Monday, August 14, 2017

The Top Ten Project Update: Greetings From the '70s

Last year, around October, I had just finished watching eighty films from the 1980s, in furtherance of my goal to watch at least fifty movies from each year as far back as I could go.  At that time, I needed to watch over 160 films to get through the 1970s, and I've been steadily working to bring the number down ever since.  Well, I just hit a pretty significant benchmark - I've just reached the halfway point with eighty-three films.  I think it's high time for an update.

As with the 1980s, I've taken the opportunity to patch a lot of gaps in my knowledge of movies, both highbrow and low.  So far, this has included watching every Best Picture nominee I was missing from the decade, and every Hal Ashby film.  However, I also took the opportunity to track down all the  James Bond and Dirty Harry I hadn't seen yet, and to watch '70s kung-fu movies, blaxploitation movies, and a lot of the gorier samurai films of this era.  I think I understand Quentin Tarantino's work much better now, having seen so many of the films he referenced in "Kill Bill" and "Jackie Brown."

Speaking of Dirty Harry, if there has been one creative force who has dominated my viewing choices so far, it's Clint Eastwood.  I think I've inadvertently managed to watch just about everything he directed or acted in during the 1970s.  He starred in several of the important revisionist westerns of this period, like "High Plains Drifter" and "Joe Kidd."   I wanted to watch "The Beguiled," since Sofia Coppola is remaking it this year, and had no idea that he was the leading man.  By the time I got down to titles like "Every Which Way But Loose" and "The Gauntlet," I was watching them because Eastwood had proved dependably entertaining.

In addition to Hal Ashby, I took the opportunity to watch some early Dario Argento, Paul Verhoeven, Werner Herzog, and David Cronenberg films.  Also, two later films from John Huston.  It was more difficult to focus on particular auteurs because I was familiar with fewer of them that were active during this decade.  Those that were active, like Francois Truffaut and Akira Kurosawa, were ones with filmographies I'd already picked over pretty thoroughly.  The availability of certain titles has also been an issue, making me very grateful for the efforts of Criterion and other classic film distributors.  I'm still trying to track down the "Mishima" documentary.

So far, the best film I've discovered so far has been Jan Troell's "The Emigrants," starring Ingmar Bergman regulars Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman.  The sequel, "The New Land," is one of the next titles I need to track down.  It's one of the best takes on the American immigrant story I've ever seen.  Other new favorites include "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin," "Deep Red," "Rollerball," "The Duellists," Werner Herzog's take on "Nosferatu," and the Bollywood classic "Sholay."  I'm still debating whether "High Plains Drifter" is a good film, or if I should just count it as a guilty pleasure.  And then there's the absolutely fascinating cultural artifact that is "Pumping Iron" with a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The one major disappointment so far has been the "Lone Wolf and Cub" movies.  I watched the first three, and decided to skip the rest.  The first film was decent, but the series quickly became repetitive, and the more exploitative elements increasingly distasteful.  I can definitely understand why various filmmakers have been trying to remake this property for years, but there are elements like the sexual violence and high-pressure bloodletting that really haven't aged well.  A number of prestige pictures also fell remarkably flat for me, including "Julia" and "Midnight Express."

I'll save the discussions of the wider cultural trends I've noticed in these movies for my next post, after I polish off the next eighty films.  However, I did want to point out that there's a surprising lack of films that address the Vietnam War so far after the inundation of them that I found in the 1980s.  1978's "Coming Home" is the only one from the '70s I've found so far, which along with "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now" really kicked off the whole genre.  

But more on that next time.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

"Get Out" Gets It Done

I often feel a little hesitant when talking about media that tackles race, especially the experiences of African-Americans.  I am painfully whitebread (despite not being white), and know very few black or Latino people socially.  It doesn't feel like my place to get into the often heated discussions about race in American culture, especially where it involves police brutality and other topics where African-Americans are disproportionately affected.

So when "Get Out" started attracting a massive amount of discussion, I felt a little worried at first.  Was this going to be another movie like "Moonlight" where I'd struggle to connect?  "Get Out," is the directing debut of Jordan Peele, of "Key & Peele," a comedic thriller about a young black man, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who goes to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) one weekend.  At first Rose's well-to-do dad (Bradley Whitford), mom (Catherine Keener), and brother (Caleb Landry-Jones) seem like perfectly average people.  However, their behavior is a little odd, and the behavior of the black housekeeper and groundskeeper are very odd.  Chris can't quite shake the sinister feeling that something else is going on.

And there is plenty going on.  In fact, there is so much going on in "Get Out," so many little jabs at people's race-conscious behaviors and assumptions, so much sharp commentary on racial issues, and so many bits of coded dialogue to unpack, that I could spend this entire post just enumerating all the ways that the movie talks about race the way so few movies this day actually talk about race.  It was kind of exhilarating to recognize some of those little microaggressions from the first half of the film as ones that I've been on the receiving end of before.  Different circumstances of course, but I found that I could relate in ways I wasn't expecting at all.     

And the best part is, the movie is so thoroughly entertaining.  There are a lot of little uncomfortable moments, but Peele uses that to fuel the tension of the larger plot.  All the seemingly normal awkwardness between Chris and Rose's family builds up into a wonderful paranoid thriller scenario that's simultaneously hilarious and pretty scary.  Many scenes simply would not play as well if the viewer doesn't have some knowledge of the current racial tensions in America, especially surrounding African-American men.  And the commentary goes down so much easier because it's couched in such familiar, enjoyable cinematic terms.  

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams are both great in this, and I'm looking forward to seeing them in bigger projects down the road.  Kaluuya has such a great screen presence, and I'm happy that he finally nabbed a more high-profile leading man role.  "Get Out" only works as well as it does because it's so easy to sympathize with Chris and follow his thought processes as he puzzles his way through the situation.  Williams, by contrast, does an excellent job of keeping viewers guessing about where her loyalties lie.  Also, kudos to newcomer Lil Rey Howrey as Chris's TSA agent pal Rod, a secondary hero and the primary comic relief.  

This is a big win for Blumhouse Pictures, which was also responsible for M. Night Shyamalan's recent "Split."  They've spent the last several years producing smaller movies, mostly low-budget horror.  However, "Split" and "Get Out" have proven how versatile and interesting the genre can be.  I love that it's giving opportunities to filmmakers like Shyamlan and Peele to make the kinds of films that the larger studios are showing less and less interest in, and get them in front of audiences.  The most interesting films often come from the outer fringes of Hollywood, and I can only hope that this is a lasting trend.      

It's oddly inspiring to find that America's thorny racial issues can be so deftly mined for entertainment value like this.  And the audience that enjoys "Get Out" has been universal - whatever your ethnicity or background, the movie plays great.  I hope that other filmmakers take the right lesson from its success though.  It's not the fact that the lead is black or that it isn't afraid to talk about race.  It's about not being afraid of taking a chance on a different point of view.    

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 1995

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

"La Haine" - A generation-defining film that still impresses, thanks to its deft camera work, invigorating performances, and stark portrayal of three kids growing up in bad circumstances.  Socially conscious in every regard, the film was made as a response to police violence and escalating tensions in Paris's immigrant communities.  However, it's the innovative, energetic filmmaking that continues to impress, the way it captures the lives and the worlds that the characters inhabit.

