File Under 2018 #39: You Were Never Really Here

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What it’s about: Joe [Joaquin Phoenix] is an assassin who specializes in rescuing girls kidnapped into sex slavery. He receives a job from a Senator whose daughter was recently taken. Shortly after completing the job, Joe gets caught up in a conspiracy that further endangers his and his target’s lives. And his paranoid psychosis certainly doesn’t help. As the threats become greater, Joe is increasingly overtaken by flashes from a traumatic childhood and life of heinous violence. His grasp on sanity becomes just as dangerous as the men out to kill him.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • If you’ve ever seen director Lynne Ramsay’s work, especially her last film We Need to Talk About Kevin, you know that she isn’t wary of diving into incredibly dark territory of the minds that perpetrate violence. You Were Never Really Here is a bit different, though, as the most violent character is the hero -- a flawed hero, certainly, but the hero. We might not root for the violence, but there is something cathartic about seeing a man saunter through a house, taking out men connected to a child sex trafficking ring.

  • I don’t know if the memory flashbacks makes for a great character study, but Joaquin Phoenix is the perfect actor to play this character. Phoenix is one of the most interesting looking actors working, with a face that tells the story all by itself. This isn’t The Master level of examining closeups, but he wears all the character’s trauma and experience without the need of any exposition.

  • One particular image involving a shipping container adds an extraordinary amount of character development in a simple way. It is by far the most insightful and intriguing image of all the flashbacks.

  • The bleak tone is both offset and heightened by early interactions between Joe and his elderly mother. Their relationship offers tenderness and just a touch of sadness.

  • Serious question: Has a ball pein hammer ever been used for anything other than bashing in skulls?

  • Joe’s raid on the sex traffick house is an upsetting and expertly crafted sequence. It is just explicit enough in its sex and violence to fully understand what is going on, but also only shown in touches of the bigger picture. When Joe enters the building, everything is shown by an automated security cam loop, which conveniently cuts away from the action at the moment just before the impact of violence.

  • Throughout You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay deals with violence in a similar way. Aside from a few particular moments, the violence is cleverly shown offscreen -- at least it is cut away from precisely at the right moment. This tactic doesn’t make the film less brutal and in fact gives the most gruesome moments even more impact.

  • This also continually leaves the viewer with only the consequences of violence, which helps focus the bleak tone. It takes a bit away from the potential reaction of cheering on the violence [which is definitely there at times] and realistically portrays how violence is a messy thing, even for a sleek professional.

  • You Were Never Really Here ends on a moment of shocking dark humor, really the only comedic moment in the entire film. Overall, I didn’t love the open-ended nature of the final beat [a “where do we go from here” trope] and I couldn’t quite reconcile the window of hope for Joe, but it is definitely a strong and disarming way to end.

  • The similarities between You Were Never Really Here and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver are too prevalent to be accidental. Since seeing the film, I realized that this wasn’t some personal discovery and has already been written about all over. It is at a strange degree, however, including not only a flawed, possibly psychotic protagonist, but ties to child prostitution and political assassinations, as well. I’m not sure if You Were Never Really Here openly comments or subverts Taxi Driver in any way, but it is definitely more sympathetic toward its characters and there are clearer villains. It does, however, add a nice bit of recognition to an fairly lean thriller.

File Under 2018 #38: The Young Karl Marx

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What it's about: Karl Marx is a young idealist speaking for the impoverished across Europe in times of rapid industrial development. His journal writing has opened political opportunities, though the ruling classes and less controversial thinkers are able to hold him off. After he meets Friedrich Engels, the son of a wealthy factory owner, the two begin to establish a political working class based on the ideology that their labor is exploited by the wealthy. Despite political and legal opposition, they begin to make headway into the establishment, ultimately leading to the creation of their most important life's work: a manifesto of Communist principles that would become one of the cornerstone political texts of the 20th Century.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Director Raoul Peck made one of my favorite films from a few years ago, the documentary profile of James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. That work was both intellectually and formally vital, a masterwork for oppressed people. Not only was it radical in its content, but also in its documentary design. This makes the follow up The Young Karl Marx even more disappointing.

  • The film tries to balance the philosophy with Marx's personal life struggles. Focusing more on the pure ideas could have inspired a more radical style. But the aims of the film definitely seem middlebrow -- The Young Karl Marx doesn't distinguish itself from the majority of historical biopics out there.

  • Marx and Engels are obviously figures that would interest Peck, who has spent most of his career making both fiction and non-fiction films about the vocal leaders of the poor and disenfranchised. The characterizations of these characters aren't quite as strong as I expected. Their dialogue doesn't build them as real historical figures as much as it presents their ideology.

  • The most interesting character through much of the film is Marx's wife Jenny, played by Phantom Thread's Vicky Krieps. In the first half of the film, Jenny brings an integral passion for the ideas [and for Marx, the man] and her role as the sounding board for her husband's ideas is built as an equal partnership. In the film's second half, however, she disappears into motherhood, sidelined from the action literally to deliver a baby. This is perhaps an inescapable circumstance of real life, but it was disappointing on a narrative level.

  • Marx's ideology is presented in mostly generic biopic ways, with arguments around wooden tables and stump speeches in front of rowdy crowds. This style makes it all stale -- I never felt challenged, the potentially controversial rhetoric never felt controversial.

  • As the film tours around Europe to describe specific milestones in Marx's life, there is no cinematic way to differentiate between Brussels or Manchester or Paris. Timeline captions suggest segmented setpieces, though everything is smushed together without any real strong sense of time or place.

  • By the end of The Young Karl Marx, I couldn't help but think of this film as anything but the origin story of something more compelling. The film ends with Marx and Engels [along with their wives] crafting The Communist Manifesto, but we are only told of the work's impact through on-screen text. The revolutions that swept across Europe and around the world would certainly bring the opportunity for something more cinematic and intellectually rich.

  • The disappointing on-screen text finale leads to a mini-documentary told in minutes over the credits. Images of the poverty struggle and protest, from the early Communist revolutions, to key figures like Mandela, to the recent housing crisis, all scored to the most famous Bob Dylan protest song, build the story that you would want Peck to tell. The impact of the style, clear voice, and brevity make it by far the most interesting section of The Young Karl Marx. This only goes to show just how dull the previous 2 hours of The Young Karl Marx proper was. It is a reminder that Raoul Peck does have things to say on the subject. I'm not sure why he didn't take his opportunity.

File Under 2018 #37: Ready Player One

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What it's about: James Halliday was a tech mogul who created a full virtual world called The Oasis, where the public live their alternative lives in a dystopian world. Upon his death, Halliday sets out a challenge to his fans to discover three hidden keys within The Oasis; the winner of this challenge would inherent Halliday's enormous wealth and also complete control over his legacy. Wade [Tye Sheridan] escapes his depressing life in the slums of Columbus, Ohio to build a new identity inside The Oasis, where he meticulously searches the clues of his hero's life with a group of other radical players. This team races against a corrupt business that seeks control of The Oasis to completely monetize the system and further increase the wealth divide.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • First I should say that I have no connection to Ready Player One's very popular [and polarizing] source material. I don't read books, I watch movies.

  • Ready Player One is a pure example of a strain of Hollywood cinema that can be completely enjoyed as entertainment even while recognizing the many flaws when approached on any critical level. That makes it a difficult film to recommend. I think Ready Player One on many accounts is a pretty bad movie. But I recognize its appeal, too, as cynical as it may be.

  • The most thoroughly entertaining thing about Ready Player One is its Easter egg hunt aspect. I'm not referring to the journey that Wade and his crew go through to win the day, but the viewer's relationship with the bombardment of references the film flings out. Ready Player One taps right into what makes nostalgia and fandom irresistible. You might get the same enjoyment out of the film as you would winning a trivia competition -- the more characters or images you recognize as they flash across the screen the more synapses will spark off in your brain. In that way, Ready Player One has more in common with Coca-Cola than it does with cinema.

  • Inside of The Oasis is incredibly cinematic, though. There are two particular set pieces that work incredibly well in entirely different ways. The first is a race sequence that happens near the start of the film which showcases Spielberg's ability to stage an action scene perfectly. It is a complete rush, incredibly fluid, insanely big. The other sequence is a deeper dive into a particular film world that, while not as completely satisfying as it went along, makes a wonderful rendering of a film setting that I personally am very familiar with. So seeing a new group of character explore the space in a much different way was as much fun as it was strange and unsettling.

