File Under 2018 #83: The Endless


What it's about: Aaron and Justin Smith are survivors of a cult which they escaped 10 years ago. But their lives haven't been great since. Since the crazy media attention of their experiences faded away, they found themselves trapped in crappy jobs with few friends and generally unsuccessful lives. After receiving a mysterious video tape from the cult, people they assumed were all dead, Aaron decides he might as well go back and see if he can find some meaning. Justin is a little less optimistic, more cynical and angry about his past experiences, but he goes along to make his brother happy. They find there that not only is the community still thriving, it doesn't seem like anyone has aged a day over the last decade. Aaron and Justin, now adults with a better level of social understanding, dig into the cult's secrets and begin experiencing strange phenomenon that is both frightening and alluring.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • As I've been putting myself through this daunting challenge of noting on every 2018 theatrical release I've seen, there have been some ups and downs, natural highs and lows of writing, but The Endless met me with something different. I haven't put off writing about the film [mostly because I don't want these things backing up before I see something else] but I'm here not knowing exactly what to say. The Endless is a strange and perplexing film.

  • This should have been expected as I somewhat felt the same about the previous film from directorial team Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead [who also star in The Endless], 2014 horror film Spring. While that film was getting really good buzz from those who saw it, I was a little lukewarm on it. While watching The Endless, though, the strange rhythms and tones felt a little more natural -- seeing Spring was an instructive experience and probably helped me like both films a little bit more.

  • To put it frankly, I had no idea what was happening through much of The Endless. I was desperately hoping the film had a long and extensive Wikipedia plot to help me suss out everything. I wasn't bored by the film, but I also found myself to get a little sleepy by the end, which didn't help matters.

  • The complexity of the plot and science fiction elements is both good and bad. Benson and Moorhead obviously want viewers to be uneasy and they really nail that tone. On the other hand, I was constantly trying to find any answers to questions I'm not sure were even pertinent. It could be a frustrating experience.

  • In some ways, besides Spring, the film that The Endless reminded me most of was Shane Carruth's Primer. This isn't quite as heady but it hits on a similar emotional and intellectual place. There are also elements of something like time travel [though differentiated in a clever way].

  • The Endless is more successful when it tells its strange story visually and there are definitely enough captivating visuals throughout to carry the sci-fi mystery. Toward the end of the film, however, there is more philosophical thought and scientific explanation happening and most of it just went over my head. Still, the big concepts were shown [in addition to being told] in creative ways -- I never fully understood the looping, for lack of a better term, but it was a cool effect.

  • This sits in an interesting ground of clearly being a micro-budget film without exactly looking like a micro-budget film. It is really impressive how some of the effects were conceptualized while still being a little rough around the edges. It has a distinctive charm.

  • Narratively, the cult sci-fi/horror subgenre has received a boost in recent years, especially on the indie side. The Endless does some things differently with the concept to both positive and negative results. One of the biggest differences is that there is no big personality at the center of the community, which keeps the focus on the outsider protagonists and the supernatural. The community feels kind of small, though, only a handful of characters, which gives it a limited scope.

  • I never found myself invested in the journey of the two lead characters as brothers, though individually I found them compelling characters. Given that the film starts with an unattributed quote about how friends reveal their feeling toward each other while brothers can't, this should have had more of an emotional impact.

  • Ultimately, I'm curious how The Endless will stay with me. I definitely feel like it is a film that would benefit from a second viewing and I might give it another shot around the end of the year. I can't help but feel this is a film that should have hit me harder, it is totally in my wheelhouse. Already, the specifics are a little fuzzy. The sheer weirdness of everything keeps me afloat.

File Under 2018 #82: The Workshop


What it's about: Olivia Dejazet is a popular thriller writer who spends a summer leading a writing workshop for a group of diverse teens in a small French town. The group argue over what kind of novel they should collaboratively write, focusing on a thriller but unsure of who should be the villain. Over their discussions, politics inevitably comes up, with a disaffected young man with alt-right leanings named Antoine provokes his peers with anti-Muslim rhetoric and shocking views on violence. Olivia sees something in Antoine that she can use in her work, so she often singles him out, challenging his worldview. Getting too close to her pupil might put Olivia in harm's way of a rapidly radicalized and angry young man.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The Workshop's high concept of setting the characters into a classroom setting is an effective way of having an open dialogue on the racial and economic problems in France and the rapidly changing political sphere. Secondarily, how these issues can be addressed through art. The kids have the right mix of passion and naivety, with Olivia able to channel their beliefs and feelings into something more cogent.

  • Using the thriller as a medium to explore these issues isn't accidental, either, as genre filmmaking has become a primary source of unpacking political discourse [hell, the newest Purge movie just came out].

  • After increasing arguments about the motivations of their still undefined fictional killer, Olivia explains to the group that a writer can use controversial characters without endorsing them. It feels like a genuine breakthrough and becomes one of the most important themes of the film through its second half, which moves a bit away from the workshop setting into a more traditional character study of one of its members.

  • The use of what seems like documentary news footage of the town's once-vibrant shipyard [a possible setting for the workshop's collaboration] is another interesting tie-in between fact and fiction within the film and the importance of art. The teens are told that research is vital when writing a novel, even if it is purely fiction, as realism will only be of benefit. The footage, though brief, gives a better understanding of the place this film takes place in, one that has a complicated immigrant history that has become more volatile with economic deterioration.

  • The Workshop no doubt is at its best in the long workshop discussions. The characters are vibrant, their arguments define them thoroughly. The political and artistic nature of these discussions also provide all the narrative tension the film needs.

  • The plot outside of these scenes, especially in the second half of the film, seem to reach too far for dramatic and thematic resonance. The Workshop tries to be provocative by tapping into the life of a seemingly normal kid whose isolation is tempted by radical political ideas. It is a similar story heard on the news after any mass shooting. Unfortunately, The Workshop doesn't actually say much, certainly not anything new, with Antoine.

  • Strangely, the film could maybe have used some of its own advice by making Antoine someone the viewer truly has to reckon with. He's an interesting character, certainly, and a realistic one. The film spends a lot of time showing how seemingly normal he is -- normal family, he has a good relationship with his young niece and sister, etc. But the dramatic turns the film takes toward the end feel unearned.

