Sunday, June 25, 2017

The June, 2017 Follow-Up Post

For the uninitiated, my "follow-up" posts are semi-regular installments where I write about recent developments related to topics I've blogged about in the past, but which I didn't think needed a whole new write-up to themselves. The original posts are linked below for your convenience.

Is January the New March?

This January saw two sizable hits, M. Night Shyamalan's "Split," which already has a sequel in the works, and "xXx: Return of Xander Cage," which made only modest bank in the U.S., but turned out to be a massive hit in China during the holidays. Along with the successes of "A Dog's Purpose" and the latest "Resident Evil," they prove that audiences are willing to come out in January. So I expect we'll keep seeing the smaller genre and franchise films appear in this month, though it's always going to be slower than February or March.

The Remake Rodeo

So how did 2016's remakes do? Disney's "Jungle Book" was a massive success, both commercially and critically while "Pete's Dragon" managed to be a more modest one on both fronts. "Ghostbusters" had a very mixed reception, but it had by far the most cultural impact of any summer film, and will be a talking point for years to come. "Blair Witch" wasn't a breakout hit, but it made money, and won praise from some corners. Ditto "The Magnificent Seven." "Ben-Hur," however, was a complete bust by every measure. All in all, not a bad year for remakes at all.

The New Disney Fairy Tale Franchise

Well, it turns out that "Fairy Tale" may just be Disney's catch-all term for any live action film that they have in production. And their staking out of so many prime release dates so far in advance is just so they have the dates if they want them, not because they have any specific films in mind for them yet. The "Untitled Live Action Fairy Tale" movie originally dated for December, 2017 and moved up to July, turned out to be the family comedy "Magic Camp," not something based off of one of their older properties. So there goes all that speculation down the drain.

Falling Through the Digital Distribution Cracks

With Amazon having become the first streaming service to win a Best Picture nomination with "Manchester by the Sea," and acquiring Sundance films left and right this year, digital distribution is definitely here to stay. However, the biggest bellwether of the changing times may be Netflix's recent deal with Martin Scorsese for "The Irishman," which will feature Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. And after what happened to Scorsese's "Silence," can you blame the man? I still suspect a few of the smaller titles are going to get lost in the shuffle, but it won't be long before the reviewers acclimate to the new status quo.

Keep the VFX Artists Happy

Matters seem to have gone from bad to worse. "Hollywood's Greatest Trick" is a documentary short on the subject that was released free on Youtube a few months ago to help shed some light on the increasingly complicated ways that Hollywood is keeping their VFX costs low. There's also this excellent Freakonomics podcast episode, "No Hollywood Ending for the Visual-Effects Industry"

Where Did All the Stephen King Adaptations Go?

2017 is looking like the apex of a Stephen King resurgence. In addition to "The Dark Tower" and "It" theatrical features, the Spike is readying a TV series based on "The Mist," and Hulu has announced "Castle Rock," which many are speculating will use Stephen King's work as a jumping off point for new horror stories much in the same way that FX's "Fargo" does with the Coen brothers films. Netflix also has two Stephen King movie projects expected to premiere in the near future, "1922" and "Gerald's Game." This isn't even counting "Stranger Things," due back in October, which definitely seems to have helped popularize the return of nostalgic '80s horror.

The EEOC Comes to Hollywood

And in case you missed it, the EEOC investigation was completed in February, and they did conclude that there was systemic bias against female directors at all the major studios. They're currently still in the settlement phase, determining whether or not to file a lawsuit.

Friday, June 23, 2017

"Lisztomania" is My New Favorite Bad Movie

My mother was a music teacher for decades, and had a special love of movies featuring the lives of the classical composers. I remember multiple viewings of "Amadeus," "Immortal Beloved," and "Impromptu," to name a few. I happily hunted down some of the obscure ones for her, but she warned me away from a "terrible" Tchaikovsky biopic, which I later discovered was Ken Russell's "The Music Lovers." Russell did a series of films about composers, all of which I'd never heard of until I started poking around his filmography a few years ago. And no wonder my terribly polite mother avoided them - Russell is a notorious provocateur, fond of filling his films with sex and nudity and other blasphemies.

I, however, am not opposed to blasphemies with the right presentation, which brings us to Russell's "Lisztomania," a pseudo-biopic of pianist and composer Franz Liszt, who was a major celebrity in his time. Played by Roger Daltrey of "The Who," Liszt is reimagined as a nineteenth century pop idol in platform shoes, living a life of hedonism and excess as he tours around Europe. His lover Countess Marie d'Agoult (Fiona Lewis) raises their illegitimate children, including the fiesty Cosima (Veronica Quilligan). Among Liszt's circle of musical colleagues is a newcomer named Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas), soon to become a rival with sinister ambitions. And then there's Liszt's newest lover, the Princess Carolyn (Sara Kesteman), a Russian vamp who quickly assumes too much control over his life.

I should also mention that Wagner is revealed to be a vampire who creates an army of proto-Nazi children all garbed as Superman, and ultimately turns himself into a gun-toting Franken-Hitler. And there's a hallucination scene where Liszt grows an eight foot tall erection that fair maidens dance around like a maypole before Princess Carolyn comes after it with a guillotine. By the time Ringo Starr shows up as the Pope to bring Liszt into the Church, it feels appropriate. So does the ending, involving the defeat of Wagner with a rocket ship made out of pipe organs and a piano with built in flamethrowers. Everything in "Lisztomania" is loosely based on historical fact, but presented in these surreal, campy, outsized terms. The plotting is often nonsensical and illogical, occasionally devolving into chaos.

Whatever Russell is trying to say about Liszt's work or celebrity gets totally lost under all the excess, but what excess! The set design is absolutely gorgeous, full of bright colors and obvious phallic symbols everywhere. The costuming is grandiose, mirrored after the stagewear of modern rockers. And I love the little background touches, like having the religious icons all feature modern pop stars like Elton John and the Beatles instead of the saints. There's so much gratuitous content: the abundance of naked female breasts, the character assassination of Wagner, and the silly cameos. And yet, it's all so genially, energetically done, I found it delightful. Even the raunch, which can get stale in a hurry, was awfully entertaining because everyone involved seemed to be enjoying it so much. Even if the film is incoherent, it's fun to just sit back and watch all the audacity unfold.

