious characters, does anyone suspect me? I make sure to bring a notepad with me so people realize I'm that kind of weirdo and not that other kind of weirdo.

But when seeing a film like Paddington 2, once the film starts, that self-consciousness fades away and everyone is just having a good time.

Paddington 2 is good. It is really good. It is filled with heart and charm and is really well made and is about how being nice to people is a good thing. More movies should be Paddington 2.

What it's about: Fresh off the exploits of 2014's Paddington [which I saw, but I have basically no memory of], the cute little personable bear is living on a quaint little London street, everyone's favorite neighbor. It is soon to be his Aunt Lucy's 100th birthday and he must get her the greatest present ever. Because she always wanted to go to London but never got the chance, Paddington is set on buying a wonderful pop-up book from Mr. Gruber's antique shop. The film's villain, washed up actor Phoenix Buchanan [Hugh Grant with plenty of self-reference], steals the pop-up book and frames Paddington for the terrible deed. And Paddington is sent to prison. Yes, you read that right. Paddington's adoptive family set out to prove the bear's innocence, find the real thief, and restore balance to the wonderful world.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Didn't see Paddington? You don't have to. Primer: it is a bear that lives in human society for some reason and he loves marmalade. That's basically all you need to know.
  • Did Wes Anderson secretly direct Paddington 2? Well, no, Paul King [of Paddington and cult British comedy The Mighty Boosh] did. But you could definitely be mistaken based on the style and art direction. This isn't a knock-off or some cheap sequel cash grab. There is some real filmmaking going on there. The highlight is a scene where Paddington breaks out of prison with a few of his new friends -- it is presented like a storybook, something out of Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Life Aquatic.
  • The Paddington special effect is exquisite. It is obviously in a different context and probably isn't as technically complicated as the Planet of the Apes movies or The Jungle Book, but it is just as effective. Ben Whishaw's pleasant voice performance helps build the reality of the character.
  • As for the human cast, they are exceptional. Sally Hawkins, fresh off the movie where she has sexual relations with a fish man, is wonderfully quirky as Paddington's adoptive mother. Brendan Gleeson plays Nuckle's McGinty, a tough-exteriored inmate with a heart of gold, probably the role for which he was born. The aforementioned Hugh Grant continues his resurgence as the hammy actor villain.
  • Despite the awkwardness of my introduction, one of my favorite things about seeing a kid's movie in the theater is seeing how much fun the kids have -- it is especially nice when they are having fun at an actually fun movie. The kid in the row directly in front of me was reacting so exuberantly to the silly jokes that they landed better with me, too. The kid's parents kept telling him to keep quiet and while I respect proper theater etiquette, the shushing was the only thing bothering me.
  • In terms of the Paddington Power Rankings [PPR], Paddington 2 ranks just below the promo photo meme that made Paddington look like a serial killer.

#1 1982: Time Bandits

TIME-BANDITS-wed2050.jpg

Let me take you back to January 8-14, 1982. That week, the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the San Diego Chargers in negative 59 degree temperatures to with the AFC Championship, Honduras officially adopted a constitution, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were elected to the MLB Hall of Fame, Kate Middleton was born, and Terry Gilliam’s fantasy adventure Time Bandits was the #1 film in America.

Part Princess Bride, part Bill & Ted, the premise of Time Bandits is as enjoyable as it is radical. Living a comfortable, all-too-boring life in the idyllic suburbs, young Kevin is surprised by a pack of time traveling wannabe notorious criminal dwarves who crash through a portal in his bedroom closet. Together, they go on increasingly dangerous escapades through time, rubbing elbows with the likes of Napoleon, Robin Hood, and the ultimate evil. With the perfect Gilliam style, it is highly satirical of consumer culture and a champion for the underdog. It is fun, irreverent, full of heroics, appealing for children and adults, and also a pretty big box office hit.

Despite being in half the number of theaters as its opposition in early January of 1982, Time Bandits grossed $8 MM more than the second placed re-issue of Disney’s Cinderella. Its $37 thousand screen average over the week is exceptional even by today’s standards.

This might just be hipsterism on my part, thinking the film is too interesting for mainstream audiences to get, but the success is a bit surprising. Time Bandits was incredibly ahead of its time in blending its caustic style of humor with fantasy and horror genre elements. Terry Gilliam was no stranger to comedy, obviously as part of the Monty Python gang, but taking that generally adult and highly absurdist humor and plopping it squarely into a kids’ film must have been pretty risky. As the 80s went along, this style would become more the norm in films like Gremlins and Ghostbusters and the oncoming PG-13 revolution. Sure, Time Bandits has something to owe to The Wizard of Oz and probably other films that came before, but the complete product still today feels fresh.

It is ambitious in its narrative scope and philosophical themes, audacious for creating legitimate heros out of thieves. It challenges child audiences in the best ways possible. The final thematic question of “why is there evil in the world” is a concept most parents would rather avoid, yet it has become an increasingly important one. Sure, the evils depicted in Time Bandits isn’t exactly on the same wavelength of what we see in the news today, though the cartoonishly heightened embodiment of Evil and his dimwitted henchmen can be legitimately scary and certainly cruel. The film doesn’t pull any punches in exploring death or hate.

The other interesting aspect of the film’s success is its cast. Yes, Sean Connery is in the film, but in a very minor role, basically just one scene, though likely enough for marketing purposes. There is a fun supporting cast all around, including Monty Python vets Michael Palin and John Cleese, as well as Ian Holm, Shelley Duvall, and David Warner. Again, none of them really household names, nor major players in the film. The entirety of Time Bandits is spent with a young boy and half dozen dwarves. If the film were made today, no doubt there would be some Snow White and the Huntsman CGI effects to implant known actors into the roles. Perhaps Warwick Davis would be cast, Peter Dinklage probably passes on the remake.

Unsurprisingly, the central cast is amazing and perfect for Gilliam’s sensibilities. Not only are they authentic to their roles, they are hilariously funny, full of personality and with great chemistry. OK, the child audience surrogate Kevin is a bit whiny, but the performances of David Rappaport [Randall], Kenny Baker [Fidgit], Malcolm Dixon [Strutter], Mike Edmonds [Og], Jack Purvis [Wally], and especially Tiny Ross [Vermin] are irreplaceable. Giving them a profile they’d never had before and sadly never would get again, this group completely relishes the opportunity. They give extremely confident performances without any pretension or self-awareness.

According to Terry Gilliam, the box office success of Time Bandits allowed him to complete and release his follow-up, the weirdo masterpiece Brazil. Of course, it wasn’t as seamless as that, but it is a bonus on top of how wonderful Time Bandits remains. In terms of the filmmaker’s career, it is in an interesting sweet spot of being his most accessible, mainstream film that doesn’t water down the style or voice of its unique auteur.