Thursday, June 30, 2016

My Top Ten Films of 2006

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

Syndromes and a Century - I've never seen the passage of time captured on film quite like this, as Weerasethakul looks in on a hospital and its inhabitants at two different periods.  The environments speak volumes, charting the changes in how the characters interact with the natural world, how the role of spirituality has transformed, and how behaviors have shifted.  The action is often so incidental, but because of the film's unusual structure and staging, it conveys so much.  Like most Weerasetahkul films, "Syndromes" is often impenetrable, but always fascinating and engaging.

The Prestige - One of Christopher Nolan's most well-realized puzzle boxes is this mystery thriller about two rival magicians and their life-threatening obsession over a magic trick.  Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are wonderfully matched as the lead actors, the twisty narrative is never an impediment to the thundering dramatics, and the images are fantastic.  I always appreciated that the film not only delivered completely on what it promised, but it found ways to keep exploring its central themes from different angles.  It's everything I love about Nolan's work in its purest form.

Little Miss Sunshine - For years, a friend of mine used "Little Miss Sunshine" as an example of the typical quirky indie film of the times, with its dysfunctional family, tragicomic tone, and wry outlook on life.  I consider it one of the best ensemble comedies of its kind because it handles all these elements so well.  Moreover, it's a great showcase for a bevy of great performers, old and new.  This was many viewers' first introduction to Paul Dano and to Steve Carrell as a serious actor.  And then you had Alan Arkin, stealing every scene he appeared in.  Who could resist so much heartwarming misery?

Children of Men - Astonishingly overlooked at the time of its release, "Children of Men" remains one of the best films of the 2000s.  It's a harrowing human drama that just happens to take place in a dystopian future, and rarely feels like a typical sci-fi film.  It's not often you find genre heroes as humanely rendered as Theo and Kee.  And they're subjected to so much wrenching emotional turbulence, all handled so deftly.  The absorbing, ambitious cinematography and complex production also make this an impressive technical feat, though you'll hardly notice while you're watching the story unfold.

Pan's Labyrinth - Guillermo Del Toro's darkest fairy tale observes the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War through the eyes of an imaginative, precocious little girl named Ofelia.  He seamlessly blends her fantasy world with the violent reality of life with her new stepfather, an officer of the totalitarian Franco regime.  The fantasy elements, including elaborate creatures and environments, are astoundingly well executed.  However, it's their pairing with a highly suspenseful, often very adult war story that gives it so much resonance.  Captain Vidal is one of the great cinema monsters of the era.

United 93 - Perhaps it was made too soon to really be absorbed by the collective cultural consciousness, but no one could argue with the intentions or the appropriateness of "United 93."  Directed by Paul Greengrass, this gripping recreation of the events of 9/11 was made to feel as true to life as possible.  While much of the final act was invented, the bare bones documentary style, use of no major stars, and a carefully constructed script keep the film from ever feeling exploitative or dishonest.  It still remains so raw, the film feels more like a piece of the tragedy than a reaction to it.

The Lives of Others - An ode to a human being's capacity for empathy, embodied by an unassuming Stasi operative in East Berlin who has been charged with spying on a suspected dissident.  This is a deceptively quiet, low key film, built around the winning performance of Ulrich Mühe.  Though there are sequences of suspense and mystery, the film is at its best when it's at its most contemplative, simply watching events unfold in this insular little world along with the main character.  Calm, intelligent, and patient, it leaves a far greater impression than most spy films I've seen.

Volver - My introduction to the invaluable work of Pedro Almodovar tells the story of multiple generations of women coming through for each in the wake of multiple tragedies and calamities.  It's an absolute joy to watch so many great female characters navigating a variety of relationships with each other, complicated past histories, and the puzzling arrival of a ghost into their midst.  In spite of all the portents of death circling these ladies, there's so much life and humor in the film.  It's very easy to fall in love with the whole family, particularly Penelope Cruz's feisty Raimunda.

Marie Antoinette - The key to the film is that it's an examination of Marie Antoinette as the product of a nascent celebrity culture, and how that culture ultimately had a hand in destroying her.  So Sophia Coppola chronicles Marie's life of frivolity and excess at Versailles in the language of modern celebrity.  Through the pop songs on the soundtrack, the decadent costuming, and endless parties, we're reminded that Marie Antoinette began her reign as Queen of France when she was a naïve teenage girl.  Should anyone have been surprised that she behaved like one?

Borat - No one pushed the envelope in 2006 the way that Sacha Baron Cohen did, taking a minor funny foreigner character from his "Ali G" comedy sketch show and turning him into an icon of absurdity.  Filled with outrageous setups foisted on real-life people who had no idea they were being filmed for a comedy film, the "Borat" crew succeeded in bringing the hypocrisies and bigotries of the American public to light.  And of course it didn't hurt that the movie was hysterical in the most fearless way.  If the satire and the buffoonery didn't get you, then the pratfalls surely would.

Honorable Mentions

Casino Royale
The Fountain
Little Children
A Scanner Darkly
This is England
A Prairie Home Companion
Perfume: the Story of a Murderer
The Curse of the Golden Flower
Thank You for Smoking


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"The Witch" is Old Fashioned Horror

The ambitions of "The Witch," self-described as "a New England Folktale" are considerable.  Writer and director Robert Eggers fashioned the story out of real accounts of witches and witchcraft from 17th century New England, and wrote the script with accurate dialogue from the period.  The production faithfully recreated agriculture, clothing, and props, and the film was shot far from civilization in rural Ontario.  The main actors look and sound like they stepped out of the past - quite an accomplishment since several of them are young children.  And all of it goes a long way toward setting the proper mood for a world where the influence of God and the Devil are treated as very real, powerful things.

We begin with a family of Puritans being expelled from their colony, for the offense of being too prideful and zealous in their devotion.  They go to live in isolation in the wilderness, trying to keep a little farm going.  However, they are constantly plagued by misfortune, and are in danger of starvation or worse.  One day, the oldest daughter, teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is playing with her newborn brother Samuel, when the baby disappears.  The father, William (Ralph Ineson), decides that a wolf stole the baby, but the mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), blames Thomasin.  William and preteen son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) go on a hunting excursion that leads to more lies and more tensions in the household.  And the there are the twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), a pair of mischievous brats who claim to be able to talk to Black Phillip, the family's black ram.

There is a scene quite early on of the baby being brutally murdered by a witch, though whether this is something happening literally or only a flash of a nightmare vision is not clear.  However, it certainly sets the tone of the rest of the film, which is almost entirely free from traditional horror scares and genre trappings.  Instead, it largely plays out like an excellent slow-burning psychological thriller and costume drama, about a family slowly destroying itself.  Religious faith is a major theme, particularly the parents' pride and hypocrisy, and Thomasin's emerging womanhood.  Though very devout, all the members of the family display weakness and sin that ultimately spell their doom.  This is one of the few films I've seen recently that really grapples with Christian and other theological ideas in any kind of meaningful way, and it's fascinating that it should be in the context of an independent horror film.  