One of the biggest reasons why the film works as well as it does is Roger Daltrey . He easily fits the celebrity musician profile, as expected, but he also makes an excellent comic lead. He fearlessly throws himself into the absurdity, and gets more to do here than he did in his other famous collaboration with Ken Russell, "Tommy." He swashbuckles against a cuckolded husband in the opening scene, pantomimes in a Charlie Chaplin homage, and cavorts with that giant erection in the most endearingly goofy fashion. He also lends his vocals to the soundtrack, which consists of several progressive rock songs that incorporate Liszt and Wagner's music. Rick Wakeman of the band Yes was responsible for the mangling of the classical works, but the resulting new tunes are quite catchy.
"Lisztomania" has bigger problems, however. I think the first half actually works very well as a spoof, but the more it tries to address bigger themes, the more it struggles. Ken Russell is much too eager to tie together certain ideas without any nuance, especially blowing Wagner's German nationalism and antisemitism into full goose-stepping Nazi hijinks. The whole third act is a mess, because the darker material is relayed in such comic book terms (sometimes literally) that it all feels too silly and irreverent. Franken-Hitler gunning down the Jews is too lurid and mindless, and the redemptive final number too bland. There really is nothing to top the famous giant erection that shows up around the halfway point, so it feels like the movie peaked too early. Ahem.

Anyway, I'm off to watch "The Music Lovers," and to never, ever mention the existence of "Lisztomania" to my mother.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"The Americans" Year Four

Spoilers ahead for the entire series.

After the bombshell that was dropped at the very end of the third season, I expected that the fourth season would begin with the Jennings family finally having to definitely deal with Pastor Tim. However, that's not how this show works. Instead, Pastor Tim becomes yet another precarious Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, another secretive relationship that needs to be carefully maintained. Eventually the sword will fall and someone is going to be severely damaged by the fallout - probably Tim and anyone close to him - but not yet.

Several other swords did fall this year, or are in the process of falling. I've come to appreciate that "The Americans" doesn't wait until final few episodes of the season to strike major blows. The finale was actually rather quiet and anticlimactic this year for the Jennings, but everyone else saw massive changes. I was completely caught off guard by Nina's quick execution in the fourth episode. And then there was the quick dispatching of Lisa in the eighth episode and Agent Gaad in the tenth. Martha's exfiltration was probably the best of all possible outcomes for her, but it all felt so cruel, and clearly took a massive toll on Philip. In the end, five major cast members have been dispatched in one form or another, and there are new faces at both the FBI and the Rezidentura calling the shots. And worse is surely coming.

I wasn't a fan of the EST storyline last year, but as Philip continues to try and grapple with his emotional health, it's been a great catalyst. Everything with Matthew Rhys and Alison Wright during the exfiltration storyline was great, as Philip and Martha brought their relationship to a bitter end. It's heartbreaking to watch Martha's world crumble, and to watch Philip try and fail to keep any semblance of control over the situation. Elizabeth had a much more satisfying arc this season too , becoming friends with a Korean woman named Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles) in order to get to her husband Don (Ron Young). And like Philip, she also resists having to torpedo the relationship, and deeply harming her targets in the process. She bargains, she evades, and ultimately she does exactly what she's supposed to, while the audience cringes. We don't see the repercussions, but we know they're coming. Even with Gabriel's attempts at diffusing the tensions in the household, and offers of escape, there's no getting away from the storm we know is coming.

With four seasons done and two to go, "The Americans" is clearly moving towards its endgame, which I'm happily anticipating. Nowhere is this clearer than with Paige, who has inched a few steps closer to complicity in her parents' work, charged with keeping tabs on Pastor Tim and his wife Alice (Suzy Jane Hunt). At first I thought that Henry and Stan hanging out together was going to be a problem for the rest of the Jennings in and of itself. I didn't see the Paige and Matthew (Daniel Flaherty) connection coming, but it makes sense. The last thing Philip and Elizabeth need is for Paige to get herself into another emotionally charged relationship that she's going to have to manage, the way they manage their agents, and will probably end in tears, if not bloodshed.

As always, "The Americans" boasts great work from a big ensemble. Richard Thomas had his best year, giving Agent Gaad some real poignancy as he faces the end of his career. Frank Langella is pressed to do much more, wrangling Martha and falling victim to the nasty bioweapons smuggled out by Dylan Baker's new spy character William Crandall. Baker is excellent, painting a portrait of a career spy who gets the short end of the stick over and over again. Noah Emmerich remains in a difficult position, as Stan has little to do this year beyond being an easy antagonist, but he still delivered a lot of great little moments - explaining his reasons for stopping the meetings with Burov, and unable to hide his glee when he catches Paige and Matthew.

For next season, I'm looking forward to more Young Hee and more of Paige and Matthew canoodling. Not sure what to think of Mischa yet, and I wonder if, with so many characters in the USSR or on the brink of going there, we might be due for a change of scenery soon.


Monday, June 19, 2017

Rank 'Em: "The Storyteller"

"The Storyteller" is one of my favorite fantasy series, created by Jim Henson in the late 1980s. Only nine episodes were produced, each scripted by Anthony Minghella and based off of traditional fairy tales and folk tales. A later spinoff series would add four more stories based on Greek myths. With John Hurt acting as our host and narrator, each story was told with a mixture of live action and puppetry, with some gorgeous effects work that still impresses to this day. After debating over the best format to discuss the series, I settled on a "Rank 'Em" post, so I could talk about each episode.

"Hans My Hedgehog" - Embodies everything I love about the series: the use of mixed media, the willingness to explore dark (but not too dark) themes, and the excellent performances. I really felt for the characters here, which I wasn't expecting from a story about a giant hedgehog and a princess. There's also the the visual style, which would carry through all the episodes, full of frame-blurring asides, beautiful transitions, and clever optical tricks.

