Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"Divergent" Drops Out

I hadn't been keeping up with the "Divergent" series after the first movie, which I only found notable for securing an excellent cast of promising young actors, including Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Miles Teller. Like "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games," its creators had elected to split its last installment into two parts to extend the franchise. I had always wondered what would happen if one of these series started tanking at the box office before it reached its last installment. Well, now we know.

Earlier this week it was reported that after the poor performance of "The Divergent Series: Allegiant" back in spring, Lionsgate is going to skip the theatrical release of the climactic fourth and final movie, "Ascendant." Previously, it was expected to shoot this summer with a scaled down budget to reflect more modest expectations, and reach screens in June of 2017. Instead, "Ascendant" will now be a TV movie leading into a spinoff "Divergent" television series. It's not clear how much of the current cast is going to return, where it will air, or when we can expect to see it.

There's some precedence for a franchise moving from one genre to another like this. "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones," was another film based off of a young adult genre book series, released in 2013. It failed to recoup its budget, but a television series based off the same material with different actors found some success on Freeform (formerly ABC Family). It premiered earlier this year as "Shadowhunters," and at the time of writing, has been renewed for a second season. Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" and Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" are also in the process of being adapted for web and television series after theatrical films meant to launch longer-running franchises failed to find audiences. However, I'm pretty sure that "Divergent" is the first time a previously successful film series has sputtered out after multiple installments, and made the switch to television while it's still technically trying to maintain the same continuity.

The part of this that I find really interesting is that Lionsgate has decided to use "Ascendant" to launch a new television series. I would have expected them to churn out a cheap sequel to finish off the film series, given it a quick release next January, and then tried to recoup as much as they could via VOD and home media. Then, if they wanted to return to this universe, maybe wait a year or two before going the television route. The approach that Lionsgate has chosen seems awfully rushed. I wonder, can rejiggering "Ascendant" into a backdoor pilot work if the main series is already on the rocks? Are they trying to capitalize off of the existing "Divergent" fans before they evaporate? And exactly what source material are they using for the show if the final "Divergent" book was already split into "Allegiant" and "Ascendant"? By picking this option instead of a later reboot or TV adaptation, Lionsgate is potentially sacrificing a second chance for the series' success. It's a bold move, to be sure.

In any case, I'm fairly sure that this is the end of the "book splitting" trend that "Harry Potter" sparked in 2008. With the young adult genre losing steam, it's getting riskier and riskier to commit these longer, serialized franchises. After the end of "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent," there aren't many ongoing ones left. The second "Percy Jackson" film bombed, and no more are planned. "The 5th Wave" broke even, but a continuation looks unlikely. And the final "Maze Runner" film is delayed until 2018 after its star Dylan O'Brien was seriously injured during production. More telling is that there aren't any new titles on the horizon - and the few adaptations that are in the works all seems to be heading to television.

"Divergent" does have its fans, and so far they haven't been happy with the announcement. It's understandable, because no matter how you look at it, Lionsgate seems to be conceding defeat. Still, everything still seems to be up in the air at the moment, so it's much too early to draw any conclusions. It's going to be interesting to see how this is all going to play out. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised at all if they just end up cancelling the whole thing. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

He's Her "Lobster"!

It feels like we've been waiting forever for the release of Yorgos Lanthimos's English language debut, "The Lobster."  This time out, he tackles the subject of love and romance, and the results are just as dark and twisted as you'd expect.  In the world of "The Lobster," pairing off is mandatory, and staying single is forbidden.  Those unlucky enough to be single are sent to a hotel for 45 days, where they must find a mate.  Those who fail are turned into the animal of their choice, but some run away to live as Loners in the woods, and are hunted and persecuted.

David (Colin Farrell) goes to the hotel after the death of his wife, where he meets the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and the Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) among the men attempting to make love connections.  They are carefully watched by the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) to ensure that they are following the hotel's many regulations, and that the matches are genuine.  Potential mates include the Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden), the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), and the increasingly desperate Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen).  Among the communal activities is regularly going out into the nearby woods to hunt Loners.  Among these are the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) and the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz).

I'm very impressed by "The Lobster," but at the same time it confirms for me that Yorgos Lanthimos is a director who has chosen to limit himself to making a very rigid, very particular kind of movie that isn't really to my tastes.  I admire how he constructs these incredibly repressive, brutal, allegorical societies with ridiculous rules, which he uses to satirize elements of the real world.  This worked very well in "Dogtooth," where the family was a microcosm of a tyrannical state, but it's harder to connect real world social rituals around love and marriage to the screwed up system in "The Lobster."  I'm sure that there are people who really do view the business of finding a partner as this kind of Kafkaesque nightmare, where they are obliged to follow impossible rules and end up grievously harming themselves to conform to the established norms.  I'm not one of them, and really had to engage in some mental gymnastics to accept the film's twisted logic.

For instance, there's the prevalence of coldly brutal oppressor figures in "The Lobster," all of them female.  They employ shocking violence without a thought, only one of them with any hint of emotion.  The men end up engaging in various types of self-harm in order to prove their love.  Couples are deemed compatible based on seemingly trivial shared characteristics, and are viewed suspiciously if they appear too dissimilar.  Initially the hotel seems like the major institution of tyranny, but David discovers that the Loners are just as bad in their own way.  Having declared war on the system, they decide instead to outlaw romantic relationships altogether.  It's a fascinating collection of ideas that don't quite all fit together, but allow the filmmakers to explore relationships from an angle I've never seen before.  I especially enjoyed the ending, which the rest of the film slowly builds up to in such a gradual, systematic way, that I didn't see it coming.  

Colin Farrell makes for a very fitting Lanthimos leading man, with his baleful expressions and nervous, guilt-ridden posture.  David always seems obliged to hide his emotions from other people, so much of what he's feeling has to be conveyed silently, in subtle ways.  All the characters are very detached and repressed in behavior, prone to seething privately, and lashing out when cornered.  The participation of the name actors, like Léa Seydoux and Rachel Weisz, doesn't take away from the unsettling, paranoid atmosphere that Lanthimos creates.  I love how quietly malevolent some of the characters are, and even relatively good natured personalities like John C. Reilly's poor schlub are eventually obliged to join in the violence.

