Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Classic Films I Watched in 2016

I'm resurrecting this feature for my last post of the year, having watched enough classic films this year that I actually have a decent list. Entries are unranked and listed below by release date. Since this was the year I watched eighty films from the 1980s, most of the titles are from that decade. Enjoy.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) - Sidney Lumet's final film explores a crime gone wrong and the gut-wrenching fallout. The director has no trouble juggling all the pieces of the complicated, non-linear narrative, and excels at charting the unraveling of his three leading men. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, and Albert Finney all give stellar performances, and Lumet delivers one, last, stark portrait of the dark side of human nature.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) - An incredibly immersive maritime adventure film that puts the viewer onboard a British warship during the Napoleonic war. Peter Weir's attention to detail makes all the difference, giving the film a rare verve and sense of history. And the leads, played by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany as the ship's captain and doctor, are one of my favorite odd couple pairings in all of cinema.

Elizabeth (1998) - The ascension of Elizabeth I, played by Cate Blanchette, is a tense game of political chess, which requires her to not only navigate a hostile web of court intrigue, but also to transform herself from an exuberant princess into an iconic monarch. Michael Hirst's screenplay is sharp, director Shekhar Kapur has a great eye for memorable pageantry, and Blanchette gives an absolutely commanding, and at times chilling performance.

Eve's Bayou (1997) - Young Eve lives in a world full of ghosts and secrets. Through her story, director Kasi Lemmons reveals a part of the African-American experienced I'd never seen before, full of complex family dynamics and untold history. Its fascinating to watch Eve learn the limits of her power as both a young woman and as the inheritor of a certain role in her community. And Samuel L. Jackson gets to deliver what may be his best performance ever.

Sid and Nancy (1986) - Before Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen are dragged down into their notorious folie a deux of addictions and self-harm, they have a bloody good time thumbing their noses at polite society in this quintessential punk rocker biopic. From Sid's scalding rendition of "My Way" to the tender make-out session in a trash-strewn alley, Alex Cox tells the counter-culture love story of his generation in energetically cinematic terms.

Moonlighting (1982) - A crew of Polish workers are smuggled into Britain to renovate a house, in Jerzy Skolimowski's darkly funny and mercilessly cruel social satire. It touches on the woes of immigrants, refugees, exploited workers, and their nervous overlords. Even more impressive is the limited scope of the production, where only one major cast member spoke any English, and the action is confined to one small suburban neighborhood.

Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night (1979) - Werner Herzog's homage and reimagining of the silent German classic is a classic in its own right. The film is minimalist in construction, but tingles with atmosphere and imagination. The two central performances by Isabell Adjani and Klaus Kinski are absolutely fantastic, especially Kinski picking up where Max Shreck left off. Herzog's additions to the story also introduce some new, fascinating dimensions.

Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) - Sissy Spacek's fantastic run in the late '70s and early '80s arguably peaked with this film, where she plays country singer Loretta Lynch from a shy teenager to a superstar in her thirties. And she's well paired with Tommy Lee Jones, as her tumultuous true love. Frankly, after so many poor entries in this genre, I didn't know a musician biopic could be this good, this richly resonant or deeply emotional.

The Falls (1980) - Peter Greenaway's debut feature is a science fiction film presented in the form of a starkly simple video encyclopedia. Each of the numerous entries lists a victim of a "Violent Unknown Event" and how it affected them, in great detail, accompanied by a few simple visuals. The result is a fascinating, disturbing glimpse of a world that's been fundamentally changed by unknown forces. I've never seen anything else quite like it.

Bay of Angels (1953) - Jacques Demy's most New Wave film is a tense little psychodrama about a pair of gamblers who are both lovers and fellow addicts. Claude Mann and Jeanne Moreau play the leads, the novice and the veteran, who get caught up in a downward spiral together, despite both of them knowing better. Demy proves he has chops far outside his milieu, especially when it comes to wringing tension from the roulette table.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Let's Go Youtubing

Okay, so this is going to be an annual thing now. Below, please find my latest Youtube Playlist of various television and movie (and related) clips that have nothing in common except for all having a strong musical element involved, and that I thought were worth saving the links to. This batch includes obscure musicals, tie-in music videos, award show numbers, and what may be the greatest promotional appearance for an "Avengers" movie ever. Enjoy.

George Lucas' AFI Life Achievement Award - When George Lucas was honored by AFI in 2005, they produced a star-studded special for television. And who did they invite to open the show? William Shatner, of course. This is my absolute favorite thing that Shatner has ever done, lampooning himself as much as the man of the hour. And as funny as Shatner is, what really makes this for me is how the audience absolutely eats it up. I don't think I've ever seen Harrison Ford so happy.

The Final Derriere - An excerpt from the Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson film "The Forbidden Room," which is a pastiche of surreal early genre cinema from the silent era. it broke a lot of rules, however, including the use of this catchy tune, from new wave band "The Sparks," to provide the narration for the tale of a poor, lost soul obsessed with female posteriors. Maddin film regular, Udo Kier, plays the poor soul in question.

Alice - Australian electronica musician Pogo creates new compositions by taking brief clips of existing media and repurposing it for his own ends. He's gained attention for his use of Disney media in particular, my favorite of which is "Alice," which uses samples of Kathryn Beaumont singing in "Alice in Wonderland." Disney, of course, was not amused and had most of Pogo's worked pulled from Youtube - but only temporarily.

Save Me - Aimee Man's "Save Me" features prominently in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia." Anderson also directed the tie-in music video, which places Mann in various scenes of the movie with characters played by Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, and Tom Cruise. Despite being so star-studded, the video is the definition of low-key, which is perfectly in keeping with the tone and themes of the movie.

Life on Mars - All throughout Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," there are welcome appearances by Seu Jorge, who provides musical accompaniment with his guitar, singing bossanova Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs. Bowie himself was reportedly a fan of the results. This full rendition of Jorge's version of "Life on Mars" was included with several others on special editions of "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou."

MIB: The Series - After the success of the film, the animated "MIB: the Series" quickly arrived on Kids WB in 1997. I remember it as a solid action series with a washed out color palette, some notable guest stars, and one of the most fantastic opening sequences to ever appear on Saturday morning. The unsung studio responsible for the sensational visuals is Mook DLE of Japan, and the theme is by Jonathan Latham.

Life Has Been Good To Me - This one requires a little setup. The second season of "3rd Rock From the Sun" ended with a two-parter where the aliens discover dreams for the first time. Each of the main characters gets their own weird, elaborate dream sequence, which could be watched in 3D with promotional glasses. Harry's dream is a musical, set to "Life Has Been Good to Me," composed by Randy Newman - who also appears in a cameo.

It's Great Not to Be Nominated - Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster perform at the 30th Academy Awards in 1958. That was the year that Lancaster was famously snubbed for "The Sweet Smell of Success," and Douglas for "Paths of Glory." However, this duet at the Oscars went over so well, the pair came back for another performance the following year. The song was penned by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, Frank Sinatra's favorite songwriters.

I Want You (She's So Heavy) - Hands down, the best sequence from Julie Taymor's jukebox musical "Across the Universe," using songs from the Beatles' considerable discography. The rest of the movie has its ups and downs, but this nightmarish rendering of the U.S. army recruitment process and basic training is unforgettable. The combination of practical and CGI effects, along with the set design, is everything I love about Taymor's work.

Daves I Know - Bruce McCulloch wrote and performed this lovely ditty from the first season of the fabulous "Kids in the Hall" sketch comedy show. Bruce is backed by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, which also, of course, performed the show's theme music. Alas, most of the Daves seen in the video are not actually played by real Daves. Dave Gord, for example is actually writer Brian Hartt.

Pennies from Heaven - The 1981 Steve Martin musical, "Pennies From Heaven," uses lavishly staged musical numbers to portray the inner lives of its poor, troubled characters struggling through the Great Depression. All the songs were taken from the era, including "Pennies From Heaven," popularized by Bing Crosby in 1936. However, the movie uses the 1937 version with Arthur Tracy, which Vernel Bagneris is lip-synching to.

Hawkeye Sings - Jeremy Renner appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon" last April to promote "The Avengers: Age of Ultron," with this parody of Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud." It tells you everything you ever wanted to know about Hawkeye and his superpowers - maybe too much.

Canned Heat - And finally, here's Mr. Dynamite and Jamiroquai to play us out.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"Doctor Strange," Spectacle Supreme

I had a good time at "Doctor Strange." I want to make that clear up front, because though it didn't meet my expectations, it is absolutely a fine piece of comic-book spectacle that should delight Marvel fans. And perhaps it's my own fault that I was hoping for something more from the film, given that it never pretended it was ever going to be anything but a flashy action flick about fleet-footed sorcerers and mystics doing battle against dark forces with very silly names.

Still, the cast assembled for "Doctor Strange" got me so excited. The brilliant surgeon Dr. Steven Strange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and his colleague/lover Dr. Christine Palmer, by Rachel McAdams. After a car accident destroys Strange's hands and ability to work, he travels to Nepal in search of a cure, where he meets a mystic called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and her allies Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). As Strange trains in the mystic arts, he learns that his mentors are fighting against the dark designs of another former student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson). Of course, Strange finds himself obliged to help them.

There's been a little controversy around the casting choices in "Doctor Strange," mostly related to the Ancient One, who was an Asian man in the comics, and is now a Celtic woman. I understand the objections, but I think Derrickson and his team have done a good job of diversifying and updating the cast of characters. I love Wong, who has been promoted from manservant to warrior librarian. I love Mordo, who gets a great arc and some interesting complexities. And I really, really enjoyed everything that Tilda Swinton brought to the Ancient One, in what's bound to be the film's most iconic performance. She's so boundlessly positive, lighthearted, and just plain fun to watch.