  • Granted, The Workshop clearly builds to its ending, I just couldn't find it all that compelling. It seems to want to explode and yet it falls flat. On the surface, The Workshop itself turning into something of a thriller is another interesting parallel to the workshop. But when the motivations of the complex characters become simple and strange, it just doesn't work as well.

  • I haven't seen director Laurent Cantet's previous film, Palme d'or winner and Oscar nominee The Class, but The Workshop seems to be within the filmmaker's wheelhouse. I was interested to see as the credits rolled that Robin Campillo served as co-screenwriter, as I've really appreciated his work with Eastern Boys and BPM (Beats Per Minute). I can definitely see his storytelling in the film but that only makes The Workshop a little more disappointing. I'm not sure what may have been lost in translation, but this film doesn't have the same clever observational style -- at least not when the film turns into a broader story.

File Under 2018 #81: Three Identical Strangers


What it's about: Bobby Shafran was a college freshman arriving on campus for the first time when something strange happened: people he had never met before were greeting him as if they were close friends, someone even mistakenly called him "Eddy." A random stranger popped his head into Bobby's dorm room and asked him if he was adopted. The stranger took Bobby to meet Eddy that night and the resemblance was not only clear, it was extraordinary. Their story was told in a New York newspaper and attracted the attention of a third brother, David. The three young men, separated at birth, quickly became a national media sensation. But the circumstances of their birth and adoptions caught up with the joy of their meeting.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • It seems like every few years a documentary comes out that quickly becomes notorious for its "stranger than fiction" craziness. I remembered hearing the same kind of buzz for Catfish and Tickled that I heard on Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers leading up to its theatrical release. The basic story is something incredible, even unbelievable, and the film's marketing really showcased that. But the buzz suggested the intriguing set-up was only the beginning.

  • Three Identical Strangers is difficult to talk about in any meaningful way without getting into the twists and turns, so be warned.

  • That said, the film does a lot to foreshadow where the story eventually goes. Who tells the story and who doesn't tell the story gives some clues. What people are saying and what people aren't saying does, too. Though Three Identical Strangers starts pretty clearly as a fun and uplifting story, it never really hides that there is some shady stuff behind the story.

  • Because of that, I was never truly shocked by its turns, though they do offer a lot of intriguing questions. Three Identical Strangers definitely isn't the same kind of class as Catfish or Tickled that had me on the edge of my seat wondering what could possibly happen next.

  • Three Identical Strangers is filled with old photographs, home videos, and news footage shown over and over again. Some of this is part of its revelation structure [remember all these things that were said that point to this new specific point?], though it also seemed to need to keep the visuals as busy as the story being told.

  • OK, so on to some specifics. One of the most complex questions at the heart of the film is the nature of scientific study. I don't think anyone would argue that the study which involved the triplets and other identical twins was performed ethically or appropriately -- there was not enough transparency for those involved, there didn't seem to be a consistent question to be answered, the methods of collecting data were extreme, etc.

  • That said, Three Identical Strangers struck me of having a pretty anti-science stance, like it took one [extremely] poor example and blew it up to argue that any extensive scientific study that might explore similar questions wouldn't have any value. At the very least, I'm confused about what the film is exactly trying to say about the bigger picture in this story.

  • As it becomes crazier, the film tries to crystallize over the "nature vs. nurture" debate but never can really make a cogent thought. By the end I think the film is more balanced on the side of "nurture" but it definitely misses opportunities to narrow in on a point-of-view. Specifically, there is a line said by someone [I don't recall who] that really struck me, something to the effect that everyone focused in on the triplets' similarities and they really never cared to notice the differences. In ways, the film does the exact same thing.

  • Seeing the brothers express their anger based on their experiences is a potent emotional punch. It is impossible to disagree with their thoughts on their lives because they are the ones who've lived through it. It is undeniably a tragic story.

  • In that way, Three Identical Strangers is very effective as a specific emotional story about three brothers and their families. As a broader exploration of bigger issues around scientific responsibility it just isn't as successful -- in part because of its point-of-view, but also because of the unfortunate circumstances that the study has never been completed or published to have any real scientific value. It's an unenviable position.

  • The questions the film raises are really important and can definitely lead to some really good discourse [my wife and I disagreed about the film but had a really good conversation over it] but I'm not sure the film competently raises those questions on their own. I can't help but think that if Errol Morris had the rights to this it would have been a much more thought-provoking and explicitly about the questions underneath the tabloid and shadowy story.

File Under 2018 #80: Journey's End


What it's about: Captain Stanhope leads a group of soldiers at the front lines in the trenches during World War I. Because tactical battle has ground the major conflicts to a standstill, groups of soldiers are cycling in for six day shifts. Even without much battle, the tours are long, grueling affairs against the elements and fear of battle. A young man named Raleigh, who idolized upperclassmen Stanhope while in school, enters the war and requests to join his old friend. But Raleigh hasn't realized that Stanhope has been completely changed by his war experience, no longer the upstart young man who shared time with his family. In these extreme circumstances, their relationship is tested and changes under the cover of war.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Journey's End is a war film that isn't exactly about battle -- rather, the long and excruciating waiting for battle. It captures the spirit of World War I, the muck, the standstill, the never-ending feeling, quite well. It takes place over the course of six days, but feels like an eternity through the characters.

  • The state of the war is completely boiled down early on by the company's marching song repeating "We're here because we're here because we're here," etc. to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne." It perfectly captures the hopelessness of their situation.

  • When there is battle action [the first sequence comes in over an hour into the film], it is unspectacular, shot mostly in close up with a shaking camera. I'm guessing this is due to a relatively small budget, but Journey's End should be appreciated for sticking to its narrative strengths.

  • Much of the film is basically a chamber piece taking place in the captains' quarters where Stanhope gets drunk and angry and sad. There are times where it is more Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than it is Saving Private Ryan. There is a lot of fighting over the awful quality of their food.