"Ghost in the Shell" - One of the most thoughtful Japanese anime films presents a vision of the near future where humans have embraced technological enhancements to the point where they may be compromising their own souls.  When a rogue AI begins wreaking havoc, our heroine faces both an existential and social crisis.  Filled with iconic imagery, fascinating concepts, and disturbing implications, there's nothing out there quite like "Ghost in the Shell," animated or not.

"The City of Lost Children" - The film that best encapsulates the joyous weirdness of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a fantasy adventure about misfits, clones, mad science, and dreams.  I love the use of child's logic, the beautiful production design, and the utterly go-for-broke oddity of those characters.  The clones in search of "L'originale" (all played by Dominique Pinon, of course), big-hearted Un, and tough little Miette have stayed with me after all this time.  And so has their movie.

"Toy Story" - The first big CGI animated film, and still a charmer.  While the novelty of the technology was certainly a factor, the film's success has just as much to do with its creation of memorable heroes, careful worldbuilding, and attention to detail.  You could have made the film with traditional or stop-motion animation, with very little compromise in quality.  So while CGI animation has improved over the years, "Toy Story" still remains an impressive achievement.

"Seven" - Few crime thrillers have managed to stick in the popular consciousness the way that "Seven" has.  David Fincher taps into the disturbed mind of a serial killer, creating a nightmarish atmosphere of easy depravity and moral decay.  It's a challenging film to watch, but a rewarding one in its own sick and twisted way.  This is best exemplified by the climactic finale, one of the most violent scenes I've seen in any film, despite only a single, brief violent act taking place onscreen.

"Babe" -  This is undisputedly a children's movie, but one that is so exquisitely executed on every level, it's no wonder that viewers of all ages fell in love with it.  A combination of live and animatronic farm animals tell the tale of a little pig who changes his destiny, making this a technological as well as an artistic marvel.  Chris Noonan's perfect storybook visuals are so charming and lively, it's disappointing to discover that the director as hardly made any other films since.   

"Before Sunrise" - So begins one of cinema's great love stories, as Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine meet by chance on a train to Vienna one night.  They walk, converse, and carry out their romance while being trailed by the movie camera and director Richard Linklater.  The simplicity of the premise belies the richness of the story, which now extends to two subsequent films.  "Before Sunrise," however, stands on its own as a love story and as an unusually absorbing film.

"Underground" - Emir Kusturica gets both political and patriotic in this madcap fable about the ups and downs of recent Yugoslav history.  The filmmaking is fabulous, the satire is ferocious, and some of the images are just unforgettable.  The monkey in the tank and the roving oom-pah band remain personal favorites.  In certain circles the film remains controversial, but there's no doubt that it comes from a place of great affection for the Serbian people, and great filmmaking.  

"The Usual Suspects" - I've been a little cool on this film over the years, since the famously twisty ending never struck me as all that much of a shocker.  However, upon rewatch, I'm come to appreciate all the little moments of humor, and all the little instances of style that Bryan Singer so neatly deploys.  And Kevin Spacey's performance as Verbal Kint just grows more iconic as time goes by.  So here's the "The Usual Suspects" and the enduring legend of the great Keyser Soze.  

"Welcome to the Dollhouse" - My black little heart will always have a soft spot for Dawn Weiner, a miserable teenager who never wins and sees her hopes dashed again and again.  In Todd Solondz movies, after all, the world is unfair as a rule, and the usual teen movie tropes are gleefully torn to shreds at every opportunity.  And once you understand what the movie is doing, it is very entertaining to watch it be as horrible to its characters as it possibly can.    

Honorable Mentions

The Bridges of Madison County
Sense and Sensibility
Memories
Whisper of the Heart
Casino
Mighty Aphrodite
Leaving Las Vegas
Heat
Midaq Alley
A Little Princess
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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

My Top Ten "21 Jump Street" Episodes

Little confession time. If you've read this blog for a while, you'll know that I'm a Johnny Depp fan going way back to the 1990s.  "Edward Scissorhands" started it, but what kept it going was my ready access to "21 Jump Street" reruns, which played in a convenient after-school slot on one of the local syndicated channels when I was a teenager.  The show had a troubled production, with most of the cast having bailed completely by the fifth season.  Depp notoriously lost interest in the show around the third season and was actively screwing with the production to get himself out of his contract by the fourth.  

Picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate:

"Mean Streets and Pastel Houses" - One of the big ironies about Depp's involvement in "21 Jump Street," was that his character, Tom Hanson, was a straightlaced goody-goody cop, while Depp was a notorious hellraiser.  So his best episodes were often the ones with Depp undercover - in this case playing a suburban punk.  The episode reportedly gets plenty wrong about the punk scene of the times, but gets a few key things right - and Depp is clearly having a blast.  

"Christmas in Saigon" - Dustin Nguyen was a rare Asian face on television in the early '90s, and the show often didn't know what to do with him.  However, they did devote their second season Christmas episode to his character, Ioki, specifically his complicated backstory as a Vietnamese refugee - based on Nguyen's own experiences.  He essentially plays a younger version of himself in flashbacks, and looks so different that I had to double-check to make sure they hadn't gotten another actor.

"A Big Disease With a Little Name" - Every episode of "21 Jump Street" seemed intent on being a very Very Special Episode for a while, thanks to the premise.  So, it being the early '90s, we had to have an AIDS episode.  And this is actually a very good one, featuring a kid named Harley who is ostracized for having the disease.  Oh sure, we had to have the cheesy moralizing over an important social issue, but Harley is very much a real kid, who is was easy to empathize with.      

"Orpheus 3.3" - Poor Tom Hanson could never keep a girlfriend for very long.  In this episode, a convenience store robbery offs the latest one, leaving Hanson to stew over whether he could have done anything to prevent it.  This is handled in the most melodramatic terms possible, of course, but Depp turns in a heluvah good performance as Hanson grapples with survivor's guilt, and it's always good to see the personal side of the Jump Street gang, which never got much press.

"Champagne High" - My favorite episode, and obviously a huge influence on the "21 Jump Street" reboot.  Hanson and partner Doug Penhall go undercover as the McQuade brothers, a pair of highly entertaining delinquents, to investigate a series of thefts and burglaries.  The comedic antics that these two get up to are so much fun, and it's no surprise that the McQuades would return multiple times throughout the show, and were resurrected for the movie version too.    

"The Currency We Trade In" - An abuse storyline of a different stripe sees a newly promoted Penhall, played by Peter DeLuise, get a little too zealous in nabbing a child molester, only for it turn out that the man is innocent.  Penhall has to deal with the fallout of having ruined another person's life.  This is a complete downer of an episode, but it does give all the actors involved a chance to shine.  DeLuise in particular never got enough credit for playing the show's most lovable lug.

"Swallowed Alive" - The McQuade brothers get sent to a high security juvenile detention facility, but there's nothing funny about this.  Instead, the whole episode is essentially a prison movie in miniature, and a surprisingly dark and harrowing one at that.  Penhall puts it best, that it's like finding out that all the kids the Jump Street crew nabbed over the years were sent to hell.  This existential crisis was not resolved in the end, but the intense episode remains one of the better ones.

