Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"The Handmaiden" and "Elle"

Let's look in on a few recent foreign films.

I've been putting off writing about "The Handmaiden" because it's one of the more disappointing movies that I've watched from 2016. It is an absolutely beautiful, sensual, sensitive film about two women at the center of an elaborate con - until suddenly it isn't. I was so put off by the final scene, which is outright sleazy in all the ways that the rest of the film managed to avoid, I left the film feeling a little cheated. But let's get to the good parts first.

The story takes place in WWII Korea, during the Japanese occupation. A young pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), is recruited by a con-man operating under the name of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to become the new handmaiden of a Japanese heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who Fujiwara intends to seduce and marry. Hideko lives under the thumb of her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), who keeps a collection of rare antiques, including erotica. Sook-hee, using the name Tamako, learns more and more about the workings of the household and about Hideko's aunt (Moon So-ri), who killed herself. She also finds herself falling in love with Hideko as Fujiwara puts his plan in motion.

Director Park Chan-wook gives us lush visuals and a wonderful air of mystery as the labyrinthine plot unfolds. Hideko and Sook-hee's relationship develops through several private and then intimate encounters, which are placed in counterpoint to Fujiwara's courtship of Hideko. The performances are very good, especially Kim Tae-ri's as Sook-hee explores the luxurious house and grows increasingly worried about Fujiwara's plots. Park mirrors his images of the two women in thoughtful ways, and does several variations on seeing the same scene twice from two different POVs, to great effect. The sex scenes are admirably restrained, erotic without feeling exploitative, and true to the characters.

That's why it is such a disappointment when the reveals come in the third act, and suddenly the film is awash in sordid material. It's like watching a slightly risqué costume drama suddenly go full Quentin Tarantino. Everything hinted at becomes blatantly explicit, often in extremely cringeworthy ways. Worst of all, the portrayals of sexuality gain an uncomfortable titillating quality, and the ending just left me cold. This isn't the first time that Park Chan-wook has changed gears so quickly in a film. "Oldboy" has a similar structure, where the finale unfolds in a series of ghastly shocks. "Oldboy" was explicitly a genre film from the beginning, though, while "The Handmaiden" could at least be mistaken for a prestige picture at the outset. In the end I'm extremely mixed about the film, appreciative of the craft, but unable to say I really enjoyed the whole experience.

Now "Elle" is a more down-to-earth psychological thriller, also concerned with a woman in crisis. This is Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert), a businesswoman who runs a video game company and has a prickly, demanding personality. When she is attacked and raped by a masked home intruder, she tries to soldier on as best she can. However, when the rapist sends taunting messages to her, she starts looking at the people in her life more closely. There's Michèle's ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), her grown layabout son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his pregnant girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz). Then there's her current lover Robert (Christian Berkel) who is married to Michele's best friend and business partner Anna (Anne Consigny). And finally there's the handsome new neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte).

Rape and revenge films are always a tricky proposition, but "Elle" benefits by approaching the subject through its character study of a complex central character. Isabelle Huppert's Michèle is not someone easily shaken, and her reactions to her assault are almost comically mild at first. It's only when she realizes that the attack was directed at her personally that she begins to act, questioning and testing those around her. Huppert's performance is a treat, revealing many different sides of Michèle, bad and good. She isn't a particularly likeable person, but her actions are fascinating. The way that she engages with her rapist, in particular, is sure to be a controversial choice.

This is the first film I've seen in a long time from Paul Verhoeven, and is considerably less of a genre piece than I was expecting. There are some intense sequences of violence, but otherwise the film is a fairly restrained domestic drama. Much of the running time is taken up with Michèle's interactions with friends and family in everyday settings, and if you took out the assault storyline, the film would still stand on its own. I found the subplots with Michèle's son and her struggles at work to be strong arcs, even if they weren't as compelling as the central conflict. The events play out unrealistically, perhaps, but the execution is so good, I'm not inclined to complain.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Stone Cold "Miss Sloane"

It's guilty pleasure time! I was expecting very little from "Miss Sloane," which was pushed as a potential awards contender back in December with Jessica Chastain in the leading role. I heard it described as a film about the gun control fight, which is very misleading. While a legislative battle over universal background checks is central to the story, the movie is really a profile of Elizabeth Sloane, the lobbyist who leads the pro-gun control side. She is a driven, amoral, Machiavellian monster, who is probably only in the fight because it presents a challenge. And it is so much fun to watch her twist and manipulate everyone around her in order to secure a victory.

Like Frank Underwood, Miss Sloane is not a real person (or based on one), but is the kind of figure that we'd like to imagine exists in Washington D.C. A perfect icy bitch exterior hides a pharmaceutical addiction, insomnia, a non-existent private life, and an all-consuming desire to win. Her only vice seems to be secret trysts with a male prostitute, Ford (Jake Lacy). She expertly navigates a Washington shark tank full of power players, mostly men, and can be as destructive to her allies as she is to her enemies in her efforts to stay one step ahead. Jessica Chastain does a fantastic job of giving her all the calculating intelligence and biting wit neccessary to keep her firmly at the center of attention at all times.

We first meet Elizabeth Sloane working for George Dupont (Sam Waterston) at a major lobbying firm, but when he tries to bring her on a campaign to kill a new gun control bill a the behest of a gun industry bigwig, Bob Sanders (Chuck Shamata), Sloane ends up defecting to the opposition. She joins a smaller firm lead by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), leaving behind a pair of resentful colleages, Pat (Michale Stuhlbarg) and Jane (Alison Pill), who are very familiar with how she operates, and work to derail her. However, Sloane also finds a new ally in lobbyist Esme (Gugu Mbath-Raw), and recruits several former underlings to join her new campaign. Both sides are ruthless, and Sloane is targeted personally, eventually being charged for ethics violations in a Congressional hearing lead by Senator Ron Sperling (John Lithgow).

Directed by the dependable John Madden, and scripted by newcomer Jonathan Perera, "Miss Sloane" is too long, too in love with its lead character, and depicts several wild twists that are clearly ludicrous. However, as a lover of twisty political movies, I had so much fun. I didn't care that the characters were paper thin and the mechanics of the plotting were too convenient. I didn't care that the male prostitute subplot doesn't make any sense and goes nowhere. I'm sure anyone familiar with how real lobbyists oeprate would laugh themsleves silly. But smart people outsmarting other smart people will never cease to entertain me, and Jessica Chastain is good enough here that I could overlook all the nagging inconsistencies about her character and just enjoy the ride.

The supporting cast is also great. I want to give special kudos to Michale Stuhbarg as Sloane's main rival, who gets some of the best laugh lines in the movie. And then there's Gugu Mbath-Raw, who adds another strong performance to the string of good outings she's had over the past few years. In a different kind of film, she would have been the protagonist to Sloan's devil figure antagonist. The production is familiar, but it makes Washington look suitably chilly and clandestine, run by people in dark suits. It was also nice to see some emphasis on the cultural differences between the two lobbying firms - the smaller, scrappier pro-gun firm operates like a tech start-up.

Ultimately, the movie reminded me of one of those old John Grisham legal potboilers that could be elevated by a good cast and some fun writing. It's a shame that "Miss Sloane" is being sold as a typical fight-for-the-cause picture, when it's really more of a traditional thriller. And I really appreciate having a character like Elizabeth Sloane in the media lanscape, a ruthless woman who enjoys being so good at what she does. There are plenty of male versions of Miss Sloane, but still sadly too few female sharks in the tank.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Could Anything Have Saved "Passengers"?

Spoilers ahead.

On paper, Sony's "Passengers" seems to have done everything right. It's a big budget science fiction film that had landed two major stars, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, for the leads, a script that had appeared on the 2007 Black List, and the directing talents of Academy Award nominated director Morten Tyldum. The production is absolutely top notch, and won Academy Award nominations for Best Production Design and Best Original Score. And despite the controversy it's sustained, "Passengers" looks like it's going to at least break even at the box office, and will probably be profitable in the long run.

However, "Passengers" has been a spectacular bust critically, and nearly all the discussion around it has been focused on a major plot point that I'm going to spoil here. Our hero, Jim Preston (Pratt) is faced with an intriguing ethical dilemma. Having been woken up from cryogenic hibernation ninety years too early in transit to another planet, and unable to return to sleep, Jim faces living out the rest of his life alone aboard an automated spaceship. He could wake up another hibernating passenger, but it would doom them to the same fate. And after a year of obsessing over a woman named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), Jim decides to wake her up, hoping that she'll reciprocate his feelings.


From that point, the movie could have played out in any number of ways. It could have been a thriller or horror scenario, where Aurora has to fend off Jim's advances. It could have been a psychodrama, where Aurora is forced to consider making a similar choice. Instead, "Passengers" made it into a romance, where Jim and Aurora do fall in love and ultimately live out their lives on the spaceship together. Pains are taken to show that Aurora does consider Jim's actions reprehensible, once she finds out what he's done, and she makes the final choice to stay together. Still, the film still comes off as too glib about the serious dilemma at its core. Jim gets off much too easy, and Aurora still feels victimized. Spaihts has tried to explain in interviews that the film is ultimately about forgiveness, namely Aurora's ability to forgive Jim, but that doesn't really come across right either.