"The Heartless Giant" - Jim Henson directed this one himself, and no wonder. This may be the most effect-heavy episode thanks to the many scenes dealing with differently scaled actors and props. I also found it to be one of the most affecting, since there's a price for the hero's victory and the ending is bittersweet. I wonder why more of the "Storyteller" installments didn't feature younger actors, since Elliott Spiers was so fantastic in this one as the lead.

"The Soldier and Death" - I love every version of the "Godfather Death" and "Soldier Jack" stories that I've come across, and this episode combines the two with some inventive puppetry work and excellent writing. The childlike version of Death who appears here is utterly unique from any other version I've ever seen, and the little red devils are weirdly hilarious. There's also a melancholy quality to the episode, particularly the ending, that I found very appealing.

"Sapsorrow" - My favorite episode when I was a kid, this is the the "Storyteller" take on the Cinderella story, that also borrows bits and pieces of other familiar tales. I love the little subversions here, especially how the glass slipper turns out to be a test for the prince, rather than the princess. And thanks to an elaborate disguise, the princess also gets to be the episode's creature. Comedy fans should note that French and Saunders play the Ugly Stepsisters.

"The Three Ravens" - Based on "The Six Swans," the most star-studded episode of the set features Miranda Richardson as a fantastically evil stepmother and witch and Joely Richardson as the Princess. The imagery in this one is particularly strong, with its dramatic spellcasting and transformations. It was the shock of the disappearing babies that stuck with me, though, and I always thought of "The Three Ravens" as one of the most horrific installments of the series.

"The True Bride" - This was the first episode I saw, when it aired as part of "The Jim Henson Hour," and when I hunted the series down many years later, I was delighted that it had lost none of its charm and appeal. There are three different featured creatures here, all of them wonderful in different ways. The story and the actors are terribly endearing, including Sean Bean in a role where he doesn't die. The ending only works by fairy tale logic, but that's a very minor flaw.

"A Story Short" - The Storyteller himself becomes the hero of this episode, which cobbles together a couple of different folktales to make a story about telling stories. It feels a little disjointed at times, is tonally all over the place, and the final gag is pretty terrible. Oddly, it also has few special effects and almost no creatures. However, the performances are excellent, and John Hurt is as wonderful as always. It's really the storytelling itself that gets the spotlight here.

"The Luck Child" - Really, the only good thing about this episode is its monster, the Griffin, one of those really ambitious, full-sized muppet creations that the Creature Shop made into something special. The story is basic hero's journey stuff, and not very interesting. However, the monster really is a charmer, with his sing-song speech (provided by Brian Henson) and silly temperament. If it weren't for him, this episode would be ranked at the bottom of the list. Instead...

"Fearnot" - A boy leaves home to learn about fear, and has various adventures. And the adventures are fun, allowing the creature shop to show off some striking characters, but the none of them are as engaging as the Griffin from "The Luck Child" and frankly the ending here always struck me as very weak. It doesn't help that I've also seen a much better version of this story done by "Faerie Tale Theater" - "The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers"

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Netflix v. Cannes

Netflix has been having quite a year in the movie business.  First, they went on an acquisition spree at Sundance to help shore up its original offerings, nabbing the rights to Dee Rees' "Mudbound," Marti Noxon's "To the Bone," and a slew of documentaries.  It already had the rights to Macon Blair's "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," which wound up winning the Grand Jury prize, and was released on Netflix's streaming services in February.  That same month it signed its most high profile acquisition deal yet - for Martin Scorsese's upcoming "The Irishman," which will reunite Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci.

However, the real fireworks would come in May, when the Cannes film festival decided to make a significant rule change in response to two of the films in competition having been produced by Netflix: Bong Joon-ho's "Okja," and Noah Baumbach's "The Meyerowitz Stories."  The new rule states that entries have to have French theatrical runs starting next year, which means that Netflix may be forced to keep its  films out of future competitions.  Unlike in the US, France has stringent rules that require a 36 month delay between a film's theatrical and subscription service streaming releases.  Netflix's current practice is to release its films simultaneously in theaters and online, if it releases the films theatrically at all.

Cannes jurors and commentators have debated the move, while there have been reports of Netflix's production credit being booed during the festival's screenings of its movies.  American theater owners have been pushing back against the various studios' efforts to cut into theatrical exclusivity with SVOD services and other changes to the current distribution model, but the Cannes reaction has been far more vocal.  This year's jury members, including Pedro Almodovar and Will Smith, made a few headlines as they debated the merits of theatergoing  versus streaming.  The response didn't carry over to the movies themselves, however.  "Meyerowitz" has received excellent notices, while the response to "Okja" has been more mixed.  

This has been the most visible example of the clash between the boosters of traditional theatrical distribution and Netflix, which has been the most extreme of the content producers pushing for a distribution model that bypasses or greatly reduces the theatrical window.  Amazon has also been acquiring and producing films lately, including "Manchester by the Sea" and "The Lost City of Z," but have generally followed the existing distribution models, holding back their streaming premieres until after the usual theatrical and rental windows have passed.  

Netflix, however, very pointedly doesn't follow the established rules.  And this is going to continue to be an issue as bigger and  bigger films start coming out of the Netflix pipeline.  As it gets harder to fund or sell certain projects in the traditional way, Netflix's pocketbook keeps attracting more talent.  It's going to be difficult to ignore all the star power of "The Irishman" at Oscar time, but what happens if Netflix won't give it more than a cursory qualifying theatrical run?  What if theaters refuse to play it, as some did with "Beasts of No Nation"?    

I'll admit that my first reaction to hearing that "Mudbound" had been acquired by Netflix was to hope that it wouldn't affect the film's award season chances the way I felt it had impacted some of their past films.  "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" had almost no press whatsoever when Netflix released it, except for a round of complaints from some critics, who thought that that it was too difficult to find on the service.  "War Machine," despite all the attention and big names, also came and went very quietly.  

However, as director Macon Blair spelled out, the benefits of a Netflix release are obvious: more eyeballs having more access to a film faster than anyone else.  In the end the distribution fight is really about money, and the theaters worried about losing it if the audience decides to stay home.  When it comes to the talent, ultimately the filmmakers are going to go wherever they'll be able to make the films and shows that they want to make, and have them seen.    