"High High" - The gag at the end of "22 Jump Street" imagines the stars infiltrating all kinds of different educational institutions.  The show actually did this occasionally, including this episode set in a "Fame" style school for performing arts.  I admit that my biggest reason for including this on the list is for Penhall's scenes in acting class recreating "The Honeymooners."  And who's playing the drama teacher?  Michael De Barres, aka the villainous Murdoc from "MacGyver."  

"2245" - There's barely any involvement by any of the usual cast in this episode, which looks in on the lonely life of Ronnie Seebok, a youngster on death row.  A minor character from an earlier season brought back for a solo outing, flashbacks fill in the details of his crimes and relationship with a girlfriend played by Rosie Perez.  Genre fans may recognize two of the credited writers here: Glen Morgan and James Wong, who cut their teeth on the series.

"La Bizca" - And finally, in one of the the most wild digressions for "21 Jump Street," Hanson and Penhall travel to El Salvador to track down Penhall's wife Marta, and land themselves in the middle of the country's Civil War.  A Very, Very Special Episode that wanted to shine some light on the conflict, "Jump Street" managed to get Richard "Shaft" Roundtree to guest star, and U2 let them use "With or Without You."  A little cringeworthy, yes, but admirable stuff.

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

"The Girl With All the Gifts" Deserves Her Due

I debated with myself how to describe this movie, since giving very much of a description could be called a spoiler.  So let's just say that this is a dystopian thriller with an unusually strong subversive streak, featuring a lot of monsters of all shapes and sizes.  It's not a great film, but it does a lot of things right, and in a way that I found very smart and appealing.  

At the center of the film is the fascinating character of Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a bright girl who is one of a group of children being held in a military base, under heavy guard, and always in restraints when interacting with any adults.  The one person who is kind to her is the children's teacher, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), but her affection is frowned upon by Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine), one of the base's commanders.  Melanie is also visited regularly by a scientist, Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), who is studying the children.      

"The Girl With All the Gifts" presents a familiar horror scenario, but one that examines and challenges its underlying framework.  It has a lot in common with other recent science-fiction films like "Ex Machina" and the rebooted "Planet of the Apes" series, where the audience is meant to question who they're rooting for and why. This isn't apparent until a fair ways into the film.  For most of the running time, this operates as a fairly straightforward dystopian survival movie, and not a great one.  However, it's been a long time since I've seen a science-fiction film that takes so many of the familiar old tropes and manages to make something genuinely different and interesting out of them.  The worldbuilding in particular is just fantastic.   

I wish some of the secondary characters could have been better fleshed out, especially as the cast is wonderful.  We really don't see enough of Glenn Close these days, and Paddy Considine is as dependable as ever.  However, this is really Melanie's story, and  Sennia Nanua carries the film just fine.  Her performance alone is worth a watch, as she gradually learns more about her world and herself.  Though the filmmakers aren't too on the nose about it, there are some elements of the  plot that echo current social issues.  Melanie is a rare cinematic creature in many respects, and the fact that she's also a person of color surrounded by, and under the control of more typical Caucasian hero figures creates some startling images.  

"The Girl With All the Gifts" was made a on small budget, and occasionally feels like an episode of a higher-end sci-fi anthology series like "Black Mirror."  It's no surprise that director Colm McCarthy has worked mostly on UK television series.  However, the film delivers pretty well on thrills and chills, and it does manage to create a distinct, engaging dystopia without feeling like it's cutting many corners.  The glimpses of London suburbs overgrown with vegetation are more vibrant and alien than the traditionally bleak images of decay that we get with similar movies.  On the other hand, the action scenes could have used some work, especially since there are so many.  

I want to stress, however, that this is not a film that's about the action in the end.  At hear, it's a character drama about a special girl finding her place in the world.  And on that level, it's an immensely satisfying watch.  It also does everything that a good science-fiction film is supposed to, developing interesting ideas and scenarios in a very thoughtful, socially relevant way.  I also appreciated that it was so female-centric, which is still a rarity, and so self-aware about all the usual tropes and cliches of this genre.  Just when I thought these kinds of stories were getting played out, someone has found a new angle to explore.   

It's a shame that smaller genre films like this are still getting overlooked.  The UK and Australian produced ones seem especially prone to slipping through the cracks, even when top tier talent is involved.   "The Girl With All the Gifts" is one of these, having had only a very limited Stateside theatrical and VOD release.  I hope that it finds its audience sooner rather than later.  

Friday, August 4, 2017

Rewatching the Disney Renaissance

The biggest cultural touchstones of my childhood were the Disney Renaissance movies, everything released from "The Little Mermaid" to roughly "The Emperor's New Groove."  When I was young, these were the only movies that I was guaranteed to see in theaters, and the only movies my parents would buy on home video.  Because my music teacher mother would also used the songs in her classes, we'd also buy the soundtracks, which were played over and over again in our house and on long car trips.  I remember my mother remarking darkly at one point that my brother and I were being brainwashed by Disney, but whose fault was that?

Now, there were some of the Disney movies we liked better than others, but the big three were always "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "The Lion King."  These were the ones that everybody liked and got the most play.  "Pocahontas" and "Hunchback" weren't nearly much fun, and by the time "Hercules" and "Mulan" came around, us kids were quickly aging out of the intended audience.  The music was getting progressively worse too, so we stopped buying the soundtracks and videos.  We still saw all the movies - I distinctly remember going to "Tarzan" multiple times, and we treated "Fantasia 2000" as a major event - but there was a clear sense of diminishing engagement as we got older.

The last time I saw "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "The Lion King" on my own was well over a decade ago, when they were released on DVD with tons of bonus features.  Cinephile that I was, I rented them specifically to listen to the commentary tracks and watch the making-of featurettes.  I had watched these movies so many times as a kid via VHS tapes that I knew every  shot, every frame, every line of dialogue, and every note of music.  I knew so much trivia, and even had the supervising animators for most the characters still memorized.  Disney Feature Animation was going through a rough spot around then, however, and I'd mostly stopped following the new films.  

And now in 2017 I'm a mom with young children, and Disney is hellbent on remaking the majority of these movies as live-action features to capitalize on my nostalgia.  The "Beauty and the Beast" remake made oodles of money, and "Aladdin," and "The Lion King" are on their way soon.  There are a lot of animated Disney films in my life again, especially "Tangled" and "Frozen."  However, we have revisited the older Disney classics, including the Renaissance films.  "The Lion King" went over especially well.  And the experience of watching these films again, for the first time in ages, has been a real eye-opener.

Yes, they still hold up beautifully.  I still like the parts that I liked when I was younger, and get bored at the parts I don't.  Some characters are more grating, and some less so.  What really surprised me, however, is how emotionally fraught the stories are.  The death of Mufasa is far more traumatic than the offscreen loss of Bambi's mother.  The Beast is legitimately frightening, and I kept eyeing my toddler, wondering if the kiddo needed some reassurance that it would all turn out okay.  I know parenthood has the effect of making  everything seem scarier, but Disney's recent output is rarely so intense.