I think the biggest problem with "Passengers" is that its second half follows the template of your usual space adventure movie, full of action scenes, disaster scenarios, and typical heroics. Saving the ship suddenly takes precedence over dealing with the tensions between Jim and Aurora, forcing them to interact and work together. Jim's willingness to sacrifice himself is a narrative shortcut to show us that he's really a decent guy after all, and that he's worthy of Aurora's affections. However, it's not a convincing one. I think that "Passengers" ending happily could have worked if this had been a different kind of movie, one more character focused and less concerned with being a blockbuster. I'm not at all surprised to learn that "Passengers" was originally a much more modestly budgeted, smaller scale film with Keanu Reeves and Emily Blunt attached.

I love heady science-fiction films, and accept that sometimes extra dramatics and action scenes are necessary to make them more entertaining. "Arrival," for instance, had the subplot with the Chinese general I found wholly unnecessary. However, that addition didn't take focus away from the major themes of the story, or replace the emotional climax. The heroine still had to deal with her more personal problems separate from the other crisis. "Passengers," unfortunately, conflates its romantic and action-based conflicts, which feels like a cheat. Doing something heroic doesn't change the fact that Jim behaved appallingly towards Aurora, and it should have taken a hell of a lot more to get the two of them back on speaking terms, let alone back into a relationship.

And it's a shame because "Passengers" has such an interesting central dilemma that could have yielded much better things. Better framed and better handled, it could have been a real conversation piece instead of yet another example of problematic gender politics in recent mainstream cinema. There have been such interesting science-fiction films dealing with gender issues lately, like "Ex Machina" and "Her," so something like "Passengers" feels positively retrograde. I reiterate that "Passengers" could have avoided being such a problematic film with a little more care and attention toward the fundamental mechanisms of its story. Because not all the fancy CGI or expensive stars in the world could have made this better.
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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Finding "The Founder"

There's a reason I watch so much "Oscar Bait." Every once in awhile, one of these also-ran titles that everyone else wrote off will turn out to be a nice surprise. "The Founder," which follows the rise of a down-on-his-luck salesman, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) to the head of one of the most successful American businesses that ever existed, is that movie today.

The origin of the McDonald's fast food chain is not a subject I've ever given much thought to, but the possibilities are immediately intriguing. McDonald's is, after all, one of the most famous and ubiquitous American brands, inextricable from the popular culture and the modern American landscape. I'd imagined from this outset that "The Founder" would be a feel-good Horatio Alger story, about creative entrepreneurship and dogged persistence leading Kroc to his American dream. And it is, up to a certain point. And then things take a wonderfully complicated turn.

We first meet Ray trying to hawk milkshake blenders in the midwest, always on the road, with little time for his patient wife Ethel (Laura Dern). Then one day he comes across the original McDonald's hamburger stand, run by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch), using a wildly successful efficiency system. Ray makes a deal with them to franchise McDonalds, but is constantly hampered by the brothers' stringent guidelines and distaste for a bigger, more commercialized vision of what McDonald's could be. As the number of restaurants grows, it becomes a battle of wills between Ray and the brothers over the fate of the company.

There are obvious comparisons to be made between "The Founder" and "The Social Network," and maybe even "There Will Be Blood." "The Founder" isn't on the same level as far as the filmmaking is concerned, despite the best efforts of director John Lee Hancock. However, this is a great film for Michael Keaton, who turns in a great performance as Ray Kroc. McDonald's surely wouldn't have become the success that it did without his foresight, ambition, and hard work. However, it also required his cut-throat nature, ruthlessness, and greed. I love that just when the film gets the audience rooting for Ray, the dark side of his nature starts becoming more apparent, and we realize what he's capable of doing to get what he wants.

As a result, "The Founder" turns out to be a fantastically effective portrait of American success at its most morally bankrupt, reminding us that most of the great business empire-builders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs got where they were by often being absolutely horrible to their friends and competitors alike. Kroc's ability to stay so warm and amiable while being so heartless is fascinating to observe. The scripting is great here, especially the parts of the story that it decides to leave out. We don't see a lot of the wrongdoing up close, allowing us to stay in the insulated bubble of Ray's ego. It's only in the final, closing moments of the film that some of the worst consequences of his behavior are confirmed.

The production is lovingly nostalgic, presenting '50s and '60s Americana in colorful, eye-catching ways. And it's a lot of fun to see the old style McDonald's restaurants and equipment, and the McDonald brothers' story of how they figured out how to build the perfect burger kitchen is delightful. Everyone knows McDonald's and its branding, after all, and the film isn't shy about using this to its advantage. It's only the excellent score, by Carter Burwell, that introduces a feeling of uneasiness early on, suggesting that the story isn't going to be as pleasant as it seems.

"The Founder" wound up with the Weinstein Company for distribution, and I'm never sure what their logic is in pushing one film over another at awards time. "The Founder" was benched this year in favor of other titles, which is a shame, because I found it to be one of the most timely films of the year, and haven't been able to stop thinking about it. It has its flaws - Ray Kroc's relationship with his wife feels mishandled and truncated - but it's good to see more complex, troubling stories like this being told.
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Monday, May 15, 2017

Goodbye Summer Blockbuster Hype

It was bound to happen eventually, but I was kind of hoping it wouldn't. 2017 marks the second year in a row where there isn't a single summer movie being released between the beginning of May and the end of August that I'm hyped up enough for to want to see in theaters. It's not that it looks to be an especially bad year for summer blockbusters - the Marvel movies should be decent, and I have very high hopes for "Wonder Woman" and "Dunkirk." My enthusiasm level for blockbusters, however, has been steadily dropping over the years, to the point where there are only two or three each year I feel are worth a theater trip. And mostly, they don't come out in summer.

There's no mystery why. I'm in my mid-thirties, and now firmly out of the target audience for most blockbusters. I was enough of a fan of various properties and creators that there were usually one or two movies that could get me excited every summer season. In 2015, it was "Inside Out." In 2014, it was "X-Men: Days of Future Past." And though neither of them turned out well, in 2013, I was salivating at the thought of "Star Trek: Into Darkness" and Neil Blomkamp's "Elysium." This year, however, I'm coming up short. There are plenty of films that I'm looking forward to seeing, like "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" and "War for the Planet of the Apes," but nothing that I'm really invested in as a fan.

There's a PIXAR movie, but it's "Cars 3." There's a Christopher Nolan movie, but it's a WWII epic instead of a twisty genre picture. I'm burned out on "Pirates" and "Alien," which have had a few too many bad installments. I'm still not all that fond of "Spider-man," even though the new version that debuted in last year's "Civil War" was fun. And I was positively meh on the first "Guardians of the Galaxy." "The Dark Tower" is intriguing, but I don't know the source material well enough to really be anticipating it. Also, the less said about "Transformers" and the non-PIXAR animated offerings this summer, the better. If one of these titles unexpectedly gets stellar reviews, I might be tempted into the cineplex anyway, but usually I'm already excited about something by now.

Part of this is due to changing tastes, and part of it is due to my own altered relationship with moviegoing. As with most responsible grown-ups, I don't have time for so many theater trips anymore. Last year I only managed five. There are only certain types of films I feel are worth the price of the ever-more-expensive tickets too. If it's not something that really benefits from a big screen presentation, like a big action film or an effects spectacle, I'm more likely to wait for the home media release. I have no problem waiting three months for something to hit streaming services anymore. So while Sofia Coppola's upcoming "The Beguiled" may be a fantastic film, it's not something that I feel I really need to see in a theater. "Star Wars," however, is.

And speaking of "Star Wars," I am looking forward to making trips to see "The Last Jedi" in December, and the "Blade Runner" sequel in October, and maybe even "Thor: Ragnarok." I've remarked on this before, but most of my most anticipated films seem to come out around the holiday season, when you see more prestige pictures, and the more family-oriented blockbuster fare. Summer tends to be for broader, dumber, more disposable films. However, this isn't set in stone, and I suspect that the summers of 2016 and 2017 may just be a fluke. Looking ahead, the summer of 2018 will have "The Incredibles" sequel, and the "Avengers: Infinity War" movies are mighty tempting.

I also fully expect that the theatrical exhibition business model will continue to change as technology does. MoviePass probably isn't going to work out in the long run, but some kind of theater subscription plans look likely. And I'm not going to be as busy as I am now permanently. I still do love watching movies in theaters, and wish I could indulge more than I do now.
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Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 1997

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

Jackie Brown - This is still my favorite Quentin Tarantino film. Here he's still mixing and matching elements from his older favorite movies, not to mention borrowing the still potent star power of Pam Grier, but there's a degree of restraint to his fanboyishness this time out. I think it's because "Jackie Brown" is a fairly straight adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, and Tarantino wasn't willing to stray too far from the source material. The result is an unusually nostalgic, atmospheric caper film, full of old faces and brimming over with style.