  • The film's structure of introducing Raleigh into Stanhope's company gives a sharp look at how endless war can change a man irrevocably. Because Journey's End takes place in a short and specific amount of time, pre-war Stanhope is never shown, only talked about. He can be pictured, though, through the eyes of Raleigh, who hasn't lost the hope or love for his former friend. The film smartly delays their meeting, letting Raleigh's optimism live on long enough to be devastated by who he finds.

  • The three years age difference between Stanhope and Raleigh is a little deceiving as actors Sam Claflin and Asa Butterfield are almost ten years apart. It emphasizes the effect to an extreme degree, which is what Journey's End is ultimately trying to do, so it works fine. Personally, too, I've not yet put Claflin out of the YA actor stable, so I wouldn't have guessed the was already beyond 30.

  • Claflin gives a really good and centered performance with the opportunity outside of a Pirates of the Caribbean or Hunger Games story. He is properly beaten down, living on a fine edge of depression and insanity. He's also appropriately rugged, believably able to lead a group of men into battle.

  • Paul Bettany plays Osborne, the old man of the company, second in command to Stanhope and the captain's confidant -- consider Bettany is now able to be the "old man" is a little strange, but we're all getting older. He's the film's only spot of comic relief -- granted in a very serious, droll, British sort of way. Strangely, he's also a big part of the story's heart, with one of the most defined characters arcs and tragic figures.

  • Journey's End is an incredibly measured and austere exploration of war's effect on young men. Thematically, this isn't new ground. From a stylistic standpoint, the film doesn't capture a new look at warfare, either.. And so, Journey's End might not be an essential World War I film. It is, however, wonderfully crafted and almost delicate in its character study. There is a real and honest emotional core here and if you don't mind a very dower time, it is worth seeking out.

File Under 2018 #79: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


What it's about: Claire Dearing has moved on from the failure of her Jurassic World theme park to a life trying to protect the last remaining dinosaurs. A once dormant volcano has become active on the island of Isla Nublar and competing interests are working to evacuate the majestic [and very valuable] creatures to safety. Hired by a wealthy stakeholder of John Hammond's original vision, Claire re-unites with Owen Grady to track down his specially trained Velociraptor Blue. Once on the island, however, they quickly realize that not everyone has the same intentions to protect the inhabitants. There is also a new breed of dinosaur that could pose a threat to everyone's safety.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I wasn't particularly enthused to see Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, not being a fan of its predecessor. I wasn't even planning on seeing it in the theater but with the holiday break, I had some free time and I caved. My expectations were not high despite J.A. Bayona, a filmmaker I respect, taking over the franchise. I'm not sure they were even met.

  • Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was surprisingly unfun. For being a huge production, the epitome of the summer blockbuster, I generally found it dull, bland, emotionally empty, with nothing in particular to latch on to. It might not be fair to put it on the same level as a Transformers film, as Fallen Kingdom has the ability to pare itself down for a coherent setpiece, but the franchises share incredible thin characters, massive narrative holes, a harried script with logic problems. I feel like I could nitpick Fallen Kingdom to death, so I'm going to try and resist that as much as possible, but bare with me if I revel a bit.

  • There is so much stupidity in the film's cold open scene: humans acting irrationally, technology that doesn't make any sense, dinosaurs used solely like a reverse deus ex machina, no indication of what is happening on a narrative level, and a hurried tone that doesn't make understanding any easier. And, honestly, this is one of the more distinct scenes of the film.

  • I can't get past the main plot line. In the span of just a few years, Claire [Bryce Dallas Howard] has gone from one of the most important figures in the disastrous opening of the Jurassic World theme park [what was her actual job anyway?] to a non-profit lobbyist to protect the dinosaurs as an endangered species. Let's think about this for a second. A woman responsible for dozens [maybe hundreds] of deaths and $800 million of litigation [as told by the movie] now talks with members of Congress about passing legislation to use taxpayer money to transport and care for the murder machines. Would any serious non-profit group want anything to do with her?

  • I'm pretty far left on most environmental issues but the questions of animal rights the movie tries to explore with total seriousness is a bit too much for me.

  • One character mentions John Hammond's dream of letting these magnificent creatures live in peace is a serious next-level retcon.

  • Mid-way through the movie there is a reveal of a new science fiction element that is a logical step for the Jurassic World franchise and could have some big implications. Unfortunately, it is completely botched by tip-toeing around the subject to death -- even when the reveal is fully confronted, the explaining characters don't even use the precise word, using euphemisms and strange expressions for some reason instead.

  • There is a major plot point around breaking into a secure underground laboratory only to later show that it is easily accessible by a dumbwaiter that we've seen a child character use to get from one part of the estate to another.

  • I was shocked by how little humor there was in Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom and the few laugh lines didn't work at all -- there wasn't anything above a few chuckles from my decently full matinee audience. A big spectacle like this absolutely needs some laughter to go hand-in-hand with the wonder and terror and thrills. This definitely came out severely unbalanced.

  • This is definitely one of Chris Pratt's least humorous turns, on the level with the problematic Passengers. Owen is such a bland tough guy Clint Eastwood wannabe. None of the actor's usually easy charisma comes through. As someone who didn't like him much in Infinity War, either [though he's better there], I'm starting to worry about Pratt.

  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ted Levine is excellent casting for the hammy hunter villain that has become a type well worn out in the Jurassic Park films. The character is involved in one of the most memorable moments of the film, but I still wish he'd been given more of the film to carry.

  • I'm wondering what J.A. Bayona really brought to this movie. There are a few sequences that dip into horror but nothing to the degree of The Orphanage -- obviously, a big Hollywood film wouldn't want to get that scary, but these scenes feel like a neutered version of its creator. The spectacle may not even be as great as The Impossible, which is a disturbingly bleak film but had infinitely more stakes.

  • It isn't really fair to hold this against Bayona, who undoubtedly has better work ahead. I can't see any filmmaker coming in to save this franchise, bring it back to its amazing beginnings. It might not be possible. It might be too big, too broad, too thin at this point. Someone is going to get a shot, though.