These days, that's as likely to be with a streaming services as it is a traditional studio or distributor.  The festivals and the rest of the moviemaking world are just going to have to adjust expectations.    

Thursday, June 15, 2017

My 1978 Problem

I'm still working my way through the films of the 1970s for my Top Ten project, which involves me making sure I've seen at least fifty films for each calendar year in order to help fill in some gaps in my movie-watching experience. So far it's been going great, and I have roughly a hundred films left to go for the decade. I'm taking a much more relaxed approach this time, not going strictly year by year, but just watching new titles as I find them. I've compiled lists of titles that I'm looking for, but haven't been prioritizing any so far. However, I've found a pretty significant problem on the horizon: 1978.

I still need to watch at least eighteen films from 1978, which is more than any other year. And unfortunately, I don't have many films I actually want to see that came out that year. 1976 is the next closest, with sixteen films, but I have a list of a dozen films already that I want to track down. It's not that great films didn't come out in 1978. It was the year of "The Deer Hunter," "Grease," "Animal House," "Superman," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Dawn of the Dead," and art house classics like "The Tree of Wooden Clogs" and "Autumn Sonata." But it was also the year of "Jaws II," "The Omen II," and the improbably named "The Other Side of the Mountain 2."

Currently I have a list of eight 1978 films I actually want to see, three of them old martial arts films, one involving Clint Eastwood and an orangutan. And this list actually took me some significant effort to compile, going through filmographies, "Best of" lists, and box office charts. It's looking likely that I'll have to watch a few things like "Pretty Baby" and "Hooper," that I really have no enthusiasm for. Well, who knows. They might be better than they look. I really, really hope I won't have to resort to the notorious ice skating weepie "Ice Castles" or "Debbie Does Dallas" by the time this is all over. Realistically that won't happen, since I can always fall back on my usual tactics like watching all the Foreign Language Oscar nominees from that year, or watching anything that one of the major directors did that year. Rainer Werner Fassbinder released three films in 1978 alone.

Still, I haven't had to resort to these kinds of tactics for any other year so far. I find it strange that there's such dearth of culturally and critically impactful films from just this one year. Part of me wonders if there was some confluence of factors that caused the drought. New Hollywood and the auteur era were winding down. "Star Wars" would have still been playing in most places, prompting the studios to start eyeing more blockbuster commercial fare. I suspected before that my own viewing habits might play a part. As a kid I watched loads of crummy '80s movies that helped pad out my viewing numbers for some of those years. I shouldn't be surprised that my numbers are lower overall for the '70s. Still, that doesn't explain why I need to see twice as many films for 1978 compared to 1979, 1977, 1974 and 1973.

I want to emphasize that I absolutely am still enjoying this crazy cinematic trip through the 1970s, and the oddity of 1978 will be a good opportunity for me to dig up some old, forgotten gems for reevaluation. Just because I'm not immediately familiar with the titles or the talent involved doesn't mean these movies deserve their obscurity. It's already been proven to me time and time again that it can be as illuminating to watch the films that didn't become well-loved classics as it is to watch the ones that did. And apparently there is no shortage of those movies from 1978.

So bring on "California Suite," "Same Time, Next Year," and "The Buddy Holly Story." Bring on "The Demon," "Violette Nozière," and "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" There's bound to be some good cinema in here somewhere. And I didn't embark on this project just to watch the great movies I already knew about.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

My Favorite Francis Ford Coppola Movie

I remember bits and pieces of Coppola films more than I remember the full films - the iconic opening of "Apocalypse Now," the ending of "The Conversation," and poor Fredo on that boat in "The Godfather Part II." I'm picking "The Godfather" to write about because it's the one that's managed to stick in my mind in the most cohesive fashion. I was lucky to have first seen it without many preconceptions of the film it was supposed to be - the iconic mafia masterpiece that launched a thousand catchphrases and imitators. Maybe that's why I always think of it first and foremost as a film about a family.

"The Godfather" underlines from its opening lines that it is a film about the American dream, the promise of new possibilities to the hopeful immigrant. And from this point of view, its romanticized portrayal of organized crime is made more palatable, elevating its potent mythology of the wise Godfather and his loyal sons and underlings. The audience is seduced by the lifestyle and its more brutal system of morality right along with Michael Corleone. Unlike other gangster films, there were no overt judgments made on the criminal characters, no punishments meted out by a higher authority. Instead, outsiders are only allowed glimpses, and only the final shots convey a true sense of tragedy.

Coppola's many, many contributions to the film were largely driven by a desire to imbue it with authenticity. In addition to directing, he also co-wrote the script with Mario Puzo. He fought the studio over casting choices, filming locations, the composer, the budget, the running time, and more. He wanted "The Godfather" to look and feel recognizably Italian-American, to reflect an immigrant experience that we hadn't seen in American film before. He fought for Al Pacino to be cast in the lead role, despite his relative obscurity. These choices were unpopular with the studio, Paramount Pictures, and Coppola claims he was constantly afraid of being fired during production.

However, Coppola prevailed. And it's thanks to him that the film shot on location in New York and Sicily, that it featured Nino Rota's elegant score, and that it cast so many wonderful actors of Italian descent alongside non-Italian ones. The production was chaotic at times, thanks to behind the scenes drama with the studio and the real-life mob. On screen, however, there was no trace of any difficulties to be found. Instead, it was easy to get lost in Gordon Willis's evocative lighting and cinematography, considered unusually "dark" for a mainstream film of the era. And it was easy to get wrapped up in the lives of the characters, driven by the dynamics and traditions of a big Italian family, more than the usual criminal shortcomings like greed, lust, and ambition.

Though it's often billed as the ultimate gangster picture, "The Godfather" is at its best when it's a family drama. The father son relationships in particular are vital. Brando purposefully played against expectations, portraying Don Corleone as a powerful, but gentle and intelligent man of great complexity. He's become so caricatured by popular culture that it's something of a surprise to discover just how charismatic and how touching Brando is in the role. I've come to appreciate James Caan's brash Sonny more as I've gotten older, and Pacino and Cazale suffer only in comparison to the career-defining work they would do two years later in "The Godfather Part II."