I wish I could say similarly nice things about our main character, but Stephen Strange didn't quite come off right, and I'm still wrestling with the possibility that Cumberbatch may have been miscast. The performance is great when Strange is hurting after his accident, an egomaniac brought low and forced to reckon with his own vulnerability. However, his Tony Stark style quips feel forced, and there's a little too much emphasis on Strange's propensity for being an arrogant bastard. He's really one of the most unlikeable Marvel heroes on the roster, which easily could have been fixed if the movie slowed down long enough to give Strange a few more emotional beats or moments of self-doubt.

But good grief, it's hard to argue that the movie should have slowed down. The greatest pleasures of "Doctor Strange" are its action sequences, which are absolutely gorgeous, inventive, and beautifully executed. In additional to the gravity-defying mystical battles being fought with glowing spells and weapons, there are the trips into different "multiverses," the way that the Dream Dimension turns buildings into kaliedescopes of constantly moving fragments of architecture, and astral projections that allow characters to transcend reality to do battle on different planes. And Strange is eventually latched onto by a sentient levitating cloak, who turns out to be one of the better Marvel sidekicks we've seen.

The biggest achievement of "Doctor Strange" is taking so many weird, high-concept, and potentially silly ideas, and making them all feel like part of one coherent whole. The Asian mysticism is so generic as to barely trip any cultural appropriation concerns, so i think that issue can be put to bed. At the same time, I really enjoy the South Asian aesthetics of the design work, that help to set the magic in "Doctor Strange" apart from what we've seen in the "Harry Potter" films and the like. Also, I found lots of shameless cribbing from "Inception," but we get new variations with so much obvious effort behind them. There is nothing in director Scott Derrickson's horror-heavy filmography that suggested that he was capable of orchestrating so much dazzling eye candy, but he does an absolutely fantastic job here.

So I feel like a scrooge, yet again, for pointing out that if you take away the CGI, the story is very thin, and some of the characters are pretty derivative. Kaecilius is yet another example of the Marvel villain problem, and I was grinding my teeth at how wasted Mads Mikkelson was in the part. And Rachel McAdams too, though at least Christine had some backbone. Dr. Strange himself is compelling, but parts of the character simply do not work. And if I weren't absolutely sure we were getting a sequel that might help fix some of these problems, I'd be even more unsatisfied.

But there will be another movie, which means the good Doctor will have another chance to impress. I enjoyed this fancy light show for what it was, but next time I'd really appreciate a better movie to go along with it.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

All in on "Arrival"

I rarely tear up during the opening scenes of a film, but it happened during "Arrival." Maybe it was the use of Max Richter's stirring "On the Nature of Daylight," which bookends the rest of the score. Maybe it was the opening shot, a slow, steady tilt that brings us into an empty house and the inner life of our heroine. Maybe it was the opening monologue by Amy Adams, playing Dr. Louise Banks, calmly telling her daughter about the day she was born and then the day she died, tragically, while still a teenager. Maybe it was because director Denis Villeneuve decided to start his film about aliens arriving on earth here, with moments of deeply intimate joy and grief.

And don't doubt that "Arrival" is primarily about those aliens, who appear one day aboard a dozen massive spaceships, in random spots around the world. Immediately, their presence inspires fear and distrust, and everyone wants answers immediately. However, those answers are very slow in coming. Louise and her fellow scientists not only have to puzzle out the intentions of the aliens, but do it in a climate of increasing paranoia and global unrest. I don't want to say much more about the plot, because so much of the fun of "Arrival" is the wonderful in the way that it slowly reveals information about the aliens, from news reports of alien ships around the globe, to Louise being recruited by US Army Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) to aid in translation efforts, to actually making contact alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

It has been a long time since I've seen a film about trying to communicate with a mysterious alien race that went about it in such levelheaded, believable terms. I love science-fiction mysteries and I love procedurals, so I found it immensely gratifying to see Louise, a linguist, walking the other characters through the basic steps of learning to communicate with the aliens, who are eventually dubbed "heptapods" because they walk on seven legs. Having read the Ted Chiang story that the film was based on, "The Story of Your Life," I'm more mixed about the addition of the geopolitical elements, especially the actions of a Chinese general (Tzi Ma), who escalates tensions in the last act. "Arrival" is already being widely compared to "Contact," which also took a more measured, thoughtful approach to a first contact scenario. However, "Arrival" strikes me a the more standard genre film, since it acts like a typical thriller more often than I think was necessary.

That said, "Arrival" is not a typical thriller, but a talky, conceptually high-minded science fiction film with some real ambitions. At the same time, it's not afraid to be nakedly sentimental and humane in a way that few films of this type are. I'm thankful that Amy Adams' performance and her character's personal journey remain at the center of the story. The narrative is a challenging one, and she does an excellent job of giving Louise a strong emotional core in the midst of a fantastic situation. "Arrival" leans as heavily on emotional elements as is does on the cerebral ones, ultimately, marrying its big cosmic ideas to existential human melodrama in a very appealing way. So while I think that the writing could have been better, and there are a few too many concessions to ensure mass appeal, "Arrival" succeeds at being thought-provoking, and deeply moving cinema through and through.

Denis Villeneuve has been a director I've found very hit or miss, and I worried after "Sicario" whether he was determined to make bleakly nihilistic films for the rest of his career. "Arrival," however, reveals a softer, more hopeful side that I'd like to see more of in his upcoming "Blade Runner" film. Technically, his work here is fantastic. The budget was modest, but the visuals are so beautifully conceived, thematically echoing each other in creative ways. The aliens' communications are especially fascinating, rendered in a detailed system of circular symbols that were invented specifically for the film. And cinematographer Bradford Young makes sure you can't take your eyes off the impossible alien ships.

I should add a final caveat here that I didn't see "Arrival" under the best conditions, and being familiar with the story beforehand meant I already knew most of the film's best secrets. That's probably why I don't love the film as much as I was hoping too. However, I still found much of it remarkable to experience, and can certainly appreciate all the effort and the daring it took to bring it to the screen.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Was Ain't it Cool News Actually Cool?

I've wanted to write this post for a while now, but could never seem to find the right approach to do it. So, I'm just going to be straightforward. The Aint it Cool News (AICN) website was massively influential to my development as a movie nerd, and I've wanted to give it its due, especially as it's passed its 20th anniversary. As a teenager in the 1990s, I checked the site every single time I went online. It was at the top of my list of bookmarks for ages. I was absolutely bowled over that a website existed that was solely about collecting news on upcoming films, especially all the nerdy, geeky genre films that I was especially interested in.

Up until the site was launched in 1996, entertainment news was whatever I could glean from "Entertainment Weekly" and the Calendar section of the LA Times. I only saw trailers in theaters and on home media. Television commercials were still the most pervasive form of movie marketing in my life. I had no access to the trade publications at the time, though I'd read enough to know what they were. It was difficult to really follow what was happening with specific films, and even basic information like release dates could be hard to come by. With the internet, suddenly I had around-the-clock access to a huge amount of information, all the up-to-date details I craved. IMDB gave me concrete specifics about directors and actors, official studio sites let me see all the marketing material at once, and there were fan sites devoted to gathering up every last tidbit of information on upcoming projects.

Many of those tidbits came from AICN, and unlike the mainstream media it was run by dedicated movie geeks who presented each new piece of information with breathless hype and speculation. That information could be sneaked set reports, script reviews, early screenings, concept art, interviews, new marketing materials, or just simple announcements that would hit the trades the next day - all of it was new and exciting to me, and I ate it up. It's not hard to see why most of the studios turned a blind eye to the leaks, even though what the AICN crew was doing clearly frustrated some of their plans. By and large, the coverage was extremely positive, and the site's writers were all fanboys and fangirls. Even if the information suggested otherwise, everyone was generally optimistic about upcoming movies being good. There were editorials and reviews once a movie was actually released, but these were usually very kind.

The site was frequently the center of attention in the early years, because there was nothing else like it. However, the way Harry Knowles ran AICN was often very problematic. He was very eager to parlay the site's notoriety into his own celebrity, essentially letting others use the site as an advertising platform on occasion. He was often hypocritical, scolding others for some of the same tactics he and his "spies" used to gather information. I listened to a podcast a few weeks ago, where the hosts bemoaned how terrible some of the content on the site was, especially Knowles overly detailed and frequently off-topic movie reviews. I found myself nodding along in agreement. My biggest issue with AICN ultimately was that the editors made some lousy judgment calls - the completely wrong early preview of the 2000 Academy Awards nominations was one of the last straws. I started losing interest in the site after that.

What really caused their decline, of course, was that eventually other geeky sites caught on, and started providing similar scoops. Then the studios implemented more security and started taking more control over the flow of online information, disseminating much of it themselves. AICN couldn't handle the competition, and frankly flubbed a lot of chances to expand or adapt into something different. I still check in on the site now and then, and it's still got the same page layout that it did in the late 1990s. Most of their better writers moved on to other projects long ago, or lost interest in keeping the rumor mill going. I can't recall the last time that AICN actually broke a real story, and yet the site is still quietly chugging along with Knowles and a small group of longtime contributors. A lot of other film news sites have come and gone in the last twenty years, but somehow AICN is still standing.

I still follow some of the talent that I first encountered on the site, namely Hitfix's Drew McWeeny and Spill alumnus C. Robert Cargill, who wrote for AICN as Moriarty and Massawyrm respectively. And I still feel a little jealous every time I hear about the latest Butt-Numb-a-thon movie marathon that Knowles hosts at the Alamo Drafthouse every year. And every time I hear about Harry Knowles in the news - and it's usually not good news - I can't help hoping that he'll be able to turn it around somehow. For a while he was living the dream, making a living out of being a movie geek and facilitating the geekiness of other movie fans around the globe. I don't think I really understood what a movie geek was before Knowles. I found the AICN ethos and community tremendously appealing, even if the site itself and magical swirling Harry Knowles were often disappointing.

