File Under 2018 #69: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

https_%2F%2Fblueprint-api-production.s3.amazonaws.com%2Fuploads%2Fcard%2Fimage%2F789187%2F9bfe4916-00e5-4c75-9bff-526108c297cb.jpg

What it's about: Fred Rogers created, produced, and starred in the public broadcasting series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood for 31 seasons, 912 episodes in total. An ordained minister, Rogers spread his simple messages of love, kindness, and self-worth to children across the country through the television screen. But he also used his platform to teach children about emotionally complex issues like race, divorce, and death in a sensitive way. His legacy has lived on in the hearts and minds of all who grew up with him as their guiding light, even as the media landscape and world at large seems to value his spirit less and less.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Though I'm well within the age range of someone who grew up with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, it wasn't a program I remember watching regularly -- I was more into action cartoons and Nickelodeon game shows, the kind of content Rogers wasn't a big fan of [I turned out OK]. Of course, his influence has become much bigger than the show, a genuine cultural touchstone. Still, I was interested in watching Won't You Be My Neighbor? as someone who doesn't have an emotional connection to him, knowing that those who do have responded incredibly well to the film. Would I be struck in the same way without the nostalgia?

  • Mostly, yes. Won't You Be My Neighbor? is an extraordinarily well made documentary. It is exceptionally edited. It features a fantastically moving score. The footage, including episodes of the show, archival interviews, and behind-the-scenes, creates a real intimate base.

  • Morgan Neville is entrenched as one of the best documentarians working today, but I've never loved one of his films. To me, they all have limitations because of his style. 20 Feet from Stardom [which won an Oscar], for example, is a great and moving profile of artists that don't get recognition, but it is a piece of pop filmmaking -- Neville doesn't typically do anything interesting with the form and uses a very mainstream approach. This isn't bad, the docs I tend to really fall for have a sharper edge. Ultimately, this style works for a loving profile of a man with little controversy. In fact, when the film brushes up against potential conflict, it doesn't quite fit.

  • I'm not sure how better it would have made Won't You Be My Neighbor?, if it should have at all, but it pulls away from three potentially difficult aspects of Rogers' life: the conservative media retroactively bashing his message that every child is special, Rogers asking an employee to stay in the closet, and rumors about Rogers' own sexual orientation [and, to a lesser extent, if he was really this kind of man away from the cameras]. It is undoubtedly important to touch on these aspects of his story in order to avoid being a total puff piece, but they come in so late in the film and feel pretty unresolved questions.

  • Similarly, Won't You Be My Neighbor? doesn't spend all that much time and focus on any one topic or issue. It ultimately works out fine as a pastiche of his message.

  • The most effective footage used in the film are a few unidentified interviews with Rogers late in his career. Unsurprisingly, Rogers gives perfect context to his message and his work. His passion really comes across. It must have made Neville's work in building the themes of the film incredibly easy.

  • Of the various talking heads that pop up, the most insightful are a few who worked on the show, as they knew how the man worked the most and have plenty of fun stories. One particular gem is a man who worked on the exclusively 70s-style hippie crew, people who couldn't be more different from Rogers in terms of politics, style, or mentality. The love between them, though, built strong quickly and Rogers wasn't so out of place with the rough-and-tumble crew based on some of the stories that are shared.

  • One nice touch I really liked is adding cards with episode numbers and premiere dates before notable moments from the show. Neville doesn't over-use it, either.

  • Won't You Be My Neighbor? is undeniably at its best simply watching Rogers. Seeing him interact with children, seeing the landmark moments of his show, seeing him have fun or be serious. It is a really tender portrait. I loved the man without knowing all that much about him, really. When the film strives to make bigger cultural points, it does so concisely and compellingly. But the biggest joys of Won't You Be My Neighbor? are the simple ones.

File Under 2018 #68: Hereditary

https_%2F%2Fblueprint-api-production.s3.amazonaws.com%2Fuploads%2Fcard%2Fimage%2F791375%2F295de5e7-af6b-4952-99bd-1f070d034148.jpg

What it's about: Annie Graham [Toni Collette] is grieving the loss of her mother. They had a strained relationship, especially with her mother's deteriorating health in her final years. Annie is left putting the pieces back together with her husband [Gabriel Byrne] and two kids [Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro], who are all dealing with the loss differently. Charlie was especially close to her grandmother; Peter has become increasingly disconnected emotionally. When even more tragedy befalls on the Grahams, Annie turns to a woman in her grief support group who teachers her how to perform a seance to communicated with dead loved ones. Once the ritual is successfully performed, Annie's already loosened grip on her psyche completely breaks and horrific forces threaten to tear the family apart.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • As I tried my best to avoid marketing or spoilers for Ari Aster's directorial debut Hereditary, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. Obviously, I knew this was a horror film, one that was sufficiently freaking people out, but there wasn't much of an indication of what *kind* of horror film it was. Even as Hereditary begins revealing itself, it doesn't become clear. The extremely slow-burn tension builds and builds and builds until it finally breaks, playing with genre expectations.

  • As I mentioned in my review of the last breakthrough horror film, A Quiet Place, I always appreciate when horror films use sadness as a device and Hereditary uses sadness to extreme lengths. The grief surrounding the characters is thick and heavy. As the characters wade through their lives, the film is stuck in a slow-burn haze.

  • But is it scary? Yes, it is effectively creepy throughout. Follow-up question: Is this the scariest film in years as some are suggesting? I'm not going that far. But that's OK. Heredity builds in untraditional ways that make it much more compelling than a simple slasher or shocker.

  • When I knew what Hereditary was dealing with, following a specific tragedy, the dread turned my mind to imagine what was coming. The narrative set-up offers something extremely gruesome and strange for those with the imagination. Truthfully, it is this middle section of the film that is filled with the most horror, even as there isn't anything specifically horrific happening. The existential and realistic emotional responses set an unusual tone.

  • There are surprisingly few jump scares, which remains an easy tool for horror filmmakers to build and release the tension -- this makes sense as Hereditary doesn't really care to release the tension at all. Of course, the film plays with the expectation of jump scares, but instead uses the frame to slowly reveal horrors around the edges and in-and-out of focus. Aster's eye to set the frame and use camera movement reminds me of James Wan's work in The Conjuring films, though Hereditary has a more artistic look.

  • I can't praise Toni Collette's performance highly enough. She wears immense pain and fear on her ever-contorting face. I don't think I've seen a performance this tortured since Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But it isn't a stagnant performance, either, especially by the end of the film where the character's role in the family drama dramatically shifts.

  • And still, I found Alex Wolff as Peter to be the most fascinating character in the film. When tragedy hits him in a unique way, unlike his expressive mother, Peter locks up, escapes within himself, hoping the pain goes away if he can ignore it. From a distance, he is completely selfish and childish. No one would recommend his behavior as a healthy way to deal with his problems. Really, he acts completely irresponsibly. But it comes off as such a real impulse, captured so tenderly, that I couldn't help but relate to him.

  • The film's first seance scene, involving Annie and her support group friend [the great Ann Dowd], is experienced in a peculiar way. The moment is beautiful and warm from Joan's perspective, bewildering and unnatural for Annie. The rare quality of this scene was the first time I saw Heredity could do something much more interesting than the [albeit very successful] tone of doom and gloom.

  • This is also where the film begins to dive off into the deep end, leading to an insanely chaotic climax. It ultimately lands in a strangely humorous place that isn't seamless or entirely satisfying but is definitely bold. Some may even find it a bit silly, but I liked the change in pace. The darkly comedic conclusion reminds of a horror classic that I won't spoil as the narrative shifts a bit here.

  • There has been an impulse for many online to completely consider what happens in the crazy finale of Hereditary. I didn't feel compelled to do this at all. I was ultimately satisfied by taking in the images at face value and letting the basics of the narrative do their work. On the other hand, I can understand why some might be unsatisfied by the shift to a different horror subgenre and a more matter-of-fact force by the end.

  • Hereditary doesn't break new ground, but it uses a strange recipe of horror tropes and styles to create a thrilling, wonderfully acted, and incredibly tense ride. I particularly appreciated the way it shifts from a self-serious art horror picture to something a little weirder and, dare I say, a little more fun than expected.

File Under 2018 #67: I Can Only Imagine

i-can-only-imagine3.jpg

What it's about: Bart Millard is possibly the most successful Christian rock musician to ever live, the frontman of the band MercyMe which has sold tens of millions of copies of its nine studio albums. But before fame and fortune, Bart was a normalish guy from a small town Texas who loved football and Jesus. After suffering an injury playing high school football, Bart stumbles into a glee club elective and realizes that he has an incredible singing voice, a talent that he eventually uses to spread messages of love and forgiveness to young Christians. As his band has trouble making their way in the music industry, Bart must find a more personal voice. He looks to his troubled relationship with his father Arthur [Dennis Quaid] and their history of abuse to find the inspiration to finally break through with a song that became beloved across the globe.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I Can Only Imagine is likely going to end up the most successful film of 2018 that you've probably not heard of -- at least had no interest in seeing. It grossed $83M over its theatrical run [it is still in a few theaters despite its recent home video release], which makes it the #11 film at the domestic box office this year, ahead of Game NightBlockersTomb RaiderPacific Rim Uprising, and many others. This probably parallels general knowledge of the band the film dramatizes, which is apparently one of the world's biggest acts. Strangely enough [or perhaps not], it is entirely based on a song that is apparently very popular, with lots of cross-over mainstream success on radio and pop charts, that I've never heard.