Lanthimos's dark, dry sense of humor made the transition to the English language intact, and I continue to appreciate it greatly.I love the way that David carefully relays his rationale for choosing the lobster as his animal alter ego, as if he's reciting his driver's license number.  The Hotel Manager or the Heartless Woman have the habit of making the most outrageous pronouncements in completely businesslike, disinterested tones.  We don't learn much about what happens to successful couples, but the brief glimpses of family life we see are very telling.  One particular line involving the topic of parenthood is completely absurd on its face, but in the world of "The Lobster," makes a sick kind of sense.

And once you do buy into this world and its demented logic - which is not an experience I would recommend to everyone, particularly sensitive viewers - the movie works.  It's oddly comforting to know that Yorgos Lanthimos, as extreme as he is, does believe in love, and believes that it's something worth sacrificing yourself for.  I found the movie too brutal to truly enjoy, but in its own special, horrific way, "The Lobster" really is lovely romance.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Crowdfunding Age

The great Czech stop-motion animator Jan Švankmajer recently finished up a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for "Insects," which he expects will be his final feature film.  He joins a long lists of filmmakers who have successfully used Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns to fund film projects over the last few years, including Spike Lee, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Charlie Kaufman, Paul Schrader, Phil Tippett, and Zach Braff.  As an animation fan, I've also tracked campaigns by Masaaki Yuasa, John Kricfalusi, Bill Plympton, and PES with interest.  It's been roughly four years since the concept of crowdfunding films has really taken off, and I think it's a good time to take stock.

First and foremost, crowdfunding is not for everyone.  It's become a much more visible and popular source of potential funds for indie filmmkers, and makes it easier to get certain projects made, but there's a lot of risk involved in going this route.  Stephen Follows' blog crunched the numbers last year and reported that only roughly 42% of film-related crowdfunding campaigns are successful at reaching their target goals.  Short films are more likely to be funded, as they tend to ask for less money. The bigger campaigns have a much higher failure rate, which is pretty much anything asking for over $50,000.  And as many have pointed out, the high failure rate is not a bad thing considering many of the campaigns are for fairly risky projects.  Most are delivered late and it's still too common for them to never be delivered at all.

The most successful campaigns for full length feature films are generally the smaller ones, and funds are often used to patch holes in the budget of an already mostly funded film or to create pitch materials to woo bigger investors.  Campaigns like the one for the "Veronica Mars" movie that funded the production of the entire film are rare.  Jermaine Clement used a Kickstarter campaign to finance distribution of "What We Do in the Shadows" in the United States.  A campaign for "The Babadook" paid for art department and special effects costs.  After a Kickstarter campaign for a rom-com featuring Melissa Joan Hart was a spectacular bust, raising less than 3% of the $2 million requested, and Uwe Boll struck out twice on two different projects and fundraising platforms, campaigns have generally been much more modest and limited.

It's hard to forget about the success stories, though.  Crowdfunding has helped some prominent breakout films and launched careers, including those of Jeremy Saulnier with "Blue Ruin,"  Ana Lily Amirpour with "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," Josh Mond with "James White," and Justin Simien with "Dear White People."  Now both Kickstarter and Indiegogo  show up to the Sundance, SXSW, and other festivals every year to help promote slates of films that their platforms have helped to finance.  They've been especially important to documentaries, like "An Honest Liar" and "Finding Vivian Maier," and I'm very happy to see that more international projects are showing up in the mix.  There are hundreds of films that have been helped by one of these campaigns, and I think it's safe to say that without crowdfunding, many of them probably wouldn't exist.

It's apparent now, though, especially as the buzz around crowdfunding is starting to taper off, that it's not going to be any kind of major replacement for traditional investors.  The current models are simply too risky for both the funders and the funded, and the amounts of money involved are usually tiny.  However, crowdfunding seems to be a good option for other kinds of media producers, like podcasters and vloggers, whose work is much smaller scale.  Patreon, a crowdfunding site where funding is tied to producers delivering content on a regular basis, has been slowly gaining steam since its debut in 2013.

On a personal note, I haven't contributed to any crowdfunding campaign since "Anomalisa."  It wasn't to my tastes, but I don't regret spending the money, since it's clearly a film that meant a lot to many other people.  It's strange, because at the outset I thought my money was going to a 40 minute short film, but it turned out to be a full 90 minute feature.  I can't fault the creators for making this change, because it was surely with the best of intentions, but I have a strong feeling I would have liked the shorter version better.  I suppose that's one of the things that's been giving me pause about the whole crowdfunding business - I'm never going to have any guarantees about what my money is actually going towards.  


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Which X-Men Get Their Own Films?

So, after the less-than-stellar performance of "X-men: Apocalypse," but the overwhelming success of "Deadpool," it looks like the "X-men" cinematic universe is alive and well, but the actual "X-men" film series may need a break.  The second trilogy of X-films, that takes place in the past, can't really advance without running into significant continuity issues with the first trilogy, that takes place in the present. Then again, there are already continuity snafus everywhere you look.  With a third "Wolverine" solo feature on the way, "Gambit" with Channing Tatum pretty far long in the pipeline, and more "Deadpool" a dead certainty, FOX is already pursuing the spinoff strategy.  I think the "X-men" universe is big and diverse enough to support all of them, and a few more.  So what other characters do we want to see get their own films, before they all inevitably team up again?  Well, here's who I'd pick.

Quicksilver - This is the obvious one, since Quicksilver has been at the center of knockout effects sequences in the last two "X-men" films.  Since the "Avengers" quickly dispatched their version of the character after only one outing, there should be much less of an issue with confusing the two.  On the other hand, while Quicksilver makes a great secondary character, he may not work in larger doses.  Then there's the whole Scarlet Witch can of worms.  Also, keep in mind he's got some competition coming in the form of DC's similar Flash.

Magneto - The nice thing about the second "X-men" trilogy is that so much time passes between each installment, there's plenty of narrative space for the characters to have other adventures during the breaks.  So the young Magneto played by Michael Fassbender could have been having all sorts of adventures.  A Magneto spinoff was actually in the works at one point at FOX, and some of the material was incorporated into "First Class."  I'd love to see more Nazi hunting, more encounters with other mutants, and more globe-trotting.

Storm - At this point I don't care who plays her, but I want a Storm movie.  She was always one of my favorites from the cartoons, having such great, theatrical presence.  She was one of the first major black superheroes, and if we're getting a Black Panther movie, then we absolutely need a Storm movie too.  And I'm hoping Marvel and Fox can come to some agreement so we can see those two together.  And then there's Storm's primary adversary, the Shadow King, a villain with loads of potential who I'd love to see onscreen.