File Under 2018 #78: Hearts Beat Loud


What it's about: Frank Fisher is a record store owner who has long had dreams of being a rock star. With his only daughter Sam off to college on the west coast in a matter of weeks, she is pressured to perform jam sessions with him. When Frank uploads their latest collaboration, a song called "Hearts Beat Loud," it starts to get some recognition. This sparks his interest in making a genuine go at making music, but Sam is hesitant, solely focused on medical school. But with his business closing, his mother in poor health, and a complicated relationship with his landlady, this might be his one and only shot at his dream.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Hearts Beat Loud wouldn't work without the music and the music has to be good. Fortunately enough, it is, and maybe more importantly, it feels authentic to the characters. It is quickly established that they are really good musicians, maybe not pros, but they understand songwriting and form. When Nick Offerman plays the guitar or bass or drums, it doesn't cut around to make it look easier -- it is clear the man can play. When Kiersey Clemons sings, she can really sing. They both show legitimate star power.

  • The first jam session of the film evolves into a full songwriting montage. Yes, it is a little improbable that they could write and record an completely polished song in the matter of a few hours but the editing on the montage is clear and fun and shows the process really well.

  • In its execution, the "Hearts Beat Loud" sequence is on the level of the musical sequences of Once. There isn't the same amount of emotional connection to the characters at this point in Hearts Beat Loud, but the showcase of the artistic process is incredibly charming.

  • Features probably the best version of the hearing my song on the radio for the first time plot device ever.

  • Hearts Beat Loud isn't afraid to name drop musicians, a few even show up in the film. It is always a little annoying when films feel like they have to establish the characters' tastes by them talking about hip and trendy artists. And Hearts Beat Loud doesn't really need it -- their musical chops are established by them simply playing music.

  • There is a fun extra layer in the songwriting process with it being a father-daughter duo. Intentions within the lyrics are read in a different way by the characters because of their relationship. When Sam writes a love song, for example, she is hesitant to call it a love song so she doesn't have to talk about the relationship it is based on. Frank, on the other hand, is excited to know about the context within the lyrics.

  • Their emotional connection and the songwriting live on the same level in the narrative and it can naturally build the themes, narrative, and relationships. This is what musicals are supposed to do and Hearts Beats Loud utilizes the form well.

  • Offerman simply sitting on a stool, playing a sad sounding guitar riff has all the emotional resonance the film needs. It is a nice shorthand and difficult to pull off.

  • Seeing Toni Colette show up as a totally normal person only a few weeks after seeing her in Hereditary took a second to get over.

  • One of the best clues that Hearts Beat Loud is working on a narrative and emotional level is that I genuinely wanted the characters to pursue their band while completely understanding pragmatically why they couldn't.

  • Perhaps because director Brett Haley is known for films where older people find a new lease on life [I'll See You in My Dreams is his other film I've seen], this might skew his thematic interest in Frank's direction. Sam's realistic outlook isn't looked down on, however, even if she is less of the major focus of the film.

  • Maybe it is because I associate Nick Offerman so strongly with Parks and Recreation's Ron Swanson, but I've never really considered him to be a real actor, whatever that means. Hearts Beat Loud gives him a pretty good opportunity to show a little bit of range and really carry a movie with both comedy and drama. I'm not going to think of Offerman at the end of the year, but that shouldn't discount what is a fine central performance.

  • Kiersey Clemons, on the other hand, may have already had something of a breakout with Dope, but this shows that she can be a star. I always feel wary of giving actors bonus points for singing, but it is such a key to the character and she performs so incredibly well.

  • The two actors together is what makes the film really sing [pun intended]. Offerman and Clemons wouldn't have been anyone's idea of an ideal screen duo, especially as a father-daughter pair, but they work perfectly together. Hearts Beat Loud is charming and cool because these actors are charming and cool. It is exciting that a film cast them together in these roles.

File Under 2018 #77: What We Started


What it's about: Carl Cox was at the forefront of Electronic Dance Music [EDM] and is still going strong with pure and righteous beats at the age of 55. Martin Garrix is a 17-year-old music wunderkind who rose to the top of the top-40 charts out of nowhere. These two men are at the cross-roads of a musical genre that has gained popularity in recent years but has been around for decades. From the post-disco roots in Chicago and Detroit to the mega festivals across Europe, EDM is a distinct music genre that is also incredibly broad in its scope and tones. The full history of the genre is explored, including drug scares and the internet's influence.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The extent of my knowledge of Electronic Dance Music is random mainstream acts that made it to pop radio, a vague understanding of what "dub step" is, Daft Punk [but they are cool, right?] and the Netflix rom-com Ibiza. That might put me in the target audience of What We Started, which starts the revelation that EDM isn't a new phenomenon.

  • For anyone who would have no interest in watching this film because of an allergic reaction to their perception of EDM music, What We Started tries to set itself apart from the worst [and most visible] of the genre, instead highlighting "pure artists" who spend their sets mixing records instead of being glorified hype men. There is a distinction made between underground electronic music [which is "art"] and EDM [which is "show business"].

  • The fun thing about What We Started is along this distinction and the in-fighting that comes out through the documentary. Many of the talking heads are incredibly critical of other talking heads within the film, especially of new kid on the block Martin Garrix.

  • Surely, though, this message is a bit blurry, as the film is wholeheartedly in favor of the new school EDM artists, including Garrix, who is one of its main profiles. By the end of the film, it goes to listing all the cool and popular top-40 mainstream acts that have taken the world by storm [Skrillex is pointed out], even name-checking David Guetta as the guy who started it all. It then highlights musical interlopers like Usher and Ed Sheeran who have collaborated with the new age EDM. It comes off a bit like it wants it both ways -- wants the street cred of the underground acts while also geeking out about the new acts that are completely at their odds.

  • Taking a cue from the hip music it is chronicling, What We Started is very slickly produced. The film moves quickly, splicing talking heads from some of the biggest names of the genre [Paul Oakenfold, Pete Tong, Moby, etc.] with footage of the root pioneers, new festival concerts, and lots of shiny flashing lights. What We Started has the visual styling the match the music.