  • Faith based films have been successful at the box office as they've become more mainstream. Films like Heaven Is for Real and Miracles from Heaven have identifiable movie stars and mainstream movie plots set around Christian messaging -- God's Not Dead or War Room have been successful, as well, but they don't seem to be bridging cultural gaps in the same way. I Can Only Imagine might not be the clearest example of the Christian film cross-over but it is the newest one. While its storytelling might be aimed at an audience larger than that of God's Not Dead, that doesn't exactly make it good.

  • The premise of I Can Only Imagine is that Bart Millard's life has all built up to writing the song of the same title -- the movie literally opens with a person telling Bart "You didn't write this song in 10 minutes, it took a lifetime." Most of the narrative is a movie-long flashback sequence of Bart's childhood, high school years, and then as a struggling musician. This seems to set up something of an extraordinary life, but the events of the film strike me as a just ordinary, tough life. Maybe that's the point, that Bart's story is universal and that's what makes his art so great, but that's not really how it is presented.

  • The most prominent way this plays out is through Bart's relationship with his father. The movie speaks multiple times to how Arthur was incredibly abusive, leading to the man's redemption and Bart's forgiveness. Aside from one physical altercation, though, Arthur is played off like a grumpy mean old drunk. Don't get me wrong, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse and I know how having a grumpy mean old drunk of a father is a terrible way to grow up. I Can Only Imagine seems to not want to show us their relationship in an honest way, in a way that matches what the characters keep telling us. The emotional crux of their relationship as told by the narrative is Arthur telling Bart that he's not good enough [there are whole montages full of it] but then there is this other more serious thing we are constantly reminded of but is never actually explored. I realize that if I Can Only Imagine delved more in the physical violence it merely tells us about it would have more likely been Precious than the wholesome and hopeful film it is, that the messages may have been lost.

  • Another major part of the narrative that comes off completely flat is the romantic relationship between Bart and his childhood friend Shannon. Though the film plays off this relationship as where Bart needs to ask for forgiveness [the counter-balance to his father], it is totally inconsequential. Again, the movie doesn't do any work to make his apology resonate in any way. It wants their love to be something extraordinary and, similarly, Bart screwing up their relationship to be something truly tragic. Really, though, it comes off as a relationship that just doesn't work out, like millions of other relationships.

  • OK, for some moderate positives. J. Michael Finley, who plays Bart, can really sing. And he has enough likable charisma to lead the film -- he kinda strikes me as a Southern version of James Corden. There is a lot of music throughout I Can Only Imagine and while it isn't my preferred style, it is pretty well produced.

  • Dennis Quaid is well cast as the bad dad. Cloris Leachman has a few scenes as Bart's delightful Memaw. Her reaction to hearing Bart sing for the first time is one of the best moments in the movie.

  • Overall, the rise to music fame plot that takes of most of the middle of the movie is pretty generic, with too many easy plot contrivances, a lot of stumbling into initial success and booking important shows or writing an entire set of songs quite literally overnight. Just when MercyMe seems to have their big chance to break through, however, the most painfully didactic scene of the film is inserted, with record execs telling Bart that his brand isn't marketable. The nameless bigwigs could be talking about any kind of Christian art and their criticisms come off entirely as cynical and whiny.

  • As for the title song, the film nicely teases it out up until the climax -- and there is even a head fake in the final moments. I can only imagine that the target audience of the film came mostly for the song and it isn't heard for nearly two hours. It is probably too far to call this a bold move, but it felt notable to me. When the song is finally revealed it's ... fine.

  • Jaws 3D and The Goonies show up on the marquee of the local cinema of young Bart. Those movies came out 2 years apart.

  • I Can Only Imagine isn't quite the first truly successful Christian film to attempt the mainstream cross-over, though you could do much, much worse. If you are totally adverse to faith based film, you could do much worse, too. I Can Only Imagine has strong Christian themes but it stays pretty humanist throughout. You could probably take out any direct mentions of God and the movie's approach to its messages would be basically the same.

  • The trailers on the Blu-ray are all the kind of wholesome entertainments you'd expect, which geared me up for what was coming: Forever My GirlSouthside with You, The Shack, and Wonder.

#1 1982: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

ET-Movie.jpg

Let me take you back to June 11-17, 1982. During that week, Larry Holmes knocked out Gerry Cooney to win the heavyweight title, 750,000 attended anti-nuclear demonstrations in Central Park, the king of Saudi-Arabia died at the age of 69, the Falkland Islands conflict between the U.K. and Argentina ended, guitarist for the Pretenders James Honeyman-Scott died of an overdose, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the #1 movie in America.

Of course, on that last point, you could say that for 17 weeks in 1982. Steven Spielberg’s landmark film was far and away the most successful film of its year, one of the most successful films of all time. In its opening week, though, it held off previous #1s Rocky III and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as well Spielberg produced Poltergeist. Over its first 12 consecutive week run at #1 it held off a number of iconic 80s films: Grease 2, Blade Runner, The Thing, Tron, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Friday the 13th Part III. Unfortunately, thanks to E.T., I won’t be covering any of those films in this series.

Overall, E.T. grossed nearly $360M on its original release with an extra $75M added on with multiple re-releases, translating to an astonishing $1.3B in current dollars when an inflation adjustment is enacted. This places it as the 4th highest domestic grossing film of all time, behind only Gone with the Wind [$1.8B], Star Wars [$1.6B] and barely trailing The Sound of Music [$1.3B]. Of the ten films to surpass $1B after inflation, it is the only film to have been released in the 1980s -- 2 from the 1930s, 1 from the 1950s, 2 from the 1960s, 3 from the 1970s, and Titanic rounding it out.

You don’t have to adjust for inflation to fudge the numbers of E.T.’s box office success. The film lands at #16 on the all-time domestic chart, only the second film released before 1997. For both domestic and worldwide grosses, E.T. is the highest charter of the 1980s. In fact, it is the only film from the 1980s to land in the top 150 films all time in worldwide gross.

This particular point is interesting given the birth of the summer blockbuster unofficially happening in the late 1970s, often attributed to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Now, older films obviously are at a disadvantage when not adjusting for inflation -- and though theater-going numbers have steadily been decreasing in recent years, there have been massive increases in the number of theater screens today compared to the early 1980s. E.T. peaked on about 1,700 screens, about 2,000 fewer than a typical wide release today.

The advantage a film like E.T. had, however, was longevity and rewatchability. E.T. lived in theaters for a full year -- released on June 11, 1982 on 1,100 screens, it saw its last official week of release end on June 9, 1983 on about 500 screens. Likewise, we often hear stories of people going to see a movie multiple times during its theatrical run in the old days. With limited entertainment possibilities, why not go see a great movie for a third, fourth, or fifth time at the local theater? The thought that it would be coming out on-demand in 3 months or end up on a streaming service in 6 wouldn’t have existed. If you wanted to see E.T., you had only one option.

Oh, and by the way, E.T. is an amazing film. It has a wide family appeal. It is funny, thrilling, unique, full of fantasy, truly iconic. That certainly helps its box office success.

File Under 2018 #66: The Forgiven

forgiven.png

What it's about: Archbishop Desmond Tutu [Forest Whitaker] was appointed by newly elected president of South Africa Nelson Mandela to head a special Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In order to try and maintain peace among the social classes after apartheid, violent criminals were given the opportunity to ask for amnesty. If they confessed in full to their crimes and asked for forgiveness, the Commission would review their case and potentially grant their release. In a dangerous Cape Town prison, Tutu conducts interviews with Piet Blomfeld [Eric Bana] in connection to a family's request to find out information about a murdered teenage girl. Blomfeld is Tutu's toughest test, an unrepentant man who openly challenges the worldview of the man of faith.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • A biopic about Desmond Tutu in the post-apartheid era starring Forest Whitaker should be a big deal. This is the kind of premise that you'd expect the Academy to be salivating over. And yet, The Forgiven slipped through a limited theatrical release with middling reviews before getting a home video release before the midpoint of the year.

  • Being directed by Roland Joffé, The Forgiven turned out basically as I expected. It is a competent film without much style and a social justice message that is far from subtle. It doesn't do much to challenge the viewer despite a challenging premise. There are dramatic stakes but show little dramatic impact.

  • Viewed as a Tutu biopic, The Forgiven is a misfire but it is far from the worst of its genre. It leans into being universal while depicting a limited space and time, which is usually better than the all-encompassing approach. Aside from a few quiet glimpses of Tutu's life outside of his government duty, The Forgiven isn't too concerned with presenting his life at all. The character is almost exclusively built in conversations, which is structurally smart even if the film doesn't do it particularly well.

  • Forest Whitaker starring as an important African historical figure immediately brings to mind The Last King of Scotland, but this role or performance couldn't be more different. While Tutu isn't without passion, he's a reserved and considerate thinker, far from braggadocious.