Rogue - Anna Paquin's timid teenage Rogue isn't the one I grew up with.  The Rogue I remember is a brassy Southern belle who's always up for a brawl, maintains an epic on-again, off-again relationship with Gambit, and has some really nasty skeletons in her closet.  And that's the version of the character that I always wanted to see in the movies.  Enough time has passed that Paquin could play the older Rogue, or someone on the path to becoming that person, but the character might benefit from recasting and a full reboot.    

The White Queen - Okay, the consensus seems to be that January Jones was a poor choice to play Emma Frost in "First Class."  I didn't have an issue with her performance, but I wish we'd seen more of the character.  She's one of the most interesting figures in the "X-men" universe, a major villain who switches sides eventually, like the current version of Mystique, and ends up leading her own team of mutants.  She's got a long, twisted history, and there's a lot of moral ambiguity to her that's well worth exploring in more depth.

Longshot - And here's where I get nerdy.  I'd love a movie about the Mojoverse, which is essentially a world run by a villain named Mojo, who is a network television executive gone insane in the body of a giant alien slug.  His primary programming is gladiatorial battles waged between captured or coerced combatants.  Think "Hunger Games," with a much funnier, nastier satirical streak.  The hero is one of Mojo's performers, Longshot, who starts a rebellion, escapes Mojoverse, and eventually ends up one of the X-men.  


Sunday, July 17, 2016

"The Prophet" is a Beautiful Mess

As an traditional animation fan, I'd been hearing about the production of "Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet" for a long time.  It's based on Gibran's influential essay collection, which offers words of wisdom on many different aspects of human life, from love and marriage to crime and punishment.  I heard that it was going to be an anthology film, and an impressive list of animators were onboard to direct the various segments, including Bill Plympton ("Idiots and Angels"), Tomm Moore ("Song of the Sea"), (" Nina Paley ("Sita Sings the Blues"), Joann Sfarr ("The Rabbi's Cat"), and the Brizzi brothers ("Fantasia 2000").

However, most of "The Prophet" is taken up with the story of a man named Mustafa (Liam Neeson), a poet and teacher who has been imprisoned on the island of Orphalese for political activism by the local authorities.  He is visited regularly only by a housekeeper, Kamila (Salma Hayek, who also produced the film), and a bumbling guard, Halim (John Krasinski).  Widowed Kamila has a young daughter, Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis) who has been refusing to speak and getting into all kinds of trouble since her father's death.  It's from Almitra's point of view that we watch the story unfold, as she sneaks into Mustafa's house one day, right as he's finally being granted his freedom.  The various essays from "The Prophet" are incorporated as Mustafa's advice and stories, each accompanied by animated visuals from different directors, who all work in their own individual style.

The Almitra and Mustafa framing story is directed by Roger Allers, best known for co-directing "The Lion King," and it looks and feels exactly like a 1990s Disney feature down to the cute animals and blustering guards.  The animation is good enough that it could pass as something from a major studio, though the designs are pretty generic.  The story, however, is utterly bland and dull.  It reeks of something mature being simplified and reframed to be spoon-fed to younger viewers in the most tedious way possible.  None of the characters have any personality beyond their assigned tropes of flawless messiah figure, worried mother, adorable brat, etc.  The essay segments are thankfully mostly immune to this, since the only dialogue is Liam Neeson's recitation of Kahlil Ghibran's actual text from "The Prophet."  However, the feature as a whole has an unfortunate didactic quality, and too often feels on par with a very fancy Bible study supplement.

I'm torn about whether to recommend the film or not, because some of the individual essay segments are really spectacular.  I especially enjoyed the Tomm Moore segment, "On Love," with its fluid Gustav Klimt-esque renderings of an eventful relationship, Michal Socha’s “On Freedom" a fable about birds and cages told with painterly silhouettes, and Paul and Gaetan Brizzi's "On Death, with its abstract, classically influenced journey to the infinite.  However, that framing segment just rubbed me entirely the wrong way. It's well-intentioned, but comes off as so weirdly patronizing and tone-deaf.  I suspect the film's producers wanted an easy entry point into the Ghibran's text, and didn't trust the individual essay segments to stand on their own.  However, the framing story is easily the weakest part of the film, and ends up reducing the enjoyability of the whole work.

But tor all its flaws, it's heartening to see something as ambitious as "The Prophet" being made.  Salma Hayek reportedly spent years getting this to the screen as a passion project, and I admire her drive to share Gibran's work.  And I'm so grateful that she created such a wonderful opportunity for so many artists to produce more unique traditional animation, which is far too rare these days.  It's clear from the directors involved that this was a major consideration.  I haven't seen anything new in ages from Joan Gratz, who made the seminal "Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase" decades ago, and contributed "On Work" here.  And it's good to get to know Mohammed Saeed Harib, whose "On Good and Evil" has such lively visuals, I initially mistook it for the Brizzis' segment.  I've always love animation anthology films, and "The Prophet" was a good reminder of why that is.

So in light of the continuing dominance of CGI animation in the current marketplace, "The Prophet" is simply too rare and precious a beast to be written off.  On my next viewing, however, I'll be fast-forwarding through Almitra's antics.


Friday, July 15, 2016

A Murky "Midnight Special"

I've been at a loss as to how to write about "Midnight Special" because I haven't been able to adequately sort out my feelings towards it.  Usually I don't read reviews until I've written up something myself, but this time I went looking for them, trying to find some help in parsing my reaction to the film.  To be blunt, my feelings are very mixed, and I think that the film is not what it could be.  But I'm not sure if my disappointment is because of the film's weaknesses or because "Midnight Special" doesn't align with what I expected from a Jeff Nichols film.

"Midnight Special" opens to the sound of an Amber Alert, warning that an eight-year-old boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), has been kidnapped by a man named Roy (Michael Shannon).  The report does not mention that Roy is Alton's father, and they're on the run from a doomsday cult that looks to Alton as a messiah figure.  Gradually, we learn that Alton is at the center of strange phenomena that allows him to intercept wireless transmissions and makes him very sensitive to daylight, among other things.  Alton is being drawn to a particular place that he has to reach by a particular time, so Roy enlists help from his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Alton's mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) to get them there.  Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating the disappearance, lead by Agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), and members of the cult are also on the move, desperate to get Alton back.