And it's difficult to talk about "The Godfather" without talking about its sequel, which is often treated as part of the same narrative. Much of what we see set up in "The Godfather" doesn't pay off until "The Godfather Part II," where Michael Corleone is confronted with the price of power and sees the rest of his family disintegrate. However, I've always seen them as different films, even if they are intimately connected. The original "Godfather" is about capturing a specific time in the lives of the Corleone family, a moment of transition from the old generation to the new. Though "Part II" is still about Vito and Michael, it's a very different kind of story.

It's fitting, then, that "The Godfather" became one of the key transitional films of the 1970s, emblematic of New Hollywood counterculture supplanting the older, established order. As for Coppola, though he never found the same level of success again, he never stopped making wildly ambitious, boundary-pushing films. And he never stopped doing things his way either.

What I've Seen - Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather (1972)
The Conversation (1974)
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The Outsiders (1983)
Rumble Fish (1983)
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
The Godfather Part III (1990)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
The Rainmaker (1997)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

My Top Ten Film Scores

I've been wanting to do a film score post for a very, very long time. However, I always ran into trouble when it came to picking entries. I am vastly affected by nostalgia where music is concerned, and grew up listening to Disney songs and John Williams soundtracks. If I did a traditional Top Ten list, I was going to end up with a list of Spielberg movies. I think I found a good happy medium by limiting myself to one score for each composer.

Entries are unranked and presented in no particular order below. Enjoy.

"Conan the Barbarian" by Basil Pouledouris - One of the earliest films I remember seeing was "Conan the Barbarian," and the opening scene with Mako's narration leading into the full "Anvil of Crom" theme remains one of my favorite in all of cinema. With it's use of violent drums, choral pieces, and an operatic scope, the "Conan" score remains my favorite for any fantasy movie. And it's a rare 80s score that still doesn't sound remotely dated.

"The Pink Panther" by Henry Mancini" - There's such playfulness and charm to Mancini's work, and it's perfect for the "Pink Panther" film series about bumbling thieves and detectives. The success of the eponymous cartoon character, originally a silent pantomimer, owes so much to the jazzy music, which helped to define his attitude and cool charisma. My favorite version of theme is the expanded, big band version from "Return of the Pink Panther."

"E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial" by John Williams - There were an overwhelming number of options, and I nearly went with Williams' score for "Hook." However, if I'm being honest, there's nothing that captures the excitement and innocence of those old Spielberg adventure films like the "E.T." theme. It's not only the perfect music for nighttime flying, but about as perfect an encapsulation of giddy childhood wonder as you could ever wish for.

"Cinema Paradiso" by Ennio Morricone - Again, I had far too many good choices for Morricone, and was very certain I was going to pick something from the "Dollars" trilogy. Then I remembered he had also composed the heartbreaking score for "Cinema Paradiso," which has one of my absolute favorite scenes in all of cinema. And that scene wouldn't be a tenth as effective without the score. So there was no way that I could leave it off the list.

"Psycho" by Bernard Hermann" - Hitchcock was loathe to have music in many of his scenes of suspense, but the effectiveness of Bernard Hermann's "Psycho" score could not be denied. To this day, it's impossible for me to think of the shower scene without those screaming strings, or the final shots of the movie without those accompanying harsh, final notes. Hitchcock would later claim "33% of the effect of 'Psycho' was due to the music."

"8 ½" by Nino Rota - He's best known for "The Godfather," but the Rota piece I can't get out of my mind is from the finale of Federico Fellini's "8 ½." After juggling multiple musical styles and forms throughout the film, here at last was the riotous circus music appropriate for a fully "Felliniesque" Fellini movie, a joyous celebration of love and life. And even after the majority of the players have left the stage, the music continues on, into the night.

"Edward Scissorhands" by Danny Elfman - The Gothic groaning, the manic violin solo, and those transcendent choral pieces all help to make the disparate parts of "Edward Scissorhands" fit together into one lovely whole. The film is a fractured fairy-tale, but one with so much soul, reflected by some of Elfman's most beautiful work. Nothing else he's done has ever hit me as hard as "The Snow Dance," the moment our hero finally wins over his love.

"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" by Michel LeGrand - Everyone knows "I Will Wait For You," even if they don't know that they know it. I actually prefer the LeGrand and Jacques Demy musical "Young Girls of Rochefort" of all their collaborations, but the music from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" can't be topped. Whatever language you heard it in, and in whatever context, from "Umbrellas" to "Futurama," the yearning melancholy always comes through.

"Out of Africa" by John Barry - This is one of the few pieces on this list that I was a fan of long before I knew that it came from a movie, and if I'm being honest this is one of the big reasons I bothered to watch the movie at all. The main theme, "I Had a Farm in Africa," is an absolute aural pleasure, a serene and romantic and utterly transporting piece of music. In the end I didn't like the movie much, but the score remains one of my favorites.

"A Clockwork Orange" by Wendy Carlos - I'm not a big fan of electronica music, but there's something so inescapably unique about Wendy Carlos's work for Stanley Kubrick. Her "Clockwork Orange" soundtrack in particular is full of these eerie, mesmerizing pieces that incorporate and transform other musical works into something sinister. I've never heard anything else quite like it, and it stands out as one of the most unique, iconic scores of all time.

Honorable Mentions: Rocky (Bill Conti), Koyaanisqatsi (Philip Glass), Shaft (Isaac Hayes), How the West Was Won (Alfred Newman), Back to the Future (Alan Silvestri), Beauty and the Beast (Alan Menken), Deep Red (Goblins), The Silence of the Lambs (Howard Shore), The Piano (Michael Nyman), Glory (James Horner), Doctor Zhivago (Maurice Jarre), The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein), Princess Mononoke (Joe Hisaishi), The Company of Wolves (George Fenton), West Side Story (Leonard Bernstein), Amelie (Yann Tiersen), Return to Oz (David Shire), The Dark Crystal (Trevor Jones), Sherlock Holmes (Hans Zimmer), The Incredibles (Michael Giacchino), and Under the Skin (Mica Levi)


Friday, June 9, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 1996

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.