  • OK, let's take a break from the positives and focus on what Ready Player One does really poorly. Foremost, for a big sci-fi tech movie, the sci-fi and tech elements of the film are incredibly thin. The film does a poor job of giving us a solid vision of what the dystopian future is really like. Sure, we see the poverty [which is uncomfortably melodramatic, by the way] but there is no sense on how people actually live in this world. Everything outside of The Oasis is contained to a small and uninteresting place. How did the world end up like this? Ready Player One waves away this world building to focus on other things, but the deep-seeded themes of how we experiment with and rely on technology, escapism through art, etc. would have all be so much more coherent and impactful with any attempt.

  • Though it takes place in 2045, the only art that exists is from the 1970-90s -- this is obviously the point with nostalgia, but it is also a pretty lazy narrative device. The film spending any time on the actually idea of how this came to be could have been incredibly interesting.

  • Likewise, the characters and their relationships are extraordinarily thin. I honestly didn't care about any of the characters aside from humming along to the typical hero's journey template. A romantic relationship comes off as unintentionally creepy and uses the tried-and-true "I have this birthmark so I'm hideous and who could ever love me" arc. It is awful and laughable and toxic. Other character connections are built entirely through plot contrivance that, again, makes the world feel incredibly small.

  • Hearing T.J. Miller's voice was physically unsettling. Part of it is how unmistakable his voice is, part of it is obviously because of everything we've learned about him.

  • Overall, though, the look of the avatars inside of The Oasis is pretty impressive. The character designs aren't particularly special [they look like any character from an MMORPG], but the way the actors are subtly within them is interesting. The most striking for me was the avatar used by the big bad corporate head Sorrento, played by professional bad guy Ben Mendelsohn. Again, the Clark Kent inspired look isn't inspired, but small touches of the way Mendelsohn's mouth moves when speaking was completely captured.

  • I also can't not mention Mark Rylance, who gives a very bizarre performance as Halliday. I'm not familiar with all of Rylance's work, really coming to know him most from Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, but I really wasn't expecting this weird turn. It might come off as a little goofy or over-the-top to some. When many of the characters are bland, however, I appreciated him really going for it.

  • The all-hit soundtrack laying under long stretches of exposition was annoying and distracting.

  • Ready Player One couldn't be any different from Spielberg's last film, The Post. This is pretty emblematic of the master filmmaker's career. He's never shied away from working completely in pulp and he has become much more beloved for those choices than his more "serious" work. Ready Player One is a disappointment, though, as Spielberg has never sacrificed so much in terms of narrative and character for his fun thrill rides.

File Under 2018 #36: Dead on Arrival

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What it's about: Sam Collins is a pharmaceutical rep who specializes in vaccines. He is invited to a swanky New Year's Eve party at a doctor's Louisiana estate in order to broker a deal. But the next morning, Collins isn't feeling too good and ultimately ends up on the side of a country highway with a quick and debilitating sickness. When he comes to in a hospital, he is given the bad news that sudden illness is due to a rare poison that only gives him about 24 hours to live. But his own murder investigation isn't the only one he's become mixed up in.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Ah, the opening scene cutting to an intertitle that says "12 Hours Earlier." I love films that do that! I just couldn't wait to find out what led our primary character to the sticky situation we find him in.

  • Dead on Arrival is a low production film with all the trappings: stilted acting, on-the-nose dialogue, generically awful music, and a thriller plot that isn't too far off late-nite Cinemax.

  • There is a conversation early on that is almost literally "How about that vaccine stuff? I've heard that it does more harm than good," to which the vaccine rep replied "I guess it depends on who you ask." Which, no.

  • Another great bit of dialogue: "Everybody's got a transvestite story around these parts."

  • The film's sense of location is at times its best aspect while also a very movie version of Louisiana. It is a swampy, good-ol-boysy environment that does add some much needed flavor to an otherwise generic film. Then again, scenes like a meeting with a voodoo doctor are incredibly cliche, complete with a put-on Miss Cleo accent. This particular scene also comes out of absolute nowhere, though it could be expected based on all the Louisiana markers it hits. This character is also strangely the only black character in the film.

  • There is also one character noted as Armenian, but he only seems to exist only for a joke that Kim Kardashian is the most famous Armenian person in history.

  • There is far too much plotting in Dead on Arrival. The poisoning/murder mystery hook should give enough intrigue, but the film spends significant time with a detective duo, gangster cronies plucked straight out of The Sopranos, corrupt cops, a strip club, and an ensemble of random locals. It is surprising that Dead on Arrival wasn't released in 1995.

  • As these side characters [basically every one of them] begin to reveal themselves as connected to the central criminal activity, it is all done in a way that tells you nothing about why or how they are specifically connected. This leads to an empty narrative sorely lacking motivation. I suppose the ultimate motive is the secret that keeps the plot running, but it is hard to stay invested in the series of random events and conversations.

  • And it isn't worked out too well. The final scenes of the film involve one of the rogue's gallery saying "You have no idea what's going on here, do you?" ... and then proceeds to tie up every one of the narrative strings. Writing yourself into this kind of corner makes it difficult to be at all compelling.

File Under 2018 #35: Chappaquiddick

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What it’s about: Ted Kennedy [Jason Clarke] is the youngest man to serve as the majority whip in the history of the U.S. Senate. And still, he remains in the long shadow of his three older brothers—Joe, John, and Robert—who have all been tragically killed. On his annual vacation in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, a week of drinking and sailing in Martha’s Vineyard, another tragedy occurs. Driving late at night with a former assistant to his brother Bobby’s presidential campaign, his car careens off of a bridge and into shallow water. Ted is able to escape, but he leaves Mary Jo [Kate Mara] behind. In order to maintain his reputation and status in his family, Ted works to minimize his culpability in her death by using his political resources.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Whenever a Kennedy is portrayed on screen, it is easy to come off as a caricature -- the stylized voice and particular look is hard to not feel like dressing up. Even in good performances, such as Natalie Portman in Jackie, it is hard to completely blend into the character. All in all, Jason Clarke does a pretty good job. The Kennedy accent is subtle and natural. He is a bit too made up to completely look like an actual human being, but Clarke does have a striking resemblance to Kennedy.

  • Chappaquiddick opens with news footage voice-over describing the deaths of Joe, John, and Bobby to set the tone of a deeply cursed family. This establishes just enough sympathy for Ted to begin the film. Though what he did was horribly irresponsible, even criminal, it is aligned with the morose, tragic sadness that clouded over his entire life.

  • To its credit, Chappaquiddick doesn’t pull punches or skirt around responsibility. It isn’t as salacious as one might expect or monger in rumors that were present at the time of the tragedy, such as Ted and Mary Jo having an affair prior to her death. It would have been really easy to push this narrative, but the film keeps the events pretty straight.

  • For the most part, Ted isn’t portrayed as a calculated character. There are moments at the end of the film that contradict that, but he’s shown to be emotional and privately remorseful for what happened.

  • The second half of Chappaquiddick unfortunately and confusingly becomes a PR procedural that borders on a comedy. Almost like a comedy of errors, Kennedy’s team of unnamed men in finely tailored suits bumble through their story, emphasizing the Ted’s own take as the defective Kennedy brother.

  • A bit about a neck brace is played out of an absurd slapstick movie.

  • The biggest misstep of Chappaquiddick is the father-son subplot which I suppose is meant to add character stakes and sympathy to Ted by further establishing that he wasn’t well equipped to succeed by his spiteful patriarch. It is so comically overdone, though, that it detracts from the film’s message. Bruce Dern as Joseph Kennedy Sr. isn’t exactly to blame but the portrayal is too melodramatic to take seriously -- this was immediate from the character’s introduction with heavy breathing and grunting over the phone.

  • By the end of Chappaquiddick, I don’t know exactly how to see Ted Kennedy. Was he an unscrupulous conniver, using his political position to escape public and legal scrutiny while betraying the trust of his closest friends or an unfortunate man born into a family with too high expectations who found himself in an unfortunate situation? Of course it is a bit of both, but the film doesn’t naturally blend these opposing points-of-view from scene to scene. Ted doesn’t have an arc as much as he is on one end of this spectrum at any point. For what should be a serious exploration of a complicated internal struggle, Chappaquiddick’s tonal shifts and unclear character study make it an inconsistent disappointment.

File Under 2018 #34: Blockers

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What it’s about: Lisa, Mitchell, and Hunter are friends by association of their three 18-year-old daughters growing up together. Their lives and relationships have changed dramatically since their girls first day of school together. On prom night, these three are forced to work together when they discover their daughters have hatched a plan to all lose their virginity by the end of the night. Meanwhile, Julie, Kayla, and Sam all deal with the pressures of this “big day,” the uncertainty of their friendship going forward, and of course, their crazy parents.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • No matter what criticisms I may lodge at Blockers [there are a few], please understand first and foremost that this is a very, very funny movie. Watching it with a lively crowd on a Friday night was a lot of fun.