And we comes to the filmmaking itself, which is where Robert Eggers really outdoes himself.  "The Witch" is wonderful to look at, with cinematography that really makes the woods into a threatening, forbidding place.  The shot compositions often using natural lighting feel like they came from a much older, formal breed of film.  The pace of life is slower here, and there are more pauses and little moments to let the atmosphere build and build.  However, it's also very effective as an unorthodox chiller, using a lot of elliptical visuals and judicious editing to suggest many things without actually showing them.  Though I've seen the film criticized in some circles for being too literal in its horrors, particularly the ending, there are multiple ways to read what happens.  I love that the way that the environment and the Puritan worldview of the characters are established, allows for so many possibilities.

The cast is terrific, but Ralph Ineson and Anya Taylor-Joy in particular deserve praise for humanizing their characters.  Ineson's William may be misguided, but he's also a loving and sympathetic man who struggles to do what is right.  Anya Taylor-Joy, who is almost certainly going to attract Hollywood's attention in a big way with this performance, makes Thomasin into someone worth rooting for.  And it's the relationship between father and daughter, fraught with social and religious expectations, that turns out to be the lynchpin of the whole movie.

I feel the need to reiterate that "The Witch" doesn't fit the mold of the modern mainstream horror movie, despite its marketing campaign.  It's not concerned with entertaining the audience with the usual scares and spooks.  Rather, it's an exploration of belief, of the reasons why faith fails and evil is embraced.  It's certainly a horror film, but one that operates by its own stringent rules, and delivers scares of a deeper, lingering nature.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Missmediajunkie v. Trailers

I used to adore trailers.  They were such a highlight of the moviegoing experience for me, that sometimes I was actually disappointed when they ended and the feature presentation began.  I have fond memories of the late '90s, when watching a trailer over a 56K connection meant waiting several minutes for the video to load, especially if you wanted one of the larger sizes.  The release of new ones for anticipated movies always felt like an event.  But while I was putting together the most recent "Trailers! Trailers!" post, it hit me how my attitudes toward trailers have almost entirely changed over the last few years.  Sure, I still watch them and analyze them and write about them, but a lot of the fun is gone.

There are the obvious culprits.  Trailers are so accessible now, you can see them at any time on demand, not just in theaters or prepended to home media releases.  The information that they contain is often available through many other outlets.  There's the oversaturation issue - too many trailers spoiling too many surprises have been blamed for diminishing the actual movie watching experience.  There are some good arguments for avoiding trailers altogether.  However, the trailers themselves haven't really changed all that much over the years, and that includes the amount of spoilers.  I can still name plenty of good ones from the last year or so - "Whiplash," "Black Mass," and the various "Force Awakens" trailers.

A big thing that has changed, however, is presentation.  There's been a particularly annoying development recently, the pre-trailer trailer, or a five-second preview for a trailer leading into the actual trailer.  These have been implemented on Youtube and other platforms to keep potential viewers from skipping them when they autoplay.  Of course, if you're trying to watch the trailer directly, they're terrible.  And often, there are the mood-wrecking post-trailer ads that will point you to a film's website, supplementary material, or other trailers.  Film trailers have long been considered content in and of themselves, but are now being packaged and promoted more aggressively than ever.  I admit that I'm wary of watching the latest "Bourne" trailer because the previews for the preview have been so obnoxious, though I'm still looking forward to the actual film.

Then there's the whole culture around movie trailers, which has grown increasingly hostile.  Most of the highly anticipated blockbusters have their trailers dissected and analyzed frame by frame these days, and filmmakers have even been throwing in Easter eggs for the particularly rabid fans to find.  Massive controversies can erupt over the tiniest details, which are taken out of the context of a finished film, of course.  The recent "Ghostbusters" teaser was a pretty dull and uninspired affair, but the negative reaction to it has been comically over the top, indicating that many viewers are writing the film off sight unseen.  Usually it's the other way around.  Trailers are major drivers of hype, and if you want to avoid the hype surrounding a new release, you need to steer clear of the trailer discussions online.  And as much as people complain about the spoilers in the trailers, spoilers in the discussions of trailers are endemic.

I still love getting a first peek at an anticipated film, but dealing with everything that comes with a trailer is getting increasingly difficult.  Certainly my own tastes have changed over the years and I've learned that knowing less about a film beforehand is usually better than knowing more.  For most of the studio films that I want to see, I stop after the initial teaser - most of them are hitting the two minute mark and are essentially full-length trailers anyway.   I think a large part of my growing ambivalence towards trailers is that I'm not actually seeing them in nearly the numbers that I used to.  Trips to physical theaters are still rare for the time being, due to personal issues, and I watch so many films through VOD or other online outlets where trailers are not attached.  In short, I've simply fallen out of the habit of watching them.

I don't actually watch trailers unless I go looking for them, and then it's usually for films I'm already interested in watching.  Watching trailers, oddly, has become a bit of a chore when I no longer depend on them to figure out which movies I want to watch.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Son of Saul" and "The Second Mother"

Closing out my reviews of the films of 2015 with some very late entries, but I finally saw "Son of Saul" and thought I'd pair it up with another foreign language film I wanted to highlight from last year, "The Second Mother."

"Saul" is the one that's gotten all the attention, and rightly so, because it's such a daring, instantly compelling story told in such a memorable way.  In the waning days of WWII, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), is a member of a sonderkommando, a unit of workers made up of recruited prisoners, at the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Saul's unit works in the gas chambers, and one day he comes across the body of a boy who he believes to be his son.  He wants to bury him properly, but has to find a way to both secure the corpse, and find a rabbi who will help him with the proper funeral rites.  Other workers, Abraham (Levente Molnár) and Biedermann (Urs Rechn), are planning a rebellion and Saul becomes involved in their efforts to help further his own goals. 

Due to the subject matter alone, "Son of Saul" is an intense experience.  The opening scene systematically shows Jewish prisoners arriving at the camp and being sent to their deaths in the gas chambers.  However, we almost never see any of the deaths or the other atrocities directly.  The camera stays with Saul, who waits outside of the gas chambers and carefully keeps his distance from the Nazi soldiers.  The framing is very tight and our field of vision is often limited to whatever Saul sees, creating this little bubble of relative safety in the midst of all the horror.  It feels a little gimmicky at first, but the approach makes many of the worst scenes of violence and cruelty more bearable for the viewer, and creates just enough emotional distance from the killings so that the viewer can keep their focus on what Saul is doing.