Eve's Bayou - I love movies that take me somewhere I've never been before, and the haunted, beautiful world of young Eve Batiste is such a place. It conveys a wonderful sense of living with the past and a checkered family history. And seen through the eyes of a child, there's a particular magic to the way that events unfold. I especially enjoy the cast, including a young Jurnee Smolett as Eve, Debbi Morgan as her prophetic Aunt Mozelle, and Samuel L. Jackson as her very imperfect father, quite possibly the best role he's ever had.

Good Will Hunting - It was a deceptively simple, modest film that launched Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to stardom. The duo not only acted in the film, but wrote it together too. However, the heart and soul of "Good Will Hunting" is clearly Robin Williams. I can't imagine anyone else in the role, and can think of precious few actors who could have made the part work as well as it did. Rising director Gus van Sant also deserves considerable praise for giving the film a great sense of place, and really grounding the script and performances.

Princess Mononoke - The first Studio Ghibli film that I saw in theaters, in an experience that absolutely took my breath away. Nobody's fantasy worlds have ever been quite so fantastic as the ones that have come from Hayao Miyazaki, and "Princess Mononoke" plays like a culmination of all the themes and ideas that he's explored over a long, eventful career. His criticisms of war, the destruction of nature, and industrialization are conveyed through a very unique, unforgettable fable about gods and monsters, humans and spirits.

Boogie Nights - Paul Thomas Anderson finds the humanity in a merry band of pornographers, sex workers, and drug-addicts who live by their own rules. "Boogie Nights" is a fantastic evocation of the late 1970s counterculture, featuring a strong ensemble and engrossing subject matter. The sleaze factor kept me from fully embracing it for years, but upon closer examination it's one of Anderson's strongest films, full of great humor, great tragedy, and some fascinating characters who have their own take on the American Dream.

The Butcher Boy - I was fascinated by this film as a teenager for how incredibly dark the story got, and the way it went to certain places that a film starring a child wasn't supposed to go. Neil Jordan's chronicle of the adventures of troubled Francie Brady is alternately hilarious and shocking, as it explores his deteriorating, schizophrenic mind. I love the little fantasy elements, especially Sinead O'Connor's Virgin Mary and the recurring visions of nuclear holocausts. This is one of those forgotten films in serious need of rediscovering.

Love and Death on Long Island - John Hurt once claimed in interviews that his favorite screen role was Giles De'Ath, the fusty old British writer whose life is totally upended when he falls madly in love with a young American screen star, played by Jason Priestly. Hurt is absolutely delightful in the role, trying to navigate a modern world and popular culture he's avoided for much of his life, and coming to grips with his own rekindled passion. It's such a strange, but also deeply touching film that I've never managed to forget.

Funny Games - The sadistic, fourth wall-breaking thriller from Michael Haneke was remade shot for shot ten years later with bigger stars, but it's the Austrian original that has stuck with me. As horrible as it is to the characters, the film is really aiming to make the audience squirm, directly confronting us with the notion of violence as entertainment. The experience isn't altogether successful, but the conceit is fascinating, and the execution is frequently chilling. The remote control sequence in particular is a punch in the gut.

LA Confidential - The best film noir of recent years, starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce just a few short years before they would all became household names. Curtis Hanson brings the Los Angeles of the 1950s to life, with all its glamour and corresponding darkness. Though the plotting is very good, the filmmakers wisely keep the attention on their characters, three men working against a corrupt system from three different vantage points, and Kim Basinger's unforgettable femme fatale.

The Full Monty - Perhaps the pinnacle of the working-class British comedy, with a likable cast, strong writing, and no shortage of charm. Once you get past the eyebrow-raising premise, it may be a surprise to find that the film deals with some pretty heavy topics, like suicide and homosexuality, with remarkable care. "The Full Monty" really is about economic insecurity and threatened masculinity more than it is about fancy dancing, and the low budget, scrappy filmmaking reflects that in the best possible way.

Honorable Mentions

Chasing Amy
Titanic
Nil by Mouth
As Good as it Gets
Contact
Cube
Mrs. Brown
The Sweet Hereafter
Perfect Blue
The Ice Storm
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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Name A Favorite Movie For Every Year Since You Were Born



Oh, what the heck. I skipped my yearly "fill out a survey" freebie post last fall, and every movie lover on my social media seems to be doing this one. So, below, please find my list of favorite films for every year that I've been alive. I've seen enough films from the eighties now that I could do Top Ten lists all the way back to 1980, so this is good timing anyway.

Note that the challenge specifies "favorite." Not best. Not top. Not most worthwhile. Just favorite. So here we go.

1980 - The Shining
1981 - Raiders of the Lost Ark
1982 - Poltergeist
1983 - Return of the Jedi
1984 - Amadeus
1985 - Return to Oz
1986 - The Fly
1987 - The Princess Bride
1988 - Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
1989 - Kiki's Delivery Service
1990 - Edward Scissorhands
1991 - The Silence of the Lambs
1992 - Death Becomes Her
1993 - Groundhog Day
1994 - The Shawshank Redemption
1995 - Seven
1996 - The Birdcage
1997 - Princess Mononoke
1998 - Pleasantville
1999 - The Matrix
2000 - American Psycho
2001 - Spirited Away
2002 - Punch Drunk Love
2003 - Kill Bill Vol: 1
2004 - Shaun of the Dead
2005 - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
2006 - Children of Men
2007 - Hot Fuzz
2008 - Synecdoche New York
2009 - District 9
2010 - Inception
2011 - Midnight in Paris
2012 - Cabin in the Woods
2013 - The Wolf of Wall Street
2014 - Gone Girl
2015 - The Martian
2016 - Manchester by the Sea

So, as you can see, I'm a populist genre-loving gal at heart. Lots of science-fiction, fantasy, action, and animated films. Lots of happy endings, pretty colors, and fuzzy, feel-good stories. And the farther back in time I go, the more my childhood nostalgia takes over. There's nothing listed before 1997 that I didn't watch a dozen times on basic cable as a youngster. I might appreciate the hell out of "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country for Old Men," but at the end of the day I'd much rather watch Edgar Wright spoof action movie conventions with "Hot Fuzz." And I love the Coen brothers to death, but I'd still rather watch "The Birdcage" than "Fargo."

This was a lot harder than I thought, because I'm so used to evaluating movies based on artistic merit instead of pure entertainment value. There were still a couple of cases like "Synecdoche, New York" and "Manchester by the Sea" where I wound up picking the films that had the greatest amount of personal impact on me from that year because nothing else that I'd seen was memorable on the same level. There are a few entries like "The Shining" and "Children of Men" that I would legitimately call the best movies made from that year. Or there's "American Psycho," which came out in a year with a lot of great films, but few that I really have much interest in watching again. "Favorite," to me, means a movie that you'd actually want to watch over and over again, instead of maybe once every couple of years.

A lot of my favorites also aren't on this list because many of them came out in the same years. So
"Spirited Away" won out over "Amelie," and "Amadeus" won out over "The Company of Wolves." There aren't nearly as many Disney films as I expected there would be, and somehow only one Steven Spielberg film (well, maybe two with "Poltergeist.") 1992 was the hardest year to pick something for, because most of the movies I remember from that year are mediocre kids' films. It came down to "Death Becomes Her" or "My Cousin Vinny," and "Death Becomes Her" won out because I just adore the unrepentant bitchery of Goldie and Meryl.

I'm also less sure about the most recent entries on the list. In my experience, it takes a couple of years and multiple viewings for some films to emerge as perennials. I don't know if "Manchester by the Sea" is really going to stick with me in the long run, or if I'll find myself getting more attached to something like "The Witch" or "Zootopia."

Well, I'm off to read some other critics' Favorites lists and compare notes. This was fun, and I should definitely check in on this aspect of my movie geekery more often in the future.

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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Rank 'Em: The Walt Disney Animation Studios Films

After 2016 saw the release of both "Zootopia" and "Moana," we won't be getting another Disney animated feature until 2018 when "Wreck-it-Ralph 2" and "Gigantic" are due. That means it's a good time to look back at the recent films and take stock. I waffled a little about which films I wanted to include, but the cutoff point turned out to be pretty obvious: 2006 is when Walt Disney Feature Animation was renamed Walt Disney Animation Studios, and John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were brought onboard. The resulting resurgence has been fantastic to see, though not without drama and controversy along the way. So here are the ten films from the most recent era of Disney animation, ranked from best to least.

Zootopia - I'm surprised that this is in the top spot too, but the more I think about "Zootopia," the more I like it. What really sealed it for me was the willingness of the filmmakers to really grapple with some difficult real world issues, even if it was through a fantasy lens. I also love the worldbuilding here, that it takes the time to show us how a city for animals would really operate, and the way everyone would interact with each other. There are a lot of similar animal fable films out there, but nothing quite like "Zootopia."