  • Perhaps a more distracting difference is the look of the characters in relation to the actor. Whitaker shared enough in appearance to Idi Amin so the filmmakers didn't do much to the actor. For Tutu, however, Whitaker is covered in makeup and prosthetics to change his hairline and facial features. It doesn't do anything to effect the performance but I couldn't always bridge the gap of Forest Whitaker to Desmond Tutu. The strings are fully visible.

  • With some quick research, I found that The Forgiven was based on a play called The Archbishop and the Antichrist, which is a much more tantalizing title. It also makes a lot of sense, as the film plays as a series of conversations, Tutu sitting across from a grieving mother or a doctor or a police officer or Blomfeld. The specific conversations he has with Blomfeld are like intellectual battles but they should have more emotional impact. They are the centerpieces of the film and don't play like it.

  • Eric Bana's performance isn't anything extraordinary. He is rocking a fantastic mustache, though.

  • Interestingly, the aspects of the film that I appreciated the most didn't have much to do with the lead character. One particular subplot follows a young man assimilating to an African prison gang called "The 28." Eventually, he is ordered to kill Blomfeld, who is a strong force in the rival white faction. The captures the racial discord of the era in a more interesting way than explicit lip service.

  • Another round of Blu-ray trailers! The list here wasn't promising: the critically mocked and reviled Sean Penn feature The Last Face, late-career Al Pacino detective mystery Hangman, Ethan Hawke's low quality balance to First Reformed, 24 Hours to Live, Antonio Banderas's entry into the old man action revenge flick Acts of Vengeance, and the decent Small Town Crime.

File Under 2018 #65: Peter Rabbit

peter-rabbit.jpg

What it's about: Peter is a mischievous wild rabbit that spends his time hanging with his three sisters, stealing vegetables from the local garden, and tormenting old mean Mr. McGregor. After his mortal enemy keels over with a heart attack, it seems like Peter's life just got a lot easier. That is until McGregor's nephew Thomas [Domhnall Gleeson] comes into the picture. Thomas hates the rabbits just as much as Mr. McGregor, but it is who he likes that becomes the even bigger problem: the rabbits' favorite human Bea [Rose Byrne]. Peter and the crew desperately try to keep Thomas and Bea separated, doing whatever they can to sabotage their relationship to keep Bea's affection all to themselves.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Peter Rabbit is a strange kind of adaptation. I'm not really familiar with the Beatrix Potter books, but the film seems to take those sweet children's stories and update them to a quick, energetic, sometimes mean-spirited, and broadly appealing pop movie. It has some clever moments and a moderately successful blend of live-action and animation, but Peter Rabbit is all over the place visually and narratively.

  • I wouldn't exactly call Peter Rabbit dark, though some of its humor is shocking. I'm not going to get on a high horse because I honestly don't care about how violent or creepy the film is. I'm sure there were kids' films that awkwardly pushed boundaries that I watched and loved. Some of the humor was even silly enough to make me laugh -- writer-director Will Gluck has made sharp comedies before, such as Easy A. For an example of the strange stuff to expect, the film opens with a gag about sticking a carrot up an unwitting man's ass. It wasn't exactly hard to see the undertones of sexual assault.

  • Is Peter supposed to be a likable hero? Because Peter Rabbit's version is kind of a dick. Thomas is definitely the villain, and one of the film's major themes is Peter figuring out that he has to place nice with others, but his attitude is abrasive.

  • There are brief moments of traditional animation through a flashback and memories of Peter's parents that are reminiscent of a storybook kind of art style. This is definitely when the film is at its most beautiful.

  • As for the more prevalent use of animated animals in a live-action world, it isn't entirely successful, certainly not to the level of the Planet of the Apes films or The Jungle Book [I'm willing to bet the production budget of Peter Rabbit was much lower, in all fairness]. The worlds blends together best when the animated characters are still. When there is quick action [a majority of the film, for better or worse] and especially when in contact with the live-action counterparts is when the animation isn't quite seamless.

  • One of the worst trends in children's films is the predominant use of chipper pop music and Peter Rabbit is wall-to-wall with a variety of poppy hits. The music ranges from "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" to Rancid's "Time Bomb" [which is cool to use a Rancid song, but it is the most fitting]. The strangest choice, though, is altering songs to fit the narrative of the film. When Len's "Steal My Sunshine" comes on early into the film it seems appropriately cliche. But then you might notice that the lyrics have been changed [paraphrase: "All bow down to Peter, make the garden a bird feeder"]. Anyone in their early-to-mid 30s will find this very disconcerting.

  • The human stars, Gleeson and Byrne, as well as a prominent cameo from Sam Neill, are having a lot of fun with the material. Gleeson, in particular, jumps right into the villainous character without any pretension. The actors don't have the best chemistry, so their romance is a little stale, but they are individually charismatic.

  • The trailers on the Blu-ray were pretty standard selection of Sony's upcoming or recently released kids' films, including Hotel Transylvania 3Into the Spider-Verse, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and The Star. The strangest in the collection was direct-to-video The Swan Princess: A Royal Myztery [yes, you read that right], with animation akin to bad video game cutscenes.

File Under 2018 #64: I Kill Giants

i_kill_giants_madison_wolfe_courtesy_rlj_entertainment.jpeg

What it's about: Barbara is a young woman who escapes her family drama and social status at school into a fantasy world inhabited by great and dangerous giants. She sees herself as a warrior, one of the few that can see these monsters lurking in the shadows, one of the few who can protect this world. When the school psychologist [Zoe Saldana] and the new girl in school show interest in her, Barbara has to decide whether she can open up her fantasy world to them -- or, more dangerously, let them close to her real life.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I've seen a lot of comparisons being made between I Kill Giants and J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls and those comparisons proved to be pretty apt. The overall narratives are largely the same: a young protagonist dreams of monsters to help contextualize their personal trauma. The differences in how they tell the story [some slight, some substantial] set these films apart. While I wasn't a big fan of A Monster Calls, I do appreciate how its story unfolds more than in I Kill Giants.

  • Looking at the fantasy worlds side-by-side, I Kill Giants does fine. There definitely seems to be a little less money in the special effects budget in comparison, but they weren't bad enough to pull me out of the movie -- and the film does some interesting practical work with unique creations known as Harbingers.

  • The real-world explanation for the giants is pretty interesting, too. In I Kill Giants, people mistake these supernatural beings for natural disasters like tornadoes and earthquakes. By the end of the film, it is a little confusing how much is supposed to be purely metaphor and how much is supposed to be real, but on the surface it works.

  • This leads to the bigger problem for I Kill Giants and how its approach isn't as compelling as A Monster Calls. The move has a hard time walking the line of believing that the fantasy isn't just a metaphor, that the hero isn't completely projecting. With the introduction of the psychologist and Barbara introducing this world to her new friend, the giants become a literal talking point instead of a private and secret part of a troubled kid's coping with life. This takes away some of the majesty, some of the emotion, and makes their meanings more explicit, clinical. Listening to Barbara talk about what these giants mean just isn't as cinematic or narratively compelling as seeing her simply living in that world instead.

  • One thing I really appreciated about I Kill Giants is its tone, which wasn't afraid to go pretty dark and scary. It doesn't play down the gravity of what Barbara is going through and her anger and violence feel particularly real. I'm also not used to seeing films about a young girl showing off these characteristics. The introduction to Barbara makes her potentially seem more quirky than where she ends up.

  • The most impactful relationship in the film is between Barbara and her older sister slash guardian Karen, played by Imogen Poots. Karen wants to understand Barbara and she's willing to be involved in the things she's interested in, but whether it is because of the stresses in her own life or because Barbara never fully opens up to her, she never completely commits to her sister. Poots gives a really nice performance. Without a lot of screen time, she brings across a lot of emotional context.

  • Mrs. Mollé [Saldana] is a pretty cliched character and one of the film's bigger missteps. She is the well meaning adult figure we usually see in this kind of movie. The breakthrough Barbara has in her office during a standard word association exercise over the word "baseball" is unearned within the story..

  • Something I want to keep doing for DVD/Blu-ray releases I'm watching is note the trailers that play beforehand. It didn't start well with Odd Thomas and The Cobbler, two pretty awful movies. The third trailer was for something called The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box which looks extraordinarily bad. It was released in 2013 and stars, among others, Michael Sheen and Sam Neill and looks to be a bad attempt to kick off a franchise. It is a little strange that all three of these movies came out years ago.

#1 1982: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

the_wrath_of_khan.jpg

Let me take you back to June 4-10, 1982. During that week, Michael Keaton and Caroline McWilliams were married, Nine won Best Musical at the Tony Awards, Martina Navratilova won the French Open, Dwight Gooden was drafted by the New York Mets, Ronald Reagan met with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA finals, MLB pitcher Satchel Paige died at age 75, figure skater Tara Lipinski was born, filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder tragically died of a drug overdose at age 36, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the #1 movie in America.