  • There is lots of good people watching from clubs of the 80s and 90s. Such fashion!

  • If you are a fan of EDM, there will certainly be things to take in from the film. If you are new to the genre or only listen to the mainstream stuff, you will probably appreciate the connections to the inner-city post-disco roots of the movement and you'll have new artists from the underground to explore. And, of course, just taking in the sights and sounds has value.

  • For an art that I have very little interest in, What We Started does a pretty thorough job of making the history and current scene pretty entertaining.

  • I'm not going to become a convert, but that doesn't mean What We Started is a failure. It is worth seeing for anyone with any fleeting interest in the genre or just wants to be lightly entertained for 90 minutes and isn't repulsed by the electronic sounds. It isn't a perfect documentary and its flaws are pretty annoying, but it is a pretty excellent 100-level course into the genre.

File Under 2018 #76: Hondros


What it's about: Chris Hondros was an American war photographer who captured some of the most indelible, frightening, and important images from recent conflicts in Africa and Asia. His work has been lauded and his stories are fascinating. After his tragic death while doing the work he loved, friends and colleagues remember Hondros, think about his life and work, and what his legacy has meant for art, journalism, and war.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Hondros opens in the midst of insanity. Young black men running through the frame wielding powerful guns, shooting imprecisely screen. Then the voice of Chris Hondros is heard, casually accepting a telephone call, telling the person on the other line that he'll call back later. This mix of the extraordinary and the ordinary is strange and unsettling. In about 2 minutes into the film, Hondros captures the essence of war photography and its subject in a beautiful way.

  • Director Greg Campbell has an intimate connection with his profile as a newspaper correspondent who worked with Hondros throughout their respective careers -- their first job together involved breaking into a party to get a photograph of President Bill Clinton.

  • Especially as a debut filmmaker, Hondros benefits by knowing the subject personally and understanding the kind of work he did. Making a profile documentary doesn't always benefit from such close emotional contact, but because the focus of Hondros is on the work and a celebration of the man, it works just fine.

  • Not surprisingly, the film is filled with images and video taken by Hondros, much of it speaking for itself. The visuals aren't always specifically connected to anything in the story being told, but the whole effectively builds a complete picture. At other times, seeing the images from the most important events of his life as they are being described can be cathartic. The breadth of emotional captured by the images is incredible, from grace and beauty to horrific and hectic.

  • Of course, with all this footage, the film becomes more than just a profile of a person, but about the specific events he covered over his life. Some of this is incredibly specific -- his work in Pakistan directly following 9/11 and the opening scenes in Liberia tell the stories of those places and conflicts economically and without feeling like a history lesson.

  • The film also benefits from interviews of Hondros talking about his work. In these glimpses, Hondros shows to be the personable and driven artist that matches the kind of man we are told about. It is also easy to see how he displayed such a humanistic eye.

  • Hondros reminds of other documentaries made by and about war journalists, such as Restrepo and Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, and Hondros stands with the best of them. The intimacy and ability to bring people into these extraordinary environments tend to make these types of films work, as long as there is authenticity in the work [as opposed to fictionalized films like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which can't compare].

  • But there are other challenges that Hondros has to compete with in order to be a fully rounded and engaging documentary. Seeing the incredible images and hearing people talk about them can be enough to create an insightful and emotional core. Hearing people talk about Chris Hondros, though, adds something invaluable, because it adds context to how these images came to be. Without the profile, the film would have been emotionally complex, sad, stirring, enraging, but everything becomes a little deeper by learning just a little about the man behind the camera.

File Under 2018 #75: Back to Burgundy


What it's about: Jean is the adult son of a French winemaker who escaped to Australia to start his own family and tend his own grape fields. With his father in poor health, Jean returns home to Burgundy. He isn't exactly welcomed back openly by his brother and sister, who have stayed through the pain of watching their mother and now father die. The three siblings not only need to put their past quibbles behind them, but now work together to secure their family business. A €500,000 inheritance tax on their farm house and grape fields is too steep for them to pay, so a decision has to be made. Can they bare to sell off the family's legacy? Jean has a similar decision: Will he again run away from his family for his responsibilities thousands of miles away?

Unorganized thoughts:

  • As an American with assumptions about wine made in France, Back to Burgundy does an interesting job playing with these preconceptions, though not perfectly. In a lot of ways, the film feels like an American farm drama -- not exactly an established genre, but the tropes of hard work, a connection to the Earth, etc. all easily come to mind.

  • Back to Burgundy is structured into alternating parts of family drama and wine-making process. Not as the filmmakers likely intended, I found the process much more compelling. It isn't overly complicated, I'm sure that more goes into the growing and picking of the grapes, but there is something pastoral about how the process is filmed. That said, it doesn't have a documentary feel, which could have been an interesting stylistic take, and I wish there was more to learn about the turning of grapes into wine.

  • On the other hand, there isn't much unique about the family strife drama. The film doesn't exposition itself through their history, which is probably a good thing even if it doesn't build much of the characters.

  • The setting is what gives the film and the family its flavor. The hard work we see the characters do in the fields connects them to the space and their family better than any of the arguments they have.

  • Still, there is a sense of privileged white problems that I couldn't quite get easily past. The characters are all so milquetoast -- one of the field workers directly calls them "bourgeois" which I take as the same. Back to Burgundy does a lot to show they are genuinely struggling with finances and family, but it can't clear the issue. I'm not exactly sure what the film could have done differently, if there is any way to set a drama in this idyllic place and make it primarily about financial struggle. Unfortunately, I just cared too little for the three leads and their problems.

  • Karidja Touré, who broke out in 2014 with Céline Sciamma's Girlhood, makes an appearance as a young woman who is hired to work in the fields. Jean takes interest in her [not in a romantic way] and they seem to be building to an interesting relationship. But then the character completely disappears after the first act. As Touré hasn't done much since Girlhood, it was really exciting to see her, but I wish it didn't completely waste her -- especially because this relationship could have led to an interesting spark that the film didn't really have otherwise.

  • I don't normally comment on movie music because it is far from my expertise -- I often don't even actively notice the music as I'm watching a film. I have to say that the music in Back to Burgundy is pretty bad. It was distracting in the quiet emotional moments and the montages in the field.