I think back to the media hubbub around these films during the '90s, the endless spinoffs and reimaginings and adaptations into different formats, and it's comforting to realize that the Disney Renaissance movies really were something special.  I didn't like them just because I was a kid being bombarded with Disney commercials.  I liked them and continue to like them because they're legitimately fantastic pieces of cinema.  And watching them with my rugrats gave me a renewed appreciation for them.  

Somewhere along the way I stopped being a Disney obsessive while I was being an anime obsessive and then a general media obsessive.  I still enjoy animated films very much, and rarely miss a Disney or PIXAR feature, but it's been a long time since I bought one on home media for myself or bothered to listen to a full soundtrack.  My kiddos aren't quite big enough to have developed any long-lasting attachments to any media yet, but they're getting there.  And I'm enjoying getting reacquainted with the Mouse.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Anticipating the Movies of 2018

The movie season always seems to hit the doldrums in August, and this year is no exception, despite some good titles in  the mix.  So let's take a quick look at some of the movies that are coming up next year.  As I noted in last year's installment, I'm writing this post now because this is roughly the point where you can make pretty good assumptions about which projects are actually going to become next year's films, even if many of them don't have release dates. If a movie hasn't started filming by now, it's not very likely that it's going to be ready for audiences by next December.

Due to the lack of details, the titles below are mostly in list format with a few notes here and there.  Several of these are probably going to be delayed until 2019, especially the indie and foreign titles.  There are a couple from last year's post that are still MIA, and I've repeated one entry here.  So think of this as my little list of the titles that I'm keeping a close eye on.  They're the ones that we know are coming down the pipeline, with the best chances of actually becoming movies in 2018.

So what's on the slate for next year that I'm getting excited about?

Let's start with the bigger budget, studio films that already have distribution, and in most cases even release dates:  
 
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 - dir. Rich Moore
  • A Wrinkle in Time - dir. Ava DuVernay
  • Ready Player One - dir. Steven Spielberg
  • Oceans 8 - dir. Gary Ross - With Sandra Bullock
  • Han Solo - dir. Ron Howard
  • Avengers: Infinity War - dir. Joe and Anthony Russo
  • The Incredibles 2 - dir. Brad Bird
  • Alita: Battle Angel - dir. Robert Rodriguez - Still being produced by James Cameron.
  • Mary Poppins Returns - dir. Rob Marshall - With Emily Blunt and Lin Manuel Miranda
  • Scarface  - No announced director since Antoine Fuqua and David Ayers parted ways with the project, but guess who's taking the latest whack at the screenplay?  Joel and Ethan Coen.  

And the movies that are probably going to start out as limited releases, assuming that they come out in 2018 at all:

  • Annihilation - dir. Alex Garland - With Natalie Portman
  • Isle of Dogs - dir. Wes Anderson - Anderson's second stop-motion animated film after "Fantastic Mr. Fox."
  • The Irishman - dir. Martin Scorsese - With DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel so far.  But with Netflix producing, will this actually be treated like a theatrical feature?
  • The House That Jack Built - dir. Lars von Trier - With Matt Dillon and Uma Thurman
  • Annette - dir. Leos Carax
  • The Nightingale - dir. Jennifer Kent
  • Widows - dir. Steve McQueen - With Viola Davis and Daniel Kaluuya
  • Suspiria - dir. Luca Gugadino - With Chloe Moretz and Dakota Johnson
  • Insects - dir. Jan Svankmajer - Announced as his final film.
  • Freakshift - dir. Ben Wheatley - With Alicia Vikander and Armie Hammer.
  • Peterloo - dir. Mike Leigh
  • Last Flag Flying - dir. Richard Linklater - With Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell.  This is a sequel to Hal Ashby's 1973 film "The Last Detail."
  • Enzo Ferrari - dr. Michael Mann - With Hugh Jackman and Noomi Rapace.
  • Three Christs - dir. John Avnet - With Richard Gere
  • Bel Canto - Paul Weitz - With Julianne Moore

And I may be tempting fate by even listing this one, but:

  • The Man Who Killed Don Quixote - dir. Terry Gilliam - With Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver.  Fingers crossed!

I'll update on these films and others in my 2018 Top Ten Anticipated Films posts next year, once we know more.  Remember that none of these productions are out of the woods yet, and there's always the possibility of them getting tripped up or delayed.  The J.C. Chandor feature "Triple Frontier,"for instance, fell apart at the last minute back in April, despite having Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy  ready to star.

I also want to note quickly that there are a several higher profile features being helmed by female directors this year, including "Mulan," and "A Wrinkle in Time,"  which is very good to see.  And a couple like Kay Cannon ("Pitch Perfect") and Jennifer Yuh Nelson (the "Kung Fu Panda" movies) are making their live-action directing debuts.  Fingers crossed that this leads to more women-led blockbusters in the future.  

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

My Favorite Agnes Varda Film

The female cinema auteur is a rare creature, and there haven't been many who have managed to fill my requirements for an entry in my Great Directors series.  The few who have, like Leni Riefenstahl, Věra Chytilová, Ann Hui, and Chantal Akerman, present the additional dilemma of obscurity.  It's very difficult to find many of their works.  The same was true of the beloved New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda until recently. It's thanks to the efforts of Criterion and Mubi that I'm finally able to include her here.   

I came to Agnes Varda's films knowing very little about their historical and political context, though I recognized that many were explicitly feminist.  "Le Bonheur" or "Happiness" was released in 1965 just before the political climate would really become explosive, and though it appears mostly peaceful and lovely on the surface, the undercurrents of unrest are visible.  The plot is very simple: a happy young family's existence is upended by a moral lapse and resulting tragedy, but this unpleasantness is quickly resolved with disturbing efficiency.    

"Happiness" can be viewed as a reflection of the French women's movement of the time, as women began to enter the workforce and became more socially conscious.  This is done through the film's cynical examination of romance and relationships in particular, how the protagonist views the two women in his life, and how his worldview is challenged or fails to be challenged.  There have been many interpretations of the film over the years, and its intentions are not entirely clear.  Is Varda warning against the false security of domesticity?  Condemning the newly emerging sexual revolution?  Should we consider the protagonist a villain for seeking his version of happiness or merely pity the wife who cannot accept it?  Or is self-delusion the real culprit?

What really gives the film its bite is the contrast of all these thorny psychological questions with the stylized loveliness of the mise en scene.  The film largely takes place in the pastoral French countryside, and the lives of the characters are portrayed as sunny and idyllic.  They picnic in beautiful clothes, surrounded by bright flowers.  The young children are unusually well-behaved, and no one ever appears tired or stressed.  Even the most mundane chores are brightened by the presence of colorful household objects and artful composition.  Instead of fading to black, the screen fades to blocks of solid color.  It's worth noting that this was Varda's first color film, and remains one of her most eye-catching.  

Also very evident is Varda's aggressive editing style.  She coined the term cinécriture, or “cine-writing,” to describe her method of directing, which involves highly detailed planning of sounds and images to maximize their effectiveness within the narrative of a film.  And it's in the editing of all these pretty, colorful images that you really get a sense of something amiss in the universe of "Happiness."  There's the relentless quick-cut montages and the use of repetition.  There's the use of the musical score to underline the emotions of the characters, and their incongruity to the situations we watch unfold.   