Fargo - The Coen brothers' most chilly and iconic neo-noir has aged wonderfully, and recently even spawned some unlikely spinoffs. It's still an unusual beast, full of distinctly Minnesotan characters, grisly violence, and tricky questions about morality and ambition. However, I love it best for those little character moments and humorous touches, that make each and every player in a terrible crime deeply human and relatable. Of all the Coens' jaunts into the dark side of America, this one is probably their best realized and remembered.

Big Night - A small film of tremendous heart, directed by Stanley Tucci. It's utterly a foodie movie, but more importantly it celebrates all the things we associate with good food: family, companionship, big events, and big dreams. Tucci and his co-star Tony Shalhoub never had better roles than the clashing restaurateur brothers at the center of the film. The ultimate party that they throw is one of the most fantastic, poignant, and memorably tense evenings I've ever seen caught on film. Or as the film puts it simply, "It was the best. Ever."

The Birdcage - I'm very fond of the original French "La Cage aux Folles," but I will never adore it the way I adore "The Birdcage." The cast is sublime, the script by Elaine May is a treasure, and Mike Nichols' beautifully orchestrated farce is an absolute delight. Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria have never been better onscreen. But perhaps the film's greatest accomplishment was helping to change the LGBT rights narrative without ever being particularly political. It just gave us a loving homosexual couple to root for, one we could all identify with.

Breaking the Waves - Still Lars von Trier's best film, in part because of a career-defining performance by Emily Watson. The first of von Trier's post-Dogme 95 "Golden Hearts" films, "Breaking the Waves" spends most of the narrative charting its heroine's gradual degradation and downward spiral, but it's her spiritual journey that is the most absorbing part of the story. The purposefully rough-looking production only adds to the film's effectiveness, and von Trier manages to walk a fine line between wallowing in the misery and elevating it.

The Pillow Book - This was the Peter Greenaway feature where he started getting more experimental, playing with the cinematic form through new techniques. The subject matter is particularly daring, largely focused on erotic themes, with plenty of nudity, violence, and creative obsessions in the mix. Though the narrative is often impenetrable, it is highly entertaining throughout and gorgeous to look at. The extensive use of Asian artistic influences and forms make "The Pillow Book" unique among Greenaway's films to date.

Secrets & Lies - A fascinating story to watch unfold, in part because everyone involved seems so ordinary, and the twists and the turns of the plotting feel so true to life. Watching the members of a dysfunctional family struggle to deal with their own problems is already compelling before the introduction of a bombshell revelation into their midst. Mike Leigh's penchant for improvisational filmmaking methods works especially well here, adding a real sense of surprise and discovery to the way that every scene plays out.

Hamlet - Shakespeare is no stranger to film adaptations, but it's rare to find a project so committed to the Bard that it doesn't abridge his text. And so, Kenneth Branagh's cinematic "Hamlet" runs over four hours in length. And with a star-studded cast, opulent art direction, and the massive scale of the project, Branagh was surely aiming to create the ultimate prestige project. He's not entirely successful, but his "Hamlet" does offer a wealth of great performances and great spectacle. Billy Crystal's grave digger is a personal favorite.

Lone Star - A Texas murder mystery turns into a law man's voyage of self-discovery and an exploration of the complicated racial dynamics at play in his small town. John Sayles is known for his socially conscious films about culture clashes, but here he also displays his talent for suspense, action, and great human drama. His treatment of his characters is wonderfully sensitive and the story conveys an intriguing sense of place and history. Rather than subverting the traditional American western, it adds some welcome modern dimensions and nuances.

Trainspotting - Whether you remember the film as a drug memoir, a heist picture, or a snapshot of a youthful generation in crisis, what's important is that if you've seen the film, you remember it. Famous for launching a slew of young UK talent into the popular consciousness, including director Danny Boyle and star Ewan McGregor, "Trainspotting" still packs an energetic punch from its iconic opening frames to the final beats of accompanying music. The soundtrack alone guarantees it a permanent place in the pop culture firmament.

A Moment of Innocence - A unique blend of documentary narrative and fanciful memoir sees director Mohsen Makhmalbaf revisit an important incident from his past in an unusual manner. Recreating a memory from both his own perspective and the completely different perspective of a policeman results in plenty of unforeseen drama and self-reflection on the part of both participants. It's both a perfect example of the best of the Iranian New Wave and a deeply personal examination of the inner worlds of two very different men.


Monday, June 5, 2017

"OJ: Made in America" is a Movie and a TV Miniseries

According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Ezra Edelman's 467 minute documentary "OJ: Made in America," qualifies as a movie, because it screened theatrically and made the rounds at film festivals last year before it was broadcast on television. However, others have vocally insisted that it should be considered a television miniseries. It was produced in part by ESPN for their "30 for 30" documentary series, and aired in five installments when it was broadcast over the summer. The clearly delineated chapter breaks also suggest that it was initially conceived to be episodic rather than a whole work meant to be watched in one sitting.

So is "OJ: Made in America" a movie or television? Should it be considered a film, eligible for Oscars or a television series eligible for Emmys? And why not both? With the only difference between the two these days really only coming down to the platform it premiered on, not to mention the added complications of web content often straddling worlds, the lines are getting blurrier every day. My position is that "OJ: Made in America" can be considered both a film and a television series based on how it's being presented. The biggest issue that most people have with calling it a movie, its massive length, does not bar the documentary from being considered a feature film. Though rare, there have been features that have run in excess of seven hours, including the landmark Holocaust documentary "Shoah," which runs about nine and a half hours.

I watched "Shoah" a few years ago over the course of a few days. "OJ: Made in America" only took me two sittings, because I didn't have to concentrate so much on the subtitles. However, I watched the ESPN presentation, which had been packaged as five episodes, instead of the full feature presentation. So I can't say whether "OJ: Made in America" works better in one form or the other. However, nothing I saw made it unsuitable for a feature format. Length seems to be the only reason it was broken up into parts for television, as it would be much less economically feasible for ESPN to run "OJ: Made in America" as a television movie. However, ESPN could easily marathon all the parts together the way that many cable channels do with their series and miniseries.