It isn’t exactly a surprise that The Wrath of Khan was extraordinarily successful -- it is, by popular opinion, the best Star Trek film ever made. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was itself a success in 1979, itself following the incredibly popular television series. With the entire cast returning, there’s no way this could have failed. It grossed nearly $79MM on a reported production budget of only $11MM. Ultimately, this placed it at #6 for the year 1982.

Interestingly, though, The Wrath of Khan had the highest opening weekend of all 1982, besting the previous week’s Rocky III by nearly $2MM. As I’ve noted several times over this project, it wasn’t as normal for a film to debut at #1 with films more likely to roll-out slowly and less changeover at the cinema creating long runs at the top. For this to happen two weeks in a row was quite extraordinary when looking at the year in whole. Only six of the top ten opening weekends in 1982 were the best showing of the week -- actually, the other four openings [The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Friday the 13th Part III, Firefox, and Poltergeist] never reached #1 at all. This would only happen one more time through the rest of the year and that particular film’s long box office dominance is the primary reason why.

One interesting tidbit concerning The Wrath of Khan’s box office is its place in the Star Trek franchise. Surprisingly, it ranks 7th out of 13, which seems to damper the gravity of its success. Looking a little closer at the franchise, however, makes things a little clearer. The top three in the franchise are the three films most recently released: the 2009 Star Trek “reboot” and its two sequels. Given increasing ticket prices, general economic inflation, and much more access to big budget Hollywood releases, this makes total sense.

Even more interesting, The Wrath of Khan trails Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home [I think that’s the one with the whales], the TGN-branded First Contact, and the original 1979 release. Despite the general appreciation for The Wrath of Khan, it seems like it may not have been able to overcome the lukewarm reception of its predecessor, grossing about $3MM less despite showing up in double the theater screens. Overall, though, the Star Trek films have been strangely consistent, with 6 of the 13 grossing between $70 and $82MM. Only four of the films topped a $100MM, which is also a bit surprising.

However you choose to tip the box office numbers of The Wrath of Khan to claim the degree of its success, it remains one of the exemplary entries into the large and long-ranging franchise. Re-watching it with Star Trek Into Darkness [which grossed roughly three times more] in mind is particularly fruitful.

Into Darkness didn’t want to market itself as a re-do of The Wrath of Khan, but the surprise entry of the title villain links them together. Star Trek 2009 successfully reset the terms of the franchise, introducing a new, young cast that held their own with the memory of Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Takei, and Nichols, but reintroducing Khan [especially in their secretive way] was a grave mistake. Benedict Cumberbatch is one of the best actors working today, but he couldn’t come close to the menacing philosophizing of Ricardo Montalban, exquisite chest plate and all. His energy truly carries The Wrath of Khan, making it the classic it is remembered as and creating a truly iconic movie villain.

File Under 2018 #63: First Reformed

first-reformed-still-03_758_426_81_s_c1.jpg

What it's about: Toller [Ethan Hawke] is a reverend for a small, upstate New York "church for tourists that no one attends." One of his few parishioners, Mary [Amanda Seyfried], comes to Toller after a service and asks him to talk with her husband, an environmental activist who is suffering from depression and anxiety based on the way we've treated the world. Complicating matters, Mary is pregnant and Michael doesn't feel it is responsible to bring a baby into this world. After Toller meets with Michael, his own doubts about life and faith intensify.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • First, it is important to understand that I am writing these thoughts down about an hour after seeing First Reformed, which isn't exactly ideal. First Reformed is the kind of introspective, character driven film that should be deeply considered. Because of that, I haven't parsed out the philosophies and themes, nor have I totally considered what to make of its strange and complicated ending. Or maybe I'm just too intimidated to fully reckon with it yet.

  • At this point, it is easier to think about First Reformed for its formal aspects and on that level alone, the film is one of the best of the year so far. The transcendental style is beautiful and refreshing when so few films are made like this any more. It is slow and contemplative, the images hold long enough to really study what is being shown. The 4:3 ratio makes the images more intimate and picturesque. The settings are sparse, saying something about the characters, but also work with the slow style.

  • No doubt, the film is calling back to the religiously themed films of the European art movements spanning Dreyer, Bresson, Rossellini, Bergman, and others. Serious works on doubt and introspection and morality. The modern elements of First Reformed add something peculiar -- from the mega church that looks and runs more like an office building to the souvenir shop selling branded hats and T-shirts and using Drain-o on a broken toilet. Independently presented, these moments and images aren't especially funny but their juxtaposition into this type of film adds a strange humor.

  • Ethan Hawke is perfectly cast as Toller. He's stoic and serious and not particularly expressive but the intellect and passion come through because of the actor's past works. He's also the right age for this character -- old enough to hold wisdom but young enough to be susceptible to change.

  • The character is also smartly written, giving just enough of his backstory to understand what kind of man he is. This is vital to buy his changes in philosophy by the end of the film, frankly, to buy the extreme choices that he makes. He is a broken man with life experiences that have built his faith. He's also not tied to this world in a way that would make it too difficult to openly question.

  • The first meeting between Toller and Michael is a sharply written and exhilarating argument with a great balance between science and faith. Toller comes across as honest and sympathetic to Michael's point-of-view and great fear and he seems to genuinely understand the issues. After the scene, in the voice over of Toller's journal writing, he second guesses the things he said but this seems a little silly as their conversation is so energetic and insightful. It is genuine discourse, which we don't often see anymore when it comes to these kinds of issues.

  • One of the things I admired most about First Reformed is that there are no clear antagonists though there are a few characters that could have been clearly that. Pastor Jeffers of the nearby mega-church that oversees the functions of Toller's church, played by Cedric the Entertainer [credited as Cedric Antonio Kyles] is the character positioned for this. Jeffers can be a spiritual counterpart to Toller but their debates are always fair and from an honest point-of-view. He always wants the best for Toller and stands up for him when he has to. Another character, who controls everything in the town with his money and power, is too small a role to be much of a villain -- and even he rightfully acknowledges that the world is a complicated place.

  • I wasn't exactly sure where First Reformed was ever leading. There are threads that show possibilities of its characters and narratives but they always seemed too easy or too radical or too inconsistent with the film's building themes. For example, there is Toller's relationship with Mary. It is difficult to know if we are seeing things as they are happening or what influence Toller's rapidly declining psychology may have on how we are seeing the world.

  • There is one particular moment, though [I won't spoil it, but if you've seen the film you'll know what I'm referring to], that really crystallizes exactly how this will all end. Smartly, it even takes a few scenes to come back to this idea, perhaps to continue to cast some doubt.

  • The film's final moments, though I still can't completely put them together, are equally beautiful and devastating. There is a plot contrivance [a particular character being in a particular place that works more thematically than it does narratively] that temporarily pulled me out of the moment. Hawke's performance here, as well as the sheer audacity of what is coming, are extraordinary. The exact final moment is surprisingly joyous and irreverent. Many of those in the theater were not so happy when a long cut to black were followed directly by credits -- those who didn't begin walking out as the film was ending, that is.

File Under 2018 #62: The Party

15-the-party-review.w710.h473.jpg

What it's about: Janet [Kristin Scott Thomas] is the newly elected minister for health in the British parliament. Upon the good news, she organizes a small dinner party with her closest friends: her husband Bill [Timothy Spall], the cynical April [Patricia Clarkson] and her free-spirit boyfriend [Bruno Ganz], women's studies professor Martha [Cherry Jones] and her pregnant girlfriend Jinny [Emily Mortimer], cocaine-addled banker Tom [Cillian Murphy] and his wife Maryanne [who will stop by for dessert]. The night of good food and conversation is suddenly halted when Bill makes the announcement that he's dying. This revelation sets off a chain of wild reactions that threatens their relationships and well-being.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Cinematic confession: I've never seen a Sally Potter film. No excuses, just haven't done it. Orlando is regarded as her most important work, her international breakout, a cornerstone of queer cinema, and the film that put Tilda Swinton the on the map. I should make it a priority, especially as The Party was a bit of a let down, at least as an introduction into her work. [Correction: I've apparently seen Potter's 2012 film 'Ginger & Rosa.' Anyway, the point stands.]

  • The obvious highlights of The Party is the cast and the structure. Every single member of the cast is, if not a screen legend, among the best actors of their generation. And they all do fine work in The Party, even if they could be pushed a little more. Thomas gives the film's best performance in the center of the ensemble; her character certainly has the most emotional stakes over the course of the film. Clarkson is also very good in her groove as cynical and straight-forward. Most of the film's humor comes from Ganz and Murphy in roles that are a little more over-the-top.

  • The staging of the film works well -- whenever a film limits its time and location, I'm generally interested. The Party is brief and tight, only 71 minutes and it doesn't need to be any longer. It doesn't get as claustrophobic as one-location films tend to get, but the ensemble is uncomfortably interlocked by their close environment. It also thankfully keeps the narrative moving without making excuses for characters being unable to leave, probably the worst cliche in this setup.

  • Unfortunately, there isn't much pop. The Party is never as irreverent or funny as I think it is trying to be. It wants to make social comments on the high status of its characters. At times, especially in the first half after Bill reveals he is sick, the characters feel less like individuals than intellectual types to have stagy and stagnant arguments about Western medicine and politics.