Tangled - I knew that Disney had truly found their way out of the wilderness when I saw "Tangled." It was their first feature to successfully capture the spirit and humor of the classical Disney fairy-tale adaptations through CGI animation. I also liked the way that it departed from formula, with a much stronger leading man, and a princess with a very distinct personality. All those years stuck in development hell and waiting out the studio's difficult transitions were definitely worth the wait. The title is still regrettable though.

Wreck-it Ralph - This is my pick for the best video game themed film ever made. It's so earnest about celebrating older video games and video gaming culture, while creating all these fantastic new worlds within worlds to explore. This one also had a remarkably solid story that really worked for me, and unusual characters that were a little different from the Disney norm. However there were still one or two awkward moments and an embarrassment of product placement that dampen my enthusiasm for the movie, just a bit.

Moana - A little derivative and bare bones in the plotting, but the filmmakers did such a fantastic job of creating this beautiful Polynesian universe, and finding ways to have fun with it. The Rock playing an ego-centric demigod is just perfect, and Moana is one of the better modern Disney heroines. Some story and pacing issues keep this out of the top tier, but they're easy to forgive in the moment. This is exactly the kind of movie that no other big animation studio could pull off, and exactly what we need to see more of.

The Princess and the Frog - A fine little fairy tale made in the tradition of the Renaissance era classics, but I never thought that it captured the same creative spark. Maybe it was the Randy Newman songs or maybe it was Disney trying so hard to avoid offending anyone, but I came away pretty ambivalent about the story and design choices. That said, I love most of the characters, especially sidekicks Charlotte and Ray and the villain Dr. Facilier. Traditionally animated Disney features could have done a lot worse for a last hurrah.

Frozen - The film that I've seen the most often from this list, thanks to various younger relatives. I admire the thoughtfulness of the film's messages, and it has some knockout sequences, but this is such a slapdash affair. The film seems to forget it's a musical halfway through, Elsa doesn't really get a proper character arc, and the goofy troll song may be the worst number Disney has ever been responsible for. I'm actually glad this one is getting a sequel because there are a ton of issues that still need to be addressed.

Winnie the Pooh - Barely more than an hour in length, and understandably a bust at the box office, the film doesn't get enough credit for being an absolutely lovely continuation of Disney's "Winnie the Pooh" series. All the right people were involved, and they did everything right. I heasitate to put it higher up in the rankings because it is so slight, but I'd have loved to see more Pooh done in the same vein. Sadly, it turned out that this was the franchise's song swan. Disney hasn't released any new Pooh media in any format since.

Big Hero 6 - Now, if the film had only been about Hiro and Baymax, the boy hero and his robot pal, I think it would have placed much higher. Unfortunately, there's that pesky quartet of extra characters mucking up the narrative who really shouldn't be there. As a result, "Big Hero 6" is constantly losing its focus, and feels more like a television pilot than a feature, and not a good one. I love a lot of the concepts and characters, but there are some remarkably lousy ones too. I cringe every time Gogo yells "Woman up!"

Meet the Robinsons - This one kills me because its heart was so clearly in the right place, and it had really wonderful things to say to kids. However, the plotting was messy and the big twist just didn't work because it wasn't set up well. I feel like this one could have been a much better film if it had been kicked around the studio for a few more years. I hate to put it so low of this list, but there was very little that I found impressive or memorable beyond a few minor gags. Disney and retro-futurism just seem to be a bad match.

Bolt - I didn't like "Bolt" for the simple reason that I didn't like the story. It relies on the elaborate duping of the protagonist, spends way too much time taking jabs at Hollywood culture, and doesn't do any particularly notable worldbuilding. Most of the other contemporary Disney features like "Lilo & Stich" and "Oliver & Co." at least manage some memorable characters and a strong sense of place. "Bolt" was utterly generic, and the only character I particularly enjoyed watching was the hamster stuck in his ball.

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

"Moana" Sets Sail

As Disney princess movies go, "Moana" tries to set itself apart quickly. Firstly, it's a Polynesian themed story that draws from the folklore and mythology of Pacific Islanders. Secondly, our spunky singing heroine, Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) doesn't have a love interest, though she gets two animal sidekicks and a bigger dose of outdated social expectations to combat than usual. She's also one of the most active, taking on a mission to save the world despite not really having the skillset for it. Fortunately, Moana's a quick learner and easy to root for. Finally, there's the presence of Maui (Dwayne Johnson), the superpowered demi-god who is supposed to be doing the bulk of the actual fighting and adventuring on their quest - but he's not easily convinced that it's in his best interest to be partnering up with Moana.

The plotting is pretty basic: the whole thing essentially boils down to taking a magical item somewhere, and coming home again. The more interesting dilemma is really Moana working up the courage to leave her island home, Motonui. Her father is the chief (Temuera Morrison), who has forbidden anyone to sail beyond the island's protective reef, and wants Moana to focus on preparing to become their people's next leader. Moana's dotty grandmother (Rachel House), however, encourages her wanderlust. Understandably, the film becomes considerably less compelling once Moana actually sets out on her quest, in spite of all the action sequences eye candy the Disney animators obligingly throw at us. We shift gears to a Moana and Maui "Odd Couple" story, which is diverting, but not nearly as interesting.

"Moana" was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, best known for handling Disney's more comedic features like "Aladdin" and "Hercules." As you might expect, the humor is zingier and there are a couple of pop culture references in the mix, though not many. Maui is the major source of most of the laughs, a demi-god of big muscles and big ego who is covered in tattoos of all his greatest feats. Dwayne Johnson just goes to town with the character, getting across so much high voltage charm that we don't mind so much when he acts like an ass. A big chunk of the film revolves around sailing and navigation, so the ocean is a constant presence. Wisely, the filmmakers decided to just go ahead and make the ocean a character, which usually manifests as a sentient water tendril who gets to join in with the physical humor now and then. I should also mention Hei-Hei, the idiot rooster, who is more walking sight gag than a proper sidekick for Moana.

The songs, from the combined talents of Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Opetaia Foa'i, are decent enough. The influence of South Pacific musical traditions is most clearly evident in "We Know the Way," which is paired with a fantastic sailing sequence. The rest are fairly typical Broadway style fare, though it's great to hear Dwayne Johnson ham up "You're Welcome." Where the film really excells at capturing the Polynesian cultures is in the production design and animation. "Moana" has some of the most beautiful visuals of any modern Disney film, especially the way it handles the ocean effects and the tropical paradise of Moana's home. The film reminded me of "Hercules" frequently, with its mythological characters and the fight scenes with a giant fire demon that really emphasizes the size and scale of the combatants.

As an old school animation fangirl, I was also very heartened to see that Musker and Clements found a way to sneak some traditional animation into the movie. One of Maui's tattoo's is a tiny picture of himself, who is alive and communicates through pantomime. Mini-Maui acts like a Jiminy Cricket figure, chiding Maui for bad behavior and helping with certain bits of exposition. All of the tattoo animation is hand-drawn, and the "You're Welcome" segment incorporates more 2D animation via mixed media visuals. The CGI is all gorgeous, of course, but it's always good to see the old techniques still in use.

In the end, though, the longer the movie went on, the more familiar it got. I started comparing other plot elements to "Pocahontas" and "Mulan," and the characters to any number of familiar predecessors. "Moana" simply isn't very original, though it tries to do many new things and succeeds wonderfully at some of them. Disney fans should enjoy it, though, and I'm hopeful that we'll keep seeing the studio explore unfamiliar cultures this way. "Moana" is not one of the best of the Disney films, but it undeniably belongs in the company of "Frozen" and "Brave" and all the rest.

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Friday, May 5, 2017

The "Ghost in the Shell" Post-Mortem

Well, "Ghost in the Shell" is an undisputed bomb at the box office.  It's time for a post-mortem and some thoughts on future anime adaptations.  I was pretty excited for the new "Ghost in the Shell" myself, but after the crummy reviews and audience reactions, I may end up skipping it entirely.  So what happened?

There are two significant factors to keep in mind about the new "Ghost in the Shell" adaptation.  First, it is an adaptation of a fairly obscure Japanese franchise that has an ardent fanbase, but not an especially large one.  Second, there was the whitewashing controversy, which dogged the movie from the moment it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would be playing the lead role.  Both of these hurdles could have been overcome with the right approach to the material, but sadly the filmmakers kept making bad decision after bad decision.

First, the fact that "Ghost in the Shell" was relatively obscure wouldn't have mattered if the finished product could find a way to appeal to mainstream moviegoers.  Unfortunately, the reviews reveal a film that's heavy on flashy visuals without much going on underneath.  One red flag I should have noticed early on was that nearly all the early sneak peeks of film were essentially live action recreations of scenes from the original animated movie: the "Birth of a Cyborg" opening, the invisible fight sequence, and even the iconic rooftop shot of the Major in her thermoptic suit right in the film's first five minutes!  The marketing was definitely aiming at the fanbase, and didn't do enough to reach new viewers.