  • Hot take: stomping on grapes in the big barrels looks grotesque and I'd never want to do it.

File Under 2018 #74: Believer


What it's about: Dan Reynolds is the frontman of one of the world's most popular bands, Imagine Dragons, winners of one Grammy, three American Music Awards, and nine Billboard Music Awards. Raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a Mormon, his faith has long been very important to him. But throughout his life, he's had a hard time justifying the Church's stance on the gay and lesbian community. Now with the profile, resources, and will, he goes on a mission to change the minds of followers, that LGBTQ people aren't sinners and they deserve a place in the Church.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I'm not a fan of Imagine Dragons. I've heard plenty of their songs given their immense popularity and presence throughout popular culture. I have no issues with their art. You could probably call me Imagine Dragons agnostic.

  • I feared how much Believer would be a puff piece to advertise Imagine Dragons and Dan Reynolds. Certainly, there is a lot of their music in the film -- by informal count, I noted four Imagine Dragons songs about 15 minutes into the film. There isn't much biography of the band, but it does touch on their quick rise to fame. The film is named after an Imagine Dragons song that doesn't have any real descriptive meaning for what the film actually is.

  • And eventually, Believer becomes just as much a film about a rock concert [one with a message, surely] than the specific issues of its message.

  • A scene where Reynolds goes through fan e-mails, many from young Mormons who look up to him as one of the few famous pop culture figures that shares their faith. Some of them come out to him as gay, as well, noting their inner struggle. The way Reynolds addresses this with emotion and what seems to be genuine thought, some of those concerns are relieved. Yeah, Believer can't escape being just as much about Reynolds and his band than about the issues, but it proves to come from the right place.

  • Another figure who is profiled in the documentary is Tyler Glenn, the frontman of another popular pop band, Neon Trees. Glenn was also raised Mormon and, unlike Reynolds, is openly gay. Listening to him talk about his story is immediately more complicated and resonant. I understand why a film was made following Reynolds instead of Glenn and I'm glad that Glenn's story was told, but it creates a strange imbalance.

  • Seeing Reynolds call Glenn to talk about the issue [Glenn is not seen on camera during this scene] crystallizes that Believer is Reynolds's story. An LGBTQ film focused on an ally is fine. It can be a valuable story to tell. But only as a supplement to the first-person stories on the subject.

  • So my thoughts on Believer are complicated. It talks about incredibly important issues, such as appalling Mormon teen suicide rates that coincided with the introduction of Prop 8. The stories of people coming out within the Mormon church are heard [with Reynolds intently listening face shown with shot-reverse-shot].

  • But telling this story in this way certainly has its drawbacks. Believer has an uphill battle to prove that it isn't the kind of puff piece that many will assume going in. I can absolutely see some viewers being completely turned off by the film's structure, not able to get past any focus on Reynolds and his band. We see Reynolds write new songs, organize a music festival for his band to perform in Utah, there is a countdown leading up to the festival and how many tickets have been sold. Most egregiously, there is a scene where Reynolds accepts an award for his LGBTQ activism, so it is a little hard to dispute the film doesn't do any self-promoting back-patting.

  • Would Believer have more impact if it was simply a film about the relationship between LDS and LGBTQ? All the same stories, all the same statistics, without the [for lack of a better word] gimmick of Reynolds's own journey. Maybe Reynolds would be just another of the talking heads sharing their experience. It might not be totally fair, but yes, I think so.

  • The "Music By" credit for Hans Zimmer, shown over concert performance of Imagine Dragons, I assume wasn't a joke, but was funny.

  • Streaming from my HBO Now app, preceding Believer was a montage/trailer of important gay characters from HBO shows and movies, from LookingSix Feet UnderThe Normal HeartGame of ThronesGirls, and many, many more. Though it was totally self-serving, it was pretty cool to see the context of dozens of LGBTQ characters and moments that have been such a big part of the entertainment platform for more than two decades.

File Under 2018 #73: Summer 1993


What it's about: Frida is a young girl growing up in the Catalonia region of Spain. When both of her parents die of AIDS, she is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in a small community. She explores her new environment, her younger cousin always following behind, while getting in plenty of childhood trouble. As the summer goes on, Frida begins to wonder more about what happened to her parents, causing her to rebel against her new guardians. But she is stuck. This is her family now and she must learn to accept that.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I saw Carla Simón's Summer 1993 late last year during the height of awards screener season as it was part of the slate sent to critics from Oscilloscope Laboratories. Seeing Summer 1993 in the midst of a catch-up cram session is not ideal and I hadn't retained much of the slow-paced story. When the film received a limited theatrical release a few weeks back I decided it was worth shaking the dust off the screener and revisit the film. I'm glad I did. Summer 1993 is a beautiful, tender, and distinct film.

  • Because the film is told through its young, quiet, shy protagonist, it takes on a curious, observational tone. Much of the spoken dialogue early on doesn't feel produced or scripted, instead something more natural that isn't necessarily directed at anyone -- it's as if Frida hears the adults talking but really isn't listening.

  • There are many moments of wonder that approach something like Beasts of the Southern Wild without the obvious fantasy. The opening scene, which is really one of great tragedy, is beautifully captured with Frida being driven away with fireworks going off visible through the rear window. Frida coming across a religious statue in the forest has an air of mystery.

  • Until the ending of the film, where Frida opens up with her aunt about what happened to her mother, the implications of her death are gently explored, rarely vocalized. The most heartbreaking scene where this bubbles up happens when Frida scrapes her knee during a game of tag with other kids; one of the mothers reacts aggressively, making sure her child keeps away from the blood. It isn't overstated and Frida is oblivious to what is happening.

  • Summer 1993's premiere shot is a mid-closeup from the side of Frida, with the open environment surrounding her just out of focus. Shots like this are used throughout the film and help build its hazy tone.

  • I'm a few years older than what Frida is here though the film is set in a time without the same rapid tech explosion, so it feels like the kind of world I grew up in. It is quiet, a lot of time spent out side, exploration, the need for an imagination to survive. The summer felt slow and big. I don't know if 1993 has any specific significance, but it is a distinct time and it is captured perfectly.