So, I think it's fair to say that I owe a fair bit to AICN, but it was inevitable that I would leave it behind. I'm still a fangirl at heart, so part of me will always love the site, but the internet's become very different in 2016, and so have I.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rank 'Em: The Dirty Harry Movies

When asked which of the two 1983 James Bond movies I prefer, "Never Say Never Again," or "Octopussy," my first instinct is always to say that I liked that year's Dirty Harry movie, "Sudden Impact," better than both of them. And still, when I think of Clint Eastwood, the image in my head is not the Man With No Name, but the scowling San Francisco police inspector with the .44 Magnum, who busted punks and had the best one-liners. I expect that it's inevitable that we'll see a franchise reboot one of these days, but until then, let's head down memory lane and get reacquainted with the adventures of Inspector Harry Callahan, ranked below from best to worst.

"Dirty Harry" - The first, the most iconic, and definitely the most impactful. Inspector Callahan tracks a serial killer based on Zodiac all over San Francisco, as he commits a string of ever-more heinous crimes. Dirty Harry immediately sets himself apart by being more violent, more aggressive, and more cynical than any maverick police officer protagonist who had come before him. By the end of the film he's a vigilante and perhaps even worse, as many critics have claimed. However, Dirty Harry was always a power fantasy, more superhero than super cop, and his distaste for the limitations of due process was part of his charm. Much of the film's effectiveness is due to the excellent villain, Scorpio, played by Andrew Robinson, who provided a worthy adversary.

"The Enforcer" - It seems like such a ploy at first, pairing the uber-masculine Harry with a novice female inspector after the earlier "Dirty Harry" films were criticized for having a misogynistic streak. However, the chemistry between Clint Eastwood and Tyne Daly is excellent, and the film absolutely doesn't pull its punches. I especially enjoy the way this installment shows off more San Francisco landmarks, including Coit Tower and Alcatraz, where the final showdown takes place. Part of the fun of the series, as a Bay Area resident, is watching the city change through the years. And Harry changes along with it, transitioning here from the harder-edged lone wolf we know and love, into into someone with more dimensions, and a capacity to broaden his horizons.

"Sudden Impact" - The original script for "Sudden Impact" was entirely about Sondra Locke's character, Jennifer Spencer, before it was rewritten to be a Dirty Harry movie. And it definitely shows, since so much of the film is told from her point of view, with Harry practically a supporting character at times. As a result, the story has a very interesting structure, with a very different dynamic between the two leads. I've seen similar rape and revenge stories before, but something about the events here playing out in Dirty Harry's universe of easy violence and harsh consequences made this one resonate more deeply. And going forward, there was no way you could call the series unsympathetic towards women after Harry's encounters with Jennifer Spencer.

"Magnum Force" - I know I liked this one better when I was younger, but the flaws stand out more in retrospect. It's almost titillating in the way that it shows sex and violence, especially the early execution scenes. By contrast, Harry is at his most classically heroic, chasing down a gang of cops-turned vigilantes who operate in ways that he can't stomach. The action scenes are good, and I always enjoy Hal Holbrook, but it's hard to summon much enthusiasm for the film. It's a perfectly good detective movie and Eastwood has no trouble reprising Dirty Harry, but at the same time I couldn't shake how calculated the film felt. It plays more like a response to the many criticisms of the first "Dirty Harry" than a film that really has something to say on its own terms.

"The Dead Pool" - And here's where the franchise slipped perilously close to self-parody, with its toy car chase and schlocky ending. Clint Eastwood was right when he remarked that he was really getting too old for these pictures, though he still passes muster as an ass-kicker onscreen - just barely. There's some novelty in seeing some future stars like Liam Neeson, Patricia Clarkson, and Jim Carrey in the secondary roles, but not much. More than anything else, "The Dead Pool" just didn't feel like a Dirty Harry movie, too pedestrian and by the numbers, deviating from formula in all the wrong ways. The biggest change was with Harry himself, now a cantankerous, but beloved member of the establishment, in a city that had come to appreciate him.


Monday, December 19, 2016

I Finally Watched the New "Ghostbusters"

Let's get a couple of the caveats out of the way first. Yes, I do have a good deal of nostalgia for the original "Ghostbuster" movies, but mostly for the second one, which was rerun far more often on television, and therefore the one that I am the most familiar with. Yes, I am a fan of Paul Feig's movies, and rooted for the success of the new version from the moment that I heard it was announced. If Bill Murray wouldn't agree to come back, going in a new direction with the franchise sounded like the next best thing.

So when I tell you that the new "Ghostbusters" movie is pretty bad, it comes from a place of disappointment rather than vitriol. However, the new "Ghostbusters" is not terrible, If Sony wants to continue the series, I think it's actually quite salvageable in the right hands. The movie isn't bad because the leads are all female. The four comediennes are the best thing about the new "Ghostbusters." Nor is the movie bad because the material no longer works in the present day, with the long shadow of the 1985 original hanging over its head. The 2016 "Ghostbusters" could have been a perfectly decent summer comedy if the filmmakers had been more confident about what they were doing.

First, let's start with the good. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy play a pair of scientists, Erin and Abby. The two used to be friends, and wrote a book on the paranormal together, but drifted apart. When Abby starts selling the book on Amazon, Erin fears for her career as a physics professor. However, the discovery of actual hauntings going on in New York prompts the two of them to team up again, along with inventor Jillian Holtzmann and MTA worker Patty Tolan, to do some ghostbusting. So, what we have here is a total reboot of the franchise from the ground up. The original Ghostbusters do not exist in this universe, even though there are numerous callbacks, and nearly all the major cast members (and Ozzy Osbourne) make terrible cameos. That's the movie's biggest mistake: trying to pander to the old fans without actually giving them anything that they want.

The movie spends way too much time evoking the original film. It actually does just fine when it's laying out the basic relationships among the major characters and letting them test weapons and chase ghosts. However, everything keeps grinding to a halt to have another cameo or another callback. Pretty much everything iconic from the first movie gets referenced in one way or another, from ECTO-1 to the firehouse to the Stay-Puft marshmallow man. And the references are clumsy and terrible. The last act in particular starts feeling less like a plot and more like a delivery system for awkward nostalgia. If the filmmakers wanted to bring back all of these familiar faces, it would have been easy enough to make the film an actual sequel. By going to reboot route, but leaning so heavily on the older film, the 2016 "Ghostbusters" is far too transparently trying to mine existing goodwill from the existing fanbase.

This really impacts how much Paul Feig and his collaborators are able to do with the original elements in the movie. Frankly, the story is very half baked, and there are too many characters like the idiot beefcake secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), whose dialogue needs fine tuning. I haven't heard this much technobabble outside of "Star Trek." However, the ensemble is excellent and consistently watchable. Nobody plays a sad sack like Kristen Wiig and I could watch Melissa McCarthy complain about her won ton soup all day. Kate McKinnon steals most of her scenes, playing Hotlzmann as an unrepentant weirdo. Leslie Jones, who I'm not familiar with, had me a little worried at the start because of her over-the-top brashness. She won me over quickly, though, once it became clear she existed to be a counterbalance to the science nerdiness of the other three. I would have loved to have gotten a little more character development, some better dialogue, some bigger stakes. I would have loved to see them all in a better film, period.

Alas, I suspect there was no time or budget for it. "Ghostbusters" feels remarkably slapdash and hurried, with no shortage of clever little moments, but very inconsistently. There are big action scenes and lots of fancy CGI ghosts, but the visuals are garish and largely derivative of the prior films. The Ghostbusters keep being put into scenarios that ought to generate some good humor, like a metal concert and a meeting with the mayor (Andy Garcia), but everything falls flat. Many of the jokes are clearly improvised where they should have been more tightly scripted. I can't even summon up the energy to talk about the mundane villain, the numerous missed opportunities, or Slimer. Frankly, I just don't think that Paul Feig was ready for a project of this size with so much cultural baggage attached.

I suspect that the less you know about the original "Ghostbusters," the more you'll like the new version. Frankly, I just hope the movie's failures don't wind up hurting the talent associated with it, because I know they're all capable of much better than this.


Saturday, December 17, 2016

"Train to Busan" and "The Purge: Election Year"

It's been a good year for horror films, so I figured I ought to catch up with some of the more prominent titles this year. I watched "Train to Busan" and "The Purge: Election Year" back to back, and there were some interesting contrasts that I want to talk about. So, I'll be reviewing these two together.

First, "Train to Busan," which is a South Korean zombie film that mostly revolves around the passengers on a bullet train travelling from Seoul to Busan. Gong Yoo plays Seok-woo, a busy hedge fund manager who is the classic overworked dad. He agrees to take his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) to visit his estranged wife in Busan as a birthday gift. Alas, a zombie outbreak turns the trip into a harrowing fight for survival. Other passengers include a pregnant woman, Sung Kyung (Jung Yu-mi), and her husband Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), a selfish businessman Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung), and a homeless man (Choi Gwi-hwa).

Director Yeon Sang-ho has a resume full of animated films, which perhaps explains why his visual storytelling is so strong. "Train to Busan" is stuffed full of fun action sequences and compelling visuals. The characters are fairly flimsy, and the zombies are no different from the ones in "28 Days" and the recent remakes of the George Romero films. However, the execution is wonderful. It's hard to predict what's going to happen from moment to moment, and the zombies are a real threat throughout. We really get to look at the zombies, observe their behavior, and appreciate the full effect of their ghoulishness. Unlike in American films, we never see a single zombie killed onscreen, and the heroes never get their hands on any weapon more dangerous than a baseball bat. Ultimately, running is the only option.