  • The entire cast is really great, especially the three parents.

  • Leslie Mann is as reliable and relatable as ever. She just feels like the kind of mom you wish you had. A particular moment near the end of the film where her character cries is one of the funniest sight gags I’ve seen in a long time, but also delivers on its emotional impact.

  • We all need to just recognize that John Cena is really good at this. He was one of the highlights of Trainwreck, albeit in a much smaller role. Playing the dorky dad would work well enough on a visual level, but his line delivery and timing is spot on. It is impossible not to compare him to fellow wrestling superstar-turned movie star The Rock, it might also not quite be fair at this point as Cena really only has two credits worth discussing [I’m not going to hold The Marine against him], but if he continues to work with smart filmmakers who can use his persona for comedy it’ll be a discussion at some point.

  • The third parent, played by Ike Barinholtz, is maybe the relative breakout star. Barinholtz has been a sidekick and wacky friend presence in many recent comedies [and also strange against-type appearances in Suicide Squad and Bright], but Blockers steps up that role with more of a real character underneath. He’s not only a scene stealer [his “you guys want to go get a drink” introduction is amazingly funny] but in some ways, the sanest character among the three. His perspective is unusual for this type of broad comedy.

  • As for the daughters, Blockers has gotten a lot of praise for being an American Pie style sex comedy for females. It is striking just how different this movie is from all the various male-centric teenage comedies we’ve been fed over the years. Blockers explores the differences in some interesting ways, especially by pointing out how the behavior of these characters in a very broad comedy is problematic.

  • But too often this subtext becomes the text. This is unfortunate but necessary given how moviegoers aren’t primed to understand why three parents trying to stop their daughters from having sex is an incredible double-standard. But did that idea need to be explicitly voiced by characters throughout the film? It is a theme that absolutely needed to be explored, at least not so explicitly.

  • The most fun subversion of the genre is that the three boyfriends are all total drips. Usually in these movies, the girlfriends have no discernible characteristics, of course only there to serve the manchildrens' sexual desires. This is clearly how the boys are used in Blockers -- none of the three seem particularly interested in sex, which is strange for the genre, but is perfect for the film's goals.

  • The arty nerdy girl of the group has a Snow White and the Huntsman poster prominently displayed in her room.

  • Living most of my life in and around Chicago, I found it funny that the film is set in Chicago without any markers of actually being set in Chicago. There is a DePaul t-shirt and a few references in the dialogue, but it was missing the flavor of the specific John Hughes settings that clearly inspired the film.

  • Can we all agree that it is a bummer the movie couldn’t just be called Cock Blockers? I mean, obviously, there are reasons for that, but simply calling it Blockers isn’t a satisfying compromise -- especially in an otherwise firmly R-rated comedy. I’m not a marketing enthusiast, so I don’t have the appropriate answer here. I just know the title is generic and disappointing especially for a film that does pretty well not being generic at all.

File Under 2018 #33: A Quiet Place

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What it’s about: The Abbott family are living in a world where the only means of survival is absolute silence. An unexplained species now roams the earth, using supernatural hearing ability to stalk and kill prey. Lee and Evelyn [John Krasinski and Emily Blunt] are forced to raise their children in this world, teaching them the lessons of growing up and protecting themselves and each other. Their eldest son Noah struggles with the responsibility of becoming a man. His sister Regan is deaf, which gives her a different perspective on the silent world while creating emotional strife with the rest of her family. As it becomes increasingly hard to hide from their predators, a new addition to their family only makes things more complicated.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Though I'm overall only mildly positive on A Quiet Place, you won't find many negative reviews out there. So I suggest you take a look at Patrick's thoughts on how the film takes from other, better [in his opinion], horror films from recent years. As usual, he's pretty on point.

  • The structure of A Quiet Place makes it incredibly lean. There isn’t much plot at all -- most of the film is the experience of one night where all hell breaks loose and the characters are doing everything they can to survive. It is built around a few particular setpieces, most notably when Evelyn gives birth. Despite some misgivings I have about why that situation exists [more on that in a second], it is an incredibly well designed scene that quickly changes tension over how the characters deal with the situation.

  • What’s the conversation like when Lee and Evelyn decide to have a baby? Why would you want to bring a child into this world? And then go through the impossible preparations to keep it safe? I understand that people have babies under less-than-ideal circumstances, but the extreme nature of this world feels like it is a clever screenwriter adding stakes to the film.

  • With as little dialogue as possible, this keeps most of the film exposition-free, or creates alternative ways to relay exposition. The silliest example is a whiteboard list of the monsters’ attributes like “Blind” and “Attack sound” and “Armor?” There is one other that comes into play near the film’s climax which I won’t spoil but made me roll my eyes.

  • A Quiet Place thankfully builds the world well without dialogue because whenever there is dialogue, it is pretty heavy-handed and sentimental. I think every piece of dialogue either explicitly sets up something for the climax or is basically shouting the themes.

  • On the other hand, the moments when the sound completely falls out [mostly happening when experiencing the world from Regan’s perspective] are fantastic, both chilling and moving.

  • I’ve always thought that the best horror films played with sadness just as much as they do scares. A Quiet Place excels with this as a contemplative, hopeless world of grief. I felt terrible for every one of the characters and have no doubt that I wouldn’t be able to function in their situation.

  • This is greatly achieved through the performances, especially Krasinski and Blunt who I think are both really great. Krasinski, in particular, works well as the father type who is both tough and caring of his children. Without the benefit of dialogue to build their characters, this is all the more impressive.

  • The monster designs are really effective when shown up close in what I’m guessing was full puppetry. A long line of big teeth, the extended claws, and especially their distinguishing aural organ are very creepy. When they are shown in full and from a distance, they are too much an unnatural computer effect.

  • Watching people run around outside with no shoes on makes me uncomfortable.

  • The most unfortunate moment in A Quiet Place is the very last note it leaves on. For some reason, there is a tonal shift in the literal last seconds of the movie that really bugged me. What is meant to be something like a fist pump rally cry to end on a high note just felt completely disingenuous -- especially with the very traumatic things that just took place preceding this. If A Quiet Place didn’t invest so much time in grief, sadness, and the emotional bonds between its characters, I could see the final shot working. It might be a hyperbolic to say it “betrayed” what the film built, but it certainly was a strange shift.

  • I generally love horror movies that make you more aware of your surroundings when you walk out of the theater. A Quiet Place steps that up by constantly making you think about the empty and natural sounds around you while you’re watching the movie. Thankfully in my experience, there wasn’t any whispering or snoring or munching going on and that’s probably the best way to see the film. In order to teach moviegoers to shut up during a movie it took a movie where they imagine being brutally killed if they make any noise!

File Under 2018 #32: The Last Movie Star

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What it's about: Vic Edwards [Burt Reynolds] was, for a time, the biggest film star in the world -- think: Burt Reynolds. Now he lives a quiet life alone in his comfortable house, eating Hungry Man dinners, surrounded by the memories and memorabilia of his extraordinary life. When he receives an invitation to receive a lifetime achievement award at a film festival in Nashville, he reluctantly accepts the disturbance to his anonymity. Immediately he finds that things are not as he expected. The flight isn't first class, the stay is at the local Econolodge, and his personal assistant is far from professional. The failed trip gives him the opportunity to take a look back at his life, remember where he came from, and correct the mistakes of his past.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Obviously, Burt Reynolds is the heart of The Last Movie Star, with his own success and recent time out of the spotlight mirroring the character's career arc. In some pretty interesting ways the film intentionally blurs the line between Reynolds and Edwards but in ways that I wish the premise was taken even further. I actually wonder if the film would have been more resonant if the character was an fictional version of Burt Reynolds in name and not a transplant. I suppose some of the character's biography may not have lined up to the narrative of the film, but things were close enough. This certainly would have given the film a different profile even if it became a bit more of a gimmick.

  • We love important actors coming back for a big starring role, especially when the role is reflective of its star. These are the types of roles that often get Oscar nominations, at the very lease Golden Globes nominations. They serve as a celebration, almost like a lifetime achievement award that the film's plot centers around, and a new window of opportunity. It seems like The Last Movie Star was positioned for all that -- it made its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, which has a certain profile, and was picked up by everyone's favorite distributor A24 for its theatrical run.