This is director László Nemes' first film, and an extremely assured piece of work.  Though the story seems small in scope, it's structured in such a way that it lets the viewer see the ins and outs of life in the concentration camp in great detail.  You can appreciate how much work was involved in keeping the operation going, and the stresses on everyone involved on multiple levels.  Géza Röhrig's tense, haunted performance is so important here, because it keeps everything grounded and immediate.  I like that there's also such an ambiguity an anonymity to Saul.  He's almost constantly onscreen but we learn very little about him beyond his foolhardy quest and his reactions in the moment.  Yet in the end, it's impossible not to become invested in his story, and to cheer on his minor victories in the face of so much tragedy.

"The Second Mother" is a much easier watch, a light Brazilian dramedy about a housekeeper named Val (Regina Casé).  She works for a wealthy family in urban São Paulo, made up of mother Barbara (Karine Teles), father Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), and teenage son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), who Val has played a large part in raising.  It's been years since Val has seen her own daughter Jessica (Camila Márdila), who is the same age as Fabinho and lives with relatives.  One day, Jessica calls to ask if she can come stay with her mother while she studies for her university exams.  This arrangement that initially seems harmless enough, but fiercely independent, strong-minded Jessica's arrival upends the usual dynamics of the household, and tests all the social and familial tensions between Val and her employers.

Regina Casé's Val is the center of the film, and a constant source of enjoyment.  Watching her fret over Jessica's impropriety, and trying to keep everyone's feathers from getting ruffled, it's clear that while Barbara may be the boss of the household, it's Val who is the heart.  The film is so easy to get caught up in because we care so much about Val, and Val cares so much about everyone else.  And watching her realize how important she is, and slowly letting go of her dogged adherence to the established hierarchy, is an absolute joy.  Karine Teles and Camila Márdila are also excellent, warily circling each other and inevitably stepping on each other's toes.  Never has the act of eating ice cream been so nerve wracking to behold.

"The Second Mother" was written and directed by  Anna Muylaert specifically to bring attention to women like Val, who she has claimed to be far too unappreciated.  I love how confrontational Muylaert's approach to the material is, how it isn't afraid to provoke and antagonize while still retaining sympathy for all of its characters.  Even Barbara, who is the clearest antagonist, is a concerned, protective mother above all else.  The film aims barbs at Brazil's social ills specifically, but the themes and the relationships are wonderfully universal.  And the film overall turns out to be a pleasantly accessible, unfussy crowd-pleaser. 


Saturday, June 18, 2016

"James White" and "Experimenter"

I've spent the past few weeks dutifully catching up on the award season "also rans," the movies that seem to have been tailor made for an Oscar campaign, but just weren't quite good enough to get there.  Off the top of my head this includes Stephen Frears' "The Program," Edward Zwick's "Pawn Sacrifice," Nicholas Hytner's "The Lady in the Van," Sarah Gavron's "Suffragette,"  Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck "s "Mississippi Grind," and Angelina Jolie "By the Sea."  None of them are worthy of much note. However, there are two titles that I do want to highlight, that I found in that pile: "James White" and "Experimenter."  Both are indie pics that got some attention for good performances, but never had a chance at getting more of the spotlight.  I want to devote some space to them here - mostly because I don't have room for these two in my upcoming 2015 Top Ten list, and both films are good enough features that I feel bad about it.

First up, "James White," the debut of director Josh Mond.  James (Christopher Abbott), is a familiar twenty-something New Yorker who has spent the last few years steadfastly not growing up.  He lives on his cancer-stricken mother's couch, indulges several vices and bad habits with exasperating regularity, and wants nothing more than to not get on with life.  However, soon he doesn't have a choice in a matter.  His mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), is slowly but surely dying, and James has to act as her caretaker, even though he's woefully unprepared for the task.  Shot vérité style with a paucity of locations, this domestic drama initially feels a little too familiar, like it's slacker main character.  However, it distinguishes itself in a hurry, painting a heartbreaking portrait of two difficult people at the hardest point in their lives.  Abbott and Nixon are both fantastic in the film, and it'll be impossible for me to view either actor the same way after this movie.

It is so satisfying to watch James learn to summon all these hidden reserves of courage, empathy and sheer willpower that I don't think he realized that he had.  We first meet him at his estranged father's wake, where he lashes the way that we expect a spoiled, entitled young reprobate would.  However, the more time we spend with James, the more the film helps us to probe beneath the surface.  James may not know what he's doing, but it turns out he's exactly who should be there in a crisis, and his priorities shift immediately when they must.  He and Gail initially seem to be on the outs with each other, but when they find themselves facing the worst case scenario, their relationship is suddenly forced into a very different place, and their roles have to change accordingly.  Cancer narratives tend to follow a certain pattern, and "James White" is no exception.  However, I've rarely seen any that are this fearlessly intimate, that put the viewer so close to James's vulnerability, helplessness, and raw despair.

My favorite scene of 2015 is the bathroom conversation where James relays a fantasy of their lives to Gail to help calm her down during a bad episode.  It's a moment of tender happiness at the end of a harrowing sequence of pain and terror.  James does all the talking, but the scene only hits as hard as it does because of both Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon.  Nixon's expressions and reactions convey so much, and her face often fills much of the frame. Abbott, meanwhile, suggests James's newfound maturity and confidence as he works through his monologue.  It's a breakthrough that feels earned here, that feels right for the characters.  And in spite of how dark and how emotionally fraught "James White" is, I came away from it with a genuine sense of hopefulness and fulfillment that is about the rarest thing in modern cinema these days.  And it's something I'll be holding on to for a long time.

Now on to "Experimenter," a thoughtful look at the life and times of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) and the famous Milgram experiments, which tested obedience to authority.  Amusingly, descriptions in a few places have categorized "Experimenter" as an "experimental biopic," because it has some unconventional narrative techniques, and occasionally plays fast and loose with the fourth wall.  First, Milgram is both the subject and the host of the show, presenting scenes from his life and adding dry commentary where appropriate.  The story mostly follows his career during and after the famous obedience experiments, especially Milgram's struggles to weather the controversy that followed.  We also spend some time with Milgram's wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) and learn about a few of Milgram's other social psychology experiments, but it's the obedience experiments that dominate the film.

I appreciate that the experiments, which have often been portrayed with such sinister connotations, are given so much careful, considered context here.  The film opens with Milgram and his collaborators matter-of-factly carrying out the most famous version of the experiment from start to finish.  Milgram comes across as cold, even a little flippant about what he's doing.  However, the experiment is never sensationalized, unlike last year's other true life psychology drama, "The Stanford Prison Experiment."  And as "Experimenter" goes on, it becomes even less sensationalized, as Milgram is forced to defend himself against charges of unethical behavior and flawed methodology.  There's an uncomfortable, amusing debriefing sequence where Milgram is forced to be face to face with many of the experiment's less satisfied subjects.  It says more about Milgram's personal flaws than his critics ever could.