There are also some metatextual elements, which would become very prevalent in her later work.  Popular television actor Jean-Claude Drouot was cast as the lead, and his wife and children were played by Drouot's real life wife and children.  It gives the satirical elements of the film a few more teeth, knowing the picture perfect family was one that was already familiar to the French media.  However, "Happiness" stands apart from Varda's other films in that it is so stylized and removed from reality, lacking the documentary-style blurring of the real and the unreal she often employed.  

I had some difficulty deciding on "Happiness" as my favorite Agnes Varda film, because I don't enjoy it nearly as much as some of her later films, particularly her warmer, self-reflective documentaries.  However, "Happiness" was the film that stuck with me, years after I saw it.  I've never been able to shake the chill that the ending gave me, or the strangely sinister vibe of the gorgeous domestic imagery.  I keep coming back to it, again and again, and ultimately I think it's the Varda film that best encapsulates everything I so admire about her.      

What I've Seen - Agnes Varda

La Pointe Courte (1955)
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Happiness (1965)
The Creatures (1966)
One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977)
Vagabond (1985)
Jane B. by Agnes V. (1987)
Kung Fu Master! (1988)
The Gleaners and I (2000)
The Beaches of Agnès (2008)

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Roll the "Oats"

Director Neill Blomkamp has made quite a splash this summer with his new series of web shorts, dubbed "Oats Studios: Vol. 1." These are interesting little experimental pieces, testing various ideas and concepts. I don't think any of them work very well as stand-alone shorts, because they're mostly left open-ended by design, but they do offer some interesting bits and pieces to chew on. Blomkamp is hopeful that they could lead to bigger things, the way that "Alive in Joburg" lead to "District 9." But do any of them have what it takes? And is this a worthwhile use of Blomkamp's time?

Please note that more shorts from Oats Studios are likely forthcoming in the weeks ahead, and I'm not exactly sure what the cutoff between "Vol. 1" and any further volumes is. However, Blomkamp has said in interviews that July 14th was the endpoint for the first round of releases, so I'm taking him at his word and doing this write-up now. Oh, and spoilers ahead.

"Rakka" - Notable for featuring Sigourney Weaver, this is an alien invasion story that does a good job of creating a tactile future dystopia and showing off some icky special effects. I love the first segment that charts how the vaguely reptilian Klum have taken over and are trying to squash the remains of the human resistance. The image of the puppet politician being used as bait is especially nasty. However, the second and third segments setting up other characters are less coherent and less interesting. "Rakka" is probably the most likely contender for being turned into a full feature film, but it would need a lot more work to get there.

"Firebase" - I completely missed the VR simulation element the first time I watched this, which doesn't speak well of this short's effectiveness in getting across its narrative. This one is a clear step down from "Rakka," with less impressive CGI and noticeably more wooden actors. And it really hammers home how reliant the "Oats" shorts are on genre conventions, jarring shock imagery, and slick effects. Still, I like some of the depictions of carnage and horror here. The few seconds of floating military vehicles in the grainy film footage is extremely effective. I'm less impressed with the execution of the "River God," however, though I do think that the idea has some promise.

"Cooking With Bill" - Now this set of shorts just feels like throwaway filler. We've seen plenty of spoofs of crummy infomercials from other sources done much better. Adult Swim's "Broomshakalaka" immediately comes to mind. "Cooking With Bill" leans heavily on shock value, and the multiple installments just get repetitive by the end. All the shorts share the same formula, and the sushi and smoothie installments essentially have the same gross-out ending, even. I'm not sure why this series is even included on the channel, considering how unpolished it is, and it's telling that pretty much all the coverage of "Oats" has been soundly ignoring it.

"God: Serengeti" - So far, this is my favorite of the shorts, mostly because it's such a departure in tone and style from the others. Sharlto Copely, as God, is also allowed to give a full-fledged comedic performance as he messes with mankind and a dutiful butler. The concept is well-executed, even if it doesn't add up to much and lacks a good punchline. However, this appears to be the first installment of another series, so I'm hopeful that it can build up to something bigger in the future.

"Zygote" - Well, it's nice to see Dakota Fanning again. This is the strongest piece from Oats so far, largely because it is a complete narrative that follows one continuous, well-executed story for a full twenty minutes, even if that narrative ends on a cliffhanger. Arguably it's one of the least ambitious concepts, with a very familiar monster scenario with plus some slapdash worldbuilding mainly conveyed through exposition dump. The monster, however, is a winner. I love the way this thing looks and moves, even if all the mumbo-jumbo around its creation didn't play so well. If any of the Oats shorts were to be expanded, this would be my choice. In this case, simple works best.


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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Attack of the Rotten Tomatoes

This has been a fairly disappointing summer movie season if you're a fan of big franchises and expensive tentpoles.  There have been some notable busts at the box office over the past few months, including "Transformers: The Last Knight," and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales," and would-be franchise starters "King Arthur," "Baywatch," and "The Mummy."  Even the hits are mostly coming in below expectations, like "Despicable Me 3," "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," and "Cars 3."  Thanks to overseas audiences, most of these titles will make plenty of money, but there's an overall sense that the audience is losing interest with most of the big summer movies.

And who have the studios been blaming for this?  Rotten Tomatoes.  And by Rotten Tomatoes, they mean the critics who write bad reviews of these films.  There's been a much closer correlation between the Rotten Tomatoes aggregation scores for big tentpole films and how they've performed at the box office this year.  Specifically, if the Tomatometer is especially rotten, it takes a bite out of the bottom line.  Somehow, after years of terrible summer movies becoming blockbusters and earning oodles of money, the audiences have started paying attention to the critical notices, or at least the appearance of a general consensus.  That consensus is illusory, of course, as I've discussed on this blog before.  However, it's an illusion that has turned out to have some teeth.

Personally, my first instinct is to write this latest trend off as a coincidence or a fluke.  After so many years where the Tomatometer didn't make a lick of difference to box office results, it stands to reason there should be at least one year where they just happen to correlate more than usual.  I'd really love to believe that bad movies are finally getting their just desserts and will stop being rewarded, forcing the industry to make some changes, but I've grown cynical with age and experience.  I know the marketing and the release dates and so many other things have a bigger effect.  The recent gossip about Johnny Depp's finances probably had a bigger impact on the latest "Pirates" than a dozen bad reviews.

Then again, it's possible that the bad reviews are having more of an effect because the actions of the movie business have pushed audiences to become more receptive to them.  A good chunk of the bombs this year were from franchises that had arguably overstayed their welcome.  The most recent prior installments of "Transformers," and "Pirates" made lots of money, but nobody much liked them, and there wasn't much buzz for the new installments to begin with.  If audiences are already skeptical about a franchise, the bad or even middling reviews seem to hit harder.  Viewers that might be forgiving enough to see a third installment will run out of patience for a fifth one.  And keep in mind that good reviews remain powerless to affect much - before Labor Day, anyway.  

Theatrical exhibition is already suffering as attendance has been stagnant and the studios are contemplating other distribution options.  SVOD has reared its head again, though the likelihood of its implementation is far from clear.  A problem with pushing for more event movies is, of course, that the trip to the theater only becomes worth it if a movie is really an event.  And it's hard to sell the fifth or sixth installment of an aging franchise or the umpteenth reboot of an overly familiar story as an event.  Only one movie really seemed to be on everyone's must-watch list this summer, and it was "Wonder Woman," thanks to being the first major female-led superhero film in a decade.  And it was well-reviewed to boot.  