  • As the film goes along, though, a second revelation does light a bit of emotional fire, giving the film the spark it very much needed. The actors are able to heighten their performances, the narrative is able to open up, quicken, and get a little wilder. Ultimately, I would have had more fun if it pushed even a little harder, but the fairly boring first half is redeemed well enough.

  • The very final moments of The Party get the closest to what I wanted -- if film quality is about endings, The Party leaves on a good note. It pays off on mysteries I didn't need answers for in a clever way. The changing character dynamics become more interesting than I realized. That's a tough line to walk, though. If all of The Party's cards were on the table from the beginning, I may have enjoyed the film more thoroughly.

File Under 2018 #61: Survivors Guide to Prison

survivors-guide-to-prison.jpg

What it's about: The American prison system is broken. Prison populations are growing, their demographics are incredibly skewed toward African Americans. Medical treatment behind bars is lacking. The courts disproportionately impact poor people who commit crimes and even those who didn't commit crimes but are tricked into false confessions or plea deals. The deck is stacked against everyday folks, so what guidelines should they follow once they are inevitably falsely convicted and put away? What do they need to do not only to keep their sanity but their safety in prison? Can they live long enough to use the resources to prove their innocence? Survivors Guide to Prison explores the worst case scenarios and what to expect.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • A few years back I watched and enjoyed filmmaker Matthew Cooke's film How to Make Money Selling Drugs. It was an irreverent and unique look at the drug trade, dispelling myths we've learned from popular culture about what it is like to be a small time dealer or drug kingpin through the how-to guide the title suggests. His newest film, Survivors Guide to Prison takes on a similar gimmick, this time with a sharper focus on the federal prison and court systems.

  • Where How to Make Money Selling Drugs was largely a tongue-in-cheek romp, Survivors Guide to Prison is a much sterner, bleaker look at its subject matter. It doesn't as completely take on the gimmick, either, with a barrage of statistics and jumping through prison issues in between the guide.

  • The guide includes chapters on "Surviving an out of control police officer," "Surviving county jail," "Surviving solitary confinement," "Joining a prison gang," among others.

  • Stylistically, Survivors Guide to Prison is quick, flashy, and produced within an inch of its life. Cynically, you could say it comes off like part of an A&E doc series. But it is undoubtedly seductive and informative. And the subject matter is worth taking deadly seriously so it doesn't feel off base.

  • And at its heart, the film is anchored by two stories of men who were convicted of murders that they didn't commit. Their stories are heart-wrenching. They are also perfectly aligned with all the system flaws and pitfalls that are being discussed by the film. Their resonance is how the film argues that they aren't particularly unique, however, that the mistakes made by the authorities could happen to anyone.

  • The film boasts an incredible cast of talking head contributors and narrators. Along with the number of law enforcement experts, lawyers, activists and former convicts are celebrities spanning from Danny Trejo to Deepak Chopra.

  • Seeing Busta Rhymes emotionally break down while recounting the story of a woman who was arrested for possession of $5 worth of crack cocaine finally being released after over 30 years is incredible. Sensitive Busta Rhymes is something I didn't know I needed in my life.

  • Survivors Guide to Prison offers countless numbers of prison statistics, many of which are hard to believe -- they also aren't sourced on screen, which makes it a little more difficult to take them at face value.

  • A few of the most astonishing ones: There are so many laws on the books that the average American citizen commits 3 felonies per day without realizing it; The combined populations of Los Angeles and New York are arrested every year.

  • One salient point made in the film is the paradox of authority. In an era where so many distrust our politicians and lawmakers, we are so willing to blindly trust authority figures like the police, judges, and prosecutors. Survivors Guide to Prison makes sure to acknowledge that there are authority figures who are heroes while reminding that they are not our allies.

  • There are many other great observations and segments but the film washes through them so quickly to make its next point that there are diminishing returns. On the other hand, the film absolutely works as a pastiche of all the various problems with the system, so it can work as a whole.

  • Survivors Guide to Prison is ultimately like a good 100 level survey course on the issues and there is value there. And while its style might be unusual for a *serious* documentary, it packages its commentary in a successfully entertaining way, even if the content is far from enjoyable.

  • Still, I won't condone or appreciate the lack of proper punctuation in the title.

File Under 2018 #60: Beast

beast-film-640x426.jpg

What it’s about: Moll is a young woman with a trouble past who doesn’t quite fit in with her family or small British community. After a long night out dancing, she is cornered by a threat of violence and saved by a handsome and mysterious stranger, Pascal. Though they don’t know much about each other, Moll quickly develops a kinship with Pascal, attracted by their shared social statuses as black sheep in their conservative community. But when Pascal is suspected of horrific crimes against young women, Moll has to choose to protect him or protect herself and destroy her only meaningful relationship. With her own demons, however, Moll’s interest in Pascal may only be growing with the revelations that he could be a monster.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Beast is among the new genre of films including the Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights remakes and Lady Macbeth, classically styled British romances that embrace darker, violent, macabre impulses. A privileged girl is seduced by a lower class man and their love is not only not accepted by their society but has a level of danger. And has been the case with these new adaptations or homages, much of the dark nature of the narrative and themes come from the twisted perspective of its lead female character.

  • The first impression of Moll is a quiet but typical woman from a conservative, middle class upbringing. The film opens with her birthday party that is clearly not her scene. Her reaction to an announcement and her mother’s suggest to bring out some champagne is wild and a little scary. Without fully exploring why she explodes this way or what specifically set her off, but it is a curious glimpse into what is to come in Beast.

  • Beast builds the community and location expertly. Without doing a lot explicitly, there is a strong sense of just how small and interconnected this community is. Everyone knows everyone, the rumors of people’s past is known by everyone. This makes Pascal all the more interesting, as he comes off as a complete outsider even though he claims to have more a familial connection to this place than Moll’s family. Being a social outcast adds to his mysterious danger, or perhaps he is truly an outsider lying about his identity.

  • Moll and Pascal’s meeting is like the opposite of a “meet cute.” It is a scene that could be played off in a romantic way if it were heightened to melodrama but Beast doesn’t take it there.

  • Jessie Buckley is fantastic as a specific kind of crazy protagonist that manages to feel real honest and unique. Even as she has literal eye twitching moments of insanity, her psychosis isn’t overplayed externally [for the most part].

  • A lot of the way the film is seen is how she sees the world. Beast wonderfully changes in tone and character based on what she knows of those around her. Without getting into specifics and though I’m not sure the intense finale of the film works completely [there is a natural ending point and then about 20 minutes left], what happens in the final act is completely tied to Moll’s point-of-view. By the end of the film, I question how Pascal was presented at any point -- is he really the dangerous bad boy we see in the film or is that just how Moll wants to see him?

  • Pascal is a skewed version of the romantic novel hunk ideal: he’s of nature, connected to the dirt and the sea. He works with his hands and hunts for his food. He’s rugged and musky [the way he smells is returned to multiple times].

  • Some of the crime elements, especially in the second half of the film, come off a little like a BBC drama series. It is still solid and there are flourishes that are consistent with the film as a whole, but it is missing something from the strange romance.

  • Geraldine James is the perfect icy mother. In a way, her point-of-view is reasonable. She wants to protect her daughter and her family’s lifestyle from a outside threat. But with the film’s perspective and her exact brand of coldness, it comes off as monstrous.

  • Johnny Flynn has a presence that works well as the mysterious bad boy -- he’s like 90% of a typical Hollywood leading man, a few features that throw him off just slightly. I’m not sure if he is a great actor, if he can pull off what the film needs as the character changes over the course of the film. If you know Flynn as the sweet and hopeless center of the Netflix rom-com series Lovesick [originally titled Scrotal Recall], you can see more of his potential in Beast.

  • For Michael Pearce’s screenplay and directorial debut, this is an incredibly assured dramatic thriller. The characters are fully realized and the entire tone of the world comes directly from those characters. And it takes risks, it swings big. So even when I can’t totally roll with some places it goes, I can’t fault the vision or direction. Beast will likely be one of the most distinctive films of the year and Buckley deserves a lot of attention.

#1 1982: Rocky III

2157889318001_4290930555001_mr-t-slyvester.jpg

Let me take you back to May 28-June 3, 1982. During that week, John Paul II became the first reigning pope to visit Great Britain, actress Romy Schneider died of cardiac arrest, Molly Dieveney won the 55th National Spelling Bee on the word ‘psoriasis,’ the upcoming Doctor Jodie Whittaker was born, and Rocky III was the #1 movie in America.

When you think of the 1980s, Rocky III is part of the decade’s iconography. The music, the montages, Mr. T talking about pitying fools and predicting pain, Hulk Hogan gorilla press slamming Sylvester Stallone, there are so many touchstones that are entrenched in the cinematic pantheon. And all this despite also being emblematic of 80s excess and driving the Rocky formula completely into the ground. In some ways, Rocky III seems like an early example of a more modern #1 film at the box office -- a well established sequel from an important and critically loved franchise that has focused in and heightened its basest aspects.