However, the movie definitely wasn't all that concerned with fidelity to the source material.  While many of the visuals of "Ghost in the Shell" were direct homages, a big departure was that our heroine, The Major, was now played by Scarlett Johanssen, a caucasian actress.  My position on changing the ethnicity of a character has always been that you can do it, but you've got to do it right.  It's one thing to adapt material into a different context, like taking the Hong Kong action thriller "Infernal Affairs" and remaking it as a Boston crime picture, "The Departed."  It's another when you're trading off of the existing goodwill toward a property and purposefully evoking the original, keeping the same title, character names, referencing the visuals, and so on.  Thus, having a Caucasian Major doesn't sit right  when the setting, concepts, and many of the other characters are practically identical to the Japanese originals.

And, mild spoilers here, the filmmakers really screwed up by trying to make the whitewashing of The Major into a plot point within the movie itself.  It wasn't handled well at all, so the result was essentially underlining how problematic the change was in the first place.  I highly recommend reading the Hollywood Reporter piece where four Japanese-American actresses break down all the cultural landmines that were inadvertently stepped on in the course of creating and marketing the new film.  And while I doubt that much of the intended audience actually cared about the whitewashing issue one way or another, the controversy provided very poor optics for "Ghost in the Shell," signaling that the filmmakers didn't know what they were doing.  That more or less proved to be true.

"Ghost in the Shell" could have been a more generic action film that pumped up the action and only incorporated bits of the original film's premise.  And it could have been a more faithful film that really committed to the idea of translating the anime to the big screen.  Instead, they tried to compromise, did it badly, and stumbled.  The original fanbase wasn't happy with the film's approach of cobbling together bits from the different "Ghost in the Shell" films and series, and then dumbing down of the headier, more existential narrative.  Meanwhile, newcomers weren't hooked by the expensive eye candy, and may have been turned off by all the apparent pandering to a fanbase that ended up unsatisfied with the finished product anyway.  

So where does that leave the anime and manga fans hoping for more adaptations?  Well, "Death Note" is finished and on its way shortly via Netflix.  Adam Wingard had the sense to do a near total cultural transplant, so his hero is a white kid living in Seattle, and the main antagonist is black.  "Battle Angel Alita" is coming next year from Robert Rodriguez with a Latina heroine.  Warner Bros.' "Akira" project is somehow still not dead, and Jordan Peele is being courted for it.  Plenty of other titles are in development.  

However, the failure of "Ghost in the Shell" is definitely going to affect how these movies are greenlit and made in the future.  The whitewashing controversy was so central to the discussion of the film's failure, it can't be ignored anymore.  I worry that the studios will take the wrong lesson here, and assume that these projects aren't viable without Asian leads, who are still considered major box office risks.  And then they won't make these films at all.      

However, the landscape is changing fast.  What I suspect may really affect how these adaptations look in the future are a couple of projects that have nothing to do with anime and manga: Disney's "Aladdin" and "Mulan," which have committed to Middle-Eastern and Asian casts, and "Crazy Rich Asians," which is making a concerted effort to show that Asian-American leads can be viable at the box office.  I wish them the best of luck.

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Missmediajunkie v. The Art House

I have come to the conclusion over the past few years that I'm really not cut out for any kind of serious film study or analysis. And frankly, as obsessed as I am with the movies and with seeing as many great films as I can, I'm really not very good at appreciating them. Every year I familiarize myself with all the big art house titles, all the award winners and the critical darlings. And every year, I'm bored out of my skull by the majority of them. Sometimes I'll get lucky and one will resonate with me in just the right way, like "Embrace of the Serpent" or "War Witch." But far more often than not, I wind up bored and uneasy, wondering what other film-lovers saw in a movie that I didn't.

I've experienced a particularly bad case of disconnection with the art house this season. Paul Verhoeven's "Elle," Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden,” Babak Anvari’s "Under the Shadow," Pedro Almodovar's "Julieta," Kleber Mendonça Filho's "Aquarius," Mia Hanson-Love's "Things to Come," and Maren Ade's "Toni Erdmann" have all left me disappointed. It's especialy infuriating because most of these films feature older female main characters, which is something I always want to see more of. I certainly liked and appreciated some of the films, and I'm very happy that I had easier access to them this year, but nothing has really gotten me truly emotionally engaged. And I've found that I need that kind of engagement to really want to explore and discuss a film more in-depth.

Ultimately, what I really want out of a movie or television show is to be entertained. What I'm entertained by tends to be more highbrow than the usual Hollywood studio fare, but only up to a point. Also, I admit that I'm a snob, who readily follows what's trendy and getting a lot of attention. I want to be all erudite and knowledgeable about cinema, but there are certain lofty corners of the landscape that I simply don't have the desire to maintain more than a very shallow relationship with, because they're so endlessly tedious to me. While I watch the Cannes winners and keep up with the auteurs, usually I'd much rather be watching the latest episode of "Game of Thrones" or the newest Marvel movie. There are artsy, intellectual films that I honestly do adore, and I do my best to seek them out, but I'm just not as enthusiastic about them as I feel I should sometimes, as a media geek.

Let's take "Toni Erdmann" as an example. The German comedy was rapturously praised at its premiere at the 2016 Cannes film festival, and actually sparked some controversy when it lost the Palm d'Or. It topped the 2016 Sight & Sound poll, and even landed a spot on a recent BBC list of the greatest 100 films of the 21st century. I finally got my hands on a copy last month, and found myself slogging through a 160 minute film about a stressed out businesswoman navigating a thorny business deal, and her practical joker father, who wants to help alleviate her misery. It's a mostly understated character study married to scenes of wildly lowbrow humor and touching whimsy. There were some great laughs and surprises, but 160 minutes of anything can be a difficult watch, and "Toni Erdmann" just ran far too long.

I know it's not just foregn cinema, because I had a great time with 2016's foreign genre movies, including "The Wailing" and "Train to Busan" from South Korea, and the newest "Godzilla" movie from Japan. Also, I had similar difficulties with some of this year's American indie films, including "Moonlight," "Kate Plays Christine," "Indignation," "Swiss Army Man," "Certain Women," and "Other People." Maybe it's just been a tough year, or I'm going through another round of burnout. Maybe my tastes are changing as I'm getting older and more tired, and I just want to watch less challenging movies for a while.

And why am I telling you this? Well, this has definitely been affecting my writing lately, and is the big reason why you're not getting reviews for most of the films I listed in this post. I think it's best to be forthcoming and honest about this, especially with my Top Ten list coming up soon. But more about that in a few weeks.
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Monday, May 1, 2017

Oscar Rule Changes and Politics

The most recent round of rule changes to the Academy Awards were announced a few days ago.  Most were minor, allowing a team of two people can be considered a single producer for Best Picture, and allowing a team of three or more “equally contributing” composers to be up for Best Original Score.  However, two changes in particular stood out:

“In the documentary categories, multi-part or limited series are not eligible for awards consideration."

"For the first time, nominations voting in the Animated Feature Film category will be opened up to the entire eligible voting membership.  Invitations to join the nominating committee will be sent to all active Academy members, rather than a select craft-based group."

As many commentators have rightly pointed out, these two rule changes are reactions to specific results from the most recent round of Academy Awards.  Specifically, Ezra Edelman's took home the Oscar for his seven hour, five part documentary, "O.J.: Made in America," which was originally made for ESPN's "30 for 30" series, but premiered first theatrically.   

The Academy has always been very keen to maintain a dividing line between film and television content, and there's been a rule that films have to premiere in theaters first for Oscar eligibility since an animated television special won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for 1972 when it was subsequently theatrically released.  It's a fairly arbitrary distinction, and one that filmmakers have been getting around for ages with limited theatrical runs.  

The new rule could also be pretty easily circumvented by "O.J." being edited to remove the serialization.  "O.J." may be unusually long for a feature, but it's not as long as Claude Lanzmann's landmark Holocaust documentary "Shoah," which runs over ten hours and contains nothing resembling a chapter break.  This move should discourage longer documentaries from being made and submitted.  However, it may discourage projects that originated in the television realm from being repackaged as potential feature contenders.  And that's a shame, since television can offer sources of funding and talent that the features world doesn't these days.  The line between the two has just gotten blurrier lately.

Now on to the Animated Feature Film category.  Initially, the change doesn't seem so major.  Opening up the nominating committee to the wider Academy membership instead of only animation industry professions wouldn't change much, would it?  Well, the worry is that by having fewer Academy members on the nominating committee who specialize in animation would mean that the nominations would end up favoring the big American studios over the smaller independent and foreign titles like "The Red Turtle" and "My Life as a Zucchini."  The perception currently is that animation industry insiders have a bias toward traditional and stop-motion animation over the CG animation more commonly used by the bigger, more commercial studios. 