"Midnight Special" has all the subtle, engrossing family drama I've come to expect from Jeff Nichols, but this time it's in the context of a genre film narrative.  Some of Nichols' earlier works have had genre elements, like the doomsday visions in "Take Shelter" and the fairy tale overtones in "Mud," but it quickly becomes apparent in "Midnight Special" that Alton's powers, whether supernatural or some product of natural phenomena, are to be taken at face value.  So despite remaining very grounded and very light on special effects, the story can't get away from a lot of old, familiar genre movie tropes that don't play as well as they used to.  And then there's the ending, which some viewers found problematic but I really liked.  I just thought it belonged to an entirely different movie.

The first half of the film is the strongest, where the viewer is still piecing together what's going on, and getting to know all the various players.  We get to see the situation unfold from multiple points of view, and there's a nice ambiguity as to what everyone's intentions are.  I especially enjoyed Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver's characters, who act as audience stand-ins to an extent, trying to work out the mysteries around Alton.  And this may be Michael Shannon's best good guy performance, as a father way in over his head trying to reconcile with a constantly changing situation.  Alton's condition can be read as a metaphor for many things, and some of the film's best scenes are of Roy and Alton trying to offer each other reassurances, and Roy and Sara trying to prepare for the worst.  The relationships are handled so well, it's very easy to become invested in what happens to everyone.

But after all that careful foundation-laying, the second half of the film ends up playing out like a pretty typical action and chase film.  The ending is not ambiguous in the least, which undercuts a lot of the tension and a lot of the melodrama.  Many of the characters feel shortchanged, and some simply drop out of the narrative completely.  Nichols does a great job going in the direction he chooses, especially subverting some of the old clichés, and "Midnight Special" works decently well as a genre piece.  However, the characters and their relationships simply aren't as well served by the approach as they could have been if this were a much more subdued, small-scale film focused more tightly on Roy and Alton.  I think it might have also worked better as a bigger, blunter, more typical mainstream picture that was more concerned with the action and thrills.  I suspect that trying to stick both together just left the picture a muddle.

I think "Midnight Special" is worth seeing if you're a fan of Jeff Nichols or Michael Shannon, but I'm not sure if I'd recommend it to anyone else.  It's pieces are wonderful, but on the whole I found it unsatisfying.  I feel a little guilty thinking that, because I enjoy this director's work and I applaud the guts it took to pursue this kind of material so whole-heartedly.  Ultimately, however, it just never came together quite right.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

"Zootopia" is a Winning New Fable

Disney animation has a long history with stories of anthropomorphized animals, from their "Robin Hood" starring a charming fox, to the old shorts featuring talking mice and ducks.  A CGI update on the concept doesn't feel overdue, exactly, with franchises like "Kung Fu Panda" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" still chugging along, but it has been a long while since one of these animal stories has really gone back to its roots in allegorical fable.  So "Zootopia" feels strangely novel in the way that  it is wholeheartedly a commentary on current social issues, specifically racial and gender bias.  It also deserves a lot of kudos for building its animal-inhabited universe from the ground up, thinking about how animals might really build a city for themselves.

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is adamant from a young age about pursuing her dream to be a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, where mammals of all different stripes have learned to come together and live in harmony.  Since she's a pint-sized bunny, this is an uphill battle, but she succeeds in becoming ZPD's first rabbit officer and fights to prove herself to her highly skeptical Captain (Idris Elba).  At first she's stuck in parking enforcement, but then gets involved in a missing persons case.  Hopps blackmails a local con-artist fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) into helping her track down leads, and the two slowly but surely become friends.  The case takes the two of them all over the city, and eventually they uncover a sinister plot that threatens to destroy Zootopia's community as they know it.

The different types of animals are clearly meant to represent people of different races and social groups.  However, the clever thing is that they don't correlate exactly to groups in the real world.  Predatory animals are stereotyped as being more aggressive and dangerous, but they are also traditionally the ones in power, like the lion mayor (J.K. Simmons) and various members of the police force.  Hopps' assumed passivity as a bunny reads more as a gender stereotype than a racial one.  Then there's Wilde, the character who has been the most affected by prejudice.  He's a fox, so everyone assumes he's sneaky and up to no good.  So while "Zootopia" wears its intentions on its sleeve about being a message film, it rarely comes across as too pointed or having a particular agenda, because the worldbuilding of the film is so neatly self-contained.

That being said, it's a self-contained world that is very self-conscious about being relevant to modern audiences, and thus already feels oddly dated in a way that most Disney animated features aren't.  There are pop-culture references all over the place, including smart phone designs and a Shakira-voiced pop star gazelle.  Her new single, "Try Everything" is proudly positioned as the "Zootopia" anthem, even taking over the ending credits sequence for a remarkably lazy dance party finale.  It might have been more palatable if the song weren't so bland.  Oddly, the one bit of referential comedy that works best is an extended "Godfather" riff, proving that while spiffy technology may come and go, Marlon Brando impressions are forever.

Fortunately, the core buddy comedy of Hopps and Wilde is a solid one, backed up by good performances from Goodwin and Bateman.  They have great onscreen chemistry, play off each other wonderfully, and are strong enough to support the story when it gets into thorny territory discussing biases and prejudices.  These arguments play out so well, I wish the film could have spent more time on the particulars of predator-prey relations, and less on the familiar beats of chasing perps and surprise villain reveals.  Then again, the procedural elements are an awful lot of fun, especially in the sight-gag riddled society that's been tailored to animals.  From a pure design standpoint, this is one of the best Disney animated films I've seen in a long time.

I'm torn between wanting "Zootopia" to become a big franchise that explores more of its world in other films and television shows, and wanting it to stay a single film, undiluted and uncompromised.  I can't see the further adventures of Hopps and Wilde going anywhere but down in quality, but at the same time there aren't many animated films that have been so well suited to a continuation.  "Zootopia" is one of the only modern animated films where it feels like you could tell more good, meaningful stories with these characters.


Monday, July 11, 2016

To "Eve's Bayou"

After a certain age, magic becomes a rare thing to experience in films.  Sure, I can appreciate all the gorgeous effects work that goes into CGI creatures and Harry Potter's wizard duels, but I know that it's all pretend.  However, for the space of 109 minutes, I believed that characters in "Eve's Bayou" could see the future and commune with the past.  And I believed this wholeheartedly.