"Experimenter" is so straightforward that it doesn't offer much by way of traditional dramatic conflicts.  Some viewers will surely find the movie dull, but I liked how it made room for real discussions to take place, and how committed it was to the concept of letting Milgram have his say on his legacy.  Stanley Milgram is fascinating enough that his life doesn't need any embellishing.  Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Milgram, an unreliable but honest and insightful narrator. The film, directed by Michael Almereyda, clearly had almost no budget to speak of.  However, its recreations of the '60s and '70s are convincing, and I liked the little trick of having the actors act against projected video footage of real locations in a few scenes.  It's a good reminder that you don't need many frills make a great film, and "Experimenter" outdoes most of the other biopics of 2015 by a wide margin.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Heights of "High-Rise"

Reactions have been very mixed towards Ben Wheatley's adaptation of "High-Rise," the J.G. Ballard dystopian novel.  Some love it and some hate it.  Those who expected a genre film that would follow the expected rules of genre films hated it.  Those who expected a more faithful and explicit retelling of the events of the novel hated it.  I fall into neither of those groups and loved it, as a full throated satire about social unrest and class warfare.  I admit that I was a little worried by the pairing of director and material - Ben Wheatley's "Kill List" did nothing for me - but now there's no doubt in my mind that he was exactly the right director to bring "High-Rise" to the screen. 

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), moves into a new apartment on the 25th floor of a new luxury high-rise complex on the outskirts of London.  Quickly, he learns that the tenants have adopted a strict hierarchy, with the wealthy elite on the top floors, and the less well-off occupying the lower floors.  Laing becomes involved with a single woman named Charlotte (Sienna Miller) a few floors up, and at one of her parties meets a documentary filmmaker, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), and his pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss), from the lower floors.  Laing is also invited to the penthouse on the 40th floor to meet the high-rise's visionary architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), but is later ejected from a party by his wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes), limiting Laing's social mobility.  Tensions rise as problems in the high-rise's operations begin to crop up.  Garbage chutes are blocked, the power becomes intermittent, and frictions between residents begin to escalate.  Soon, the system begins to break down, but the tribalism of the high-rise dwellers only increases.

Wheatley's "High-Rise" has a lot in common with Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer," which also packed the whole of human society into a single, limited geographical area, and examined social mechanisms through a revolution in miniature.  More importantly, everything in these movies is highly stylized, and the plot only makes any kind of sense if you treat it as allegorical.  In "High-Rise," the state of the building mirrors the social order, while Laing's state of mind is linked to his own apartment, full of still unpacked boxes.  Parties operate as displays of power, and various animals seem to be linked to systems of morality.  Also, though the high-rise is billed as being high tech and futuristic, Wheatley sets the film in the 1970s, when the novel was originally written, giving the premise a nostalgic twist.  '70s design elements and culture are heavily incorporated throughout, including a repurposed ABBA song as one of the main themes, giving the universe a unique atmosphere that will probably help it age better than its similar genre contemporaries.  The major exception to this is the main character, bland and anonymous in timeless gray suits, signaling that he's having trouble fitting in. 

Where most of the viewers who disliked the film seem to have run into trouble is with the pacing.  Wheatley tends to skip over considerable amounts of time in the space of a quick montage, and explicit exposition is rare.  The high-rise falls into a state of anarchy very quickly, and all the viewer often has to go on are contextual cues and coded dialogue to decipher various plots.  I don't think it helps that Laing is such a slippery central figure, who is clearly losing his grip as time goes on.  However, Tom Hiddleston's performance is excellent, always maintaining a distance from the viewer, and using the character's ambiguity to his advantage.  It takes a while to realize that while Laing is presented as a potential hero, he becomes at least as demented as anyone else in the building by the end.  You can read the plot as being highly filtered through his unreliable POV, or as just a further extension of his mental breakdown. 
In short, "High-Rise" is a film that I think the viewer has to really engage with in order to enjoy it, and not everyone will.  It's full of little details, ominous symbols and visual motifs that keep coming back in different ways like running jokes.  It's very ambitious in its construction and unapologetically intelligent, tackling social, political and cultural criticisms, and ends with a pointed jab at Thatcherism.  I could compare this to so many other movies, and yet the whole is just so much more cohesive and better fleshed out than most other dystopian films I could name.  I think it could have answered a few of the more obvious questions for narrative clarity - what is going outside of the building? - but at the same time I appreciate that Wheatley kept the focus so tight on a small group of characters.  It allows for the interpersonal drama to really build up to something substantial.

I haven't even talked about the other performances - Evans, Moss, and Miller are all in fine form - or the epic production design that makes the high-rise very much the real star of the film, or the '70s inspired cinematography, or so many other things that help "High-Rise" stand out from the crowd.  But this review is already running long, and if I go on for much longer, I run a significant risk of gushing.  I can't help it.  This has everything I want in a good genre film, and more.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

My Favorite Michelangelo Antonioni Film

Michelangelo Antonioni's films are the very definition of arthouse cinema.  They have unorthodox narratives, often contain heady themes, and the later ones were usually built around landscapes and environments rather than performances.  They require the viewer to let go of preconceived notions of film to even approach them.  He caused a sensation with "L'Avventura" by presenting a mystery that is never resolved, in a film full of long shots where nothing apparently happens.  All Antonioni films were about social alienation in one form or another.  However, as time went on his characters spoke less and the camera more.  He became less concerned with traditional narratives, and instead on mood, atmosphere, and tone.  I admit I haven't always had the patience or the concentration to appreciate his work.  However, when I did connect to one of his films, the experience was entrancing.

"Red Desert" was the one I found the most affecting.  A woman named Giuliana (Monica Vitti) has recently been through a traumatic car accident, and is suffering from loneliness and alienation.  She has a young son, and her husband Ugo manages a petrochemical plant near Ravenna, Italy.  The area has become heavily industrialized and polluted, perhaps mirroring Giuliana's new state of mind and attitude toward the world.  Everywhere she goes seems to be contaminated.  She gradually becomes involved with Corrado (Richard Harris), a visiting business associate of Ugo's, and reveals her troubles to him.  He's sympathetic, having many of the same feeling toward the state of the world, but has learned to cope.  Giuliana tries to reconcile herself with her surroundings, but the people she encounters in social situations, her family, and ever her dreams continue to cause her anxiety. 