In short, the classification of "OJ: Made in America" doesn't depend on its content so much as the economic concerns of its distributors. Once it realized it had a potential prestige title on its hands, ESPN made the choice to treat "OJ: Made in America" as a movie, ensuring that it met all the qualifications for Oscar eligibility. However, when it came time to run the documentary on its own network, ESPN also decided to treat it as a television miniseries, so it would be more easily digestible for its viewers. Again, this is not a unique situation. The first two "Godfather" films were re-edited in 1977 to create the four-part miniseries "The Godfather Saga" for television. Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" and "Scenes from a Marriage," have feature and miniseries versions.

I expect to see this happening more often, since there's been such an explosion of content in recent years, and the existing platform-based categories are often constraining. I've seen animation producers do this sort of thing for years, editing together several episodes of a popular series to release it as a theatrical film, or cutting up a feature so it can run as part of a syndicated package of episodes. If you're going to binge-watch a whole season's worth of "Mr. Robot" episodes, why not try a feature version that cuts out all the filler? Or if you especially enjoyed a film series like "Harry Potter," wouldn't you be interested in a miniseries version with extra material? I'm certainly not going to begrudge any content producers for trying to get a little more bang for their buck.

The purists, frankly, are just being silly. "OJ: Made in America," whatever format it happens to be in, is a fantastic documentary. The distinctions between the movie and TV versions are almost totally arbitrary. And whatever version people see, what's really important is that they see it.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

An Eulogy for the IMDB Message Boards

Well, there goes another one. I had mixed feelings about the IMDB message boards being shut down. They functioned terribly, were poorly managed, and attracted the worst sort of trolls. However, they were unique, and some of the interactions and information there simply could not be found anywhere else on the internet.

Everybody uses the IMDB site, so everyone has run across the message boards at some point, I expect. I stayed away from the general discussion forums , because there were plenty like it, but I did occasionally post on some of the message boards that were attached to the specific IMDB pages. Every single IMDB page had one, every minor actor with only one credit, every short film, and every last movie and television show, no matter how minor. That meant that if anyone was looking for information about some obscurity, those message boards were often the first place that people looked.

By default, IMDB pages were often the most high profile spot to discuss any piece of media or the associated talent. Occasionally, they were the only spot. If I had a question about some forgotten TV movie from the 1980s, at least I could post it somewhere that other people who'd seen the same movie might actually be looking. For the most obscure titles, posters were forever helping other posters track down ways to watch. Over the years I ran across a few small, but dedicated communities that existed around the boards for old movies stars or certain cult films. In a few special cases, the talent connected to a particular piece of media might even show up to interact with fans. Sometimes the conversations would go back decades, since the IMDB boards were never deleted.

Well, that's not quite true. I found out around five years ago that most of the individual boards did have a limit to how many posts they could display, and the oldest ones were automatically deleted. During the "Avatar: the Last Airbender" casting debacle, I posted a lot to the film's IMDB board debating other posters. I must have posted dozens of times, but none of those posts showed up on the board after a few years, or even in my own posting history. They were all deleted to make room for newer postings, while some of my much older posts to more obscure boards remained. All of the boards with higher volumes of traffic had this problem.

Then again, the more popular an IMDB message board was, the worse it tended to be for any useful discussion. Moderation was essentially nonexistent, and the level of discourse depended entirely on the users, who tend to be younger and less discerning. Spammers and trolls often ran rampant. And then, of course, there was the extremely basic nested design of the boards, which often made more complex interactions difficult. I only visited the IMDB boards rarely as a result, when there were no other good alternatives, or when I was curious about the more popular reaction to a particular piece of media.

The speculation on the boards for upcoming projects was always fun. Back when a live action "The Last Unicorn" project was in the works, its IMDB board was always a good place to catch up on the latest rumors. You had to dig through a lot of casting wishlists and wild speculation to find the real information, but there really wasn't any place better for news. The project was small, and not being tracked by anyone but the most ardent fans. Eventually, plans for "The Last Unicorn" movie collapsed completely, revealed to be a pipe dream. But it was fun while it lasted.

There's not much left on the IMDB site that someone else on the internet isn't doing better in some way. Those tiny, obscure message boards, however, where one of the few unique features that it had left. Some kind souls tried to preserve what they could before the system was shut down, but nobody is offering any real comparable alternative. You'd need to build an entire new media database to do that. There are a couple of places that might have the structure in place to handle it - Icheckmovies, for instance - but you could never get the same kind of participation again without IMDB's clout.

And my search for another movie forum to call home continues.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Coloring, Coloring

In my last post on the adult coloring book craze, I felt like I wasn't on the most solid ground trying to justify why I was writing about coloring for this blog. Well, that's changed. Over the past few months I've happily watched social media explode with new coloring related material, and it's been a lot of fun watching the evolution of the fandom.

As you might expect, there are now coloring groups on pretty much every social platform - Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and so on. Some are connected to specific books or artists, but most are not. Real world meetups at libraries and cafes are popular. Several blogs have sprung up reviewing coloring books and coloring tools. There are vloggers offering coloring tips and tutorials, and some even livestream coloring sessions. What I've found especially helpful are the "flip through" videos, that simply flip through a coloring book page by page, so you can see all the artwork before buying. There's not so much of a worry about piracy with these videos, because they're sized so small, and with the better books, you're really paying a premium for the paper and printing quality. Recently, the best-selling "Ink evangelist" Johanna Basford did flip-throughs for her latest coloring books, "Magical Jungle" and "Johanna's Christmas."