  • Laia Artigas, who plays Frida, is the star and she's fantastic, but I can't not mention Paula Robles as her younger cousin, the one who gets the brunt of all of Frida's mischief.

  • Summer 1993 ends with another touching moment, one that completes the arc of her new family. From the start, Marga and Esteve try their best to bring Frida into a comfortable and happy life. They certainly are in a tough position and they are clearly trying their best, but they are emotionally removed. The film frames them in the story in an interesting way -- Aunt Marga is more integrated, but both are really only at the edges. As I mentioned before, in the scenes where Frida is integrating into her new life, they seem to be barely seen or heard. In the final moments, however, they show clearly that they love Frida as their own daughter.

File Under 2018 #72: Incredibles 2


What it's about: Bob and Ellen Parr are two of the most powerful superheroes in a world where superheroes have become illegal. The public can't trust those with super powers, they seem to do more damage than good. The power couple is approached by a wealthy entrepreneur who has a plan to change the perspective of the public by equipping their suits with cameras to record all their good deeds. For their first mission, however, only Elastigirl is needed. She's more likeable for the general public and her style of crime fighting doesn't cause so much collateral damage. That leaves Mr. Incredible to stay home with perhaps an even more difficult task: raise their three kids, their moody teenage girl, their over-active boy, and the baby whose incredible powers are just coming of age.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • With the release of Incredibles 2, I recently went back and revisited the original 2004 film for the first time in more than 10 years. Brad Bird's first work with Pixar is still renowned as one of the animation studio's best work and it was released in its heyday. In recent years, I've become less enthused and less enthused by each Pixar film's release. The work is still good -- they make beautifully artistic stories -- but they've lost some of their magic.

  • A lot has changed in the superhero genre since 2004. Marvel Studios hadn't yet started their reign at the release of The Incredibles, though films in the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises had already established the forms of the genre. I wondered if Incredibles 2 would have much to say about the increasing popularity and presence of superhero films. Really, though, Incredibles 2 isn't concerned with that. Much like the original film, the major thematic focus is on raising a family.

  • All that said, Incredibles 2 isn't a great film or transcendent like the best of Pixar. For me, it isn't a film that puts the studio back on top. It is, however, incredibly fun. When it is an action focused superhero film, it really zooms.

  • The thematic ground that the film covers is important and interesting within the narrative, but it makes the film feel super stuffed. There is so much going on, core characters are separated for large sections of the film, every character gets their own subplot which leaves them underwhelming or undercooked [looking at you, Tony Rydinger].

  • When Elastigirl is first recruited for a crime-fighting gig instead of Mr. Incredible, his disappointment is a bit overplayed -- I can see the character being offended that he isn't the first hero chosen, but to be so indignant toward his wife didn't seem right. This leads to the "Mr. Mom" narrative, which is definitely a lot of fun -- and a little scary as a soon-to-be father.

  • Meanwhile, Ellen finds an ally in Evelyn, the sister of her new benefactor and the brains behind the operation. Evelyn, like Elastigirl, is unsung, in the background compared to their male counterparts, even though they have greater claims on glory.

  • In the past few years of superhero films, a major trend has emerged: villains, though bad and needing to be stopped, have a point. Incredibles 2 tries to get there but the messages of the big bad are completely jumbled through misdirections and twists. Without giving too much away, the mystery centered around Screenslaver is pretty easy to suss out early on. This takes a lot away from the surprise and the important messages that a certain character [both the villain and the alter-ego] make.

  • There are two big improvements from The Incredibles. The simplest is the animation, which has taken a big step forward over the long 14 years -- Pixar has figured out how human mouths move. The more interesting improvement is in introducing a number of new super-powered characters with cool and creative powers.

  • The highlight among the new characters is Voyd [voiced by Sophia Bush], a super-fan of Elastigirl who has the power to create portals that matter can pass through -- it is basically the premise of the video game Portal with a bit of Doctor Strange mixed in. The visual of her power is really amazing. I can't imagine a live-action film being able to nail this power with as much clarity while maintaining its quickness. Other new characters include a guy who can crush things with his mind [but don't ask him to un-crush them] and an old man who vomits lava.

  • Elastigirl, as the plot suggests, gets more to do throughout and the breadth of her powers are also pretty great. A sequence where she stops a runaway train on a modified motorcycle that compliments her powers in a particularly clever way is another example that the film is at its best in pure action sequences.

  • Jack-Jack isn't a new character technically, though Incredibles 2 gives him much more of a direct impact on the narrative. His variety of powers offer a lot of entertaining hijincks. I was confused by his family's reaction to gaining his abilities, though, as they are unveiled in the finale of the original -- I could definitely be missing something here.

  • The screening opened with a short message from the actors, similar to other blockbusters thanking fans for coming out to see the film on the big screen. Strangely, this one acted more as an apology than a thank you, which was a weird tone to set. It tried to come across as a highlight of the hard work of so many people over the past 14 years, but I wish this message was hit harder.

  • Like all Pixar theatrical releases, the presentation opened with a short film, Bao, directed by Domee Shi. This was one of Pixar's best shorts, a beautiful, emotionally resonant, and surprising story of parenting and letting go. Strangely enough, this is thematic ground also covered in Incredibles 2, but told infinitely better. Incredibles 2 is fun enough to warrant a trip to the theater, Bao is worth the price of admission in itself.

File Under 2018 #71: American Animals


What it's about: Warren Lipka [Evan Peters] is a college student at the University of Kentucky on an athletic scholarship that is a bit of a bad apple. After hearing about a collection of rare books worth millions from his friend Spencer [Barry Keoghan], the two hatch a plan for a heist. They enlist two other college friends [Eric, the brains, and Chase, the rich getaway driver] and put together the logistics for this complicated job. In order to pull it off, they'll have to do it in plain sight, under heavy security, and they might have to hurt someone. And it'll only get more difficult once they have their treasure out.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Director Bart Layton made a splash with his debut in 2012 with the twisty, insane documentary The Imposter. Doc filmmakers don't typically jump into narrative feature films, but the incredible story of The Imposter showed Layton could weave an excellent tale [I remember hearing about the film being remade as a narrative but I guess that never got traction]. I was curious if this stylish heist film would be a good fit for his transition.