Social commentary is an integral part of the best zombie movies, and this is where "Train to Busan" falls a bit flat. Aside from some heavy-handed moralizing about making time for family and not being selfish, there's not much here to really chew on. The cultural specifics of zombie fighting in South Korea are mildly diverting, and the outsized melodrama might be novel for those unfamiliar with Asian films, where this is more common. The characters aren't remotely well defined enough for anything to really resonate on an emotional level. Most of the performances are pretty flat, uninvolving stuff, and the evil businessman in particular is a painfully one-note cartoon character. On a visceral level, however, the movie is way more fun than any American zombie flick I've seen in ages.

Now on to "The Purge: Election Year." I've been curious about this franchise for a while, since it's got an intriguing premise, but the reviews of the earlier films have always been terrible. The third installment, however, looked more promising for having an election storyline, which at least suggested we might get some satire and social commentary. Well, no such luck. The main characters of "Election Year" are indeed a presidential candidate, Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Bennett), and her head of security, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who want to do away with the yearly Purge, the night of no-holds-barred mayhem that is the centerpiece of this particular vision of American dystopia. However, the vast majority of the film is taken up with humdrum action scenes, with only a few brief scenes that illuminate the culture around the Purge.

Other characters include the owner of a deli, Joe (Mykelti Williamson) and his loyal immigrant employee, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) trying to protect their business from looters, and the driver of an unofficial ambulance service, Laney (Betty Gabriel), that operates during the Purge. The literal class warfare is pretty hard to miss, even when the movie makes it plain that the Purge is used by the elites to get rid of undesirables and lower the costs of social services. It's all handled very clumsily, however, and it is very obvious how limited the budget is. I've seen plenty of Blumhouse's microbudget horror films that have all managed at least a semblance of decent production quality. "Election Year" looks positively amateurish, with a couple of disturbing drive-by images the only part of the film that actually quality as horror. And the actress playing the main looter is clearly about ten years too old for her role.

What I found really discouraging, however, was how badly written the film is. All the characters are thin, but the minority characters in particular are awfully stereotyped. It might be because I watched "Keanu" recently, but it really grated that all the black characters talk the way that white people think black people talk. There are no emotional stakes whatsoever, no tension, and certainly not enough action scenes to justify Frank Grillo being around. I liked a couple of the tangential bits of worldbuilding, like the Purge "tourists" flying in to participate, and the Purge Mass where the elites reveal some elaborate justifications for their depravities, but there was far too little of this.

What I'd really like to see is a "Purge" movie with some proper talent and budget behind it. I wonder what Yeon Sang-ho is doing next.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Wildereview of "The Hunt for the Wilderpeople"

After the first trailers for "The Hunt for the Wilderpeople," I thought I had the movie all figured out. Cranky senior citizen is helped out of his misanthropic funk by bonding with a chubby young kid of a different culture and generation. It would be just like "Up," except set in New Zealand. I assumed the focus would stay on Sam Neil's character, like it had on Carl Frederickson. And I was wrong. The main character here is the kid, Ricky Baker, played by Julian Dennison. And he's fantastic.

We first meet Ricky being dropped off at the remote farm of Hector (Neill) and Bella (Rima Te Wiata) by a stringent Child Services agent named Paula (Rachel House), who warns the couple that Ricky is a "bad egg." Because of recurring delinquent behavior, this is Ricky's last chance at a placement with a normal family before he's shipped off to juvie. Ricky isn't too keen on the situation at first, and gruff Hank doesn't seem to be either, but Bella turns out to be everything that anybody could want in a Mom, and Ricky warms up to her quickly. Alas, tragedy strikes, and Ricky makes a series of very poor decisions that result in him and Hector being stranded out in the wilds of the New Zealand bush. And then, due to a few misunderstandings, they end up the target of a national manhunt - led by Paula from Child Services.

I really enjoy Sam Neil in this movie, playing an old grump, but an old grump that we immediately know is soft-hearted enough to come around on the idea of a family. However, Julian Dennison is the main event. It's easy to underestimate Ricky, who barely says a word at first, and the way he looks invokes some negative stereotypes about preteen troublemakers. But when he opens up, his personality is unstoppable. He loves rap music and idolizes Tupak Shakur, but he's also an avid reader. He's adopted the badass "skux" lifestyle, but also composes therapeutic haikus to work out his feelings sometimes. He's argumentative, stubborn, and will run his mouth off without really thinking about what he's saying, but he's got such a puppydog earnestness about life, and turns out to be a real trooper. Even when he's way in over his head, he'll tough out the worst situations and is pretty handy in a crisis. Though Bella and Hector teach him survival skills, the dogged determination to thrive in the bush is all Ricky from the start.

And most importantly, because this is a Taika Waititi film, Ricky is funny. And in conjunction with Hector and Paula, he's really funny. Though "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" takes place in a slightly exaggerated, stylized world - think Wes Anderson on a much smaller budget - most of the humor is character based. It's perfectly in keeping with Waititi's run of small, offbeat, genially silly comedies. Ricky and Hector get themselves into some ridiculous situations, including hiding out with a conspiracy nut played by Rhys Darby, but their relationship remains wonderfully low key and well grounded. So when they do occasionally discuss the touchier parts of their past, the emotions feel genuine. And no matter how over-the-top the colorful side characters are, there's a likeability to everyone. Even Paula, who gets even more carried away with being a badass than Ricky does.

The visuals are a lot of fun. There are a lot of subtle gags everywhere, from the tchotchkes decorating Ricky's new room to the inspirational posters at the halfway house. The bush remains a dangerous place, full of hidden dangers, but Waititi also shows us its lovelier side. And framing things from Ricky's point of view is a joke that never gets old. The budget here was clearly very small, but the filmmakers do plenty with it, including the funniest car chase sequence I've seen since the last "Mad Max" movie.

Of all the superhero movies coming out next year, I'm looking forward to "Thor: Ragnarok" the most, thanks to Taika Waititi's involvement. However, I'm more excited about the prospect of the "What We Do in the Shadows" sequel and the smaller, more personal projects we might see from him next.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The State of the Superhero, 2016

We've survived a year that saw the release of six superhero films - seven if you count the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" sequel, eight if you count "Max Steel," and nine if you count "The Killing Joke." And so far, so good, at first glance. Almost all the movies made money, though not as much as the studios would have liked. The adult-oriented "Deadpool" and "Suicide Squad" did far better than anyone was expecting. Also, the releases were spaced out well enough that there wasn't much cannibalization of each other's business. Maybe "Civil War" impacted "Apocalypse" a little.

From a critical standpoint, however, the picture isn't as rosy. The biggest offender was Warners with the DC movies. I've been hoping for years for Warners to get the DC superheroes to a place where they could compete on the same level as Disney's Marvel movies. Instead, they managed to royally bungle both "Batman v. Superman" and "Suicide Squad." Zack Snyder's take on the caped crusaders was plodding and dark when it wasn't incomprehensible, and all around just badly made. David Ayers' "Suicide Squad" was hamstrung by not being rated R or allowed to be as adult as it should have been. And it really worries me that the recent DC movies have been so kid-unfriendly, because it's going to seriously limit them in the long run. "The Killing Joke" just seemed to drive the point home that DC's aiming at a much older audience than Marvel.

Fortunately there will be a LEGO Batman movie coming our way soon, which means there will be at least one movie featuring Batman next year that I'm likely to enjoy. At first I wasn't so sure about the spinoff, but compared to the doom and gloom at Warners, the return of Will Arnett's minifigure bat sounds absolutely delightful. The real question is what "Wonder Woman" is going to look like, and how it will be received. The introduction of the character went over very well, and I'm hopeful that Patty Jenkins will be able to wrangle a decently rousing adventure for her that doesn't trigger another culture crisis like "Ghostbusters" did last year. At this point, I have no idea if Zack Snyder's "Justice League" is even going to be watchable, but I sincerely hope that he manages to course correct, get a better editor, and lighten up. Warners can still fix the DC universe films at this point, but they are very quickly reaching the point of no return. If they don't shape up in 2017, they're going to be out of chances.

Fox fared considerably better with the unapologetically adult "Deadpool" reaping a February bonanza at the box office. "Deadpool" wasn't a great movie, but it was good enough to keep me optimistic about the franchise, and the prospects of adult-oriented superhero comedies in general. "X-men: Apocalypse," on the other hand, was a misfire. It didn't commit any particularly egregious cinematic sins, but it was altogether too obviously the sixth film in a series. Bloated, repetitive, and offering a pretty poor case for existing in the first place, all it ended up doing was wasting an awful lot of good talent. Reportedly there's yet another "X-men" film in the works that threatens to repeat the same mistake of "Apocalypse," which I'm not looking forward to. Things will be relatively quiet for Fox in 2017, with "Gambit" still in limbo. However the third Wolverine movie, "Logan," which is supposed to be Hugh Jackman's last time playing the character, may make some waves in March.

Finally, there's Marvel, which is still on top of the world. "Captain America: Civil War" and "Doctor Strange" were both very well received by both critics and audiences, and there's no sign that anyone is tiring of the MCU yet. The real test for them will be next year, when they're releasing three movies, the most that any studio has tried up to this point: "Guardians of the Galaxy 2," "Spider-man: Homecoming," and "Thor: Ragnarok." "Homecoming" may be technically Sony's show, but with Robert Downey Jr. putting in a cameo, and Marvel handling production, it's definitely part of the MCU. I'm looking forward to "Ragnarok" the most because it's a buddy comedy being handled by the right people.