The year is 1962, and we're introduced to the world of Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), a willful ten-year-old girl.  She is the daughter of a doctor, Louis (Sameul L. Jackson), and the lovely Roz (Lynn Whitfield), with a younger brother, Poe (Jake Smollett), and older sister, Cisely (Meagan Good).  They live in a thriving African-American community in Louisiana, where the family is well regarded, particularly Louis, whose house calls are sometimes used as cover to conduct clandestine affairs.  Eve is particularly close with her Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), who tells fortunes and believes that she's cursed, having been widowed multiple times.  One night, during a party, Eve catches Louis with another woman, Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson), an event that will eventually lead to Eve killing her father.

Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, one of the few female African-American directors who has ever had much of a career, this is Southern Gothic at its finest, delivering wonderfully nuanced character portraits and tons of cinematic atmosphere.  Filtered through the memories and the child's perception of Eve, the film hums with unseen forces.  The visions and warnings delivered by Mozelle and the witchy voodoo woman Elzora (Diahann Carroll) are treated with utmost seriousness.  Some of the most arresting scenes involve Mozelle telling Eve about her husbands, who we glimpse in mirrors at times, appearing as casually as they do in Mozelle's picture frames.  Debbi Morgan is absolutely riveting, delivering long, unhurried monologues about her life and tragedies.  When she looks into the future, she sees it in harsh, impressionistic montages of black and white images. Details, however, can be elusive.

It's one of these visions that results in the children being confined to their home for a period of time, under the watchful eye of their mother.  Tensions rise, especially between Cisely, who becomes rebellious and defiant as most fourteen year-olds do, and Roz, who is clearly redirecting her insecurity about her marriage.  It's a familiar dynamic that plays out, but oh so wonderfully, setting the stage for the bigger upheavals to come.  The film is full of relationships between women, some contentious, some loving, and mostly both at once.  Ethel Ayler appears briefly, but memorably as the Batiste family's Gran Mere, who speaks only in French and hints at past clashes that have gone on in the family since long before Eve was born.  It's a lot of fun simply watching all these personalities interact and play off each other.

Samuel L. Jackson is the film's MVP, however.  This is one of the most nuanced, interesting roles he's ever played, a loving father and charismatic figure who Eve adores.  There is no question that he cares deeply for his children.  However, his flaws are deep and troubling, so much so that Eve is given real cause to question her father's love.  Jackson is especially good in the tender moments, where Louis tries to assuage his daughters' fears while ignoring the obvious impact of his infidelities on the family.  The ending is wonderfully ambiguous because the character remains so difficult to pin down.  Is he kind of man to lie, to misremember, or to tell the truth about a terrible event?  Not even magic can divine that, though it can enforce terrible consequences.

I've been watching a lot of African American cinema lately, much of it dealing with historical struggles against racism, both direct and systemic, external and internal.  "Eve's Bayou" is the only one of them that feels like it's not part of this legacy.  There are no white characters, and no acknowledgement of anyone and anywhere beyond Eve's world of familiar neighbors and friends.  Rather, it explores a rich, deep Creole culture that stems from a history of slavery, but is also deeply tied to family, community, and spirituality.  And it does it on its own terms, without comparison or reference to anything else.  The result is that this is a different kind of African American story from a place and a point of view that I haven't seen before in cinema.  And finding something like this is always a special experience.

Maybe that's why the troubles of Eve and her family come across as so striking and so genuine.  Maybe that's why this is the first film I've seen in so long, that really got me to care about its beautiful, imperfect characters.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Brother and the Starman

Once upon a time in 1984, two aliens came to Earth, the United States specifically.  One landed in the upper Midwest, and one landed in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.  One was white, played by Jeff Bridges, and one was black, played by Joe Morton.  Both were fairly similar in most respects, both essentially benign towards humans and operating with only the best of intentions.  Once they reached Earth, they assumed human form, and displayed a variety of strange telekinetic and healing powers straight from the template of "E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial," which had been a smash hit two years prior.  We never learned much about their planets, except that one wanted to go back to where he came from, and one did not.

So I watched John Carpenter's "Starman" and John Sayles' "The Brother From Another Planet" recently, in part because many of the discussions I read about "Midnight Special" kept bringing up similarities to "Starman."  They do share a few bits of plotting, but "Midnight Special" isn't really a film about an alien visitor, and doesn't ask the same questions.    "Starman" and "Brother," however, come across as fascinating variations on the same theme.  An alien in the guise of a man comes to Earth, where he has to learn what he can from humanity to survive.  Starman is in a John Carpenter action movie and is trying to get to a pre-arranged pickup spot to be taken home by his fellow alien travelers.  This results in a cross-country road trip with Karen Allen as his initially reluctant ally and eventual love interest.  The Brother is in a John Sayles social satire, and struggles to integrate himself into human society while avoiding other aliens who arrive to capture him.  Unlike Starman, the Brother cannot talk and is largely reactive to those around him.  

What struck me immediately about both movies is how thoughtfully they're put together.  "Brother" has the more pointed social commentary by design, but "Starman" is full of lighter observations about the foibles of the human race that are still relevant to this day.  I really appreciate how well paced these films are, letting the main characters develop their relationships with other humans, and fill in the details about why they're on Earth gradually over time.  Action sequences are significant in both films, notably "Starman's" effects-heavy ending, but the character development comes first.  And thanks in large part to Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, it comes off terrifically.  Though "Starman" was a commercial success at the time, I don't think it would be as easy to make a similar film today, as romance is a major component of its story.  Supernatural romances have largely gone out of fashion unless they're aimed at young female audiences.

"Brother" feels more contemporary, even though it takes place in a Harlem that largely no longer exists.  The issues that it addresses certainly do, though: the divide between white and black, rich and poor, the empowered and the helpless.  "Brother" is far more cynical about humanity than "Starman," highlighting vices and pitfalls that doom many immigrants who find themselves in the same position as the naïve Brother.  He meets a broader range of people, both good and bad, and is placed in far more morally troubling situations.  At the same time, there's a hopefulness about the story that I found very uplifting.  The film eventually makes the case that while the Brother may be an alien, and his new community is rife with social problems, it can be a home for him, as it's been for so many other refugees.