Speaking of Johanna Basford, she's been fantastic at using social media to connect to her fanbase. Through Facebook and her own website, she's held contests, posted previews of upcoming work, and maintains a lovely gallery of fan-submitted colored pictures from her books. More importantly, she's incredibly responsive to people, and endlessly positive. It's no surprise that she's easily the biggest name in adult coloring, and practically synonymous with the trend. I wish I could say I was a fan of her work, but I'm halfway through "Enchanted Forest" and the endless amount of leafy designs is starting to drive me a little nuts. I've found that I'm much more interested in coloring landscapes, figures, and tchotchkes. And I've quietly amassed a list of coloring books I'm itching to get my hands on after I'm done with "Enchanted Forest"

More than a few of the books on my list were originally published overseas, from Swedish, Korean and Japanese artists. There's a booming market for coloring books in several other countries, making the adult coloring trend a remarkably international phenomenon. I find I prefer a lot of the content from the Korean and Japanese books in particular - fewer mandalas and more baked goods. Several of the most popular volumes are getting U.S. versions soon, and why wouldn't they, with most coloring books hardly needing any translation? I've been happily keeping track of which of my wishlisted books have gotten picked up by publishers over the past few months. An aside - I've finally found something Pinterest is good for. If you don't want to wait, however, it's not difficult to buy the originals through import sites.

Then there are the titles that aren't so easy to find. It's been fascinating to discover that so many artist and illustrators I've admired have put their names on coloring books at some point. Many are limited edition, and long out of print. Jean "Moebius" Giraud did one. Charles Vess did one. Graeme Base released a coloring book version of one of his picture books, "The Watering Hole." "Lord of the Rings" concept artist John Howe has contributed to several, including the "Game of Thrones" coloring book. I'm regretting that I didn't go out on Indie Bookstore Day to nab a copy of the Neil Gaiman Coloring Book, which was a limited exclusive. More pop culture-themed ones seem to be announced every day.

I only know about many of these coloring books because I've been casually following some of the Facebook coloring groups for inspiration and recommendations. It's absolutely jawdropping to see the variety of images that people can create from the same template with a couple of colored pencils, pens, or pastels. I maintain that coloring is absolutely a legitimate hobby, one that you can spend as little or as much effort on as you like. I've seen pieces that clearly took people ages to do, that look spectacular. I, on the other hand, am content spending two or three nights on each piece with my old box of Crayola colored pencils, and leaving them not quite perfect.

It's quickly becoming apparent that adult coloring books aren't just a flash in the pan, and I'm so glad to see the colorists slowly, but surely becoming a community on the internet. It's always nice to know that there's somewhere you belong.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

The May TV Massacre

Every year in May, the major broadcast networks clean house, usually just before the big unveiling of their new fall schedules for critics and advertisers at the upfronts.  This year has been particularly brutal, as ratings have continued to decline across the board, and hits have been scarce.  There have been some especially dramatic renewals and cancellations, with several long-running shows on the block.  I'm not watching much network television anymore, but it's been fascinating to watch all of this play out regardless.  

So "The New Girl" gets to return for a final season, but "Two Broke Girls" is toast, despite delivering higher ratings.  So "American Crime" has been dropped despite a major Emmy win, but "Timeless" was pulled back from the brink after briefly being cancelled for three days.  I don't know what kind of deal NBC reached with Sony, but nobody is buying that fan response prompted anyone to rethink the decision.  Some shows no doubt saw the writing on the wall.  The CW's one-season "Frequency" even released a brief epilogue to give their fans some closure.  "Sleepy Hollow" is finally being put out of its misery.  On the other hand there's ABC's "Last Man Standing," which was the network's second highest rated sitcom.  Its cancellation after six seasons sparked conspiracy theories in its fanbase, but the truth is that the show probably got too expensive, and ABC wants the timeslot for "Once Upon a Time," and maybe later its "American Idol" revival.    

And revivals and spinoffs certainly have been popular, though their track record hasn't been very good.  Fox has no plans for more "24" or "Prison Break" and the moment.  ABC just gave "The Blacklist: Redemption" the axe, while "Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders" is now the second "Criminal Minds" spinoff to have been a dud.  And yet, "Will & Grace" is coming back to NBC's Thursday nights, after the success of their election sketch,  along with "Roseanne" over at ABC.  A "Big Bang Theory" spinoff about young Sheldon Cooper's adventures is on the way, and "Dynasty" is being rebooted, while yet another "Law & Order" spinoff is being readied, this one a limited series about the Menendez brothers.  Also, to my immense distaste, more of "The X-files" is reportedly in the works.  

I'm not sad to see some of the promising, but ultimately crummy newbies like "Powerless," "The Great Indoors," and "Emerald City" go, but the amount of freshman series that failed this year and last year is concerning.  Hardly anything seems to be sticking, especially on the sitcom side, and the networks are often reluctant to give new shows the time to find their audiences.  It doesn't say anything good about the networks' pilot process, which looks more antiquated every month next to what the cable nets and streaming services are doing.  Just looking over the slate of newly announced shows for next year, there's not much that stands out.  

Then again, looking at what did stick, audiences seem to have liked action series reboots like "Lethal Weapon," "MacGyver," and "Taken," which all survive to see another year.  "Training Day," not so much though.  Superheroes are in, including next year's "Inhumans," and "Black Lightning."  The year's biggest hit was undeniably the melodrama "This is Us," which NBC is going to try and rebuild its Thursday night lineup around.  I'm also happy to see that high concept shows "Riverdale" and "The Good Place" will get sophomore runs, and that somehow "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" are still hanging in there.

It's also important to remember that while the broadcast networks may be feeling the brunt of the cordcutting, ratings are down for cable series too, and they're certainly subject to some of the same lack of creativity in their programming.  HBO, of course, reportedly has five different potential "Game of Thrones" prequel spinoff projects in the works.  Cable networks do participate in the upfronts to an extent, but since they don't adhere to the traditional broadcast schedule, their cancellations and renewals don't come all at once, and not quite so dramatically.    

The television landscape continues to change, and the changes are coming faster now as the audience gets spread thinner and thinner.  Nobody has hit the breaking point yet, but at the moment I can only assume that it's coming.  And I can't help wondering if "Law & Order: SVU" is going to end up outlasting its own network.  

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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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
Nil by Mouth
As Good as it Gets
Mrs. Brown
The Sweet Hereafter
Perfect Blue
The Ice Storm

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.


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.