This worries me, because the Animated Feature Film nominations have been so dependable in recent years at really sussing out these smaller, deserving films.  The wider Academy membership that actually votes on the winners, on the other hand, has consistently picked the highest profile, most popular films - usually something from Disney or PIXAR.  While the category has made significant strides toward being taken more seriously, there are still members who continue to display a pretty appalling attitude toward animated films.

Then again, the rule change should be considered in the context of all the rules that aren't changing.  A spot on the nominating committee is voluntary, so only those members who want to be there will be.  And they'll still have to watch two-thirds of all the eligible films, including all of those foreign and indie contenders.  The rule change may end up not making much of a difference in the end.  However, since it
was the major studios that pushed for these changes, clearly somebody is hoping that they will.

Some of the Oscar races have been notably dysfunctional, like the Documentary and Best Song categories, so I understand the year round of rule tweaking to some degree.  However, in many cases, like the two above, they just feel petty.  So what if "Finding Dory" was edged out of the Animated Feature race by tiny European films?  So what if a seven-hour feature won Documentary?  The old rules didn't strike me as unfair.  

Don't like the results?  Make better films.     

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

My Top Ten Favorite Commercials

Being a cordcutter for some time now, I wouldn't say I miss commercials interrupting my television programming, but I have become nostalgic for some of the ads themselves. And why not? I spent a lot of time with those ads over the years, and many of them were made by talented, creative people. Everyone has those handful of favorite commercials that they actually look forward to seeing. Please note that the ads below have not been included due to quality, but because they managed to stick in my memory and still be associated with positive feelings for years. And if that's not a good measure of effective advertising, I don't know what is.

C&H Sugar (1985) - One of the very earliest ads I can remember was the C&H Sugar ad where a little boy trades a big, shiny marble for a cookie from a bakery. I fixated on those marbles, not having access to any myself at that age, and wondered for years what the bakery did with them all. When I recently stumbled across the ad again, it was exactly like I remembered, right down to the sugary tagline.

Pillsbury Doughboy (1990) - The antics of chubby little Pillsbury mascot Pop 'n' Fresh kept many stop-motion animators employed for years, including Henry Selick, until the inevitable switch over to CGI animation in the 1990s. Frankly, the Doughboy never had quite the same charm after that. My favorite of his spots was one of the last stop-motion ones, where he has a snooze on his recliner, just like my Dad used to.

Cadbury Bunny (1994) - My fondness for this seasonal ad seems to come simply from dependability. They're still running this thing in the late winter and early spring months, like clockwork, decades after it initially premiered. While I initially thought the "try-out" gag was silly, the gently clucking bunny was always a very reassuring presence, and I was happy to see him come back around every year.

"Twins" (early '90s) - I'm not clear on which television station actually originated this, but one of my local syndicated stations regularly aired this sing-along promo for "Twins" and the one for "Born in East LA." in the early '90s. Something about the ridiculous lyrics and the Arnold impersonator hamming it up is just priceless. This is the kind of throwaway ephemera that you've just got to see to appreciate.

Got Milk? Trix (1995) - Everyone remembers the famous Aaron Burr "Got Milk?" ad directed by Michael Bay, but my favorite was always the variation on the familar "Trix" cereal commercial, where the Trix rabbit disguises himself as Harland Williams. Alas, the effectiveness of this ad was undermined somewhat by a Trix campaign a few years earlier where kids voted to let the rabbit have his Trix and eat them onscreen.

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (1996) - The juxtaposition of the gleeful dad and his scowling offspring always got me. Television tended to be a little overly nice to kids in those days, and seeing this ad being just a little bit mean to them was a lot of fun. Like many of the others on my list, this was also a seasonal ad that cam back every year, with variations. Even Alice Cooper joined in the fun at one point.

St. George (1996) - Not being from the UK, I saw this in a college lecture in the early 2000s. I don't remember what the class was, but I remember the ad and the product it was selling. Because I knew there was a pasty middle-aged British man who was willing to fight me if I didn't like it. Famously, most of the budget for St. George was spent of on the production of the ad, and it only aired on television ten times.

Wes Anderson for American Express (2004) - As a film geek, how could I not love this? Wes Anderson roundly mocks himself and his own filmmaking style, with rapid-fire humor and cameos by famous friends. And the Anderson parodies were suddenly everywhere after this, almost as though the director had given permission to the fans to come play in his own, peculiar universe.

I Love the World (2008) - Sing it with me now. Boom-de-yada, boom de-yada, boom de-yada, boom de-yada...

Jack Box (2013) - I hadn't realized how long the CEO Jack ads had been going, until suddenly the campaign ended in 2015. Jack was voiced by Richard Sittig, his creator, in every appearance since 1994. He provided a more knowing, tongue-in-cheek alternative to the other fast food mascots, which was very appealing. My favorite of his ads was this epic flashback to his hair metal rocker days in the 1980s.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

The 2017 Summer Movie Wager

It's that time again! Following the rules of the Summer Movie Pool, I'm going to predict the top ten domestic box office grossers of the summer. It's not about which movies are the best or the most deserving, but which ones simply bring in the most cold hard cash. So while I'd really love for "The Dark Tower," "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," and "Baby Driver" to make oodles of money, realistically that is not going to happen. Still, I am notoriously bad at this, and scored only 34 points out of a possible 100 last year. At least this was better than the 33 points I scored the year before that.

Anything being released between May 1st and Labor Day is fair game. Here we go.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - I made the mistake of underestimating the first movie, which turned into the biggest hit of the summer. With an August release date, no less. Well, this time Star Lord and the gang get my number one spot. I wasn't the biggest fan of their last outing and I'm hoping to see some improvements, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is more than enough goodwill out there for "Guardians" to repeat their past success.

2. Despicable Me 3 - I keep underestimating Illumination Entertainment, but not this year! "Despicable Me" is the studio's most durable franchise, and the latest installment should be good for one of the top spots. Even the "Minions" spinoff managed over $300 million domestic while barely being a coherent movie. So, I'm fairly confident that it's going to be the big family film of the summer, and I'll probably be begrudgingly dragged along to see it at some point by the ankle-biters.

3. Spider-Man Homecoming - Is this going perform like a Marvel origin movie, a Marvel teamup movie, or like a Sony Spider-Man sequel? Nobody knows for sure, but Spidey is still a headliner, and his appearance in last year's "Civil War" was very well received. So I'm going to place his first outing with the MCU relatively high in the rankings. However, as with the Andrew Garfield movies, I think I'll wait a while and see what the critics say before watching this one myself.

4. Cars 3 - The trailers have promised a darker, more grounded "Cars" movie, which I'm not sure is the best thing for this franchise. Don't get me wrong. I appreciate that PIXAR is trying to get ambitious again and trying to tell a different kind of story with these characters than they have before. However, "Cars" really never had much emotional depth, and that was perfectly okay. I'm sure that young fans will turn up just for the PIXAR name, but I don't expect a big crowd-pleaser.

5. Transformers: The Last Knight - Now, I'm sure the "Transformers" series has enough juice left in it to make some impact at the box office, but not as much as it once did. The previous film, "Age of Extinction," managed a third place finish three years ago. The shine, however, is definitely gone. With Michael Bay leaving, and very little buzz going into this, I expect "The Last Knight," to slip a few spots further down. The real question is how "Bumblebee" will do next year.

6. Wonder Woman - This is the only movie I really, really want to do well. There's no doubt that "Wonder Woman" is going to get a storm of attention, but will that translate into a big box office? I expect that this is going to do better than last year's the "Ghostbusters" reboot, but probably not that much better with so much competition in the mix. However, this is also certainly one of the DC franchise's last chances. WB will throw everything they have at this.

7. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales - How much are people going to care that Orlando Bloom has come back to the series? Probably not much to stall the series' winding down. Overseas the movie should fare very well, but at home I don't see any stopping "Pirates" continuing to slide in revenues. There's also the worrying precedent set by the "Alice" sequel last year, which was a total bomb. "Pirates," however, should still have enough juice for #7.

8. Baywatch - There's usually one big R-rated comedy somewhere on the list every year. I think there's a pretty good chance that "Baywatch" will fit the bill in 2017. I mean, what better property to convert into a summer movie than the superbly cheesy 90s series that was all about ogling hotties on the beach? This version will star The Rock, who has made several appearances on the charts in the past, and Zac Efron, who is seriously overdue for a bigger slice of movie stardom.

9. Dunkirk - Now here's a real question mark. Christopher Nolan's films are reliable moneymakers, but "Dunkirk" is a war film, and comes across as an Oscar season prestige picture. The older audiences will probably come out for it, but will it be enough to challenge the big tentpole titles higher on this list? My guess is that the "Dunkirk" will perform respectably, but won't be a big blockbuster. And depending on what kind of year it is, that could still mean a spot on the list.

10. The Mummy - I would have been highly doubtful about the chances of the newest Universal monster reboot, but for one thing: Tom Cruise. Somehow Cruise is still a reliable action star after all this time, and I think there's a real possibility that "The Mummy" could turn out to be a decent vehicle for him. The trailer didn't win me over, and I think the whole shared universe plan is still nuts, but there' probably enough love for Cruise to eke out a minor win.