We haven't had many earnest tales of alien visitors since, and I suspect the whole idea of friendly, altruistic extra-terrestrials may have become hopelessly passé.  Most of the subsequent films about aliens on earth in human form, like "K-PAX," tend to make a mystery of the alien figure's true origins, or we only meet the aliens once they're integrated into human society, as with the "MIB" series.  The most direct successor to "Starman" and "The Brother From Another Planet," reflecting more modern attitudes toward this concept, is probably Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" from 2013.  Scarlett Johansson plays the nameless alien visitor, a merciless, dangerous killer, who embodies all our fears of the unknown.  Then her slow, sometimes painful humanization is shown to lead inevitably to her destruction.

Ands it's a shame, because I think there is a lot more mileage to the concept, and frankly we could use a little more optimism in our science fiction films these days.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

My Top Ten Disney Shorts

To go along with the list of Warner Brothers shorts from last month, here's the list of my Top Ten theatrically released animated Disney shorts.  That's three Donald cartoons, two Mickey cartons, one for Goofy, three Silly Symphonies, and one miscellaneous.  There are a few modern 'toons that I thought about including, but I want to focus on the classic shorts era.  So, I used the cutoff date of 1965.  That means none of the individual "Winnie the Pooh" shorts are eligible, or "Mickey's Christmas Carol."

The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934) -  I always liked "Grasshopper" the best of all the early Disney shorts for its catchy music, simple storyline, and excellent characters.  It's a perfect cartoon for small children, with its emphasis on big emotions and a valuable lesson learned.  The struggles of Hop the short-sighted grasshopper, voiced by future Goofy voice actor Pinto Colvig, remain so affecting to watch.  The look on his face when his last leaf blows away has stayed with me to this day.  

The Old Mill (1937) - Hayao Miyazaki considered this short his favorite of Disney's works.  It presents a snapshot of life in an abandoned mill, leading up to a long storm sequence, with little by way of plot or dialogue.  The cartoon was conceived of as a way for the studio to test it's multiplane camera and various effects techniques that would be used in their later animated features. The result is a tour de force of animation, full of drama and suspense, and beautiful images of the natural world.

Mickey's Trailer (1938) - Mickey, Donald, and Goofy worked as well together as they did in their own separate cartoons.  My favorite of their outings as a trio was this eventful road trip, taken in an adorable little trailer with striped awnings and all the modern conveniences.  The short is stuffed full of memorable gags, silly pratfalls, and tons of action.  One of highlights of my last trip to Disneyland was noticing that a replica of the trailer is currently parked in Toontown, not too far from Mickey's house.

Brave Little Tailor (1938) - Mickey's epic fight against the giant is one for the ages.  I always thought the mouse worked best when he was in the role of the little guy, and next to the giant, he's literally mouse-sized.  However, it's the giant who always impressed me most, the way that the animators found ways to really emphasize his terrifying hugeness and physicality.  And then there's the sound design - the sound of the pumpkins bouncing down his gullet, and the massive, destructive sneezes are fantastic.

Goofy and Wilbur (1939) - The one Goofy cartoon that I really love is his first solo effort, about his friendship with a grasshopper named Wilbur.  It always struck me that Disney cartoons weren't afraid of sad or heartbreaking moments, and Goofy's desperate attempts to save his pal from harm always tugged on my heartstrings something fierce.  This was Wilbur's only appearance, but Goofy certainly proved himself worthy of the leading man status he would go on to enjoy for decades.

The Ugly Duckling (1939) - The last official Silly Symphony produced by Disney was probably the best of them, a remake of a 1931 short of the same name.  The animation is feature quality, the story has been given a good reworking, and the cuddly little ugly duckling at the center of the story is one of the most expressive, sympathetic cartoon characters even drawn and painted.  After all his adventures, there aren't many happy endings in cinema that feel so well earned and so satisfying to see.

Der Fuehrer's Face (1943) - Donald Duck's stint as a Nazi is not only a fun piece of WWII wartime propaganda, but one of the duck's best cartoons, period.  The nightmarish version of life in Nazi Germany is full of sensational visuals, especially the constant saluting and the swastikas everywhere.  The theme song is also delightfully catchy, full of puns and raspberries to go along with the visual gags.  The short may have only been made to sell war bonds, but the Disney folks really gave this their all.

Donald's Crime (1945) - I remember this as an uncharacteristically sinister cartoon, where it's Donald's own guilt and paranoia that persecute him after he robs the Nephews' piggy bank.  Full of shadowy suspense and psychological terrors, this was pretty dark stuff when I was a kid, and I'm still impressed with it now as a prime piece of animated film noir.  it also served as a good reminder that in spite of all his battles with nephews, insects, and chipmunks, Donald's worst enemy was always himself.

Donald's Dilemma (1947) - Though Donald's name is in the title, this is really a Daisy Duck cartoon.  She's the POV character and the protagonist here, desperately trying to win her Donald back after an accident turns him into a smooth crooner with amnesia.  And she's so much fun to watch as she goes to pieces, I will forever wish that she'd gotten a few more turns in the spotlight.  It's also hysterical watching Donald play the straight man and well-adjusted one for once - temporarily of course.

Lambert the Sheepish Lion (1952) - Many of the best Disney shorts were built around songs, and there may not be any that are as catchy as "Lambert."  I love the return of the stork from "Dumbo," voiced by Sterling Holloway, all the ridiculous gags with Lambert trying to be a sheep, and the meanest looking animated wolf I've ever seen.  It wasn't until my late twenties, though, that I saw the full cartoon with the original ending - my copy was edited to cut out the final fate of the wolf.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

And What Didn't Make My 2015 Top Ten List

Every year, I write a companion piece to my Top Ten List, discussing other notable and high profile films of the year.  I do this to provide some context for my own list, and to organize my own thoughts on these films before saying goodbye to a year in film.  I find that what isn't on someone's Top Ten list is often as illuminating as what is.  Please note that I will not be discussing films that made the Honorable Mention section, especially as this year I've previously reviewed all of these titles.

2015 was a big year in a lot of ways, especially at the box office.  As the tentpole films increasingly dominate, however, the smaller films are being squeezed out.  I'm extremely worried about what happened this past October, where "The Martian" dominated week after week to the detriment of many smaller films.  Many would-be awards contenders released during this period, including "Steve Jobs" and "The Walk" were terrible bombs, which is going to affect how movies like this are made and distributed in the future.  Thankfully, business did pick up over the next few months, especially for the big awards contenders.  That means the awards race is more important than ever.