I hadn’t watched Rocky III in many years. Honestly, I don’t know if I’d ever seen it all the way through. Those iconic moments and characters, though, have always kept fresh in my mind. As a huge wrestling fan [Hulk Hogan fan in particular] I always loved the Thunderlips charity match scene. Strangely, the release of Rocky III came well before the height of the Hulkster’s popularity -- he didn’t slam Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania III for another 5 years. Truthfully, Hulk Hogan never was much of a box office draw outside of the squared circle, but his appearance is characteristic to the colorfully broad approach that helped Rocky III become so successful.

Rocky III ended up as the fourth highest grossing film of 1982 at $124MM, sandwiched between future profile An Officer and a Gentleman and recent profile Porky’s. Among its franchise, it places second, interestingly not behind the Oscar winning original but its own sequel, Rocky IV -- the epitome of the series cultural success and stale critical mediocrity. Considering that Rocky IV played in nearly 1,000 more theaters than Rocky III while only out-grossing it by $3.7MM, it is fair to say that this is the actual pound-for-pound champ of the series.

Boxing has become the sports film subgenre that has garnered the most prestige and success over the years. Seemingly every major actor in Hollywood aims to get a boxing film in their filmography while major filmmakers continually expand the unique aesthetic of the “sport of kings.” It is a little surprising, then, just how much the Rocky films lord over the genre from a box office perspective. The top four all-time are all part of the series [IV, III, Rocky, Creed in that order] with Rocky II and Rocky Balboa coming in at #8 and #9 respectively. Rocky V was even a successful film by many standards. When considering all sports dramas, only The Blind Side comes out ahead.

Of course Best Picture winning Rocky was able to straddle the critic vs. popular line, but this really shows how a franchise can be built with a strong baseline followed up with heightened levels of action or comedy or crazy characters or what-have-you. The most surprising thing is that it only held on to the #1 spot for one week. But there is a good reason for that, which will become clear in a few weeks.

File Under 2018 #59: Solo: A Star Wars Story

solo-star-wars-story-review-2-1200x675-c.jpg

What it's about: Han Solo [Alden Ehrenreich] is an intergalactic smuggler years before he helped a rebellion defeat the Empire. Separated from his bleak home world, he vows to return with a ship and some money to help his love Qi'ra [Emilia Clarke] escape. On his adventures, he begins working with a small group of bandits led by the principled Beckett [Woody Harrelson], who are trying to steal a powerful energy source for a crime lord. On his adventure, Han finds new friends, glory, and the start of his quest to save the galaxy.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I'm not much of a Star Wars person. I never really watched the films when I was a kid. I don't have any special affinity for the characters or their lore. I'm pretty sure The Empire Strikes Back is the only in the series I've seen more than once.

  • That puts me in a tough place for Solo. It seems to be a film designed for the fans of the franchise who have always wondered about the roots of their favorite character. I assume Solo is filled with references and Easter eggs that have been mentioned in previous films -- I caught some of the more obvious ones, but I'm sure there are many more that I missed.

  • Unfortunately, Solo relies too much on fan service and knowing who these characters become to build an independent film. Solo: A Star Wars Story is fine. Alden Ehrenreich's performance is fine. The action is fine. The plot developments are fine. Everything is fine, fine, fine. But it either can't or doesn't want to be more than that.

  • This feels like the first truly inconsequential Star Wars film. Yeah, the prequels were bad, worse than Solo, even. They didn't need to exist, but they at least came from a particular vision and they at least were trying to feel like big event films. Not only is experiencing the young trials of Han Solo pretty unnecessary, the film is incredibly slapdash. It doesn't have any unified style or direction.

  • I wonder how much the highly publicized production trouble, with the removal of initial directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord and the piecing together from Ron Howard, had an effect on this. The seams of the jokey referential style of the former filmmakers are still there in places, but not consistently through. Howard, on the other hand, has the reputation of being a solid workman, and that probably helped make Solo a still coherent narrative given the turnover.

  • Also, Solo doesn't really feel like a Star Wars film because it has very little epic quality. It is tied to so many different film genres, jumping from Western to heist to social uprising to fated lovers, that is seems to forget this is a big space fantasy.

  • Too many times characters had just the right knowledge to get out of a tricky situation. This is most annoying during the big setpiece at the center of the film, where Han leads the Millennium Falcon through the famed Kessel Run -- every time the crew meet some impossible task, there is always a quick and easy solution made up of ridiculous jargon.

  • Two minor characters truly steal the show. First is the beloved Chewbacca, who actually gets an amazing character introduction [probably the only moment of fan service that worked]. His chemistry with Solo happens almost immediately [maybe even a little too quickly] and lives up to the relationship in better films.

  • The other is the next in a growing line of amazing droid characters, L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the co-pilot to young Lando. She might be a character completely designed to piss off the fan boys who spend their lives complaining about Mary Sues and too much racial diversity. L3-37's robot rights and feminist leanings provide some of the best laughs in the film.

  • There are human-robot sex jokes. It gets a little weird.

  • The opening Lady Proxima sequence was one of the few times where there was genuine design. The large, strange antagonist looks to be made with practical effects, like a throwback to many of the bizarre creatures of the original trilogy.

  • Donald Glover has been getting love for his performance as the predecessor to Billy Dee Williams' iconic Lando Calrissian. I've seen some takes that the prequel would have been better if he had been the main focus instead of Han. I'm not sure I would agree with this -- Lando is the kind of character that works better in limited screen time and in support of the main character quest. Glover's performance was, again, fine. He definitely adds some life to his scenes, though.

  • The third act crescendos in a series of crosses and double-crosses that doesn't really accomplish much. The nature of Solo obviously isn't going to give any satisfying conclusion. The biggest lingering thread involves a group of outcast rebels who I'm guessing is the starting faction that would become the Rebel Alliance. There is potential moving forward, but the film bungles their introduction, tacking it on so late into Solo. It is meant to be a surprising and powerful reveal, but falls completely flat.

  • Notice that I haven't talked much about Han Solo? That's probably a problem.

File Under 2018 #58: Saturday Church

saturday-church.jpeg

What it's about: Ulysses is a teen struggling with his sexual identity. His family, his church, his peers, his culture all reject who he is, which has made him close himself off from the world around him. After the unexpected death of his father, his ultra conservative Aunt Rose comes to stay and help his overworked mother. Her strict attitude clashes with Ulysses, which drives him away from his house and fully into the subculture where he belongs. He befriends a group of transgender women who participate in a social program called "Saturday Church," which gives them a meal, a safe space off the street, and a loving community.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Saturday Church is a vibrant story of a beautiful community, told with incredibly authentic voices. It is essentially split between a stark coming-of-age queer story and flights of musical fantasy -- these halves make for a little bit of unevenness, but I can't fault the film for diving into everything will great passion.

  • The first musical number in the film comes about 10 minutes in and it caught me off guard. The sequence starts with a shot of magical realism, Ulysses floating through his high school locker room [established as an environment of bullying and fear], before bursting out in full song and dance. It was an unexpected moment because the introduction of the film and the character is so reserved and small.

  • The performers in this sequence are clearly not professional singers or dancers. Their movements are stagy and stiff. It comes off as so incredibly pure, however, not at all in a condescending or judgmental way. If star Luka Kain were on American Idol [that's still around, right?], he likely wouldn't make it very far, but in the context of the character and the way director Damon Cardasis so lovingly shoots the sequence, it is infectious.

  • The fact that Ulysses fantasizes this choreographed dance with his bullies is interesting, too, a celebratory act.

  • The fantasy elements of Saturday Church really pick up when Ulysses finds the title community. Even the moments aside from the musical fantasy as he becomes adopted by this group are incredibly beautiful and vibrant. The conversations they have don't feel performed even though it is easily identifiable that these aren't seasoned actors. There is an authenticity in their personalities. And for Ulysses, this is clearly the first time in his life that he has had role models who understand him; people he can ask about sex and love and relationships without being at risk.

  • The coming-of-age plot in Saturday Church isn't as joyous or as essential. The moments with his family are a little more simplified, feel less specific, and become melodramatic. Aunt Rose becomes the clear villain and too didactic a presence. Certainly, she represents a real point-of-view and an important character in the lives of someone like Ulysses, but her obvious villainy lacks the grace found in the rest of the film.

  • There is one specific scene outside of the Saturday Church group which is difficult for me to fully digest. At his lowest moment, Ulysses is now living out on the street and a random encounter leads to him turning a trick for the first time -- also likely his first sexual experience. The scene takes its time to develop and while it doesn't go anywhere explicit before it cuts away, it is appropriately awkward and sad and a little scary. This isn't a unique scene in a coming-of-age story, but it is well staged.

  • It is this type of scene that changes Ulysses to a stronger person by the end, a character with more damage and experience, but with a place to turn to. I could have honestly used more scenes within the Saturday Church community to make for a bigger character transition by the end. The final moment in the film, where Ulysses is about to perform in full drag, is an irresistible final image and I would have loved to see more of that. Saturday Church isn't the kind of movie that gets sequelized, but the continued journey into Ulysses fully comfortable within his skin would be awesome.