  • So does The Last Movie Star deserve more of a spotlight? Probably not, but it is perfectly fine. It has settled right at 48% on Rotten Tomatoes and that seems just about right, assuming that most people who will watch the film will be directly on either side of the good/bad fence.

  • As a vehicle for Burt Reynolds, the film works fine. The material may not be original enough to give him another true breakout but it lets him play to his strengths. Vic Edwards is a strong-willed sonuvabitch, an old man curmudgeon.

  • The most radical thing the film does with the Reynolds/Edwards persona is having Vic interact with the younger version of himself by dreaming himself into his filmography. We get two specific moments of this happening in Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance, at the heights of Reynolds' stardom and vitality. This plays a bit like the credit card commercials where contemporary actors similarly interact within classic films, but it is when The Last Movie Star is at its most poignant. It might be a little on the nose, but it works to deliver the message of an old man with regrets.

  • The film starts with Edwards putting down his sick old dog and Jesus is it a depressing way to kick off.

  • A lot of the humor early on is pretty cringeworthy, sometimes purposefully. The film festival set-up, in particular, is incredibly uncomfortable. On one hand, we see the event from the perspective of Edwards, a man who may have been out of the spotlight but one who is used to the red carpet treatment. The "International Nashville Film Festival" is small time, misleading, and a bit sad. But it also reveals itself to have its heart in the right place. These are genuine fans who want to honor Edwards and are excited that he is involved. Of course, Vic's view is meant to be cruel, indicative of his bad attitude before going on his journey for redemption. It also makes me think of the many events and festivals I've attended where minor or major players from the past appear for awkward Q&As and it gets some of that experience right.

  • The film's second half shifts to a buddy road comedy between Vic and his temporary personal assistant/caretaker, Lil [played by Modern Family's Ariel Winter]. They start off hating each others' guts but get this ... they end up sharing meaningful experiences and gain insight into their own and each others' personal problems. This "trip down memory lane" plot becomes too sappy and the odd couple pairing is far too cliched.

  • The Lil character is problematic enough that I felt a bit sorry for Winter, especially the obnoxious way the film puts the way she dresses and acts in contrast to the every-day normal society around her -- she is meant to stick out like a sore thumb but it doesn't have to be to a cartoonish degree. I don't have any specific problem with her look except that it feels exactly like a caricature from older people to describe what younger people look and act like. It became hard to be invested in her own redemption arc as it was hard to see the character as a real person.

File Under 2018 #31: Kickboxer: Retaliation

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What it's about: Kurt Sloane is a running who ran from his past. After defeating the champion of a Thai underground pit-fighting circuit in a fight to the death [as characterized in the 2016 film Kickboxer: Vengeance], he successfully escaped to the U.S. to become an MMA fighter. It isn't long before he is kidnapped and returned to Thailand where he is given an ultimatum by crime lord/fight promoter Mr. Moore [Christopher Lambert]: fight his new champion for one million dollars or spend the rest of his life in a violent prison. For some reason he chooses the second option and spends his time fighting a colorful rogues gallery in between lashings. But with a little urging, Sloane is eventually convinced to take the fight. He is reunited his his blind trainer [Jean-Claude Van Damme] to prepare for the impossible.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • As I alluded to, Kickboxer: Retaliation is the sequel of a remake of the classic Van Damme star vehicle. You don't need to watch it. In fact, Retaliation flashes back to Vengeance when it needs to -- apparently, Dave Bautista was the final boss in the previous film, which might make it worth seeing.

  • Stunt man and martial artist Alain Moussi takes over the Kurt Sloane role from Jean-Claude Van Damme, which is a little confusion since JCVD is also an important supporting character in the new franchise -- it is almost like if Ralph Macchio played Miyagi in The Karate Kid remake instead of Jackie Chan. Moussi is basically a karate Ken doll, which is basically all he needs to be.

  • If you're coming around to Kickboxer: Retaliation, you know what you're getting, and for the most part, you'll get it. This isn't an A-list Hollywood film in terms of the writing, acting, direction, or production. There are some creative fighting setpieces but they aren't polished enough to put the film on the level of higher profile action films for which it serves as an alternative. Otherwise, it closely follows the blueprint.

  • I love getting DVDs from Well Go USA because the trailers are almost awesome crazy Asian action films that are usually better as 3 minute short films than in their feature length version. Kickboxer: Retaliation would almost certainly fit into this, as well. Two featured trailers worth highlighting: Triple Threat, starring the murderer's row of Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White, Tony Jaa, and Iko Uwais, and Wolf Warrior II, the most successful blockbuster in the history of Chinese cinema.

  • Kickboxer: Retaliation starts with a dance sequence [yes, that's true] that morphs into a crazy fight on top of a train in the pouring rain. A word isn't spoken until more than 8 minutes into the film. This is, by all accounts, a good thing.

  • As a fan of mixed martial arts, it was fun to see the who's who of random UFC talent who find their way into the film. Included: Frankie Edgar, Wanderlei Silva, Renato "Babalu" Sobral, Roy Nelson, Shogun Rua, and world kickboxing champion Rico Verhoeven.

  • Mike Tyson is also in this film. All of his dialogue is nearly unintelligible.

  • The music choice in the film are inspired: a blues classic to accompany a slowly paced fight through the Thai prison [probably the best scene in the movie], "Wipeout" scoring a crazy market brawl and chase.

  • There is a wife character that is just an awful mess of a cliche. She only serves to be put in danger to move along Sloane's motivation. One particular moment when she is directly in harm's way is so laughably sappy that it is truly offensive.

  • The final boss is played by Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, better known as The Mountain from Game of Thrones. He is an incredible specimen and more than fitting as the big bad challenge. You'll realize why Game of Thrones never gave him any dialogue, though. And he's a little too slow to be completely convincing, though his freakish size and strength come through.

  • I wish Jean-Claude Van Damme was given a bit more to do. Clearly, he can no longer take on the physical tolls but the film could have ramped him up as the kooky mentor even more. They make the character blind, but that's basically it. More than anywhere else, I feel like watching Vengeance may have shed more on his character and given me more of a connection.

  • Christopher Lambert, on the other hand, is having a hell of a time chewing the scenery as the insane fight promoter. There are only a few actors who could have possibly done more in the role.

  • The final showdown begins with just about 30 minutes left in the film and boy is it a journey. Unfortunately, like most of the inexplicably 2-hour film, it could have been easily done in half the time with about the same effect. We all know how this thing is going to end so there really isn't much reason to prolong it. Just like this review.

File Under 2018 #30: Isle of Dogs

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What it’s about: Chief is a stray among a group of dogs that have been relocated to an abandoned island off of Japan following an outbreak of a canine disease called “snout fever.” When a young boy crash lands on the island looking for his beloved Spots, Chief leads a ragtag gang to find him. In the human world, a young foreign exchange student leads protests against a corrupt, cat-loving mayor who is behind the anti-dog legislation and perhaps something even more sinister. Finding Spots and taking on Mayor Kobayashi won’t be easy, but Atari and Tracy Walker and their friends are determined.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • First of all, Isle of Dogs really isn’t for kids. Youngsters might find some of the dogs cute, but the film is full of very adult material including but not limited to political assassination, dictatorial rule, starvation and disease. There are many moments that are legitimately frightening. A lot of the dialogue is in Japanese without subtitles. And, of course, there is Wes Anderson’s trademark tone and style with visual symmetry, alienated characters, and hipster affectations.

  • I found Isle of Dogs to be all style over substance, even relative to Wes Anderson’s body of work. The style is predictably great, though, with beautiful animation, a distinct look using split screens and staging that forces perspective, and a quick, energetic pace. The narrative takes on a pretty simple search and rescue plot that doesn’t do anything particularly new or interesting.

  • The biggest problem with the substance of Isle of Dogs and another reason why it isn’t a great kids movie is that it is extremely emotionally detached. Despite being about a boy’s love for his dog, every character is too at-arms-length emotionally. This isn’t strange for Anderson, but his best films have genuine emotional connections among the characters. There is anger, but it is more grit-your-teeth anger than expressive anger. Otherwise most of the characters deliver their dialogue in monotone.

  • The exception is the Japanese characters, which starts to get into some of the film’s racial controversy. Overall, the Japanese-ness of the film didn’t bother me, but it didn’t add much to the film besides the obvious cinematic influences and references. I actually appreciate that the film takes language seriously, something that many films do not, and brings in the Japanese language often without giving the English-language audience a translation. The most interesting thing this does for the film is put the viewer into the headspace of the dogs, who don’t understand the boy’s language other than through his tone, gestures, and a few simple words. This is pretty clever and effective.