Wild Cards (for extra points if one of them does make it into the top ten)

The Emoji Movie
War For the Planet of the Apes
Rough Night

I think "The Emoji Movie" looks pretty desperate, but kids love Emojis, and there's no predicting what unlikely looking premise will actually turn out a decent movie. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this turns out to be a hit. Meanwhile, I love the "Apes" movies, but they've never been very strong performers. The third installment may be able to build on the momentum of the first two and grab a bigger audience though. If this is where the new series is going to end, that would be a great way to go out. Finally, the strong performance of "Bad Moms" last year points to an underserved audience for raunchy female comedies. "Rough Night," which involves Scarlett Johansson and a bachelorette party gone wrong, might surprise. I wish they hadn't changed the title though. "Rock That Body" sounded more fun.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Trailers! Trailers! Spring of 2017 Edition


We're finally getting our first looks at some of the later summer pictures and a couple of the early fall ones too.  There have been some interesting trailers that have popped up in the meantime, so this is as good a time as any to catch up.  I tried to get a better mix of smaller and larger movies this time, I should warn you in advance, dear reader, that I'm unleashing some snark in this installment.

As always, all links below lead to Trailer Addict.


Thor: Ragnarok - And this is why this is my most anticipated superhero movie of the year.  The God of Thunder's previous films have been some of the least interesting of the MCU, but this one looks like so much fun.  The crazy '80s "Flash Gordon" visuals are right.  The humor is right.  The Led Zeppelin is right. And I can't wait for Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett to join in on the silliness.  May this lead to more clout and attention for Taika Waititi, who should come play in the Hollywood sandbox more often.   

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi - There's really not much to talk about here, which is exactly as it should be.  The new ships look great, Mark Hamill is suitably weathered, and all our old favorites are back.  It doesn't live up to the "Force Awakens" teaser trailer, but really, could anything?

Deadpool 2 - This doesn't even have a release date yet, and we have no idea who's playing Cable, but we can expect the Merc and his mouth to return to screens sometime next year.  I have to admit that I'm tickled that FOX put this fairly elaborate little short together so early in the marketing process, but they deserve a victory lap for the previous film's success.

Baby Driver - Edgar Wright's latest looks like a ton of fun.  The trailer just oozes style, the cast is great, and Ansel Elgort looks good in the leading man spot.  The comedy too, is firing on all cylinders.  The entire exchange about the Mike Myers masks just had me on the floor.   I'm also glad to see this being pushed up to a June release date for more visibility.  

Coco - I always welcome more original features from PIXAR, but this one hasn't gotten me very excited yet.  Maybe it's the relative aesthetic similarity to "The Book of Life," or the odd thematic similarities to "Ratatouille," with the kid's hero worship.  In any case, there's something about the teaser that feels oddly generic for PIXAR.  I trust the studio enough to see the film regardless, but this teaser probably had the opposite effect that it was intended to.   

Justice League - Well, well, well, Zack Syder.  Here we are, on the verge of a potentially epic disaster in the making.  It's nice to get a better look at Cyborg, Aquaman, the Flash, and some of the more minor characters but there's nothing here that's actually getting me excited for the team-up. Oh, and putting Amy Adams in such a prominent spot just underlines the inevitability of Superman's resurrection.  It really was a mistake to "kill" him off in the first place.   

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  - Martin McDonagh is back!  And his latest tale of violent revenge heads out to the Midwest, where Frances McDormand is taking no prisoners in her war against the local police for failing to catch her daughter's killers.  The copious amount of swearing indicates that McDonagh hasn't mellowed in the least since "Seven Psychopaths."  I'm very curious about how he'll fare with the change in setting and female lead.  

A Ghost Story - I'd only heard a little about the particulars of the plot when all the buzz from Sundance came out, so I wasn't prepared for something so melancholy and existential.  The image of the ghost, which I'd originally found very Charlie Brown, actually grows on you.  I haven't been a fan of David Lowery's work so far, but the trailer definitely makes me want to give him another chance.  So by any measure it's the most effective one on this list.

War for the Planet of the Apes - Woody Harrelson makes a great addition as the new villain, but it's the personal conflicts among the apes that strike me as the most interesting.  I shouldn't still be surprised at how good the effects work on the ape characters is, but I am.  I'm torn between wanting the series to go out with a bang with a final installment, or wanting it to continue on indefinitely.  Because if any franchise has the chops for it, this does.  

Atomic Blonde - After Imperator Furiosa, it's good to see Charlize Theron sticking around in the action genre for a bit.  I'm looking forward to this far more than her appearance in the latest "Fast and Furious" movie.  Okay, the lesbian love interest is a little eye-rolling, but the fact that it's normalized enough for it to be eye-rolling is a good thing, right?

IT - Okay, I think that's enough trailers for today.
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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

How I Lost the Soundtrack

Movie soundtrack were a big part of how I enjoyed films in the past. My mother was a music teacher for decades, and was forever bringing home soundtracks for Disney movies and other kids' media that she could use for her classes. There were a lot of long car trips that involved listening to movie and musical soundtracks on repeat. I didn't have much exposure to popular music, so soundtracks were often what I listened to casually. I got attached to certain ones like "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Velvet Goldmine," and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." I went through a Cirque Du Soleil phase. And when I got to college and discovered the wonderful world of file sharing, I admit I went a little nuts hunting down old favorites and obscurities that I'd never had access to before.

And now, fifteen-odd years later, I am as massive a media fan as I've ever been, but I've almost completely stopped listening to soundtracks. Frankly, there aren't many recent films that are associated with musical themes or numbers that I can actually hum a few bars of. Most of the time I simply don't notice the music, and it's a major exception when I do - "Inside Out," "Far From the Madding Crowd," and "Star Trek Beyond," are some favorites from the last few years. Michael Giacchino has been a standout. However, it didn't really hit me until I was watching a run of older films and found myself really enjoying the music in each of them. All three of the Dracula movies I marathoned and Spielberg's "1941" have fantastic, memorable scores that lingered in my memory for days.

There's been extensive discussion recently about why film scores have lost so much ground, especially with the biggest, most expensive tentpole movies. Tony Zhou recently did an "Every Frame a Painting" video about this, pointing out that there weren't memorable themes associated with any of the Marvel movies. Well, except "Guardians of the Galaxy," which borrowed its soundtrack from the 1970s. He pointed to changes in filmmaking and the use of temp tracks as the biggest culprits, resulting in more generic music. Everything sounds like everything else. Also, the big, bombastic scores of my childhood have simply gone out of fashion. The films that really want to emphasize a musical element, like "Suicide Squad," tend to go the jukebox route, and license previously established hits.

This isn't true of all films, of course. It's been a growing trend to use a film's soundtrack to promote new releases. A few prominent songs and tracks are often offered as free digital downloads. Disney put the "Let it Go" scene from "Frozen" up on Youtube while it was still in theaters, recognizing that the song was becoming a phenomenon. Also, soundtracks have been making a big comeback in another venue: television shows. Thanks in part to bigger budgets and web services like Netflix ditching fixed running times, television themes are back in a big way. The gorgeous "Game of Thrones" title sequence started a trend, and now just about every ambitious series has one, and some memorable music to go with it. Some of my recent favorites include "True Detective," "Halt and Catch Fire," and "Westworld."

And while we're on the subject of television, I should acknowledge that the biggest reason why I fell out of love with soundtracks, has nothing to do with any of the music, and everything to do with my own media consumption habits. When I was younger, I had more time to really listen to music, often the same music over and over again. These days, given the choice, I'd rather be listening to a podcast, and there's very little that I watch or listen to more than once. An exception, or course, is television title sequences, which I don't skip when watching a new episode. So I remember the television themes more often, simply because of repetition. I know I wouldn't have remembered the "Penny Dreadful" or "The Americans" themes if I'd only heard them once.

Still, I haven't been able to get the march from "1941" out of my head for weeks. John Williams always was my favorite, and I miss his big orchestral scores and rousing fanfares. The modern action film may be doing fine without them, but a memorable score is such a good tool for a franchise's arsenal, I don't know why you wouldn't want them. That's the only thing that Iast year's "Batman v. Superman" got right. Whatever you want to say about Wonder Woman, she's already got the best superhero theme out of anyone in the last decade.

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Monday, April 17, 2017

State of the Blog, 2017

Hello out there.

Something interesting happened to this blog last October that I've avoided talking about until now. After several years of operating in quiet obscurity, I was separately linked to by both a New York Times article and director Whit Stillman within the same ten days. The Times article was a profile of writer Max Landis, that linked to "Must We Hate Max Landis?" as an example of the online vitriol that Landis had inspired. Stillman linked to my review of his most recent film "Love and Friendship." I only knew about either because I noticed that the traffic to my blog went way up for a few days, and a couple of extra adbots attached themselves to my feed.