There is no literal desert in the film, but rather a metaphorical one created in Giuliana's mind.  Antonioni presents the world as the character views it, a looming expanse, full of soft colors, devoid of life, and terribly empty.  The only major landmarks are the hallmarks of industrialization: the smoke-spewing factories, construction cranes, and pieces of large machinery.  Giuliana is left adrift in the landscape, constantly wandering from place to place, constantly compelled to separate herself from others.  This was the director's first color film, and he was determined not to be limited by reality, opting instead for more stylized, impressionistic visuals.  He went so far as to have trees and grass painted grey to fit his specific palette of muted tones.  The color red appears repeatedly, but mostly in the interiors, when Giuliana manages to connect with other people briefly.  It's one of the few bright colors in Giuliana's world of grays and pastels, where everything seems to be on the verge of disappearing into the fog of polluted air. 

Monica Vitti gained a reputation for detached, cool characters after appearing in three of Antonioni's previous films playing similar characters.  Giuliana stands out, however, because her alienation is the most extreme, and Vitti is excellent at getting across her growing neurosis.  All the other actors seem to have been cast to be slightly off balance with her.  Richard Harris, a British actor known for emotional, turbulent performances, is very cool here, clearly an outsider with all his dialogue dubbed in Italian.  Carlo Chionetti, a Milanese lawyer who appeared in no other acting roles, was cast as Ugo.  As in all of Antonioni's films, social outings only serve to drive the characters further apart and highlight their isolation.  The small talk full of innuendoes becomes part of the din of industrialization.  And while we're on the subject of the sound design, "Red Desert" has a very memorable one.  Like the visuals, the soundtrack is impressionistic.  It uses a combination of machine noises and an electronic music score to make the atmosphere even more uneasy and unsettling.

Antonioni's films have been compared to poetry in the way the it conveys themes and ideas.  You could watch "Red Desert" and conclude that Giuliana's mental ailment to be due to a fear of men, or sexual dysfunction, or a rejection of Italian social mores, or plenty more.  The film invites interpretation, suggesting that the scenes where nothing happens may actually be the most telling.  Antonioni actually strikes me as fairly accessible because his intentions are quite clear in much of his work, and the visuals are always so striking.  Even if you find "Red Desert" completely obtuse, it's still a lovely, haunting landscape to observe. 

What I've seen - Michaelangelo Antonioni

Il Grido (1957)
L'Avventura (1960)
La Notte (1961)
L'Eclisse (1962)
Red Desert (1964)
Blowup (1966)
Zabriskie Point (1970)
The Passenger (1975)


Sunday, June 12, 2016

My Top Ten Warner Bros. Animated Shorts

I debated with myself for a long time about what format I should use to talk about shorts on this blog.  The iconic cartoon shorts from Warner Bros. and Disney are some of the most influential pieces of film from my childhood, as they were for pretty much anyone over the age of thirty.  I've finally settled on giving them their own top ten lists.  Bugs Bunny, Daffy, and the rest of the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes gang will go first, and Disney will have their own list next month.  Yes, I picked all Chuck Jones directed and Michael Maltese written shorts, and will not apologize for it.  Entries below are unraked, and ordered by date of release.  I'm going to cheat a bit on one of them, though.  And off we go.

Fast and Furry-ous (1949) - You simply can't talk about the Warner Bros. cartoons without mention of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.  Unfortunately, most of their shorts tend to blend together for me, so I'm going to pick their first outing as a representative.  It wonderfully set up the format for the long-running series and already has most of their best gags in some form: the malfunctioning ACME products, rampant misuse of dynamite, the demented cartoon physics, and of course the Coyote getting squashed and blown up multiple times.

Rabbit of Seville (1950) - A big contributor to some of the best shorts was composer Carl Stalling.  He was the one who rearranged "The Marriage of Figaro" and all the other music central to the escalating madness of Bugs and Elmer's feud in "Rabbit of Seville."  This one has so many of my favorite gags, from Bugs playing barber (and horticulturalist) on Elmer Fudd to the wedding that erupts out of nowhere.  Of course, Stalling and Chuck Jones' greatest opera-themed collaboration would come a few years later in another entry on this list.

Rabbit Fire (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952) and Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953) - Now Bugs and Elmer are a classic pairing, but when you add Daffy Duck to the mix, suddenly there's rivalries on top of rivalries, and all sorts of new angles to play with.  If push comes to shove, I'd probably pick "Rabbit Fire" as my favorite of the "Hunting Trilogy," but the hysterical variations in the two sequels are so good, it's too painful to separate them.  And special kudos to Mel Blanc - remember that the whole "duck season/rabbit season" argument was one man!

Feed the Kitty (1952) - Marc Anthony the bulldog's selfless love for the world's most adorable kitten makes for a heart-tugger beyond compare.  There had already been shorts with a similar premise - Disney's "Lend a Paw" comes to mind - but it's the little things that make this one hit so much harder: Marc Anthony's evolving reactions to the kitten, the various distractions he comes up with, and finally the visual gag with the cookie cat.  Watching this one again as a grown-up and a parent just made me fall in love with it all over again.  

Duck Amuck (1953) - The epic struggle between a cartoon duck and the unseen animator who controls his universe is one of the greatest pieces of animation ever made.  It's such a simple idea, but the metaphysical and comedic implications are endless.  Daffy was always my favorite character, for his massive ego and his stupendous outrage, and they're impossible to suppress here, no matter what the animator does to him.  The sequel with Bugs was a lot of fun, but it couldn't match the heights of the existential lunacy scaled here by Daffy Duck.  

Duck Dodgers of the 24½th Century (1953) - The pitting of Daffy and Porky against Marvin the Martian is so memorable in this "Buck Rogers" spoof, that I was surprised to discover that it actually only happened once during the original Merrie Melodies run.  Marvin's usual adversary was Bugs, who he had some great cosmic spats with.  I prefer Daffy's outing though, for the buddy comedy bits with Porky and the constant self-aggrandizement.  And take special note of the spectacular layout and backgrounds by Maurice Noble and Phillip DeGuard.

Bully for Bugs (1953) - The legend goes that Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese made "Bully for Bugs" in response to their producer declaring out of the blue one day that he didn't want any pictures with bullfighting, as there was nothing funny about it.  So Bugs Bunny took another wrong turn at Albuquerque and ended up in the middle of a Barcelona bullring with Toro the Bull.  And now everyone knows the tune of "Las Chiapanecas," which must be accompanied by judicious slapping, and Bugs' famous line, "Of course you know this means war."