All in all, I'm not feeling overwhelmed by the number of superhero movies, as some have predicted - historically this isn't even the peak. However, considering how dominant these movies have become at the box office, there's definitely a lot of building pressure to keep up the same level of performance, and I don't think that any of the studios are guaranteed to be able to do that in the long run, not even Marvel. Watching the genre change and evolve, however is fascinating. We're definitely going to be seeing more adult-oriented features after "Deadpool" and "Suicide Squad." But will the kids end up left behind, I wonder?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Bout of "The Fits"

"The Fits" presents a wonderfully immersive experience, putting us into the world of an eleven year-old African American girl named Toni (Royalty Hightower). She frequents the gym at her local community center with her older brother Jermaine (Da'Sean Minor) and his friends, where she trains in boxing. One day, Toni notices a girls' dance troupe practicing across the hall, and decides to join up. She makes friends with other newcomers Beezy (Alexis Neblett) and Maia (Lauren Gibson), and leaves the gym culture behind. The troupe is troubled, however, when some of the older girls start having uncontrollable shaking spells that everyone calls "the fits."

Written and directed by Anna Rose Holmer, Toni's growing pains are an engrossing study of gender roles, conformity, and the existential dread of impending maturation. The divide between the girls and the boys is laid out so neatly, with the two groups cordoned off in their own spaces in the community center, and the expectations of girlhood mirrored by the dance routines where all the performers are expected to synchronize their movements together. The "fits" initially seem shocking and sinister, but as more and more girls are afflicted, they become something like a rite of passage. At times Toni seems eager to embrace her feminine side, having fun with her friends and enjoying some aspects of the troupe. But at other times, it feels like the choice is out of her hands entirely, and her absorption by the group is a predetermined, inescapable fate.

I really enjoyed the approach that Holmer took with the storytelling, which uses very little exposition. The first ten minutes are almost free of dialogue, simply following Toni through her normal routine at the gym. We're well situated in her little world of stoic masculine figures, before her gaze drifts to the girls waiting in the doorway and practicing their dancing across the hall. And once she notices the divide, it dominates her thoughts and the frame, until she's a lone figure in the hallway, trudging against a streaming tide of laughing, joyous femininity. Who could blame her for wanting to belong? The imagery is particularly strong, finding so many ways to emphasize Toni's feelings of being an outsider among the girls. She doesn't dress like them, move like them, or behave like them at first. Newcomer Royalty Hightower wonderfully embodies all the little social anxieties and episodes of preteen moodiness that Toni experiences. Since Toni says so little, most of her performance is in her body language. The other standout is Alexis Neblett as outspoken, energetic little Beezy, who immediately latches on to Toni as a new friend.

The use of the "fits" is particularly interesting, in that it evokes so much, from the specter of violence that Toni might face in the future as an African-American teenager to religious and spiritual awakening. The most obvious reading is that the shaking and spasms are visually similar to the dance movements of the troupe, and as Toni becomes more fully attuned to them, she becomes more susceptible to whatever is causing the "fits" to occur. Note that no one actually points to mass hysteria or offers any other explanation for why the "fits" are happening. Though based on true events, diagnosing and stopping the problem isn't part of the narrative. The fits don't really even enter into the story until about a third of the way through, and a final resolution is elusive. For Toni, they remain the product of a mysterious force, like so many other mysterious forces guiding the changes in her life.

"The Fits" runs barely over an hour in length, and is the product of several micro-budget and micro-timeline initiatives for young directors from the Venice and Sundance film festivals. It is the first film from Anna Rose Holmer, who shot the whole picture at an inner city Cincinnati community center with mostly non-professional actors. However, the film is so well conceived and executed, it doesn't feel even remotely truncated or compromised in any way. Rather, there's an invigorating energy to the film, especially in the physicality of the dance sequences and the hallucinatory finale. More importantly, there's an authenticity to its characters and their experiences, a sense of place and culture that is vital to the story's effectiveness.


Friday, December 9, 2016

"Florence Foster Jenkins" Offers Great Performances

At first, I thought it was a little strange to be making a film about Florence Foster Jenkins, who gained her notoriety for being an enthusiastically awful would-be opera singer. She was a great lover and supporter of classical music who, alas, was completely deluded about her own talent. Jenkins attracted a loyal following and became a cult figure in her day, even making records and playing Carnegie Hall in 1944. However, the thought of a film biopic, starring Meryl Streep, made me itch with secondhand embarrassment. Rubbernecking an awful singer feels more appropriate as fodder for Youtube than a prestige pic.

I'm so glad to be proven wrong. The film, wisely, is not just about Florence Foster Jenkins, but also about two men who supported her endeavors in her later years. One is her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who attends to Florence's every need, but goes home to another woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), at the end of the night. The other, our POV character, is a young pianist named Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), who is hired as an accompanist for Florence's lessons with famed vocal coach, Carlo Edwards (David Haig). Initially Cosmé thinks he's lucked into the well-paying gig, but finds out exactly how bad Florence's singing is at the same time the audience does, and is aghast when he learns that she intends to perform.

And little by little, as the mysteries of Florence's past and circumstances are revealed, the film also reveals itself to be not about mocking the figure of Florence Foster Jenkins, but empathizing with her, and appreciating her for who she was. Director Stephen Frears has orchestrated a remarkably funny, but also immensely touching, gentle film that gives Florence her due. With her ornate costumes, enthusiastic butchering of famous arias, and blissful unawareness, the recreated performances have to be seen (and heard) to be believed. But the best moments are the quieter, personal ones where she's enjoying music with Cosmé or being reassured for the millionth time by her ever-patient husband. Whatever can be said about Florence Foster Jenkins, it wasn't just her terrible singing that attracted so many admirers.

Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, and fearlessly delivers all the off key warbling necessary to make Florence come alive, As someone who grew up around a lot of classical music, I got a real kick out of her murdering "Die Fledermaus" and "The Magic Flute." However, I think the best performance here is Hugh Grant's. In the beginning St. Clair comes off as so overeager to please that he's a little suspicious. Is he conning Florence to get her to fund his life with Kathleen? Is his overprotectiveness hiding something more sinister? Surely he doesn't actually think Florence is a good singer, does he? Grant keeps St. Clair utterly charming and sympathetic throughout, and I'm glad that he's finally nabbed another role worthy of his comic talents.

And then there's Simon Helberg, who is playing to type, but he's such a perfect audience surrogate. As the newcomer to Florence's circle, he's the only one not in on the game, and conveys exactly the right amount of incredulous disbelief and cognitive dissonance when Madame Florence opens her mouth. Outside of the central trio of characters, the cast is unusually sparse. Rebecca Hall is wasted as Kathleen, with little to do but be the typical worried girlfriend. Nina Arianda, however, nearly steals the picture a few times as a bombastic showgirl named Agnes. She's recently married to one of Florence's supporters, and threatens to be a disruption at her concerts.

"Florence Foster Jenkins" is ultimately a very modest picture, very small scale and heavily dependent on its main performances. And it's the right size for the story of Florence, who is only able to exist as she does in the carefully constructed and well-guarded bubble that St. Clair and her friends maintain for her. I found myself comparing the film to "Goodbye Lenin!" and "Lars and the Real Girl," other charming, low-key films about people going to extreme lengths to try and accommodate the delusions of their loved ones. And like those films, "Florence Foster Jenkins" is refreshingly good natured, where the real triumph is human kindness winning out over easy cynicism.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"The Americans," Year Two

Minor spoilers ahead.

I found the first season of "The Americans" promising, but wasn't really all that impressed with it. The second season, however, was a significant improvement in almost every department. Storylines were tighter and more focused. The new characters and new storylines were excellent, and everything tied together well thematically. A big improvement is the shift away from Philip and Elizabeth's relationship troubles to their worries over Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Paige in particular is quickly growing up and trying to strike out on her own. Meanwhile, Nina and Stan Beeman's relationship becomes more fraught, especially as Nina has to wrangle the attentions of a new officer at the embassy, Burov (Costa Ronin), and Stan becomes estranged from his wife Sandra (Susan Misner).

Mostly gone are the flashy action sequences with lots of gunplay and running around. And the scenes of seduction and recruitment involve a lot less salaciousness, and much more drama and tension. Now that Philip has married Martha (Alison Wright), the deception has become more complicated. Whether Nina and Stan are actually in love with each other is less interesting than what else is motivating them, and how far they're willing to go to maintain the relationship. The series feels like it's stopped trying to feel like a network show, relying on easy thrills, and has gotten down to the business of really getting into the characters' heads. In the very first episode, Philip is forced to kill an innocent bystander and comes home shaken. It's a reaction that I didn't see nearly enough in the previous season, and is indicative of a more thoughtful, more confident approach to the material.

The cast continues to be excellent. Matthew Rhys has fully won me over, as Philip keeps revealing more shades of gray. His undercover assignments also allow some more interesting nuances, and I'm really becoming fond of the funky disguises. Keri Russell and Noah Emmerich remain consistently strong. Annet Mahendru as Nina is also much more compelling now that her character has been allowed a greater degree of control over her situation. She and Costa Ronin pair particularly well. It's also nice to see Paige becoming a major player, giving Holly Taylor more to do. They're setting her up for much bigger storylines to come, but still easing her into things. Time will tell if Taylor can handle more, but I'm optimistic that she's going to be fine. The ever dependable Margo Martindale and John Carroll Lynch also make memorable appearances in smaller roles.