  • My biggest issue with the setting is that most of the characters who speak Japanese are aggressive and scary. These characters are definitely coming from well established samurai and yakuza types and on that level they work well. But it comes off as a stereotype as a strange “other” that I don’t see working well with younger viewers.

  • The film takes place 20 years in the future but all the electronic technology is from 20 years ago. How very Wes Anderson.

  • Highlights of the animation: dog fighting dust clouds, sushi preparation, mayor Kobayashi’s design, and the small touches of traditional animation seen on video screens throughout the film.

  • A great Anderson trope that finds its way into Isle of Dogs in a clever way is a translator character who is used through most of the political subplot -- giving the weakest narrative section of the film a bit more personality. Voice-over narrators are vital characters in much of Anderson’s work, from Bob Balaban in Moonrise Kingdom to Alec Baldwin’s voice in The Royal Tenenbaums. By the end of Isle of Dogs, the translator becomes strangely personable.

  • I don’t know how much I can add to the discussion of the “white savior” plot, but it was definitely an aspect that I noticed -- there are plenty of passionate and smart takes out there that you can find. One thing that my wife pointed out to me following the film, however, is how the high school students standing up against political corruption is an interesting thematic tie-in to what is happening today in the discourse on gun control. It doesn’t make American Tracy Walker with her blonde afro fit into the film any better, but it is an interesting coincidence.

  • Most of my thoughts probably sound pretty negative and while Isle of Dogs is a disappointment and in the lower half of my Wes Anderson rankings, there is a lot of great film artistry on display. If you are generally a Wes Anderson fan, you will generally like Isle of Dogs. If you find the director to be pretentious, you’ll probably find Isle of Dogs pretentious. But it is undeniably beautiful and distinct. I’m always for major filmmakers telling strange and unique stories in their voice.

  • I’ll leave you with a cinema confession: I haven’t seen Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’m going to use this as an opportunity to fix that.

File Under 2018 #29: Lies We Tell

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What it's about: Donald [Gabriel Byrne] is a driver whose employer suddenly dies, leaving him a note to handle his personal affairs. When he enters his employer's estate, he finds his young Muslim mistress, Amber [Sibylla Deen] and is quickly enwrapped in a criminal underworld. While Donald tries to keep the affair secret from his employer's family, Amber is tied to a gangster through a forced religious marriage, and these two worlds come together over the existence of a sex tape.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Gabriel Byrne getting in on the older, legitimate dramatic actor doing action films just when Liam Neeson seems to be over it? OK.

  • So that's not exactly right, though the plot summary and marketing of the film would make you think that -- even the photo I've used for this post is completely misleading. Lies We Tell is more of a cross-cultural drama that ends up as a crime story. So if you see anything about this film and expect a fun old man action ride, I'd rather recommend you watch the terrible The Commuter instead -- at least it'll give you something like what you're looking for.

  • I really don't understand the world that the film is trying to show. I can see the hook in telling a gangster story from the perspective of a Muslim community. When the film enters that world, however, it does so with the nuance of a Law and Order episode. It is flashy and the air is thick with hookah smoke, the baddies all caricatures of generic Muslim villains. At least there isn't a terrorist angle to the film.

  • There is a real opportunity lost to tell what makes this community different in place of your usual crime tale. The best it gets is a major plot dealing with a rift between families over Amber and crime lord KD's failed marriage. Even this doesn't actually have any specificity, though. The only true effect of Muslim culture is to add an extra little element of how the community may react to Amber, otherwise actually an upstanding young woman, for her affair and a sultry [though very, very tame by cinematic standards] video.

  • That video, though, contains a shirtless Harvey Keitel doing something that seems like dancing, so that's something.

  • The interesting aspect of the cultural divide is how extremely British this film is at times. Obviously, Byrne offers a very mannered performance. There are sweeping shots of the British countryside when characters are hiding out, complete with cobble stones and free-roaming chickens. If you hate the cliche of the setting being like a character, at least the setting is the best character here.

  • In order to feel anything for Lies We Tell, you have to feel something for the characters and that just doesn't happen, despite so many melodramatic strings [including an extremely saccharine piano score] pulling. Byrne comes out fine, though his stoicism results in knowing nothing about the character. Amber is downright confusing. She's countlessly called and portrayed as a whore while also being a kind-hearted lawyer.

  • Looking into the production backstory of Lies We Tell is far more interesting than the results of the film. Debut director Mitu Misra is a millionaire businessman who decided that he wanted to direct a film simply because he loved films. He was inspired by Northern British classics like Get Carter and wanted to set one in his hometown of Bradford. He used his business skills to get Gabriel Byrne and Harvey Keitel on board. Considering Misra's complete lack of experience, Lies We Tell is a more interesting film, but it unfortunately isn't a successful one. Reading The Guardian's profile of him, he seems to have much more personality than is on display in his film.

File Under 2018 #28: Roxanne Roxanne

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What it's about: Roxanne Shante is a hip-hop legend who rose to prominence during the 1980s boom around the Queensbridge projects in Queens, New York. As a young girl she was a master of the rap battle, taking on all-comers with enough cash to challenge for her crown. While skipping school, she scrapes together money by babysitting and selling stolen clothes. After getting a song on the radio, though, things blow up for Shante, leading to rowdy crowds and lots of attention.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • It might go without saying, but Roxanne Roxanne is the best Netflix film release so far this year -- when the main competition is The Cloverfield Paradox and Mute, the mantle is well within reach.

  • This is exactly the kind of movie that can really benefit from the platform and the kind of movie that Netflix should be seeking out. It plays into the 80s nostalgia that Netflix has invested in heavily, but it is a smaller, more niche story that is more easily found on streaming than in the very limited theatrical release it received.

  • The film's vibrant hip-hop world is obviously the hook, but I do appreciate how Roxanne Roxanne is a well-rounded dramatic story first. In fact, early on, the film deliberately evades Shante's skills by cutting away or having her refuse to rap. It gives just enough with one extended battle to establish her force and then focus on the character's life.

  • This allows the second half of the film to focus on Shante's journey into the music industry and how she's changed by it. The film can't avoid all the "Behind the Music" drama plotlines but it is kept balanced by Shante's relationships with her mother and an older man [Mahershala Ali]. Roxanne Roxanne comes full circle of sorts for the conclusion, with Shante no longer in the music industry and now again having to fend for herself as life has beaten her down.

  • By the end of Roxanne Roxanne, I was left with the impression that I wish this was a series instead of a movie. It mostly works as a biopic but so much ground is covered in about 90 minutes. Shante's status changes so much from beginning to middle to end that more of a buildup and breakdown would be welcome. And it would give the opportunity to explore so much more of the surrounding hip-hop world.

  • Chanté Adams as Shante keeps the film together with a fantastic performance. First and foremost, she is completely believable with the music, both on stage and facing off in the battles. She has an intensity that works for the music and for the dramatic turmoil and still a softness that makes her a believable 16-year-old on screen. Without her strong performance, Roxanne Roxanne's biopic and nostalgia trappings would have no doubt been more abrasive. The newcomer also has a role in the Sundance highlight Monsters and Men, so hopefully this early success leads to a great career.

  • The highlight of the film's music is without a doubt an onstage performance after a fight with her DJ, Shante performs exclusively with the new beatboxer in her crew, Biz Markie. It is a pretty cool realization but also a little sad that he became the household name that Roxanne Shante never did.

  • There is another fun little character revelation at the end of the film, but I'll leave that one unspoiled.

File Under 2018 #27: Unsane

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What it's about: Sawyer Valentini [Claire Foy] is a young woman who is attractive, ambitious, has a good relationship with her mother, and high performance at her cushy banking job. Her romantic life, however, has become a challenge since a recent, serious stalking incident that forced her to completely rearrange her life. She now insists on one night stands and even when she finds a suitable guy to take back to her apartment, it doesn't take long until she is completely taken by the fear of her past. She even thinks she sees her former stalker in other people. After a breaking point, she decides to get some professional help, has a consultation with a therapist at a normal seeming mental health facility. But when she unknowingly admits herself as a patient the pain and fear she was already experiencing heightens, threatening her grasp on reality. What's worse, the man handing out the nightly medication looks awfully familiar.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Though I'll try to refrain from spoiling the film, be warned that Unsane is the kind of film you might want to know little about before seeing.

  • With mental asylum films, I've become programmed to always expect the big twist at the end -- it is the perfect environment to distort and confuse, with untrustable characters guiding the narrative. Unsane does something unusual, though, by tipping its hand at the obvious twist pretty early on. It is then able to use the genre conventions to push expectations and doubt even further without feeling like the same old cliched thriller.