  • It is interesting to see the world depicted in Saturday Church making a strong cultural imprint recently. Of course, Rupal's Drag Race has found a strong audience for nearly a decade. A recent documentary, Strike a Pose, recounted the days when Madonna was at the fore-front of gay culture and "voguing" was something of a phenomenon. And in a few weeks, Ryan Murphy's Pose will take a look back at this world again -- interestingly, a few members of the Saturday Church cast will be regulars on that series. I'm not sure if the voguing lifestyle and culture coming back is part of the general 1980s nostalgia boom, but as Saturday Church proves, it can lead to some wonderful new stories from a community worthy of the spotlight.

File Under 2018 #57: Tully

636607862059187776-TULLY-02186-R.jpg

What it’s about: Marlo [Charlize Theron] is an expectant mother with two kids who already completely run her life. Her daughter is on the heels of the difficult teenage years and her son has been difficult transitioning into kindergarten, showing some antisocial signs that haven’t been properly diagnosed. Her husband Drew is present but always busy with work and worn out by the time he gets home. With all this on her plate, her more successful brother gifts her a “night nanny” to take care of the baby while she can catch up on some sleep. When Tully [Mackenzie Davis] shows up, Marlo’s life is immediately turned right-side-up for a change. Her new companion leads to a better social, family, and sex life but it might only be a temporary fix.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Be warned of spoilers from here on out -- it isn’t the kind of movie you expect to need a spoiler warning for and so that itself is kind of a spoiler, there’s just no way to get around it. I’ll try my best not to talk specifically about the ending of Tully, but there are important thematic and narrative details that dramatically change.

  • Tully was a film I was greatly anticipating and a little afraid of seeing. I’m a modest fan of Jason Reitman but I think I’ve really liked everything I’ve seen from Diablo Cody. And together, they’ve done great work. As a soon-to-be first time father, I knew this would be a reality check. I was planning to see the film with my wife but ended up going to the theater by myself on a Sunday afternoon and I’m a little glad I did. I can’t imagine seeing Tully while pregnant. It would be the stuff of horrors. I at least had a bit of distance from the emotional and physical torment that Tully depicts.

  • No matter how strikingly real the film gets the act of motherhood, it can’t work without Charlize Theron’s performance. She is unsurprisingly perfect. She completely hits every turn of the emotional rollercoaster, all the anger and joy and sadness and humor. I think we can already assume her third Oscar nomination. [Somehow she hasn’t been nominated since 2006. How is that possible?? Perhaps I shouldn’t be so confident when she was completely snubbed for Young Adult.]

  • Tully is like a Disney character stepping into stark reality without realizing it. While watching the film I actually wanted this to be a little more explicit. By the end of the film I realized why that would have probably been a bad thing. Mackenzie Davis gives just enough sense of something magical in what turns out to be a really tough character to portray.

  • And so, I’m a little torn. While part of me wishes Tully went outright into the magical realism that was floating just below the surface, that obviously would have tipped everything that comes together by the end of the film. As it is, I respect the bold nature and really appreciate what it says about motherhood and the characters. The themes about how people are changed by life events and the longing of your past self is realized in interesting ways. At times the messages and implications of the twist are handled with beautiful subtlety, other times with distracting obviousness -- I wonder if it would actually be better knowing exactly what is going on from the start, that some of the conversations between Marlo and Tully would have even more resonance if they were just plain on their face. Within the narrative, it doesn’t exactly stick the turn.

  • The newborn montage is the film’s best scene -- much of it was pulled into the film’s fantastic trailer. It is a beautifully crafted sequence, vibrant and scary and funny and real. It is perfectly edited. This scene alone already makes me wonder if there will be an unexpected Best Editing nomination.

  • Another montage that is less dynamic and thematically resonant is a later sequence where Marlo and Tully drive into New York City for a much needed night on the town. The montage is simple: cuts of driving on busy highways under construction and snippets of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual. It is a perfect visual and aural representation of the passage of time during a commute.

  • Marlo’s diatribe about people calling her son “quirky” (“What does that even mean?”) makes me think of how people talk about Juno. I’m not sure if this is a dig from Diablo Cody, but I like to think it is.

  • Before seeing Tully, I was a little concerned about how it would approach the husband character, played by the perfectly cast boring dad Ron Livingston. Drew is a minor character by screen time and appropriately so. I was worried that he would be something of a scapegoat, perhaps sparked by my own anxieties of becoming a father. Tully makes him a realistic character and directly points out his faults -- he isn’t a monster or necessarily even a bad dad as you see him through Marlo’s loving eyes, but it doesn’t let him off the hook, either. I was surprised by how much of the ending of the film focused on Drew’s realization that he needs to be a better husband and father. For that message, I’m glad I saw Tully.

File Under 2018 #56: Deadpool 2

deadpool-2-trailer-with-black-panther.jpg

What it's about: Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool [Ryan Reynolds], is a lawless vigilante who is ready to settle down. He's ready to start a family with his girlfriend and ready to finally team up with the X-Men to do some good in the world [at least the kind that doesn't involve violently killing bad guys]. On his first mission to stop a young mutant from burning down an orphanage, Deadpool gets caught up in protecting the kid from a time-travelling cyborg called Cable [Josh Brolin]. But Deadpool may have to work with his ruthless enemy in order to stop a terrible future tragedy.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I really wasn't much of a fan of Tim Miller's 2016 Deadpool. I thought it was funny but the abrasive humor designed for teenage boys wore on me. Worse, though, is I remember basically nothing about the film. Who was the villain? How did Wade become Deadpool? The two scenes that I recall most are the very clever opening credit sequence [better than Deadpool 2's follow-up] and the risky post-credit sequence announcing Cable as the future villain.

  • Overall, Deadpool 2 is a better film, one I enjoyed more thoroughly, and one I expect to actually remember in two years.

  • I wouldn't say the film is as consistently funny as its predecessor but that is mostly due to trying to be an actual film. And don't get me wrong, there are some ridiculously funny sequences in Deadpool 2. Still, there are long stretches between jokes at all, either focuses on action beats or with dramatic stakes. Even then, everything is heightened.

  • The majority of the film's humor is either crude or self-referential -- the later tending to work better, at least for me. As in the first film, star Ryan Reynolds is the target at the center of much of the digs. The post-credit sequence is particularly hard on the star, leaving the film off on a delightfully funny note.

  • The film might be one of the best ever in using clever cameos. Two particular moments/sequences stand out: a quick moment with a few recognizable actors out of focus in the background and an extended "building a team" sequence with a new cast of superhero friends. The latter is when Deadpool 2 is at its most fun with one particular character that is one of the best gags I've seen in a long while. Domino is the major addition of this team, played by Atlanta's Zazie Beetz, and she is an awesome, badass female superhero with a super power that seems very silly but works with visual flair.

  • I encourage you not to look at the full IMDb cast list to not spoil a few of the nice surprises.

  • It isn't all fun and games, though, and that's where Josh Brolin comes in. The actor is having quite a moment after just starring as the biggest, baddest comic book movie villain only a few weeks ago. He is an amazing presence as Cable, suitably gruff and tough. But he is completely humorless -- the film actually points his lack of any sense of humor out at one point. This would be OK in most films, but not one with the tone of Deadpool 2. It would also be OK if his stone face would have been part of a joke, but that really isn't the case, either. It isn't really even a straight man and jokester dynamic relationship.

  • If you liked Julian Dennison in Hunt for the Wilderpeople [and why wouldn't you?], you should like him here, too. He's basically the exact same character.

  • Deadpool 2 does something really interesting with the showdown climax, avoiding any comic book film villain problems by establishing there are no true good guys or bad guys. Obviously, Deadpool is the hero that wants to be an anti-hero, but both Cable and Russell [who is referred to as Firefist once and then never again] both work in shades of gray. All three of these characters do bad things for what are understandably good reasons. By the climax, you just want them all to get along but also recognize that really isn't possible, at least not easily.

  • The biggest improvement from Deadpool to Deadpool 2, by far, is the action. I'm willing to give all the credit to director David Leitch, who is most known for his work on John Wick and Atomic Blonde -- Deadpool 2 takes on the kinetic pace and clarity of action that these films are so highly praised for. The hand-to-hand combat and gun play in Deadpool 2 are flawlessly staged, quite possibly the best ever in a super hero movie. There is the big setpiece action sequences, too, but it was the smaller set stuff that stands out.

  • I made note of how distracting T.J. Miller was in Ready Player One and it is no different here. It almost has the feel that his character was dramatically cut out because he is barely even featured and he doesn't have a joke that lands. People thought that replacing his role with Christopher Plummer would have been the most Deadpool thing ever and it turns out it would have been a good idea.

File Under 2018 #55: Please Stand By

26-please-stand-by.w1200.h630.jpg

What it's about: Wendy [Dakota Fanning] lives a comfortable and well-monitored life in a group home care facility for young people with autism and other mental illnesses. She has some independence, a job at Cinnabon and a cute dog. She has big dreams of becoming a writer, inspired by her favorite show Star Trek and a $100,000 fan script contest. With a finished script ready to go, Wendy must escape her comfortable life to travel on her own to Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles to make the deadline. With a little help from kind strangers and the family desperately trying to find her, she may just make it in time.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Director Ben Lewin's last film, The Sessions, has a lot in common with Please Stand By. Both feature characters with disability who are trying to live something like a normal life. They both mean well but don't have much dramatic impact. They are slight and shiny.