Rotten Tomatoes is the new scapegoat, however, which has both upsides and downsides.  The industry is paying attention to reviews, which is good.  However, some are calling for an end to critics' screenings and more embargoes to limit the perceived damage, which is bad.  I expect significant curtailing of high-numbered sequels in the future, which is good.  However, reboots and spinoffs will inevitably take their place, which is not so good.  As I type this, that "Bumblebee" spinoff is still being readied for next summer.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

And What Didn't Make My 2016 Top Ten List

As a companion piece to my Top Ten list, every year I write a post to discuss some of the other major films that got a lot of positive attention, in order to give some context to my own choices. I find this type of analysis piece helpful when working out how I feel about my list and the year in film as a whole. I wish more critics would do similar write-ups, as what's not on someone's top ten list can be as fun to discuss as what is. Please note that I will not be writing about films listed among my honorable mentions like "Silence" or "Moonlight."

Let's talk about the big awards contenders first. Why isn't "La La Land" on the list? Well, while I appreciated all the care and craft that Damien Chazelle and his collaboration poured into the film - not to mention the audacity of making a wholly original jazz musical in this day and age - the film didn't work for me. Stone and Gosling are a great pair, and the film was fine when it was dealing with their relationship. But every time they were obliged to act like they were in a musical, it all fell apart. These two just aren't musical actors, and the only big number that landed right was the first one - which didn't feature them.

What about "Arrival"? A heady science-fiction film with prestige honors should have been right up my alley, right? Well, again, I liked what the film was trying to do, but I couldn't' stop thinking of all the ways that it could have been better, and the manufactured dramatics at the climax really grated. It was a smart film, but it could have been smarter. Ditto "Jackie," which I found impressive in bits and pieces, but never as a whole. There were a lot of indie films that I had been looking forward to which just didn't connect. "The Nice Guys" was too uneven and unsure of what it was doing. "Everybody Wants Some" and "Swiss Army man" felt too slight. "Sing Street" had some good songs, but was way too indulgent for me. "Certain Women" had one great story, and two completely useless ones. "The Neon Demon" was just ugly through and through.

As I've already written about in a previous article, I suffered an awful disconnect with the foreign arthouse pictures this year. I was pretty cool on "Elle," "Toni Erdmann," "Things to Come," "The Lobster," "Julieta," "A Bigger Splash," "It's Only the End of the World," and liked "The Handmaiden" all the way up until it became a pulpy revenge picture with extra lesbian fetishization. "Aquarius" and "Under the Shadow" had me intrigued, but their flaws were too major to ignore. However, I was impressed some of the genre films - "Train to Busan" and "Shin Godzilla" were in serious contention for spots on the Top Ten list earlier in the year. "Your Name," however, was not. This is probably the best Makoto Shinkai film I've seen yet, but it still has all the bad habits that make me think he's still got a long way to go.

Usually a big populist mainstream hit or two manage to grab some critical attention, but there weren't may contenders this year. "Deadpool" was the biggest one, which I found enjoyable, but not excellent in any sense. "10 Cloverfield Lane" and "Green Room" had their supporters, but I didn't find either to be transcendent of their very specific genres. "Kubo and the Two Strings," sadly, struck me as Laika's least successful film due to poor writing. There were some pleasant surprises, however, with the latest "Star Trek" film, and "Captain America: Civil War," which delivered all the summer action thrills I could ever have hoped for.

Movies just missing a spot on the list included "The Edge of Seventeen," "Hail Caesar!" "Anthropoid," and "Hell or High Water." I considered "Our Little Sister," the recent Hirozaku Koreeda film, for my Plus One spot, but realized I wasn't all that impressed with the film, at least not enough to want to spotlight it. Oh, and after some deliberation, I've decided Beyonce's "Lemonade" really shouldn't count as a theatrical film.

And that's my 2016 in film.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 2016

It was a good year for movies, though an uncertain one. Lots of disappointments, lots of interesting surprises, and lots of excitement. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm feeling the blockbuster fatigue, and nearly all my top picks are very small films. My favorite genre films came from overseas this year, though more on that in a later post. I also haven't been in the best of moods, and my picks tend to skew toward darker subject matter over more hopeful, uplifting, and escapist fare.

My criteria for eligibility require that a film must have been released in its own home country during 2016, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count. Picks are unranked and listed in no particular order, and previously posted reviews are linked where available. I usually have a "Plus One" spot reserved for the best film of the previous year that I didn't manage to see in time for the last list, but there wasn't anything this year I found compelling enough to single out for praise.

And here we go.

Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan returns with a film about a man and his nephew, both figuring out how to pick up the pieces after a tragic loss. While there are moments of gutting sadness, there's also a tremendous amount of humor and warmth here, conveyed through keenly observed behavior and dialogue. I especially appreciate Lonergan's ability to not only create great characters, but the vital relationships and communities around them.

Krisha - First time director Trey Edward Schultz creates a showcase for the formidable talents of his aunt, Krisha Fairchild. She plays an addict who is trying to reconnect with estranged family matters during a Thanksgiving holiday, but suffers a nightmarish relapse. Schultz puts the audience right inside her breakdown, the filmmaking mirroring Krisha's alienation and eventual descent. It's Fairchild, however, whose raw emotion and verve give the film its edge.

The Fits - A tomboy's decision to join a dance troupe is the catalyst for an engrossing exploration of gender, identity, community, and group dynamics. With very little dialogue, the film is largely told through the striking visuals and the very physical, very energetic performances. In the hands of director Anna Rose Holmer, a Cincinnati rec center becomes a maelstrom of strange, unknown forces, that our young heroine finds herself irrevocably changed by.

American Honey - Andrea Arnold provides an outsider's view of America by exploring the parts of it that others rarely do. The heroine spends most of her time travelling through an endless Midwest, eking out a marginal existence hustling for magazine sales. However, there's also a tremendous sense of exploration and possibility for her, as she encounters different people along the way from all walks of life. It's a hard film at times, but also a hopeful one.

The Witch - I love Robert Eggers' "New England Folktale" for its daring and its unwavering commitment to its ambitious premise. The final scenes especially sound very unlikely on paper, but Eggers and his actors fully earn that ending and make it work. They've created a universe where God and the Devil are real, powerful forces, while also acknowledging the harmful, repressive nature of the Puritan culture of the times on our tortured cast of characters.

The Wailing - Can be seen as a South Korean companion film to "The Witch," where a policeman investigates a series of demon possessions. The ambiguity of the narrative is a major strength, the way it film keeps the audience guessing all the way to the end which of the spiritual figures are benevolent, and which are the monsters. The oppressive atmosphere of paranoia and frustration is terrific, but the exorcism sequence is the showstopper.

The 13th - I don't have much patience for documentaries with an axe to grind, but Ava Duvernay's latest, linking the American history of slavery to the current prison boom, is exceptional. It makes its case in very clear, very memorable ways, and shines a spotlight on a major American social problem that clearly needs to be addressed more seriously. More than that, I found myself deeply engrossed and emotionally invested as I watched it all unfold.