Big kudos go to the writers, who are responsible for many of the show's improvements. The plot maintains the bifurcated structure of the first season, but has put the danger of Stan discovering the identity of the Jennings on the back burner. Philip and Elizabeth operate independently of Nina and Stan, but are both involved in the same search for classified stealth technology. Philip and Stan have a few low key conversations together, but otherwise the two groupings of characters don't intersect. However, both storylines work so well that by this point that I doubt any viewer will care. The murder case that Philip and Elizabeth spend much of the season trying to solve is kept on a fantastic slow burn through multiple episodes, resolves in a very satisfactory fashion, and sets up bigger hurdles for the future. Nina and Stan find themselves exactly where neither of them want to be, after a whole season of struggling to escape.

There are a few bits and pieces that I had reservations about. The new handler Kate (Wrenn Schmidt) was fairly wasted and the Martha storyline still feels like it's treading water - though it does deliver some of the show's best moments of humor. Also, the execution of the few big action setpieces that we did get were a little lacking. The infiltration of a training camp in one of the later episodes, for instance, was shot so murkily that I couldn't tell what was going on. But as I mentioned earlier, "The Americans" is no longer a show where the quality of the action sequences really has much impact on the quality of the show.

I'll be barreling ahead to season three.

Monday, December 5, 2016

"Neon" Nightmares

You'd think that "The Neon Demon," a campy, brutal new thriller from Nicholas Winding Refn set in the fashion world, would be a fun watch. And it is, occasionally. There are some lovely shocks and scintillating visuals to enjoy as fresh-faced teenager Jesse (Elle Fanning) begins her career as a high fashion model in Los Angeles. Seasoned twenty-something models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) immediately regard the newcomer as competition, but makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) is intrigued for different reasons. Sadly, "Neon Demon" is also frequently a slog, dragging out its metaphors and hiding too many of its better notions under layers of murk and symbolism.

Jesse is positioned as a sacrificial lamb from the start, made up as a murder victim covered in fake blood and colored sequins for her first photo shoot. Sixteen years old, and tight-lipped about past, she's coached to lie about her age by the modeling agency that signs her, and then fawned over by photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) and fashion designer Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola). Everyone is enraptured by her beauty, promising Jesse success and glory. However, she's also extremely vulnerable. Jesse is almost totally alone in the world, short on cash, and living out of a sketchy motel run by the brutish Hank (Keanu Reeves). The only one who really seems to care about her well-being is her would-be boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman), an amateur photographer. Jesse, alas, is hypnotized by the glitter and the neon lights, and doesn't realize the danger until it's too late.

Elle Fanning does her best to give Jesse some shadings, suggesting that she has a darker, nihilistic side that is being drawn out by her meteoric rise. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, remembering that Ryan Gosling managed to do a lot with very little in Winding Refn's "Drive." However, Fanning has even less to work with, and fails to deliver. Jesse has a fair amount of dialogue, and some interesting reactions to strange encounters, but her primary purpose in the film is to be a symbol of everything that the fashion industry desires and destroys. She has very little agency, and the director doesn't seem interested in giving her much of an inner life beyond occasionally enjoying her victimization. The only bits of the story where Jesse is actually active is in her interactions with Dean, which are brief and fairly dull.

Fortunately, there's the trio of Sarah, Ruby, and Gigi. They're the ones who get all the juicy stuff, embodying lust, jealousy, and self-destruction. Sarah and Gigi in particular are ghoulish figures, their desperation and viciousness seeping out from their coldly perfect facades from the very first scene. They're shallow, but deeply unnerving. Ruby is a more complicated creature, whose motives are clear, but her ultimate endgame less certain. Jena Malone turns in my favorite performance of the film, as Jesse's potential ally who becomes stranger and more concerning the longer she's onscreen. The biggest flaw of the film is that it doesn't make more use of her.

The whole narrative becomes a series of escalating absurdities and esoteric mood pieces, which Winding Refn is no stranger to, but these are not particularly good ones. He puts Elle Fanning up against yawning black voids and searing white backdrops, bathes her in colored lights, and paints her with shiny cosmetics. Cliff Martinez provides the synthesizer-heavy score, adding aural texture to the abstractions. It's all very pretty, but rarely evocative. Often, it bores. By the time the violence finally gets underway - as it always does in a Winding Refn movie - it's too little too late.

Clearly, "The Neon Demon" is meant to be interpreted, as it's full of signs and symbols and patterns. However, all the dialogue is too on the nose, and the director's biases are all too clear. Worse, the "The Neon Demon" isn't the least bit horrific or thrilling, despite all the witchy allusions to "Suspiria." The stakes just are just too low, the heroine too inert. There's something terribly untidy about the loose ends left everywhere - the fate of Dean, and the whole subplot with Hank, for instance. And frankly, all the glowing triangles and pyramids just came off as silly affectations.

Whatever spell Nicholas Winding Refn was trying to weave, it doesn't have the desired effect. Points for some interesting imagery and admirable restraint in portraying the female characters, but I expect that even the most devoted Winding Refn fans are going to have some trouble with this one.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

My Favorite Terry Gilliam Film

I thought I'd written this post before, some time ago, since Terry Gilliam is one of my favorite living directors. He's not the most consistent auteur, and has suffered some extraordinary bad luck over the years. However, his output contains several titles that I consider essential cinema. Unlike most fans, I didn't comes to his work from "Monty Python," but from his later urban fantasy films. I was especially intrigued by his love/hate relationship with Hollywood, particularly the legendary battle he waged against Sid Sheinberg, the president of Universal, for the heart and soul of "Brazil."

"Brazil" is a spoof on dystopian stories that once had the working title "1984 & 1/2." Our hero is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a small cog in the nightmare bureaucracy that controls his drab society. He has fanciful dreams of being a heroic winged figure, the savior of a beautiful captive woman. During Sam's investigation into a fatal paperwork mistake, he comes across Jill (Kim Griest), a free spirit who looks exactly like the woman from his dreams. Sam spends the rest of the film trying to find her, while having run-ins with the renegade air-conditioner repairman Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), Sam's plastic surgery obsessed mother Ida (Katherine Helmond), and various figures from the bureaucracy, including characters played by Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Ian Richardson, and an evil Michael Palin. The title of the film comes from the song "Aquarela do Brasil," which Sam hears on the radio, and then recurs throughout the score, signaling when his mind is drifting into flights of fancy.

The art design and effects work of "Brazil" is what most people remember about it. Gilliam is known for his detailed, spectacular fantasy creations, and here he builds a whole nightmare city of modern inconvenience. Scale plays a huge party in the impact of the visuals - the endless rows of gray bureaucrats in the dimly lit Ministry, the torture chamber located in the cavernous cooling tower, and highways entirely bordered by endless billboards stretching out to the horizon. There are distinct Art Deco influences, and retro-futurist concepts of what 1984 might have looked like in the mind of someone from the 1930s or 40s. Models and matte paintings are used extensively and contribute immeasurably to the film's handmade, careworn feel. Everything is falling into disrepair, mired in neverending Kafkaesque red tape and paperwork.

By contrast, "Brazil" also offers its scenes of unbridled whimsy and delight. The gorgeous flying sequences remain some of the best things that Terry Gilliam has ever done, and are frequently pointed to as some of the best effects ever achieved with miniatures and blue screen. There is a neon samurai villain, a floating woman that appears to be dressed in clouds, and a man that disappears in a storm of fallen papers. Federico Fellini's work was a major influence on Gilliam, and perhaps that accounts for the wildly colorful surrealism that occasionally pops into the narrative to help break up the drabness. Ida, with her mangled face and a shoe perched on her elaborately coiffed head, is the most obvious example. Perhaps there have been more well-realized dystopias in film, but surely none that are so wonderfully weird and strange, and committed to its director's own uncompromising, inimitable vision.

As satire, "Brazil" is absolutely vicious. The plot is set in motion by a typing error which causes an entirely innocent man to be seized and executed without anything resembling due process. However, the arresting officer does offer the victim's wife a receipt for his arrest. Minor repairs are entirely at the mercy of disreputable workmen who tend to exponentially complicate every situation. Competency and efficiency are practically viewed as rebellious acts. Many of the bureaucrat characters are so caricatured as to appear barely human. There's a fun gag with Deputy Minister, who appears at his office surrounded by a constantly babbling crowd of underlings who all want his attention. They move where he does, like a swarm of hornets. Perfectly ordinary seeming people are constantly doing horrible things in the name of the bureaucracy, all in very brisk, businesslike ways. And it's the veneer of social nicety that really twists the knife

Then there's the matter of the ending, which the Universal executives were so unhappy with that they attempted to recut the picture and substitute their own. Mild spoilers here, but what happens to Sam Lowry is unusually harsh for a picture that was backed by a major studio. Gilliam refused to give in, and fought back in the press to preserve his cut. There's not enough space to get into the details, but the anarchic spirit and relentless creativity of the film were reflected in Gilliam's campaign. The battle for "Brazil" resulted in one of the most famous victories of an artist over the system. I don't know that Gilliam would have prevailed today,

I have my issues with "Brazil." The plot is difficult to follow, as it is in may Gilliam pictures. Jonathan Pryce is not a strong leading man, and Kim Griest is downright iffy. But when it comes to sheer filmmaking guts and glory, "Brazil" is impossible to forget.

Terry Gilliam - What I've Seen

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Time Bandits (1981)
Brazil (1985)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
The Fisher King (1991)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The Brothers Grimm (2005)
Tideland (2005)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
The Zero Theorem (2013)
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019)

Saturday, November 26, 2016

"Penny Dreadful," Year Three

Some moderate, non-detailed spoilers ahead.

It was worth watching the final season of "Penny Dreadful," though it clearly had its problems. I knew about the downbeat ending long in advance, but I thought that the biggest issues were that John Logan added so many new pieces and tried to cover so much ground. Inevitably, there were too many characters who didn't get their due, too many plots that were rushed through, and some very poor storytelling choices.