  • Turns out, it wasn't much of a transition, as despite not being marketed as such American Animals is an intriguing blend of documentary and narrative film forms. Very early into the movie, a voice-over is heard and then the movie cuts to a traditional talking head of someone identified as the "true" version of the character. Throughout American Animals, the story is told by the people who lived it, including the four young men at the center of the heist, their families, and those who knew them.

  • The talking heads have two basic purposes: to unfold the story through their recollections and to fill in the narrative with their inner-thoughts, motivations, etc. which helps inform the film's themes.

  • This creates a very strange, though not entirely unique movie. It's balance of documentary and recreation is something like the inverse of Errol Morris's 2017 Netflix mini-series Wormwood, which was primarily a documentary with splashes of narrative filmmaking sprinkled in. A majority of American Animals is the core narrative story, but the talking heads prove to be an important guide and Layton uses them for entertaining and cross-genre effect.

  • The documentary form gives the narrative a more performative breaking of the line between supposed reality and fiction. Most "based on true events" films are told at a distance but in a way that tries to grab something real -- many of these films go to the lengths of telling the audience that no matter the crazy things that are going to happen, please believe this is a true story. Here, it is never really a question that the story taking place is a version of the story as these individuals lived it.

  • In fact, the film liberally plays with the inconsistencies in memory and story. The narrators occasionally break into the story to refute or revise what is shown. There are even moments when the true versions come into the narrative -- the first is a funny, self-referential beat where Evan Peters asks his real life counter-part if this is how the moment actually went down, the second instance is even a bit haunting, like a sad warning from a future self.

  • The real versions of the characters are truly characters themselves. American Animals wouldn't be nearly as purely entertaining with their commentary. Through the editing of their talking head segments, they interact with each other, showing their personalities through their individual recollections of their stories.

  • The actors are extraordinarily cast. Not only are they fine young actors, but they match their real-life counterparts incredibly well. One of the worst cliches of true-life stories is how they end with photographs of the real people being played -- this is supposed to remind us that this is a real story but usually the first response is something like "Ben Affleck is supposed to be *that* guy?" Here, Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson are all convincing versions of Warren, Spencer, Chas, and Eric. Peters gets the highest marks for both a really good performance and a very good match to Warren, who has the same strange energy in his interview.

  • Near the end of the film, there is a revelation that maybe we're not supposed to believe the story of one of its storytellers. This is a really interesting idea and plays well within the way American Animals is explicitly told, but it is pretty undercooked. It might be enough to raise an eyebrow but doesn't really hold any actual stakes. If Layton had made a pure documentary with this story, I imagine this final takeaway would have been a bigger key to the story.

  • As for the narrative side of the film, which I haven't talked much about, it is fine. The heist set-up is pretty standard heist film fun and there is plenty of tension when the heist is actually going down -- interestingly, the narrators go away for this large section of the film, which does give it a more cinematic feel. A different version of American Animals could have probably sustained itself going through the numbers. This version is definitely given an added spark because of the way it is told. It is a notable and worthy gimmick.

File Under 2018 #70: An Ordinary Man


What it's about: An unnamed General [Ben Kingsley] is hiding out in a small apartment following the Yugoslavia civil war. The General is suspected of countless atrocities against his own people, now a fugitive hiding in plain sight. He slowly passes his days playing table tennis against himself and risking his safety by walking down to a small shop to buy some vegetables. One day a young woman walks through his door, the maid of the apartment's former occupant. Though the General doesn't immediately trust the woman, he offers to buy her out, giving him some contact with the world again. Their relationship blossoms as his security is in increasing danger.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • An Ordinary Man is primarily a two-hander, with long stretches of the film focuses on the General and Tanja, keeping them away from the world in his small apartment. I typically tend to appreciate these kinds of films because they can focus solely on character and relationship. As is the case with most two-hander films, An Ordinary Man is small and intimate among a giant backdrop. The film unfortunately doesn't use the Yugoslavia Civil War story particularly effectively in a few different ways and that hurts the narrative impact of its characters.

  • The tone of the film is pretty difficult to take. The General is supposed to be feared, condemned for the horrible war crimes he committed, but he also comes off as the cool 90s-era cinematic gangster -- like Kingsley's turn as Don Logan in Sexy Beast. Kingsley is so damned charismatic that this is hard to avoid.

  • Across from Kingsley is Icelandic born actress Hera Hilmar, who is up to the task of carrying the film with her iconic co-star. There is something both mysterious and innocent about her presence as soon as she comes into the film, which is paid off in an interesting way.

  • The scene where the General and Tanja meet is the film's best but also its most complicated. The film takes on a literal male gaze as the General orders Tanja to strip down [to prove she isn't a hired assassin come to get him] and both he and the camera leer at her body. Perhaps appropriately, it is one of the only times in the film where the General behaves like a villain.

  • Purposefully keeping the General without a name comes off as cutesy, which I don't think was the intended purpose.

  • This is one of those films where British accents stand in for foreign ones, which I usually have no problem with, but it creates a strange disconnect. The actors come off as tourists in the civil war backdrop of the story. It actually took me a while to realize that the General wasn't hiding out in a small British town, which screwed with the stakes of his precarious situation.

  • An Ordinary Man eventually becomes a redemption story. But should someone who has done the things the film tells be able to find redemption? Should the character be relatable or light hearted? If the film were more dramatically dynamic or serious in its tone, perhaps there could be some sort of profound arc.

  • As the film moves into its second half, after specific character revelations change the dynamic between the core relationship, it becomes strangely stale. While the General and Tanja's introduction may have been problematic, there was a narrative spark to watching these two disparate characters build a relationship. An Ordinary Man becomes less entertaining as it tries to have more resonance.

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

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

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


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.

File Under 2018 #66: The Forgiven


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


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


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.