  • At the center of this is Sawyer, an expertly crafted character. She starts as an incredibly simple, detestable person. She is erratic, stuck up, violently emotional, and mentally disturbed in far from sympathetic way. As the film goes on, though, it gives more context into her life and what brought her to her horrific circumstances. And it does it without excusing her abrasive personality.

  • A brief interlude near the middle of the film goes a long way to shaping the perspective on the character. It recounts the previous stalking incident that has emotionally crippled Sawyer, and while it isn't especially remarkable or detailed [we see a string of unwanted text messages and Sawyer's meeting with a protection specialist featuring a cameo by Soderbergh regular Matt Damon]. It strangely turns a rather undefined thriller into a full-on pure horror film by adding a new perspective to judgments of the character. It also becomes not just the story of Sawyer Valentini but highlights the everyday horrors that millions of women who face toxic masculinity and face an unsympathetic world on a daily basis.

  • It is these kinds of side moments and scenes that bring greater definition to Unsane and the expected personality of its filmmaker. Another, smaller example is a brief interaction between a police officer and a hospital staffer, a conversation that is totally beside the narrative reason of why these two characters are brought together. Soderbergh is more interested in what is beyond the regular narrative tropes that we expect.

  • There is a Stockholm Syndrome slash cat-and-mouse plot in the film's third act that is a little less interesting overall. The film becomes more explicit in its themes, with its characters expressing their issues and the nuances of their relationships outwardly. It takes the cool mystery out of the film a bit, though there are still a few shocking moments and the actors are game all the way through.

  • With all due respect to Joshua Leonard [an actor I've always really liked], he's an extraordinary creep.

  • Unsane has received attention for the way it was shot, completely using an iPhone [not exactly a unique presentation style any more, though it is still a very specific aesthetic choice]. This film definitely goes on the side of Soderbergh's experimental filmography. I don't think the iPhone look does really anything to enhance the film, though the starkness is meant to capture the raw and real emotions of the characters. There is one particular scene where double imposition is used to capture Sawyer's mindspace while on very powerful drugs that looks really cool -- simultaneous shots of a close-up and directly behind the character imposed over each other give a weird impression of a whole image fracturing, blurring over itself. I don't recall seeing a drug trip experience shown in quite this way before.

  • I'm not very familiar with Claire Foy's work and, honestly, the thought of her in The Crown gave me a specific expectation of what kind of actress she is. Her strong and intense performance in Unsane makes me immediately more interested in her upcoming turn in the next Lisbeth Salander film.

File Under 2018 #26: The Vanishing of Sidney Hall

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What it's about: Sidney Hall [Logan Lerman] is a disaffected high school student who has aspirations of being a great, serious writer. Years later, he has achieved that dream with a best selling novel that has deeply touched its engaged fan base -- something like Infinite Jest as a multi-week New York Times best-seller. Jumping back-and-forth between these two time periods, high school Sidney feels the relationship spark with new neighbor Melody [Elle Fanning] while successful novelist Sidney deals with the consequences of his controversial art. In a third timeline, an investigator [Kyle Chandler] searches across the country for a vagabond Sidney who has been burning every copy of Suburban Tragedy he can find.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I mentioned in my thoughts on The Clapper that I enjoyed seeing these early year home video dumps to see what may have gone wrong. For The Clapper, it was pretty obvious, but The Vanishing of Sidney Hall seems to have had bigger aspirations. The sophomore film by Shawn Christensen [Before I Disappear] it stars Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Kyle Chandler, Nathan Lane, Blake Jenner, Tim Blake Nelson, Alex Karpovsky, and Margaret Qualley. Its theatrical distribution was handled by A24, which I'd say has built a pretty good track record.

  • If making a very pretentious movie was a comment on the very pretentious character at the center of the story, then ... OK. Wouldn't have been worth it anyway but I doubt that was the goal.

  • The Vanishing of Sidney Hall is the brand of forgotten misfire that takes itself far too seriously. The tone is morose while trying to be profound. In fairness to the film, this is a particularly difficult line to tow and I imagine that it may be some level of profound for certain viewers. But if it doesn't connect, it is exactly the kind of film that will feel like a laundry list of cliches and eye-roll-inducing moments.

  • When impressionable young people are inspired to commit violent acts because of the content of Sidney's book, the film reaches for this theme rather clumsily. The thematic ground opens with a press conference where Sidney's publisher brazenly remarks that the tragedy is leading to higher sales -- it takes what is usually the subtext and makes it so incredibly on-the-nose for character development.

  • When Fanning's character is asked for a list of her inspirations she responds with Annie Leibovitz, Bob Dylan, old Atari video games, among others. Coming from what is supposed to be a middle school girl [maybe early high school, it isn't clear] that is about all you need to know about the film's worldview.

  • Stylistically, the criss-crossing between three different time periods works enough, though it doesn't lead to much. Re-arranging the scenes in my mind as it went along I could only think of how incredibly dull the story would be otherwise. This isn't a good excuse for the flashy structural choice.

  • Logan Lerman has made an early career on disaffected young men that are intellectually smart but emotionally a little stunted. He's already done it pretty well twice with Perks of Being a Wallflower and Indignation. He's an actor I generally like but I hope he grows up soon.

File Under 2018 #25: The Death of Stalin

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What it’s about: Josef Stalin is the political leader of the powerful Soviet Union. His strong rule has inspired fear and hatred among his citizens and is beloved by those in his inner circle. When Stalin unexpectedly suffers a cerebral hemorrhage, it sets his closest advisors off to position themselves [rather awkwardly] to take his place on the red throne. The small committee including Nikita Khrushchev [Steve Buscemi], Georgy Malenkov [Jeffrey Tambor], Lavrenti Beria [Simon Russell Beale] vie for power through underhanded dealings, backstabbing tactics, and the rule of bureaucracy. And all while preparing a celebratory funeral for their former leader and dealing with the repercussions of his sudden death.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Anyone who has seen the work of Armando Iannucci [VEEP, The Thick of It, In the Loop] should know what to expect here. The Death of Stalin isn’t the pinnacle of his specific brand of comedy, but it shows some real progress as a film director and the interesting twist of real historical events.

  • Those familiar with the writer-director know, too, that his work isn’t about what it is about but how it is about it. The Death of Stalin has a specific narrative. In fact, it is a very defined one based on constitutional procedure -- intertitles break the film into sections from the rules to follow when the figure in power dies. But the appeal of this film is the strange, absurd, buffoonish, hysterical moments and interactions of the ensemble cast.

  • No one understands the ridiculousness of government better than Iannucci, though this is a much more difficult subject to tackle. It is one thing to mock fictional leaders of modern times but to portray political monsters is a challenge. And because of that, The Death of Stalin is incredibly dark. As we see innocent people exiled or led to their deaths, we need to laugh at the in-fighting of those signing the documents that makes those decisions happen.

  • In some ways, when the comedy works, this heightens the level of absurdity, making the film more biting and silly at the same time. Seeing a group of dignified and powerful men struggling to lift Stalin from the ground in a pool of his own piss and then arguing over how all the “good doctors” have been killed or imprisoned back-to-back is the kind of juxtaposition that fills The Death of Stalin.

  • The tone of the film only works because it is brilliant in its mix of subtlety and extended lowbrow visual gags. Another example: directly following the procession of cars all trying to get in the first position, creating a comical logjam, is a quick glimpse of Stalin look-alikes [possibly his official body doubles] all being led to be shot.

  • Like all of Iannucci’s work, the comedic power is in the ensemble. Everyone gets to be funny, from the leading characters to the one-line extras. Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale are the highlights as the two committee members dueling most directly. Michael Palin and Paddy Considine come in for small but memorable roles. Three performers who aren’t necessarily associated with comedy steal the show, however: Jason Isaacs as the bold leader of the red military and Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s unhinged children.

  • Because of the historical setting, this is the most formally cinematic work in Iannucci’s filmography. Iannucci works most in interiors, which is also true of The Death of Stalin, but the decadence of the Russian architecture is beautiful. There is also much more focus on camerawork, shot selection, and shot length. The ensemble scenes aren’t edited to death.

  • What is perhaps most surprising about the film, though, is how rousing and dramatic its climax is. When one member of the central committee wins over his rival, the eventual ousting quickly shifts the tone to something quite frightening. For anyone who may be turned off by the mockery of real dangerous people, this conclusion adds something real to the stakes. It is abrupt and unexpected, completely took me off guard. But it works fairly seamlessly. No matter how much the film ridicules these characters, even as it reduces them to childish imbeciles, it doesn’t forget that they were monsters.