O.J.: Made in America - A five hour documentary on the O.J. Simpson case may sound like overkill, but all the historical and cultural context prove to be absolutely vital in understanding why the case was the cultural landmark that it was. I certainly didn't understand all the little nuances and implications of what was going on at the time it was happening. And, or course, there were all those fine details we never knew, and the aftermath we mostly ignored.

Zootopia - I can't get over how beautifully this was executed, a modern day Aesop's fable and buddy cop comedy that tackles the none-too-child-friendly subject of discrimination. Sure, there are some missteps and a Shakira single, but otherwise this may be the most thoughtful, earnest, and intelligent children's film I've seen in years - and it's from Disney no less. It's always heartwarming when so much creative energy is used for something so positive.

I, Daniel Blake - Ken Loach has always made very timely, socially conscious pictures, and this may be one of this most pointed, but something about the travails of Daniel Blake really resonated with me. Loach does such a great job of capturing the mindset and the behavior of people living on the brink, and all the little cruelties that they face. I can so easily imagine this story in other hands being deluged in sentiment and soapboxing, smothering its more subtle charms.

Honorable Mentions

High Rise
Love & Friendship
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Cameraperson
Silence
The Red Turtle
Paterson
Moonlight
The Founder
The Witness

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Monday, July 17, 2017

About That "Wonder Woman" Movie

Wonder Woman was never one of my favorite superheroes, even though I was always more invested in DC properties than Marvel ones. Princess Diana of Themiscyra has a complicated origin story, a bunch of random powers that don't seem to go together, and no particularly interesting allies or villains associated with her. Being a "Justice League" fan I was familiar with her, and I've liked the various bits of media that have featured her over the years - including an excellent animated direct-to-video feature from a few years back. However, I wouldn't count myself as a fan.

And now here come Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins to give us a live action Wonder Woman who I finally feel like cheering for. Her origin story still strikes me as one of the weaker ones, as superheroes go, but at least all the various elements feel consistent here, and the character of Wonder Woman herself is given her due. Diana's journey from spirited princess of a hidden island of warrior women to full-fledged heroine is handled very well, and thankfully there's no real attempt to darken or add complications to her story the way that we've seen with the most recent Batman and Superman films.

What surprised me the most was how much of a WWI film "Wonder Woman" turns out to be. After early scenes establishing how Diana grew up among the Amazons, as the daughter of their Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), she meets the American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), whose plane crashes on their hidden island home. She journeys with him back to Europe, believing that the war is the result of the god Ares' influence on mankind, and intends to kill him. The rest of the film follows their adventures getting to the Front, and trying to stop the evil General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) from launching a devastating gas attack that would destroy the impending Armistice.

Gal Gadot makes a great "Wonder Woman," accent and all. She really gets across all the hopefulness and heroism of the character, and is appropriately inspirational and badass. I think the film's real secret weapon is Chris Pine, however, who is essentially playing Captain Kirk again, but a Captain Kirk who does a great job of both embodying this particular era in history and transcending it. Another major highlight is Robin Wright as Diana's aunt Antiope, a warrior woman who inspires her niece to follow in her footsteps. The Amazons in general are fantastically cast, all played by incredibly physically impressive women who sell their battle scenes with everything they have. The weak spots are the villains, but that's mainly due to them being fairly two-dimensional baddies. I'm not even going to name the actor who turns out to be playing Ares, because it's quite obvious when you see him. I'll just say that he's had much better material on television this year.

The Great War is treated with all possible gravity, staying within a PG-13 rating, but acknowledging the horrors of warfare. This setting really gives Diana's actions some weight as she grapples with how best to fulfill her mission. I appreciate that while Diana's gender is acknowledged and there are some brief jabs at the sexist attitudes of the era, the filmmakers don't feel the need to underline it. We understand how strong the Amazons are from their spectacular fight scenes. Diana demonstrates her independence and drive again and again in her dogged pursuit of Ares. The "stranger in a strange land" narrative works very well for her, slowly chipping away at Diana's idealism and naivete while also also allowing for little moments of humor and subversion.

And it makes such a difference to have those moments of lightness and romance. Diana and Steve Trevor's relationship is handled right, so when the plotting starts to sputter and falls victim to the usual third-act superhero pitfalls, at least the emotional throughline is strong enough to get us through the ending. "Wonder Woman" is by no means a great superhero film, though there are a few moments of greatness in it. However, after the DCU has delivered one grim, unfun slog after another, it's such a relief to have one that balances out its sequences of intensity and bleakness with warmth and optimism. And though there are some superficial similarities between "Wonder Woman" and the first "Captain America," it's tonally very distinct from the MCU.

So while I'm thrilled that the new live-action "Wonder Woman" movie has been so well received by critics and audiences, and that it's going to pave the way for more female-led superhero films, and maybe get a few more female directors heading up blockbuster films, what I really love about it is that it's righted the DCU franchise. Well, at least temporarily. We'll see how "Justice League" fares in a few more months.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

I Actually Do Want to See the Sequel

I've been complaining about sequels this year an awful lot lately, so I thought I'd write up a list of a few movie sequels that I actually do want to see. I'm absolutely not against sequels being made, but which films have gotten sequels often confounds me. In some of these cases, a sequel was explicitly set up by the original film, but isn't close to actually being in production for one reason or another. Others just left the door open for more.

"Chronicle" - There's clearly demand for another trip into the universe of 2012's "Chronicle," considering that the original made ten times its tiny, $12 million budget. However, Max Landis's script for the sequel, "Martyr," went in a much darker direction than FOX wanted. Landis and troubled director Josh Trank don't appear to be involved in the development of "Chronicle 2" anymore, and the last anyone heard, a new writer had been brought on sometime in 2014. I think that the likelihood of another "Chonicle" film being produced at some point is likely, but if Dane DeHaan really blows up next year - he has three high profile films coming out in 2017 - there's probably little chance of "Chronicle 2" looking anything like "Chronicle."

"District 10" - We were promised a sequel three years after "District 9," which came out in 2009, remember? Director Neill Blomkamp has kept insisting that he'll get around to it eventually, as no one can imagine doing a "District 10" without him, but I wonder if he'll have to hit rock bottom in Hollywood first. Frankly, after the bumpy path that Blomkamp has taken over these last few years, I'm eager for him to return to the "District 9" universe, which is still by far the best thing he's ever created. I'm hoping that if his "Alien" project falls through, he'll turn his attention back to the plight of poor Vikus Van der Merwe. And ultimately it's really not going to matter if it takes ten years for the story to continue instead of three.

"The Mortal Instruments" - There was so much about "The Golden Compass" that went wrong, not the least of which was the removal of its original downbeat, cliffhanger ending, which was supposed to be shifted to the beginning of the next movie. All the pieces were put in place for a much more interesting pair of sequels, which sadly never happened. I know that the BBC is looking into making their own version of "His Dark Materials" for television, but the cast assembled for the film was a once in a lifetime convergence of some impeccable talent, and the failure to launch still stings quite a bit. Compare to "The Dark is Rising," which I'm quite happy to see being redone as a television series after the spectacular bungle that was "The Seeker."