So let's look at the most highly lauded films first.  I liked all these films to some extent.  "The Revenant," for instance, was a daring cinematic feat that certainly looked spectacular.  However, I couldn't connect with it on any other level beyond the visceral, and that includes Leonardo DiCaprio's performance.  "Mad Max" is certainly to be celebrated for being a big action film done right, and I'm thrilled that the Academy finally caved to all the critical pressure and handed over so many Oscars.  However, I'm still a little mystified by the praise.  I certainly enjoyed the film, but it didn't strike me as a masterpiece.  I suspect that taste may have a lot to do with this, as the aesthetics of Mad Max's Wasteland were always a little off-putting to me, even if I enjoyed it all on a story level.  

2015 often felt like the year that a lot of tremendously creative people all made something passable and mediocre.  "Bridge of Spies" was an entirely too familiar, earnest Spielberg period picture with Tom Hanks at his Hanksiest.  Quentin Tarantino poured a lot of effort into "The Hateful Eight," surely, but also fell back on old tricks and familiar indulgences.  I liked Tom Hooper's "The Danish Girl" much better than his "Les Miz," but it was entirely too timid.  "Steve Jobs" was more Aaron Sorkin than Danny Boyle, and not good Aaron Sorkin, unfortunately.  "The Big Short" was a nice surprise for being the opposite, a massively interesting, engaging film coming from Adam McKay, of all people.  It was a little too rough around the edges to be in play for a top spot, but I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for it.  Jay Roach, alas couldn't manage the same trick.  "Trumbo" was about the most awkward, tone deaf picture I saw all year.

The populist successes always yield some interesting things, and this year you had to have an opinion about "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."  I liked it just fine as a typical blockbuster of 2016, but it made me much more excited about what may come later.  One of the year's biggest surprises was "Straight Outta Compton," which I agree is an important film for the audience it reached, but one I didn't find especially notable otherwise.  It played all your typical biopic beats out in exactly the way I expected.  Then there's "Kingsmen," which grows increasingly more problematic the more I think about it, but I still really, really liked for what it was.

I've already remarked in a few different contexts that I thought it was a pretty poor year for foreign and arthouse films, with many major directors apparently taking the year off.  Those that remained made films that felt like lesser retreads of older films: "Cemetery of Splendour," "Anomalisa," "Youth," "Taxi," "Pigeon Sat on a Branch...") or were gimmick-driven ("Victoria" and "The Tribe").  I fully admit that I didn't understand Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "The Assassin," despite not needing any subtitles for it.  And while I had no major complaints about "Amy," it felt awfully slight when compared to some of the other documentaries about musicians from last year, like "What's Up Miss Simone" and "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck."

Please note that I counted "Phoenix" and "Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem" as 2014 films, so they were in contention for this year's "Plus One" spot, along with "The Look of Silence," which was the runner up.  I seriously considered declaring a tie and announcing this year would have a "Plus Two" addendum, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

Finally, films that I just didn't have room for among my honorable mentions include "The Search for General Tso," "Crimson Peak," "Tangerine," "Sicarion," and "What's Up Miss Simone?"

And that's 2015 in film.


Sunday, July 3, 2016

My Top Ten Films of 2015, Plus One

This list is coming earlier in the year than usual, but thank to improved distribution choices and fairly short list of foreign obscurities I was interested in tracking down this year, I got through everything in record time.  I'm also definitely using the "Plus One" spot to mentally draw a line.  I made point of seeing "Son of Saul" for the list, but I think "Rams" and "No Home Movie" can wait.  Overall, it felt like a leaner year for art films, and the gap between the blockbusters and everything else continues to grow.  I'm happy that so many smaller, interesting films still got made, and my list is dominated by them.

My criteria for eligibility require that a film must have been released in its own home country during 2015, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count.  Picks are unranked and listed in no particular order, previously posted reviews are linked where available, and the "Plus One" spot is reserved for the best film of the previous year that I didn't manage to see in time for the last list. And here we go.

Brooklyn - A simple film, when executed well, can be something magnificent.  And I can't think of anything more perfectly executed this year than "Brooklyn," which follows the ups and downs of a young Irish immigrant building a new life for herself in New York.  It's a film that's universal in its themes, genuine in its aims, and so lovely in spirit.  Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen share the best onscreen romance in years, and the story is so old fashioned in its sensibilities, it feels downright subversive.  This is a rare picture that I'd recommend to anyone without hesitation.

Inside Out - I expected this to be a movie about growing up, but it's also a movie about letting go.  Pete Doctor and the gang at PIXAR set up a zany existential buddy comedy starring a young girl's conflicting emotions, and then turn it into this beautiful metaphor for all sorts of touchy topics: identity crisis, parental fears, and, yes, emerging maturity.  Though it's full of bright colors and exaggerated designs to appeal to the smallest audience members, I expect that it's the grown-ups who will find "Inside Out" the most absorbing and affecting.

The Duke of Burgundy - The most sensual film of the year by a wide margin, "The Duke of Burgundy" is an homage to the erotic European art house films of the 1970s.  At the same time, it's also one of the more honest examinations of romantic relationship dynamics, though the relationship in question is highly unconventional.  Director Peter Strickland has proven to be a sensational visual and aural stylist, and sustains a rare, delicate mood of intimacy throughout.  And the two lead actresses are absolutely stunning in their fearlessness.

Love & Mercy - You don't need to know anything about Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys to enjoy this ambitious biopic, which tell two different stories about Wilson in two different eras.  They're connected by the music, and it really is Brian Wilson's music that is the star of the film, carefully rearranged by Atticus Ross and incorporated into the original score.  Recording sessions are recreated, familiar melodies are recontextualized, and Wilson is lovingly given his due.  This feels like a passion project for everyone involved in the best way possible.

The Martian - Is it possible that we have a space adventure movie that celebrates the optimistic, can-do spirit of humanity, and is a total crowd pleaser to boot?  Yes, it is.  "The Martian" is a technical tour-de-force, which uses all of Ridley Scott's epic filmmaking powers to create a convincing version of Mars where Matt Damon could be marooned.  However, I really love the movie for its humor, it's spirit, and it's boundless positivity in the face of crisis.  And for its embrace of science and engineering in a way that is downright inspiring.

While We're Young - Noah Baumbach and Ben Stiller haven't been my favorite pair, but they're both at their absolute best in this wry comedy about the generational divide between aging Gen Xers and the incoming Millennials.  I really enjoy the way that the script plays with expectations, building up to very different kind of epiphany than viewers were anticipating at the outset.  There's also a gleeful absurdity to the film's portrayal of self-obsessed New Yorkers which I enjoyed very much, and seems to have become a hallmark of Baumbach's work.