File Under 2018 #24: A Wrinkle in Time

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What it’s about: Meg is a young girl with many faults. She’s angry, doesn’t trust people, and lacks self-confidence. On the fourth anniversary of her father’s disappearance, her and her younger brother Charles Wallace are recruited on an adventure to find him in an alternate universe full of beauty and danger. Three wondrous and strange beings [Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey] guide Meg through this perilous journey, imparting the tools and wisdom needed to face the ultimate darkness. But only Meg can face evil and her personal demons to save her father.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • A Wrinkle in Time has become one of the most polarizing films in recent years because of its tremendous expectations, goodwill for Ava DuVernay, a large fanbase nostalgic for the book, and ultimately its poor critical consensus and box office disappointment. Going to see the film a week after its opening gave me more metered expectations and I think that further shaped my opinion. I ended up liking A Wrinkle in Time quite a bit.

  • Based on what I’d heard, I expected the film to be much more wildly uneven. The narrative is far from smooth, it feels a little truncated and doesn’t always connect from A to B to C, but I found the messaging, both emotionally and spiritually, to be wholly consistent.

  • I suspect that the way A Wrinkle in Time wears its themes and heart on its sleeve won’t work for everyone. Everything it is trying to say is completely explicit, without much nuance. It never really challenge the viewer [though it might be a little scary at times for younger children].

  • I haven’t read the novel but this approach feels very much intended for children. Narratively and thematically, adults will have to make concessions. This is typically a problem and is surely a reason why I wasn’t fully behind the film. At the same time, I was wrapped up in the film’s heart. We could use more films this big and bold that are about being good to each other and loving yourself.

  • It is also amazing to see a fantasy film that is so invested in the importance of science -- this is more Star Trek than Star Wars as far as Hollywood fantasies go. Even if a lot of the science relevant to the central plot mystery is probably just jargon, the film consistently shows how science and mathematics are vital without getting in the way of feelings. Science and emotion can work together to solve our problems.

  • I can see why the three mystical characters played by Witherspoon, Kaling, and Winfrey are iconic to those who’ve read the source material. Winfrey’s presence, in particular, obviously brings in an extra layer of meaning to the character’s words and while it is impossible not to look at Mrs. Witch as anyone other than Oprah, she works well enough. When she is a special effect near the beginning of the film, acting exclusively with a green screen, she comes off a bit stiff. When she is looking into the Meg’s eyes and delivering wisdom, however, the words have power beyond the screen.

  • Their three children counterparts are played by relative newcomers in their first substantial roles. Overall, their inexperience shows. Storm Reid handles the emotional beats well and that’s really her most important position. Strangely enough, the worst of the three child performances is the one that is the most entertaining, Levi Miller as the cute boy tagalong. His character doesn’t work at all except that it is the gender inverse of so many terrible girlfriend roles we see in films like this. I’m not sure if Miller knew what he was playing at, but the screenwriters and DuVernay have made an interesting statement.

  • I was expecting the costuming to be garish but it is a beautiful part of this grand world. The character designs work much better as part of the film than singled out in the marketing.

  • As for the special effects, I think they mostly come off well, but I couldn’t help but want a touch of practical effects to go along with it, akin to the many 1980s fantasy adventures that use puppetry so beautifully. I recently just revisited The NeverEnding Story for the first time in years and the look of that film really holds up [even if the narrative is a little long and boring]. I fear that A Wrinkle in Time may look less interesting decades from now.

File Under 2018 #23: Small Town Crime

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What it's about: Mike Kendall [John Hawkes] is an alcoholic who lost his job as a small town police officer when he blew hot after a fatal altercation on the job. After another long night of binge drinking, Mike finds the body of a brutally beaten woman on the side of the road. When he discovers her cell phone underneath the passenger seat in his car, his former detective instincts kick back in to help him track down the killer. As he dives deeper into the case, his redemption story is met by violence.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • John Hawkes deserves his day leading films with a bigger profile but this is a perfect role for the character actor. It taps into his grisled and surprisingly threatening look. His worn face fits right in with the character's descent into a criminal world. If you told me Small Town Crimes was written with Hawkes in mind, filmmakers Eshom and Ian Nelms definitely have a sharp eye for actors.

  • Hawkes is surrounded by an impressive group of veteran supporting actors including Olivia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins Jr., and Dale Dickey. It isn't just an impressive group, but like Hawkes, one that fits the steely material well.

  • Small Town Crime has aspirations of the hard boiled detective stories of the 30s and 40s with modern sex and violence. As a private investigator, Mike Kendall is unsurprisingly no Mike Hammer or Sam Spade. In its more offbeat elements, it isn't quite as sharp as other neo-noirs from the Coens or Soderbergh.

  • With its profile, it isn't exactly fair to compare Small Town Crimes with these crime classics, but the comparison shows its limits. There isn't anything particularly bad about Small Town Crimes -- it doesn't drag and I've already mentioned its great cast. The film's investigation just isn't very exciting or original. Despite the cast, none of the characters are remarkably memorable. It's all derivative, uninspired.

  • Where this seems most obvious is with two supporting characters that are often seen in movies like this: the mob assassins who relentlessly go after the hero. There are usually two ways to approach these characters, either as a sinister, unstoppable force, or with a little more humor, perhaps a bit bumbling despite being dangerous. Here, it is somewhere in between, unwilling to push harder in either direction.

  • One of the two hitmen, played by Jeremy Ratchford, does have a strangely menacing look and demeanor and the film eventually lets him be the centerpiece villain, but it isn't enough to correct the missed opportunity of putting a genuine stamp onto the film.

  • As a redemption story, this theme is pretty underserved. After pushing Mike's alcoholism hard in the film's set-up, there isn't much struggle once the investigation plot gets kicking. At points, friends and relatives hand Mike a beer and he willingly drinks it -- for alcoholics I know, this would be a serious action that would have repercussions. I don't know if the film doesn't take alcoholism seriously, but it definitely doesn't follow through with this theme in a particularly dramatic way.

  • That all said, for the early year theater-to-DVD dumps, you could do far worse than Small Town Crime -- this is incredibly clear by the trailers on the disc including such films as Ethan Hawke vehicle 24 Hours to Live and Al Pacino's Hangman.

  • Strangely enough, the best moment of the film might be a mid-credits scene that wraps up the plot in a fun bit of vigilantism. Sadly, though, if this small glimpse of character was injected into the rest of the plot, the film could have been great.

File Under 2018: #22: Love, Simon

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What it's about: Simon Spier is a self-proclaimed regular high school kid with a big secret: he's gay. After a classmate anonymously comes out of the closet on a local gossip blog, Simon is inspired to reach out. While keeping his true sexual identity from his friend circle and family, he finds himself falling for the freeness of the secret conversation he is sharing. But when another student accidentally stumbles on what Simon is hiding, his emotional inner life and his privilege to tell his own story is threatened.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • When I first saw the trailer for Love, Simon, I wasn't expecting this movie to be some sort of groundbreaking mainstream event. But when I thought about all the serious gay films that have come out in recent years, I eventually realized that Love, Simon definitely has different aims and a different audience. Indie darlings like Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name [among many others] have certainly put a cinematic spotlight onto gay stories, but this feels new because it plainly takes the tropes of worn mainstream genres [the rom-com and the high school comedy, specifically] and claims it for a new group of people.

  • What Love, Simon means for some became incredibly clear to me when I entered a mostly full theater on a Tuesday evening and noticed that there were many more same sex couples than you'd usually see going to the movies -- and the diversity of age and race especially pointed to how this was a broad, mainstream experience.

  • This audience was with Love, Simon from start to finish, giving the screening a really fun energy. The reactions to the big dramatic moments really drove home that the film was working on a personal, relatable level. The particular reveal the entire film is heading toward [who is the person on the other end of Simon's heartfelt messages] was met with rapturous applause and it is actually earned.

  • Being comfortable in fully being a rom-com means taking on the genre's warts, too. This means a terrible pop soundtrack, cloying side characters, silly plot contrivances where characters don't listen to each other to add dramatic stakes, and an underwritten best friend [though that the female best friend is the best friend of a male character at least has something of a twist to the convention] are all here.

  • One convention that Love, Simon can't avoid is the dorky adults in a high school comedy -- a trope that is painfully annoying to me. Tony Hale as the school's vice principal has some comedic moments that land though the trying hard to be hip character becomes a bit too much of a caricature at times. Josh Duhamel, surprisingly enough, hits a perfect balance of genuine and comic relief cliche as Simon's dorky dad and Jennifer Garner is great as his invested mother. It is Natasha Rothwell as a drama teacher that steals the show, though. I'm not sure if any teacher speaks to her students the way she does without any repercussions but she is amazingly fun.