  • Generally, I didn't feel much for Wendy, which is a problem that Please Stand By can't overcome. This isn't anything against the performance by Dakota Fanning, she is fine, but the character is too inscrutable. Thankfully, her autism isn't played as a shortcut or a joke -- it could have been much more offensive or abrasive. She's just too distant.

  • Her journey is filled with quirks, too, which doesn't help. I was surprised there wasn't more comedy in the film, everything is taken fairly seriously, but there are too many random encounters on the way to Los Angeles. The narrative is cliche, you can see the movie script behind the movie working like a middlebrow indie is supposed to.

  • The entire high concept set-up is pretty weak. This is apparently a world where email doesn't exist? In the end, the entire journey plot structure seems like an contrived excuse for stakes.

  • Unfortunately, the Star Trek connections are little more than allowing characters to show how hip or unhip they are by their knowledge of the property. There is even the inevitable joke where one character on the unhip side of the equation refers to it as Star Wars.

  • There is some service paid to why Wendy is so infatuated with Star Trek and Spock in particular. Being autistic, she connects with his difficult expressing human emotion. The concept is spelled out pretty explicitly, though, not letting the viewer come to this realization more naturally.

  • Sure, the dog is cute, but the film totally overuses it. The dog gets emotional reaction shots!

  • Being a middlebrow indie dramedy calls for a middlebrow indie dramedy cast and Please Stand By boasts a pretty decent one. Toni Collette serves as Wendy's primary caretaker and the character most invested in her disappearance -- the role plays to her motherly presence. Patton Oswalt shows up in an important cameo that capitalizes on his nerd cred. Tony Revolori and Jacob Wysocki have small roles, too.

 

File Under 2018 #54: Mary and the Witch's Flower

Mary2.0.jpg

What it's about: Mary Smith is a bored girl in rural England. She's moved to a new town to live with her great aunt while awaiting her parents arrival. She doesn't particularly care about school, doesn't have any friends, and while she tries to be useful, nothing good seems to happen for anyone when she tries. That is until a neighborhood cat named Tibb leads her into the woods one day. There she finds a beautiful flower with great magical powers. She is swept away to a wonderful world of witches and warlocks, a place where Mary immediately thrives. But those in power may not have the best intentions for their new young visitor.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Studio Ghibli hasn't gone away yet, but as the cornerstone figures of the famed Japanese animation studio reach the end of their careers, many have wondered if the coming gap can be filled. Studio Ponoc's debut film Mary and the Witch's Flower certainly shows that Ghibli's legacy will live on. The animation style, characters, sense of wonder, female-led narrative, and more call upon the tropes and trademarks beautifully.

  • If you had told me that the film was made by Ghibli in the mid-90s and was uncovered for a new release, I'd believe you. But is it a watered down version of Ghibli's work? Is it too derivative of the themes and narrative tropes? I can see the argument. Though Mary and the Witch's Flower is a perfectly entertaining and beautifully animated film, it doesn't advance the animated style or narratives we've seen from Ghibli over the last 30 years.

  • It has to be recognized, though, that this film isn't made by outsider hacks looking to capitalize on the work of others. The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebashi who made two films under the Ghibli umbrella, The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There, two of the most underrated entries in the studio's filmography. Its executive producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura, worked on Howl's Moving Castle and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. These artists know the standards of Studio Ghibli and their work helped define those standards.

  • Aside from the Ghibli influences, there are also bright shades of Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter.

  • Adapted from Mary Stewart's The Little Broomstick, this is strangely the third film from Yonebashi from a Western source. With the Japanese animation techniques, this always creates a weird hurdle for me. Typically, I try to watch the films in the original language with subtitles. But with the film obviously taking place in the British countryside and involving a character named "Mary Smith," I had to switch it over to the English-language track a few minutes in. I guess I'm saying is the dubbing of animation is fluid. A cut-and-dry approach to watching foreign-produced animation is unproductive.

  • The English-language voice cast includes Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet and Ewen Bremner so that's good.

  • Mary and the Witch's Flower opens up in full action with a red-haired witch escaping a burning castle with a pouch of glowing seeds. Not much is explained and the film quickly shifts to Mary's simple life. The mystery of who this woman is and why she has such a striking resemblance to our young protagonist lingers through to the end.

  • Throughout, there are a number of thrilling sequences: Mary's tour through the witch college is full of fun discoveries and world building design; later, a daring escape is the action and animation highlight of the film as a spell breaks the curse set on a group of imprisoned oddities.

  • Mary is a strong protagonist and a good hero for young girls. She's bright, clever, kind-hearted, courageous, and self-sacrificing when considering those who need help. She's very much like the classic Ghibli protagonists though she may showcase more agency while maintaining the typical wondrous curiosity.

  • If Studio Ponoc is the main source to take the reins from Studio Ghibli, Mary and the Witch's Flower is a fine but safe start. One of the great joys of recent Ghibli films is how they've broken the mold of the studio template. Films like When Marnie Was There and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, for example, have a unique visual style apart from Miyazaki's body of work. The worst thing Ponoc could do is become a Ghibli clone -- after one feature, this isn't a fair concern quite yet. I'm excited to see what Ponoc and Yonebashi do next.

File Under 2018 #53: Outside In

outside-in-tiff.jpg

What it's about: Chris [Jay Duplass] is an ex-con newly released after 20 years in prison. Upon arriving home he finds that his family and friends have all become strangers. The world has dramatically shifted since he was last free as a teenager: the economy, the technology, the social norms. The only person who he has kept a relationship with was his former high school English teacher Carol [Edie Falco], who worked tirelessly to get his sentenced reduced while offering him emotional support from the outside. With Carol's family life on shaky ground, Chris's reintegration into society sparks a chance for a meaningful friendship and possibly something more.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Early on, Outside In keeps many of the narrative specifics fuzzy. We don't immediately know what crime put Chris in prison or exactly what role Carol took to try and get him out. It doesn't completely let on the extent of their relationship right away -- have they been having an emotional affair while he was in prison or were their conversations invested but not romantic? This might be irritating for some but Outside In lets these relationships and contexts develop more naturally over the plot. The slower pace helps the depressed mood of the film really click, as well.

  • Cons coming back into society isn't a new plot but I like how Outside In approaches the character of Chris. The character has many different physical and emotional markers of still being an adolescent, which makes some sense with the idea that he went to prison at about 17-years-old but I'm sure it is an exaggerated version of reality. His perpetual cowlick, poorly fitted clothes, eating habits [we see him eat pizza, a corn dog, and cereal] are all markers of his character being stuck in that time.

  • The key though, however, is that it never feels condescending. The film makes it clear that Chris has a lot to do to adjust and that there may be some underlying mental issues at hand, too, but it doesn't overload the sympathy. His situation is sad, but not hopeless.

  • A lot of the reason the character works is also in the performance from Jay Duplass. Of the Duplass brothers, I've always seen Mark as the better actor -- he certainly has more of a body of work. Jay's most notable role in Amazon's Transparent has been hit-or-miss for me though some of that is how I've responded to the character and not his acting choices. Outside In, though, is definitely his breakout for me.

  • Duplass plays Chris with a distance, usually either with complete earnestness or complete disaffectedness, and both parts of his personality work together.

  • Truthfully, though, if I were to choose which Duplass brother I would have thought spent 20 years in prison, I'd probably pick Jay over Mark.

  • He's matched by the more reliable performer Edie Falco, whose role is just as nuanced and devastating but a little more grounded and relatable. What Falco does so incredibly well throughout the film is act without dialogue. A lot of her best moments are reaction shots in conversations with Chris. She delivers so much emotion and internalized struggle clearly.

  • Aside from Chris and Carol's central relationship, there are two others that develop over the film well and with some surprises. The more prominent is between Chris and Hildy, Carol's teenage daughter, played by Kaitlyn Dever [Short Term 12, Detroit]. This particular thread could have been where Outside In goes off the rails, with the potential for something very icky and creepy. The film doesn't completely shy away from the complicated implications of their friendship but by fully exploring both characters, their connection and shared emotional isolation is fully understood.

  • Charles Leggett plays a less central character, but his role as Carol's husband is worth noting. He could be an easy villain, someone who pushes Carol away to Chris. But he's also complex and given a fair and balanced characterization. I found myself feeling for him just as much as Carol or Chris or Hildy and Outside In didn't need to go there.

  • After loving Humpday and liking Your Sister's Sister, I fell off of Lynn Shelton's career -- I didn't see Touchy Feely or Laggies, though both have had modest acclaim. She's otherwise worked primarily in television and I've seen her work on shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None but I'm just not confident in how much creative stock I can put on these jobs. I am glad that I caught Outside In, however.

  • The film shows me that Shelton can expand her character driven work into deeper dramatic narratives. Strangely enough, the few beats of comedy in Outside In were the moments that worked the least for me.

  • Its overall tone and how that worked with the unique setting, the quiet character struggles, and the way plot information flowed naturally as time was spent with the characters is what makes Outside In a sweet, charming, and devastating film.