Room - There's a very different version of "Room" that could have been made, a typical crime thriller about a terrible injustice.  However, by shifting the POV, starting in an ambiguous situation, and creating the opportunity for Jacob Tremblay's extraordinary performance, suddenly "Room" becomes something much more thoughtful.  The two-part structure has been termed problematic by some, but for me the quieter second half allows "Room" to become exactly what it should be: a film about resilience, healing, and above all else, love.

Creed - About the most perfect example of a franchise film passing the torch that I can think of.  Ryan Coogler had a tall order, trying to pay homage to one of the most iconic films of the 1970s, bringing its hero into a modern context, while also giving a new rising star his due.  He not only did all of things, be he also made a legitimately great movie, and a boxing movie no less.  Even if Adonis Creed's story ends here, "Creed" has distinguished itself as more than just a piece of nostalgia, and more than just another cynical franchise reboot.

The Embrace of the Serpent - The journeys of two white men into the depths of the Amazonian jungle summon the usual themes of colonialism and the clash of civilizations. However, this time our guide is Karamakate, the last of his massacred tribe, who also grapples with survivor's guilt and his responsibilities to his lost people and the preservation of their knowledge. Part ethnographic study, part subversion of the white man's narrative of exploitation, and part dream quest, this is a fantastic achievement for the nascent Colombian filmmaking movement.

It Follows - Suspense can be a hard concept to define, but few horror films have managed to create as much suspense as "It Follows" with so little.  It simply takes the uneasy feeling you get when you see someone walking straight towards you, and keeps building on it, magnifying it, until the viewer is nervously scanning every frame, looking for the monster they know is coming.  The opening sequence alone, with that wonderful long take POV shot, is one of the most wonderfully chilling, entrancing bits of cinema I saw in 2015.

Plus One

Boy & the World - Great animated films are starting to appear from everywhere around the globe, now that the cost of production has come down, and the technology has become more accessible.  Brazil has produced animated films before, but there's been nothing quite like Alê Abreu's "Boy & the World." It takes place in a world that looks constructed from children's crayon drawings, but the story is thematically rich and complex, tied deeply to Brazil's history and culture.  Best of all, the style of animation is entirely its own, beautiful and unique.

Honorable Mentions

99 Homes
Ex Machina
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
Son of Saul
The Forbidden Room
The Second Mother


Friday, July 1, 2016

My Favorite Sidney Lumet Film

Sidney Lumet began his career with "12 Angry Men" and ended it with "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," fifty years later  He had his share of ups and downs in the forty-some films that came between them, but you can't find many directors with a better track record.  One of the highs came in 1976, with a satire about the news media that was so prescient about where television was headed, that four decades later it no longer plays much like satire.  Howard Beale's madness is now such a familiar sight on cable news, it's practically become passé.

But though the Beale character is the most memorable part of "Network," the rest of the film is just as brilliant, critiquing not just the media, but many of the social ills and cultural failings of the 1970s.  Beale (Peter Finch) is the anchor of the UBS Evening News, and facing termination due to declining ratings.  He becomes mentally unhinged, threatens to kill himself, and then begins delivering rants and diatribes to a rapt audience, declaring his outrage at the state of the world.  Behind the scenes, Beale's old friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) and the cutthroat Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) fight over programming decisions and a tumultuous romantic relationship.  Christensen succeeds in taking control of the evening news program and capitalizing on Beale's surging popularity, raising him to the status of a demagogue.  However, when Beale's views begin to clash with the financial interests of the network, his career - and more importantly his ratings - are in jeopardy.

The first time I watched "Network," I completely failed to connect sad-sack Howard Beale in the early scenes to the man in the clips I'd seen a thousand times roaring "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"   Peter Finch's performance is stunning, his transformation into a mad prophet one of the most iconic contributions to the cinema in the 1970s.  Paddy Chayefsky also rightly received a great amount of praise for his script, containing some of the most blood-boiling, thunderous monologues he ever wrote.  However, so much of the power and the intensity of the "mad as hell" scene comes from how it's framed. The camera stays low, allowing Howard Beale to loom larger and larger into the frame.  The sound design is built entirely around his escalating diatribe, linking each of the cutaways and feeding back into the main event.  The intensity just keeps building and building, and it's electrifying to watch.

Sidney Lumet's energetic, emphatic filmmaking style was vital to making "Network" what it was.  He specialized in psychodramas and social realism, having started his career in theater and television, and then in hard-hitting contemporary dramatic films like "12 Angry Men."  "Network" was made at the height of his career, when he was directing more polished, but no less ambitious films.  Actors loved him, because it was the performances that were always the main event in his pictures, and Lumet made sure there were ample opportunities for the likes of Al Pacino and Paul Newman to really show us what they were made of.  He made several films about corruption in various forms and other social issues, so "Network" was perfect material for his sensibilities, even if it operated out of a different corner of New York than he usually inhabited.

Lumet was known to prefer naturalism in his visuals, but he was certainly capable of getting fanciful when it suited his aims.  Consider Beale's meeting with executive Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who evangelizes his own gospel of big business in terms as grand and elaborate as Beal's raving speeches.  Jensen is presented as a messianic figure to the deluded Beale, flanked by green shaded bankers' lamps in a darkened boardroom.  Consider the new and improved Howard Beale program, which turns the studio and its audience into a religious revival meeting, or the rest of the network's lineup presented like games from "The Price is Right."  And yet it still feels like a Lumet picture, full of sharp edges and imperfect, unsatisfied characters.

"Network" is one of those films that has grown more and more impressive every time I've seen it, especially as I've caught more of the references and learned more about its chief targets over the years.  The central issues of journalistic integrity and corrosive business tactics remain depressingly relevant, especially as the present day news organizations celebrate their rising ratings thanks to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.  There have been several excellent media satires that have come along since, like "Wag the Dog" and "Nightcrawler," but none have quite managed to encapsulate so much of the sheer amoral ruthlessness of how the corporate media operates the way that "Network" does with so much cynical aplomb.


What I've Seen - Sidney Lumet

12 Angry Men (1957)
Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)
The Pawnbroker (1964)
Serpico (1973)
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Network (1976)
The Wiz (1978)
Prince of the City (1981)
Deathtrap (1982)
The Verdict (1982)
Family Business (1989)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)