One Froggy Evening (1955) - I hated this short when I was a kid because I felt so bad for the poor construction worker who found the singing frog, and usually got upset when no one would believe him.  It took me years to appreciate that it was really a parable about letting things go and the dangers of greedy entitlement.  And that it's still really, really funny.  The short is so etched into my brain, I can still remember most of the charming old tunes sung by the frog. most notably "Hello! Ma Baby!" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry"

Double or Mutton (1955) - Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog are fairly minor characters, but I just love all their appearances.  The joke about them only being mortal enemies while on the clock never gets old.  Also, the ridiculous sight gags with the sheep get me every time.  "Double or Mutton" is their third short together, the one where their formula finally gelled and the two characters fully established their cordial working relationship.  I also love the gags in this one, especially the use of the silly disguises and Sam's bad hair day.

What's Opera Doc? (1957) - "Kill the Wabbit!  Kill the Wabbit!"  Chuck Jones rushed other productions to buy him more time to work on this short, widely considered to be his magnum opus, and it shows.  The transformation of the Bugs and Elmer's feud into a six minute Wagnerian opera is opulent and gorgeous.  And though it's a pointed spoof of theatrical excess, I still find the melodrama quite touching, especially the ending.  I'd never felt so much empathy for Elmer Fudd as I did when watching him cry in remorse over that wascally wabbit.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Is the All-Female Remake Trend a Problem? (Or Yet Another Frickin "Ghostbusters" Post)

The name is Bond.  Jane Bond.

While the impact of the female-led "Ghostbusters" on popular culture is still being hashed out, there have been rumblings of more gender-swapped versions of familiar films coming our way.  Gillian Anderson and Emilia Clarke have declared that if Daniel Craig is leaving the "007" franchise, they'd like a shot at the part.  There's also an all-female version of "Oceans 11" with Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lawrence picking up steam, and Ronda Rousey is headlining the remake of "Road House."  A female-led "21 Jump Street" spinoff is being considered, and somehow the "Expendabelles" isn't totally dead yet.   As the studios continue to reboot or spin off every last property in their back catalogues, some are trying to rejigger previously male-led hits to be vehicles for female stars.  Changing the gender of the main character in a story is not a new idea, and not a one-way street (see Jerry Lewis's filmography), but some nervous moviegoers are treating the newest batch of gender-swapped projects like it's the end of the world.

Now, if you've been paying attention to the state of pop culture, colorblind and genderblind casting is becoming much more accepted for most roles.  Nobody bats an eye if Scarlett Johansson plays Kaa in the new "Jungle Book," or Lucy Liu plays Watson in "Elementary."  By all accounts, the representation of anyone who isn't a white male in movies and television could still use plenty of improvement, so this is a good thing.  Where much of the controversy tends to come into play, however, is when more popular properties consider blind casting for lead roles.  And it's the lead roles that are particularly vital when it comes to representation and visibility issues.  Before this latest "Jane Bond" conversation, there was the female "Doctor Who" conversation when Matt Smith retired.  And there was the very different, but related black Spider-man campaign before that.  Whatever your opinions are on whether these particular roles are appropriate for race-blind or gender-blind casting, the conversations have been important because they highlight how few prominent roles are available to anyone who isn't white and male.  

Consider this.  All I could think about when I was watching the new "Cloverfield" movies, was that Mary Elizabeth Winstead would make a fantastic, scrappy young female MacGuyver, or maybe she could take over the aging "Die Hard" franchise, where she already plays John McClane's daughter.  Of course, I'd also love to see her in something original - if there's another "Cloverfield" sequel, I certainly want her involved.  However, starring in a more established franchise would boost her to better parts and more exposure much more quickly.  The trouble is that female-led action franchises are very few and far between, so her options are more limited than if she were Chris Pratt or The Rock, who seem to be constantly being considered for every reboot under the sun.  Flipping genders opens up more roles for women, and also gives at least the surface impression that something new and interesting is being done with an otherwise played out property.  It should be a win-win decision, right?

Well, not according to many fans of the original properties.  Now, I am absolutely not suggesting that everyone who's been throwing vitriol at the new "Ghostbusters" is a misogynist.  However, I am suggesting that there is an awful lot bias involved.  No matt how awful it was, the reboot would not have created the same firestorm of controversy if it had been made with an all-male cast.  Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Rob Schenider, and Tyler Perry in aggregate couldn't have managed it.  However, something about the new Ghostbusters team being all women really touched a lot of nerves.  Also, I don't think an unaffiliated female ensemble comedy involving ghosts would have been an issue for these fans, but the fact that they were touted as the new "Ghostbusters" was.  Some have brought up the issue of fan entitlement, accusing the unhappy "Ghostbusters" fans of being too resistant to inevitable change.  I don't think that's quite it either.

I think it has to do with who the target audience of the new "Ghostbusters" movie is, and who people think the target audience of the new "Ghostbusters" movie is.  For much of the current moviegoing audience, the assumption is that a movie with four female leads is meant for women.  Meanwhile, a movie with four male leads can be for anyone because male leads are the status quo.  So even though "Ghostbusters" is clearly intended to be a four quadrant movie, it's pinging for many of the established fans as a "chick flick" simply because of the cast.  That's the disconnect.  That's why many male "Ghostbusters" fans feel like they've been abandoned by the franchise - they no longer appear to be part of the right audience for it.  And until that mentality changes, I think we're going to need more of these gender-swapped movies, not less.

I'm certain that a "Jane Bond" movie is not going to happen.  Bond's appeal is intrinsically linked to his status as an icon of British masculinity, so there is almost no chance that whoever replaces Daniel Craig in the role is going to be anything but a heterosexual white male for a long time.  However, this is still an important conversation to have.  And maybe it could put Gillian Anderson in contention for an original female spy movie that some studio is on the fence about making.  Maybe Emilia Clarke would be right for a Bond girl spinoff.  We can't know the answers to these questions if they're never asked.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Rooting for Filmstruck and Imzy

Time marches on, and new services and platforms are launching every day to replace the current ones.  I'm rarely an early adopter, but there are two new services that have gotten my attention in a big way, and I'm getting pretty excited for.

The first is Filmstruck, a new streaming service from Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection, offering titles from both libraries.  That means all the current Criterion titles will be leaving Hulu, and thank goodness.  The Hulu interface never functioned very well, and I depended on the Criterion site to actually navigate their offerings.  The Criterion titles being one of the only reasons that I subscribed to Hulu Plus to begin with, this will probably mean I can leave the whole service behind.  The catch is that Turner will be implementing a tiered system, so many titles will only be available on a "Premium" channel.  However, depending on what they've offering, that could still be well worth the money.  They've promised titles from "Janus Films, Flicker Alley, Icarus, Kino, Milestone and Zeitgeist," among others.  And supplementary material.