  • Gmail plays a big part of the film and it is kind of silly -- not Lion silly, but still silly.

  • Also, do high school rumor blogs still exist? There was one when I was in high school but that was more than 15 years ago.

  • Love, Simon deserves some comparison to films like The Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird, though I don't think it is quite as sharp or cinematically stylish and it definitely isn't as consistently funny. This does have some flourishes, though, especially a fantasy sequence where Simon imagines going off to college where he can finally start over as his real self. This is a brief moment in the film, but it is a clever exploration on that theme that covers more ground than just Simon's specific outlook.

  • The way the film tackles the challenge of characters reading e-mails is interesting formally, as well. Throughout the film, as Simon learns more about his anonymous pen pal while keeping his own identity secret from him, he brings his curiosity to everyday normal interactions. We then see these potential possibilities as the ones crafting their conversation. It is a pretty small touch but it adds a bit of emotional complexity and vulnerability to Simon, who slowly tries to open himself up more in the outside world. And it isn't overplayed as a mystery to be solved even as that is where the film is obviously building toward.

  • Nick Robinson, who I've previously seen in Jurassic World and The Kings of Summer [he's also been in a few unsuccessful teen-driven films], really shines in the title role. It is hard to describe exactly why his performance is so extraordinarily good but the best I can point to is that he is a comfortable presence. Because of the kind of film Love, Simon is, it would have been really easy for him to just put on puppy dog eyes in place of genuine likability but he never goes there. He's a well-rounded character, emotionally complex, a realistic high school kid that can be a bit of an outcast even with leading-man looks and charisma.

#1 1982: Porky's

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Let me take you back to March 19-25, 1982. During that week, Joan Jett & Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” reached #1 on the charts for the first of seven consecutive weeks, actress Constance Wu [Fresh Off the Boat] and race car driver Danica Patrick were born, Iran launched an offensive on neighboring Iraq, a military coup took place in Guatemala, Wayne Gretzky became the first player in the National Hockey League to score 200 points in a season, Cagney & Lacey premiered on ABC, and Porky’s was the #1 film in America.

Porky’s was an unabashed hit with a domestic gross of $105MM and eight consecutive weeks at the top of the box office -- this was ultimately good enough for 5th on the year and one of only five films on the year to gross more than $100MM [#6 if you consider On Golden Pond, which technically opened in 1981 but went wide in ‘82]. Certainly this success helped fuel the film to become one of the most iconic films of the 1980s, for better or worse, with its famous shower scene and general high school boy antics. Though it became the blueprint for every raunchy sex comedy over the next three and a half decades, I have a hard time seeing a film about a group of high school boys who spy on their classmates through peep holes in the shower being made today. And yet, its spirit lives on.

Pertaining to its status as a high school sex comedy, the film remains paramount. It ranks #5 for comedies predominantly set in a high school, which is extra impressive when looking at the only four films that rank ahead: Spider-Man: Homecoming [which quite arguably doesn’t belong in the genre], 21 Jump Street, Superbad, and American Graffiti. Those films either have the benefit of inflation or were made by George Lucas. Porky’s made more money than American Pie, Mean Girls, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, among others, all films that are considered classics of the high school comedy genre.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film’s breakout, especially in reaching #1 right away, is its complete lack of stars. Looking at 1982 in whole, of all the #1 films, you could only argue that only three other films weren’t headline by a big Hollywood star [I include E.T., though Spielberg could be identified as “the star” that drove its early box office]. The popularity of Porky’s wasn’t driven by Sean Connery or Paul Newman or Hepburn and Fonda or Richard Pryor. Instead, its cast list is filled with names you wouldn’t recognize. The 1980s may be decades after Hollywood’s true star system, but upcoming films centered around the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone [more than once], and Richard Gere showed that big names could lead films to big numbers.

This was my first viewing of Porky’s [I imagine if I was born about a decade earlier it would have been a classic for me, discovered on a sleepover] and it yielded mixed results. Yes, a lot of the antics were a bit icky, but there actually isn’t as much nudity as I expected and most of it comes from the title night club and not the locker room. I was surprised by how loose the general plot was -- it is made up of a few setpieces, but the meandering flow felt almost out of a Richard Linklater film. This makes more sense when you remember that Bob Clark directed the film. Best known for Black Christmas and especially A Christmas Story, he is known for making big and ridiculous moments. Porky’s isn’t good enough to become an instant favorite in the modern context, but I could see why it achieved an iconic status among the horny young folks who saw it in 1982 and how it inspired so many movies since. It is more of an actual movie than the feature-length shower scene it is often presented as.

File Under 2018 #21: Mom and Dad

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The insane late-career of Nicolas Cage has been well publicized. Even if you couldn't name five movies he's made over the past decade, you know it is full of absolute shit [and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans]. Let me name a few: Army of One, OutcastRageDog Eat DogPay the GhostSecret WarTrespass. Not only have you probably not heard of all of those movies, you probably can't tell which is a title I completely made up.

As Cage has become more of a freak-out meme than an actor I've never been convinced he doesn't have a sense of humor about it all. There, of course, was the Saturday Night Live "Into the Cage" appearance he did while promoting Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance [not apart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for some reason] back in 2011. It just seems strange to me that he makes all these anonymous film choices. Perhaps it is quicker and easier money with less pressure to actually do some hard acting work. Or maybe he really doesn't have any actual options, even though I'm sure there is some crazy director out there who would love to give him a big Hollywood return. I guess David Gordon Green kind of did that in 2013's Joe, but that was a small-scale indie that got a proportional amount of attention.

Mom and Dad certainly isn't the welcome mat, but this is a wonderful return to limited relevance. It is a post-modern Nicolas Cage movie. It has all the knowledge of everything you would expect out of a post-2010 Nicolas Cage movie and gives you exactly that with a little extra style and a very twisted premise. And it's also knowingly funny, a sharp satire of paternal love, and also a pretty good horror film -- it's hectic camerawork is usually a turn-off for me when it comes to the genre, but there is more than enough fun violence to go around.

The film is directed by Brian Taylor, one half of the Neveldine/Taylor tandem that are known for bat-shit crazy movies like Crank and Gamer. Taylor previously worked with Cage in the Ghost Rider sequel and this is a marked improvement on utilizing the star's talents. It also really goes hard on his ultra trademark style, with flashy camerawork [simply winding through a suburban house has the effect of an action chase] and effective editing that inter-cut flashbacks when information is revealed.

Mom and Dad is amazingly fun. Some might try and call it a "good bad" movie but that term should be avoided. It is simply working on a different wavelength than what we are accustomed to seeing.

What it's about: Brent and Kendall Ryan are your average suburban parents who two shitty kids and a sense of normalcy to maintain. Suddenly, an inexplicable event happens that gives parents the incessant urge to kill their children. The Ryans are no exception and their offspring, teenage bad girl Carly and her annoying younger brother Josh, must evade and fight for their lives. Intensity and ingenuity may only keep them safe for so long ... and their ancestry may be the only thing that can truly save them.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I've focused entirely on Cage [and for good reason] but Selma Blair is also fantastic. She's not the kind of actress you'd think of who could match Cage's weird energy [is there one?] but she more than holds her own. She's more of a steely psychotic than an atom bomb and it works as a good counterpart.

  • I wouldn't have guessed it, but Cage is only 9 years older than Blair. She's aged incredibly well, especially in comparison.

  • This has one of the strangest opening credit sequences I've seen in a while. It's something like a mix of softcore porn, 70s grindhouse, and a James Bond style. I'm not sure exactly what kind of tone it sets for this, but it definitely sets a tone.

  • The music cues across the board are amazing. From Leave It to Beaver style sitcom music over a family argument to Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love" over a particularly gruesome [and over-the-top hilarious] scene.

  • There is a fake out scene where Cage tickles his son that is shot and scored as if he was attacking him -- but I'll say that Cage aggressively tickling me is personally more frightening.

  • You might have heard of a scene where Cage destroys a pool table while singing the "Hokey Pokey." I can confirm that it is indeed real.

  • The always dependable Dr. Oz makes an appearance as a news report talking head where he relays his vast knowledge of pig mothers killing their young children.

  • Is it possible that the 80 minute run-time is actually one of the film's only disappointments? The short feature runs incredibly fast, which is great, but there is honestly only about 30 minutes of the most fun insanity. I guess I'll just have to watch it again right now.