"Brave" - This PIXAR film didn't get the greatest reception, because certain viewers were expecting something more epic and grand. And that's why I think it's the studio's best candidate for a sequel, because there are so many more places that the story of Merida could go. A sequel could see her bloom into a full-fledged warrior on a big adventure, or we could have another wacky outing with more bear transformations and family bonding. While I don't object to other PIXAR movies like "Toy Story" and "The Increcdibles" getting sequels, those feel like finished stories to me, while "Brave" remains intriguingly open-ended. Merida learned one important lesson, but she's clearly got a lot more growing up to do.

"Wasington" - Taking a brief detour into the arthouse, don't think I haven't forgotten about your incomplete American trilogy, Lars von Trier. "Dogville" was a disturbing masterpiece, and "Manderlay" less so, but still fascinating. I want to see von Trier bring this series to a climax, especially in the wake of the recent mess of an American election. There was some chatter about Nicole Kidman coming back for "Wasington," but it never came about. Fortunately, because of the way von Trier made the first two films, with essentially no sets and a completely new cast each time, it doesn't matter how long the gap is between the films. If he still wants to make "Wasington" in thirty years, he can and should.

"Master and Commander" - There are twenty Aubrey and Maturin novels! Twenty! I know that "The Far Side of the World" didn't as make as much money as the studio may have liked, but it was massively critically acclaimed, and plenty of people still love it. Russell Crowe seems game for making another one, going so far as to try to drum up support for a potential sequel on Twitter in 2010, and director Peter Weir certainly doesn't seem to be up to anything else. I don't understand why Fox and Universal haven't pulled the trigger on another installment, as costly as it might be. We're getting close to the point where the original cast wouldn't be able to come back, and that would be an awful shame.

.... and "Bill and Ted." Because I still love those dudes.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dracula (1979) v. Nosferatu (1979)

1979 saw the release of three films featuring Count Dracula: the comedy "Love at First Bite," John Badham's "Dracula" with Frank Langella, and Klaus Kinski's "Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night" with Klaus Kinski. I'm going to compare and contrast the latter two, which are both remakes of older classics, the 1931 "Dracula" directed by Tod Browning, and the 1922 "Nosferatu," directed by F. W. Murnau. "Dracula" and "Nosferatu," or course, both share the same source material, Bram Stoker's "Dracula" novel, though "Nosferatu" was famously an unsanctioned adaptation with all the names changed. The two classics are very different, and have very different takes on its central character. But do the two remakes follow suit?

Let's start with John Badham's "Dracula," which begins with the arrival of Dracula (Frank Langella) in England. In this version, Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is the fiance of Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), and the daughter of Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance), who runs the local asylum. She's visited by her friend Mina (Jan Francis), the daughter of Professor Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier). Mina becomes the first victim of the Count, a dashing, attractive figure who no one suspects of wrongdoing until fairly late in the story. Harker never makes the trip to Transylvania in this version, and more emphasis is placed on Dracula's seduction of his victims. The film's tagline is "A Love Story." However, Dracula is ultimately dispatched by Harker and Van Helsing, in an action sequence worthy of one of Christopher Lee's toothier Hammer horror films.

The film plays if fairly straight, and the story works as distillation of all the most well known "Dracula" tropes. Yet, with Langella's hunkier Drac and the more romantic intimations, this is the "Dracula" adaptation that probably started shifting modern perceptions of the character from monster to tragic romantic anti-hero. Badham still keeps all the usual trappings of a "Dracula" story, though, and executes them very well. Carfax Abbey, Dracula's new residence, takes the place of the Transylvanian castle, full of cobwebs and candles. The art direction is ornate, but stately, and most of the film was shot on location in various parts of coastal England. It's refreshingly well grounded in the real world. However, the most memorable scene is a surreal "Wedding Night" sequence with Dracula and Lucy, which was created by Maurice Binder, best known for many James Bond opening title sequences. He uses optical effects, including colorful laser projections, to create a striking piece of 70s psychedelia.

Badham's "Dracula," though clearly a prestige production with a stellar cast and great respect for its source material, comes off as very much a film of its time. The passion is fairly chaste. The action and effects work are limited. The visuals are picturesque, but rarely cinematically ambitious. Like many of the mainstream action films of this era, there's a flatness to the lighting, and a staidness to the performances that undercuts its dramatic aims. Langella's Dracula is charming, but too reserved for my taste. Kate Nelligan's Lucy may have seemed unusually forward in 1979, but it's difficult to say how much control she has over herself or the relationship with Dracula from a modern standpoint. The only member of the cast who manages to evoke any real sympathy or horror is Olivier's Van Helsing, as he dispatches his vampirized daughter.

Werner Herzog, with his "Nosferatu," approached the material from an entirely different direction. His film is much more explicitly an homage to F.W. Murnau's 1922 "Nosferatu," which Herzog considered one of the greatest German films ever made. Here, Dracula is played by Klaus Kinski, and looks almost exactly like the unnaturally pale, monstrous figure with the pointy ears and long fingernails who starred in the original. Because copyright isues were no longer a concern, in Herzog's "Nosferatu," he can be called Dracula instead of Orlock. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), his wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), and Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) also make appearances, but much of the plot has been altered. The vast majority of the film is taken up with Harker's visit to Transylvania, with only the final third covering what happens when Dracula relocates, to Germany this time instead of England.

The most interesting narrative change was to place Lucy as the primary heroic character. She's far more active here than in any other version I've seen, a pure soul who spearheads the fight against Dracula, and makes the ultimate sacrifice. Van Helsing is only a minor character, the impotent voice of science and reason in a universe governed by spiritual and supernatural forces. Harker, though our POV character for the first half of the film, ultimately becomes incapacitated and compromised. It's Kinski and Adjani who dominate the story, their characters locked in a battle of wills, evil versus good. Their performances are so strong, they have become iconic. Kinki's Dracula is a twisted, inhuman creature, desiring of life and love, but all too aware that they are beyond his reach. He is horrific in every aspect, but still deeply pitiable. By contrast, Adjani has been styled as a righteous Madonna figure, radiant and virtuous.

Herzog was working with a tiny crew of only sixteen people, and it's amazing what they managed to accomplish. The sets and visuals are simple, but wonderfully evocative. Herzog recreated some of Murnau's shots, including images of grasping shadows looming large in the frame. There are almost no effects, but some good makeup and lighting create a great sense of the fantastic. There is also a heavy emphasis on the natural world, including landscapes and animals. Herzog also links Dracula's reign of terror to the Black Plague, and has several scenes that involve swarming masses of rats invading the town. Though there is little violence depicted onscreen, death is everywhere. There's this wonderful atmosphere of apocalyptic dread that permeates everything, with a little help from an excellent score.

Tod Browning's "Dracula" also gets a few nods in each film, or rather the Bela Lugosi performance of Count Dracula does. Both of the 1979 adaptations have their own takes on the "Children of the night" and "I never drink wine" lines. It's indicative of these "Dracula" films having roots in both of those early portrayals, as starkly different as they are. And you can definitely see the influence of Badham's and Herzog's films on later adaptations, including Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 "Dracula" and beyond.

But that's a post for another day.
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