More specifics, like pricing and regional availability are yet to come, but Filmstruck looks like a cinephile's dream.  It's ad free, aimed at more discerning viewers, and will be run by the same folks who have kept TCM a bastion of sanity on cable television.  I was constantly watching TCM for the few years that it was available to me, and I'd love to have access to all that older Hollywood content again.  Having the Criterions on Hulu was certainly a good thing, but I always felt that the films weren't well served by the platform.  Partnering with TCM looks like a much better fit culturally.  And while the audience for Filmstruck will be more limited, I don't see many competitors.  There's Mubi, which also specializes in foreign and independent film, but they only offer thirty curated titles at a time and lean toward more contemporary programming.  Fandor has a bigger, more stable selection, but is similarly aimed at the die-hards and can be a little alienating.

The danger will be that the programming will be too niche for Filmstruck to attract enough subscribers to sustain itself.  Also, there's probably going to be less content offered than I'm hoping for.  TCM will certainly take pains to avoid cannibalizing the audience for its cable channel, and I suspect that many of the usual licensors of its most popular content won't be too keen on having their content available for streaming on Filmstruck when most of them are planning their own rival streaming services that need all the titles they can get.  Turner only owns the older Warner Bros and MGM movies outright, remember, and everything else comes from other studios.  Still, I'd pay for a Criterion-centric service on its own, and there are plenty of other fans like me out there.  Filmstruck officially launches in the fall of 2016 and I can't wait.

Now on to Imzy, which is a new link aggregation site that aims to be the new Reddit, except Reddit with more moderation and an emphasis on a "positive" culture.  It's currently in beta, invitation only, and being run by former Reddit executive Dan McComas.  Now if you've read previous posts on this blog, you know that I'm an active Redditor.  I really enjoy certain parts of the site, mostly the support communities and the IAMA Q&A sessions.  However, it's been getting harder and harder to ignore what are essentially hate groups that have been allowed to flourish on the site, and occasionally spill over into other communities.  There was a big kerfuffle last year that resulted in the banning of a few openly racist and harassment-oriented subreddits, but plenty of sketchy material remains.  As a thirty-something woman, it's especially hostile territory on certain topics like politics, social activism, and gender relations.

Frankly, Imzy sounds like a great response to the aggressively bro-centric Reddit culture.  However, as with all services that are built around user-generated content and interactions, it's hard to predict how the culture is going to develop.  Will Reddit end up looking like the female-dominated Tumblr and Pinterest?  Will we essentially have a Reddit clone with the more obnoxious elements removed?  Will it end up being adopted by a diverse collection of niche interests, creating a hodgepodge of different flavored spaces?  Or will everyone just ignore it?  Hard to say.  However, what's clear is that Imzy is going to be considerably more work than Reddit if it's going to remain a positive and inclusive environment.  Some less savory internet users take that kind of description as a challenge.  

Personally, I'm still out looking for the next great movie discussion site - Letterboxd just isn't what I'm looking for - and I'm hopeful it could be on Imzy.  It's probably wishful thinking, since Reddit's film and television related communities have been pretty disappointing.  However, from personal experience I know I'd be more willing to participate and contribute in a friendlier, more diverse environment.  Maybe Imzy could be the right place to foster a good community of film nerds that can actually carry on a conversation with a good amount of humor.  We'll never know until we try, won't we?


Monday, June 6, 2016

Hail, Coens!

Now this is more like it.  After I was unable to connect to the Coens' last two films, "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "True Grit," I was worried that their charms were wearing off for me.  And these two are among my favorite directors who are still breathing, so that was a pretty alarming prospect.  Fortunately, along came "Hail Caesar!" their out-and-out comedic Golden Age Hollywood spoof.  And I couldn't be more thrilled.  This isn't one of their best films, but it's awfully entertaining, and absolute catnip to a classic film fan like me.  It falls into the category of their playful genre pieces like "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"  Actually, it feels like several all crammed together into one movie.

Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, the production chief and "fixer" at movie studio Capitol Pictures.  It's the early 1950s, and the studio currently has the following films in production: "Hail, Caesar!" a costly sword and sandals prestige epic starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is kidnapped from the set by extras, "Merrily We Dance," an upper crust costume drama directed by the erudite Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and starring an abruptly rebranded Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), and the latest feature of bathing beauty DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johanssen), who is secretly pregnant and needs to get married in a hurry.  It's Eddie's job to make sure that all of these productions stay on track and that all the various stars steer clear of scandal.  Also in the mix are Channing Tatum as a dancing sailor, Tilda Swinton as twin reporters, Frances McDormand as a film editor, and far too many cameos to count.

I'm hard pressed to think of a film that feels more like an excuse for the filmmakers to just recreate bits of old films that they enjoyed.  An Esther Williams-esque water ballet number featuring a mechanical whale and Scalrett Johanssen in a fishtail?  A beautifully choreographed comic dance scene reminiscent of "Anchors Aweigh"  with a delightfully swishy Channing Tatum?  A submarine captained by Dolph Ludgren?  Why not?  Around every corner there's a fascinating new character to spend a few minutes with, and unlike a few of the other Coens' films, I didn't mind that most of the stories didn't really have a resolution or add up to much in particular.  I had a ball just getting to meet all these characters and becoming caught up in their crazy problems for a little while.  "Hail, Caesar!" plays enough like a television pilot that I can dream of having a whole series where we'd check in on the further adventures of Eddie Mannix and Hobie Doyle every week.

Of course, you could never do a longer series with the same collection of talent.  For all the stars that show up in this movie, it was Alden Ehrenreich who ended up running away with it.  He plays Hobie as a good-natured Southern kid who is completely incompetent as an actor.  However, he's such a trouper and such a good guy, that you can't help rooting for him.  Late in the film he goes on a date with starlet Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) and does the most charming things with a plate of spaghetti that I've seen since "Lady and the Tramp."  George Clooney plays another in his long line of great comic morons, and Josh Brolin is as dependable as ever as the weary straight man to all these over-the-top personalities.  And then there are the production values, which are gorgeous.  The Coens' period recreations always look fabulous, and their vision of Golden Age Hollywood film production is no exception.  I loved the Channing Tatum musical number just for the way it lets us peek in on what the crew is doing during the scene, while not taking away from the singing and dancing.

What I found the least successful were the allusions toward larger themes.  Religion and faith come up a few times in connection to the "Hail, Caesar!" film within a film.  A Communist study group also plays a major role, trying to lure various players away from the clutches of capitalism.  Mannix, struggling with his own questions of morality as he takes care of everyone's dirty laundry, spends a lot of the film weighing what it is he really believes and what his responsibilities are.  Except, none of these threads really come together well enough to feel like anything meaningful in aggregate.  A few nice sentiments are presented, but there's nothing much deeper there.