Things started out well. After the events of last season, Vanessa has been left alone in London to stew in her misery. With a help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone), she returns to society and becomes enamored with a zoologist, Dr. Sweet (Christian Camargo). Unfortunately, she's also being spied on by Seward's secretary Renfield (Samuel Barnett), recently recruited by Dracula. Meanwhile in America, Ethan is being extradited and a reunion with his hated father, Jared Talbot (Brian Cox), appears inevitable. Sir Malcolm and an Apache warrior Kaetenay (Wes Studi) race to help him. Victor Frankenstein partners with an old friend, Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif), seeking to find a way to return Lily to his side. She's still with Dorian, plotting a proto-radical feminist uprising, and recruiting London's prostitutes to her cause. Finally, John Clare tracks down the family (Casper Allpress and Pandora Colin) that he left behind when he died.

Some of these stories play out perfectly well. I have no complaints about John Clare, Lily Frankenstein, or Dorian Gray - Gray actually has his best arc, gradually becoming disillusioned with Lily. However, the rest of the show was rife with truncated or just plain badly conceived ideas. Emblematic of this is Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks), a jarringly modern scholar of death rituals, who appears in the second half of the season as a new ally for Vanessa. She frequently acts like she's in an action film, with her quips and her fearless fighting prowess, and with next to no development at all, she ends up playing a major part in the finale. Catriona would be a Mary Sue if she had more screen time. Or there's Dr. Jekyll, who in an interesting twist is a half-Indian chemist with massive daddy issues. This season sets up the famous Jekyll and Hyde story, but of course will never pursue it fully. Ethan's history with the Apache desperately needed more time, and I'm disappointed that he didn't get a flashback episode. And what about John Clare's death?

And we have to talk about Vanessa Ives. Eva Green and Rory Kinnear did a magnificent job with their bottle episode, "A Blade of Grass," which felt like it was setting up much bigger things that the series ultimately skipped. I don't object to the ending of "Penny Dreadful" and Vanessa's story, but how the series chose to get there was endlessly frustrating. The all-important seduction of Vanessa felt far too fast, and then the final two episodes only featured her for a single scene with barely any emotional context. It would have taken more than an episode or two of extra material to fix this, and I'm really torn about whether John Logan should have attempted this finale at all. There are so many loose ends hanging around the edges of the series, any sense of closure is minimal.

The production of "Penny Dreadful" remains excellent. I loved the views of the New Mexico territory, Dr. Sweet's museum, and the visions of an apocalyptic London. It was a nice change of pace to see America in this era, and there were some fun variations on the show's predominantly British horror tropes. I'm glad I stuck with the series long enough to see the chapel showdown, Billie Piper calling for revolution on Dorian Gray's dinner table, and that gorgeous final scene with Ethan and Vanessa surrounded by flickering candles.

Even if it means no more Eva Green, I'd love for "Penny Dreadful" to continue. There's clearly so much more that the series could explore, and the series might be able to fix some of these issues retroactively. As it stands now, the show is still by far the best horror television series that I've ever seen, and it won't be matched easily in the future.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2002

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Dirty Pretty Things - This was the first film I saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in, playing an illegal African immigrant who works in a London hotel. He and the rest of the ensemble are phenomenal, humanizing the plight of the desperate souls who comprise an invisible underclass of legal and illegal immigrants from all over the globe. Director Stephen Frears, whose intense human dramas and thrillers I prefer over his comedies, is at his best here. His careful treatment of the difficult material gives it some real emotional power.

Punch Drunk Love - An Adam Sandler movie conceived and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson is a lovely, precious thing. The emotions are heightened, the violence stings, and the colorful romance is as strange as it is affecting. Sandler proves that he's not only capable of being a good comedic and dramatic actor, but a devastating one in the right hands. As for Anderson, "Punch Drunk Love" has some of his most stunning images and memorable characters. And this is without a doubt the funniest film that he's ever made.

Oasis - This is the film that cemented Lee Chang-dong as my favorite Korean director. Somehow it manages to avoid the usual pitfalls of stories about the disabled, being neither too maudlin nor too exploitative - though the disabilities in question are certainly mined for drama. Instead, it finds ways to us to help the audience to connect to the characters who the rest of the world has largely written off. There's a daring to the portrayal of the couple, particularly the female lead stricken with cerebral palsy, that is riveting.

Bloody Sunday - You can trace the popularity of the quasi-documentary shakeycam style back to this film, where Paul Greengrass uses it to capture the horrors of Northern Ireland's 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre up close and personal. The intensity and the realism of the recreations are tremendous, and just enough context is provided to drive home the depth of the tragedy. Greengrass would go on to make other films in the same vein with the same style, but he only rarely achieved the same degree of verisimilitude.

25th Hour - Spike Lee captures the aftermath of 9/11 in New York in this thoughtful, uncompromising human drama about a young man's last day freedom before a long prison sentence. Edward Norton leads a strong cast, and delivers the film's signature monologue with so much dynamic, uncoiling emotion, it's impossible to forget it. And Lee's dreamlike shots of New York and its imperfect citizens build to one of the most beautiful endings in film, bar none. Lee maybe inconsistent, but when he lands a hit, there's no one better.

City of God - A look at the nightmare world of Brazil's favelas, where crime is often committed by the very young, and it's nearly impossible to escape the cycles of violence and poverty. The film is bursting with energy and constantly in motion. It's easy to relate to the young protagonists as we follow them from childhood to adulthood while Brazil changes around them. Nearly all the characters were played by non-actors, mostly kids from the real favelas. This lends a striking degree of authenticity and poignancy to "City of God."

Frida - The life of the celebrated Frida Kahlo is vividly brought to the screen by director Julie Taymor. Her mixed media approach never felt more appropriate, and Salma Hayek tackles the title role with everything she's got. I adore the portrayal of Kahlo and Diego Rivera's tumultuous relationship, which forms the backbone of the film, and all the different ways that Taymor finds to incorporate the art and iconography of Kahlo into the visuals. I especially love that the Brothers Quay contributed a brief snippet of animated body horror.

The Pianist - Roman Polanski's most personal film is a Holocaust memoir of a Polish-Jewish pianist, Władysław Szpilman. There's little sentiment or emphasis on larger messages here, just a quetly matter-of fact chronicle of Szpilman's struggle to survive in wartime Warsaw. From the ghettoes, to the concentration camps, to life in hiding, the effect of Polanski's own experiences is clear. Since "The Pianist," Adrien Brody never had another part so perfect for his talents, and Polanski's career has been in a notable decline ever since.

Chicago - The best time you could have had at the movies in 2002 was watching Rob Marshall's bold, brassy film adaptation of the stage musical "Chicago." Everyone is cast right, everyone knocks their solo out of the park, and we get some great cinematic versions of iconic numbers like "All That Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," and "Mister Cellophane." The use of the fantasy cutaways for the musical sequences is especially effective, letting supporting actors like John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah enjoy their much deserved moments to shine.

Infernal Affairs - Long before it was remade by Martin Scorsese as "The Departed," "Infernal Affairs" was memorable for being the film where popular Chinese actors Tony Leung and Andy Lau went head to head, as competing moles for the police and the mob, respectively. The script was smart, the direction was slick, and the performances were excellent. It remains among the best of the Hong Kong crime thrillers, full of inventive twists and turns. Pay special attention to the early use and depiction of nailbiting cell phone conversations.

Honorable Mentions

Far From Heaven
Road to Perdition
Russian Ark
Better Luck Tomorrow
About Schmidt
Talk to Her
One Hour Photo
Catch Me If You Can

Monday, November 21, 2016

The First Five of "The Americans"

In the age of television anti-heroes, what better subject for a cable drama than one of the American media's favorite go-to bad guys, Communist spies? "The Americans" imagines a version of the 1980s where there really were deep cover Soviets living in the U.S. under assumed identities, fighting the Cold War on enemy turf. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys) look like an average American married couple, with two children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). However, they're actually KGB agents, carrying out dangerous missions on behalf of Soviet intelligence. The series was created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA official.

The early episodes get the ball rolling on several ongoing storylines. Elizabeth and Philip have never been romantically involved despite having children together, but that starts to change after a particularly dramatic mission together. They begin to open up to each other about their previously closed-off personal lives and histories. Then there's Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent working in counterintelligence, who moves into the Jennings' neighborhood with his family. Stan and his partner Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernández) are frequently working against the efforts of the Jennings, though they don't know it. Stan also becomes involved with Nina (Annet Mahendru), a secretary at the Soviet embassy who he coerces into becoming an informer.

Watching the Jennings carry out espionage missions and keep up false identities is certainly fun to watch, but what I've really been enjoying about "The Americans" is the way it recontextualizes history from the Soviet point of view. Elizabeth and Philip are portrayed quite sympathetically, and the fervent anti-communism of the Americans can be unsettling. The show's episode on the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan is a highlight, with the CIA paranoid about the possibility of a Soviet connection, while the Soviets are paranoid that the CIA will try to pin the blame on them. I like that the show doesn't seem to lean one way or another on the politics at this point, though we all know who is going to win in the end.

Now, the Soviets never really used deep cover operatives like this, and frankly the lives that Philip and Elizabeth are a little ridiculous in construction. However, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are very good at selling their complicated, tumultuous, and often contradictory relationship. Elizabeth is the true believer, the one who is more emotionally invested in their work for the KGB. Keri Russell is fantastic at showing how she thinks and operates, and she's been the standout of the cast so far. Philip's loyalties are less certain, but when push comes to shove, he's equally willing to do horrible things. Matthew Rhys hasn't quite won me over to the same extent as Russell yet, but he's getting there. I also really appreciate how complex Stan Beeman is, full of doubts and flaws. Noah Emmerich is showing the potential to be great.