And frankly, I didn't know how to react to this. My first thought, upon learning about the Times article, was hoping that Landis's fans didn't come after me. My post wasn't all that critical, and I'm barely active on social media, but I've been watching some awful things unfold online over the past few months over similarly benign media criticism and want no part of it. While I've always enjoyed following the critical conversations that go on around films and television, it comes with some risks. I'm perfectly happy these days being a hobby blogger cheering on one side or another from the sidelines, and having my arguments with other movie nerds on the smaller forums and sites. Being in the spotlight just seems to be asking for trouble.

When I started out in 2010, I had some hopes of following the lead of Mendelson's Memos and eventually parlaying my writing into something more high profile. However, I have a good career in real life that I'm very happy with, and far more personal responsibilities these days. Even if I had the opportunity to pursue a professional writing career, frankly the economics would be prohibitive. Unless you're top tier, writing about media pays next to nothing. You have to juggle multiple assignments and constantly be scrounging for extra funds through other avenues. Practically every podcast I'm listening to these days has Patreon or Kickstarter campaigns, or both. To put it bluntly, I am too old and too set in my ways for that. I simply don't want it enough.

Well, then why am I still posting to a public blog? To tell the truth, there's no need for the blog to be public since I'm mainly writing for myself. However, I've gotten in the habit of it, and I do enjoy Googling myself and seeing where people have linked me for one reason or another, looking at what made an impact and what didn't. Comments are few and far between, but still nice to get. If the blog being public ever does become a problem, however, I'd probably keep writing it privately regardless. I enjoy putting this blog together an awful lot, and it makes for a fun hobby. I have the sneaking suspicion that if I had to write the blog as a real job, I'd lose my enjoyment of it quickly.

So, for the time being I'm just going to keep chugging along as I have been, writing all my reviews three months late and writing my angry old nerd lady rants about whatever is annoying me about Hollywood at the moment. But seriously, uncoupling myself from usual hype cycles has been working out very well for me, and I've never felt better about avoiding popular dreck and staying focused on the media that I really want to talk about. Heck, even the last Oscar cycle was more fun because I wasn't rushing around trying to watch absolutely everything before the ceremony, like I usually do.

Finally, I'll also add a little note to say that this blog will be having another hiatus later this year, probably in the fall. I'll do my best to at least post something every week or so, but the rate of posts is definitely going to be dipping pretty low for a few months. As much as I love blogging, the real world takes precedence, and the name "Missmediajunkie" hasn't been an accurate description of your humble writer for some time now.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

National Tragedies, with Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg

In one of their strangest coincidences of this year, 2016 saw two film dramatizations of recent US national disasters, starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg, released three months apart. The first was "Deepwater Horizon," about the events surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster of 2010. The second was "Patriot's Day," about the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. As docu-dramas go, they're pretty decent, though they still run into a lot of the usual problems that these movies always contend with.

The better film, and the film with the better argument for being made in the first place, is "Deepwater Horizon," which does a good job of humanizing the oil rig workers who fought to contain the disaster as it unfolded, and providing some insight into why and how the drilling operations went so awry. Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, an engineer, and Gina Rodriguez, Ethan Suplee, and Dylan O'Brien play other workers under rig supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell). The main villain is the oil company representative, Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), who ignores one safety protocol after another. We get a step by step look at how the real life events played out, but aside from an eye-rolling explanation of how oil rigs work from Mike's daughter in the opening few minutes, the film doesn't get into the nitty gritty of technical terms or processes. How the characters react tells us all we need to know.

"Deepwater Horizon" builds up in a nice slow boil, eventually delivering some pretty harrowing action scenes and disaster scenarios. The effects and sound design are excellent, especially when the oil rig goes into full, fiery meltdown. Clearly there were some invented dramatics to play up the heroism of the workers, but nothing too egregious. At the same time, it's careful to acknowledge that there were eleven casualties of the disaster, and unquantifiable amounts of damage done to the Gulf of Mexico. I wish that we'd gotten a little more depth to the characters, who are all fairly flat types. John Malkovitch certainly has the most memorable performance, as he chews the scenery as only he can. Wahlberg and Rodriguez make decent leads, and Kurt Russell is at his most paternally loveable, but nobody has much to do beyond the usual disaster movie schtick.

"Patriot's Day" is a more complicated venture, because there are far more players involved, and events play out over several days. This time Wahlberg plays an invented police sergeant, Tommy Saunders, who somehow manages to be on the scene for nearly every major development in the Boston Marathon bombing, from the initial attack, to the end of the manhunt for the bombers. This is by far the biggest liberty that Peter Berg takes with the facts. "Patriot's Day" is pretty good about covering multiple POVs and getting us invested in several different stories and characters. John Goodman, JK Simmons, and Kevin Bacon play other law enforcement officials. Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O'Shea play a pair of the victims. Jimmy O. Yang ends up carrying a good chunk of the film as the poor guy who got carjacked by the Tsarnaevs when they were trying to make their escape. And we also follow the Tsarnaevs themselves, played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze, as they carry out the bombing and their subsequent crimes.

The individual sequences are very strong, and it's interesting to see some of the smaller stories, like the interrogation of the elder Tsarnaev's wife, played by Melissa Benoist. However, the film offers little context or new insights on the familiar events, and it's clear that a documentary would have been more effective at accomplishing some of the same things. To the filmmakers' credit, pains were clearly taken to be as sensitive as possible to each and every real life person depicted, and "Patriot's Day" even ends with a lengthy epilogue celebrating Boston and its inhabitants. As these sorts of docudramas go, this is a pretty good one, and Mark Wahlberg gets more to do in his role, but there's still a tangible uneasiness about mining the tragedy for too much entertainment that impacts the whole film. I wonder if I'll still feel this way about it couple years further in the future, when the real life events have receded further into the past.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hang in There, "Steven Universe"

It's been about a year and a half since I last checked in with "Steven Universe." Another fifty-something episodes have come and gone, and we're now somewhere close to the end of Season Four. Because the show's airing patterns have been so erratic, it took me a while to realize that I actually was caught up on all the episodes. There have been several long hiatuses and a lot of the show's momentum seems to have cooled. Some minor spoilers ahead for the first three seasons.

The last time I checked in with Steven and the gang, they were busy convincing Peridot to be a good guy, and Garnet was reassuring her about not rushing into fusions, the act of combining with another Crystal Gem to become a stronger warrior. Well, all this time later, Peridot still hasn't fused with anybody. In fact, since the Cluster was neutralized at the very beginning of the third season, there hasn't been much plot progression going on at all. The series is taking its time easing Peridot and Lapis into the show's regular roster, and introducing a handful of new characters - Blue Diamond, Bismuth, Holly Blue Agate, and a team of Rubies. There's only been one new fusion too, who has barely appeared.

And frankly, after two wonderfully paced seasons full of steadily escalating danger and excitement, it's hard not to get restless. Lots of groundwork is being laid for future big storylines involving the Gem homeworld, and Steven reckoning with his mother's dark side, but the characters haven't had much development. Lapis and Peridot, obviously, have had the most progression as they've gone native. Amethyst had a crisis of confidence, good for a weeklong arc, that resulted in her maturing a bit with Steven's help. Pearl and Greg finally patched things up. Nothing particularly dramatic. Instead, the time has been mainly taken up with digressions like Greg getting a big payday and visits from figures from the past like Bismuth and Cousin Andy.

Meanwhile, the lurking presence of villains Jasper, the Rubies, and the Diamonds is still hanging over everyone's heads, but they don't show any signs of being any immediate danger. The last encounter with Blue and Yellow Diamond was barely a skirmish, really just a quick way of introducing some more characters and aspects of the Gem culture that will be important in the future. We haven't even seen White Diamond yet. I've heard rumors that Jasper is the next in line for a redemption arc, which would be fine, but if they're not going to do it simultaneously with the next impending clash with homeworld, I feel like it's just going to drag things out even more. I mean, look how long it took Lapis to finally call Earth home. At the time of writing, there are only five episodes left this season.

One of the things I initially liked about "Steven Universe" was how quickly it moved compared to the similar "Adventure Time," where the worldbuilding was great, but the continuing storylines went very, very slowly. They just finished up a big event miniseries that resolved a bunch of the hero's ongoing family issues, after eight seasons. While I don't think that "Steven Universe" is going to end up following the same model, and some of these more incidental, laid back episodes have been fun, I am concerned that the lack of more action-oriented plots has caused some of the viewership to drop out. I mean, it's got to have been at least half a season since we last saw the Gems in proper combat together.

"Steven Universe" is the only currently airing cartoon that I'm still keeping up with - not counting "Venture Brothers" and "Rick and Morty" with their multi-year hiatuses. I'm still enjoying it, but not as much as I enjoyed the first two seasons, where we were learning something new and exciting about these characters and their world practically every week. Instead, I'd characterize the show as currently being in a bit of a rut, treading water until they decide to get the next major storyline going. I'm going to stick with it and hope for better things to come, but I will be very upset if the show gets itself cancelled before that can happen.
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