The same can be said of the film itself.  It's not a great film from the Coens, but a diverting and enjoyable one if you take it on its own terms.  It helps to be at least a little familiar with both the subject matter being skewered and the Coens' unique brand of skewering.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

"The Leftovers," Year Two

Mild Spoilers ahead

I'm a little taken aback by how dissatisfied I am with the second season of "The Leftovers," since the broad consensus seems to be that it was an important course correction for the show that made it much more accessible to a wider audience.  I suspect that I connected so strongly with the first season, that I wasn't as receptive to the changes as others who were cooler on it.  There's plenty that I did like about this season, and I'm certainly sticking around for the rest of the third one next year, but "The Leftovers" is turning out to be a different show than I originally anticipated.  

Where the first season was about dealing with grief and loss and the aftermath of tragedy, the second season is more concerned with moving on and trying to rebuild.  So several of our characters do that literally, picking up stakes and moving to the town of Jarden, Texas, nicknamed "Miracle."  It's the largest population that was untouched by the Sudden Departure, and has become a tourist destination and magnet for spiritual truth-seekers and desperate souls.  Central to this season's plot are the Murphy family, a picture perfect clan of Jarden natives: father John (Kevin Carroll), mother Erika (Regina King), and teenage twins Michael (Jovan Adepo) and Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown).  However, there are signs that something is wrong in Jarden, and the mysterious disappearance of Evie and two other girls suddenly makes that impossible for the town to ignore.

It's hard to articulate exactly what I thought was missing from the second season of "The Leftovers."  All the characters are given plenty of good material to work with, and several are much improved.  Jill Garvey has ended her self-destructive tendencies, Kevin has a great new arc involving Patti, and Matt Jamison's strange and wonderful journey toward enlightenment continues to impress.  Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston have some of their best episodes here.  All the new characters are interesting and reveal hidden depths.  However, there's a lot less time spent with the Murphy's than I wanted. and they often feel like secondary characters in their own stories.  And then there are the characters from the first season who don't fare so well this year.  Laurie and Tommy have joined forces in a new venture that looks good on paper, but the execution is very underwhelming.  They simply don't pair well together.  And then there's Meg's new position as the leader of a splinter group of the Guilty Remnant that is bent on breaking all the rules.  I don't know if it's Liv Tyler's performance or the writing, but this didn't work for me at all.

It doesn't bother me that quite a few of the minor characters connected to Mapleton have been left behind, and that the Guilty Remnant is much less involved this year.  However, I miss what the cult brought to the show, the immense catharsis of watching characters process their pain in various forms.  A huge part of Nora Durst's character, for instance, was the psychological toll that her loss took on her.  Though she's clearly still struggling to adjust this season, the show has taken a big step back from charting her recovery, and it's a shame.  While watching the mystery of Jarden unfold is all well and good, and the creators warned up long in advance that most of the big answers would never come, it feels like "The Leftovers" abandoned a few too many pieces of its initial premise, and kept several that it really didn't need to.  I think part of the issue is also that the show has gotten much more crowded, juggling all these different characters and ideas, that a few important ones were inevitably neglected.

Maybe I expected too much.  "The Leftovers" is still without question a daring work of television, which starts off the premiere with a dialogue-free sequence with cave people and manages to incorporate international assassins and witch doctors by the finale.  It delves into questions of faith and denial and coping strategies from an entirely new angle than it did previously.  It should be pointed out that the source novel for "The Leftovers" was completely adapted in the first season, and the show's writers had to come up with everything this year from scratch.  No matter what I felt about some of the developments, this season consistently surprised me, kept me engaged, and I think it was exactly what it wanted to be.  I'm afraid I just wanted it to be something else.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Top Ten Project Progress Report

So it's been a little over a month since I set out on this new venture to write movie Top Ten Lists for the years before I started this blog, and it's been a fun ride so far.  Following my self-imposed rules that I had to watch the Best Picture nominees and at least fifty films for each year, I quickly worked my way through the 2000s and 1990s, mostly watching Best Picture nominees I'd never gotten around to.  It only took me eight films, from "Seabiscuit" to "Awakenings" to get through both decades.  I also took the opportunity to finally watch "Pretty Woman" for 1990.

However, the real challenge lies ahead.  I spent a good chunk of today working out exactly how many films, and which ones, I was going to need to watch to get through the 1980s and 1970s.  The numbers are pretty daunting:

1989 - 6
1988 - 3
1986 - 5
1984 -12
1983 - 13
1982 - 11
1981 - 14
1980 - 15

1979 - 15
1978 - 25
1977 - 12
1976 - 20
1975 - 17
1974 - 11
1973 - 15
1972 - 17
1971 - 13
1970 - 17

So that's 79 films to get through the '80s and 162 to get through the 1970s.  I'm missing exactly eleven Best Picture nominees for each decade.  There should also be an asterisk for 1988, where I actually have watched fifty films, but didn't see three of the year's Best Picture nominees.  This is actually fewer films than I was anticipating, as this whole exercise was started because I realized I'd only seen 25 films from 1978.  It turns out that's an outlier, and I've actually seen at least thirty films for every other year in that decade.  I'm not sure what happened in 1978, but my guess is that it's the point where my childhood memories of older films playing on television and my later exploration of classic films both reached their limits, and failed to overlap. Still, those numbers would be considerably higher if it weren't for Disney films and a lot of obscure anime.

I also started making lists of which films I wanted to see from each year, but this became more and more difficult the farther back in time I got.  For one thing, there were far fewer films being released thirty years ago than there are today, even when you factor in the foreign productions.  Also, I simply am not familiar with most of the titles, and my usual criteria - awards attention, box office success, and good talent involved - don't always help.  I expect as I get into the '70s and beyond, it may come down to what's available.  Home media wasn't prevalent until the late '80s, and quite a few major movies are still difficult to find.  I'm also trying not to be too narrow-minded about what I should be watching, and instead try to watch movies that I actually would have picked to see in theaters or come across on television if I had been around at the time.  I'm not going to get a real sense of the film culture if I only watch the award winners.  In more than a few cases, I've already watched all the award winners anyway.

This is going to be a fun challenge, though.  I've always had a fascination with films from the late '70s and '80s because I associate them strongly with my earliest childhood memories.  These are all the movies that my parents watched when they were my age, and would occasionally reference.     I was cognizant enough to understand they were part of the culture of the time, but never actually watched them.  So I'll be using this as an opportunity to finally see "An Officer and a Gentleman," and "Flashdance," and "Starman," and many, many Burt Reynolds movies.  I've already had a blast with the '90s movies, spotting a young Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Scent of a Woman," and rediscovering my love of Robert DeNiro in "Awakenings."

While I'm on the subject, I'm glad I didn't limit myself to the Oscar movies only, because some of them have aged terribly.  Good grief, "The Cider House Rules" was terrible.