My issues with the show mostly have to do with the writing. "The Americans" is fond of action and violence to the extent that you could mistake its more bombastic sequences for something out of "Alias." The consequences, however, are usually much more dire for anyone caught in the crossfire. The Jennings may be fun to root for, but the game they're playing is a brutal one, and being absolutely heartless monsters is often a part of their job description. So far this has been great for individual episodes, but the show hasn't really addressed their moral slipperyness on a character level yet, and that hasn't been sitting well with me. I realize that we're still in the early going here, but this is a big piece of the picture that is going to need to be addressed.

Frankly, I prefer the slower, calmer moments where "The Americans" occasionally achieves a tone closer to "Mad Men." There's a very clear sense of history happening, and larger forces affecting the characters, which helps to set the show apart from similar spy-themed media. "The Americans" works fine as a standard action thriller, but I hope that it does become more thoughtful over time, and lets its characters engage with thornier issues at it approaches the conclusion of the Cold War. Maybe I'm asking the show to be something it isn't, but the possibilities intrigue me. So, my position on the show is undecided for now, but I do want to watch more.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Back to the '80s With "Stranger Things"

The new Netflix series "Stranger Things," created by the Duffer Brothers, was purposefully made to evoke the media of the 1980s, and the internet has been quick to point out the loads of references to Steven Spielberg, Steven King, John Carpenter, and even John Hughes movies. However, the reason why the eight-episode first season has gotten such a warm reception is because it's one of the most thoroughly, consistently entertaining pieces of television to have popped up in the media landscape in some time. And it definitely gets bonus points for being something very different - not original - but different.

It starts with a group of four 12-year-old boys in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons in 1983. They include nerdy leader Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), chunky goofball Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), charismatic Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp), who disappears on his way home from the game. Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) leads the search, but Will's high-strung mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) thinks something more sinister is going on, after some spooky occurrences at her house. She and her older son, teenage Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), start their own separate investigations. A few days later, Mike's older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), dating a bad boy named Steve (Joe Keery), crosses paths with the same phenomena that seems to be connected to Will's disappearance. And then there's Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a nearly silent girl with a shaved head, who wanders into town wearing only a hospital gown. She appears to be on the run from agents of the government, led by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

This can be broken down into essentially three different, intersecting narratives - one with the adults, one with the teenagers, and one with the kids. The one with the kids is the most fun, as Mike, Lucas, and Dustin puzzle over what to do with Eleven when she comes into their lives, and how to help Will. The boys act exactly like the kids you remember from "Goonies," "Stand By Me," and "E.T.," all bluster and overexcitement and deeply felt emotions. Gaten Matarazzo is frequently a scene stealer, and a solid character actor in the making. Millie Bobby Brown is also very good as Eleven, doing a lot with very little dialogue. With the teenagers, I initially wasn't sold on the romance-centric character dynamics, but eventually the performances won me over. Natalia Dyer keeps Nancy engaging, even when she's being an idiot. Finally, David Harbour is my pick for MVP, providing a solid, steady presence throughout as the town's police chief. Winona Ryder is the show's biggest headliner, but I found her only so-so. She's very one-note, which sometimes works, and often doesn't.

The weaker performances are easy to ignore, however, because the writing is unusually strong. It doesn't just recycle the old tropes from the '80s, like kids fighting supernatural monsters, and a young girl with strange powers, but puts them together in very compelling ways. Also, the storytelling is so nicely restrained, never giving all the answers and occasionally throwing in a few curveballs to subvert some of the old clichés. The show is very good at maintaining momentum through the whole eight episodes, with very few slow spots. What really impressed me were the little behavioral nuances the writers caught - Nancy being chided for language by her mother, the boys biking all around town without any paranoid parent hovering over them, and the science teacher being consulted at a critical moment because the internet didn't exist yet. There are some missteps, like Mike and Nancy's parents being just a little too oblivious, and it gets a little too pleased with its own cleverness here and there, but these flaws are fairly minor.

"Stranger Things" is helped immensely by the show's production, which recreates the feel of the '80s down to the Trapper Keepers and the Tupperware. The soundtrack is a nicely atmospheric, synth-heavy jaunt into nostalgia, with Toto and Elegia making appearances. However, it's the original images that the series comes up with that really stick - Joyce trying to communicate with Will through Christmas lights, Jonathan's photographs of a pool party, and every variation on Eleven's appearance. The only things I thought were a little off were that the special effects were too good, and there wasn't nearly enough neon lighting for 1983.

I should reiterate that "Stranger Things" is a monster movie throwback at heart, and won't be for everyone, especially if they weren't around for the '80s. Despite all the praise, nobody should go into this actually expecting something at the same level as the old Spielberg flicks. John Carpenter and Steven King, maybe. It's a weird, wonderful corner of the media landscape that the Duffer brothers have managed to resurrect. I've very curious to see if they'll be able to sustain this in the inevitable sequel.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Trailers! Trailers! Holiday 2016 Edition

Been a while since we've done one of these, but with all the new holiday movies out, and slew of interesting trailers having recently been released, I think it's high time for a new installment. All links below lead to Trailer Addict.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 - I love that they gave Drax so much of the spotlight in this teaser. Really, a couple of fun character moments was all that was necessary here, and it's exactly what we got. Apparently Yondu and Nebula will be joining the Guardians for this adventure, along with some new faces. Not too much to see here yet, but at this stage that's fine. I'm also glad that "Hooked on a Feeling" has made another appearance, evoking the original trailer for the first movie. It's nice to know that at least one of the Marvel movies has memotable music, even if it's borrowed.

Logan - The final "Wolverine" film has had a fantastic marketing rollout so far, and I've gone from total ambivalence to pretty high anticipation. It's one thing to have Hugh Jackman's final outing as Wolverine be in a post-apocalyptic future, but quite another to have this film be such a gritty, rugged-looking departure from all the other "X-men" films. With director James Mangold promising the third act won't fall victim to excessive CGI, and Jackman and Patrick Stewart both looking great as damaged older versions of their characters, "Logan" could be a great repudiation of the overly glossy "X-men: Apocalypse." Best of all, it promises to be a smaller, simpler story, that will really get to the heart of its characters, and give the actors the sendoff they deserve.

A Cure for Wellness - Gore Verbinski's taking the plunge back into horror, and bringing some absolutely stunning visuals with him. The trailer's glimpses of a remote health spa that looks an awful lot like a mental hospital or mad scientist's laboratory the further in you go, are gripping. I'd been hearing good things about this project for a while, but this absolutely knocked my socks off. I look forward to some epic creepiness and mind-twisting fun when we finally get to see this in February. Also, I should note that it's going to be a big year for Dane DeHaan, who will be headlining at least three films next year.

Life - The JFK narration gives this a sheen of respectability, but "Life" is clearly a space disaster movie of the most prurient kind, which is why it's being released in May instead of October. It is nice to see the advances in effects we saw in "Gravity" and "Interstellar" being used in more mainstream blockbuster fodder. However, I don't have much anticipation for this one, even with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gylenhaal headlining. None of the primary creative staff have particularly impressive resumes, and the film was delayed from March to avoid comeptition from "Power Rangers" and the Guy Ritchie "King Arthur" movie.

Wonder Woman - The newest trailer gives us more glimpses of Diana in action, including a scene on Themiscyra. I like Gal Gadot in the role the more I see her, accent and all. There's also a lot of Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, which some have complained about, but I don't see the problem. He sets up Diana's quest to aid in WWI, and gives us a good POV character for her to interact with. We also finally see a little humor in the closing moments with Lucy Davis, just enough to confirm that the film will have a lighter tone than the recent Zack Snyder DC films. I won't be watching any further previews, because I'm already sold.

T2: Trainspotting - The first "Trainspotting" was so long ago, it didn't register that some of my favorite UK actresses, Kelly MacDonald and Shirley Henderson, were part of the cast. But here they are, along with Ewan MacGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, and all the rest. A new version of the "choose life" monologue announces their reunion here, which I'm not quite sure of the shape of yet. Without any context, this looks a bit like a midlife crisis movie. Surely the drugs and the self-destruction of the original are still in the mix? The trailer is entirely too happy looking for the kind of film that I'm hoping to see. Danny Boyle, don't let me down.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - Luc Besson is doing another space opera, this one based on a French comic from the '60s. Full of alien creatures and scenic sci-fi starscapes, it's going to be the most expensive French film ever made, and I'm hoping that this turns out to be closer to "The Fifth Element" than "Jupiter Ascending." So far the visuals look great, but I'm worried about the relatively green cast here, which includes Cara Delavigne and Rihanna playing a shapeshifter. I don't see a grounding human presence like Bruce Willis, who was so vital to "The Fifth Element." It's too early to say much yet, but fingers are crossed.

Ghost in the Shell - The amazing recreations of scenes from the various "Ghost in the Shell" anime will make this a treat for existing fans, but will it connect with general audiences? Will the film still retain some of the franchise's heady existential themes, or have the filmmakers just cherry-picked the best looking visuals for a more typical dumbed-down action film? Scarlett Johanssen looks great, at least, and I'm hoping that her performance will be good enough to temper some of the casting controversy. Also, though I'm not going to link it here, the opening sequence of the film as leaked, and it's pretty spectacular.

Beauty and the Beast - It looks like the strategy here is to include nods to other several versions of "Beauty and the Beast," including Jean Cocteau's, thought the 1991 animated film is clearly the main inspiration. It's going to take a while for me to get used to the CGI versions of the enchanted objects like Cogsworth and Lumiere, who will also have different voices. I'm not quite sold on Emma Watson as Belle, or the look of the Beast, but I'm absolutely willing to give the film a chance.