Sunday, January 28, 2018

"Game of Thrones" and Spoiler Culture

Despite the title of this post, no spoilers lie ahead.

Once I finished this latest season of "Game of Thrones," months later than everyone else as usual, I set about catching up with the fandom. I read reviews, listened to recap podcasts, and went back over fan discussions of various episodes so I could see the reactions and speculation. Usually there's some chatter about leaked spoilers and set reports, but this time around it was very different. Apparently at some point last year, well before the season started, somebody involved with the production leaked a scene-by-scene breakdown of all the episodes.

Now, "Game of Thrones" has always been a fandom where a viewer has to watch out for spoilers, because a good chunk of the fans read the George R.R. Martin books, and discussion of the adaptation choices has always been very lively. I knew about the Red Wedding years before it happened, for instance. This situation is something very different. I tracked down a copy of the spoilers myself and found a list of bare bones plot points, essentially. They had no possible function except as spoilers, and it turned out that they were very accurate ones. Only one or two of the described scenes didn't turn up in the final version of the show, possibly because they were being saved for next year or because the writers had changed their minds about a particular development.

It's one thing to be familiar with a piece of source material that's being adapted into another medium. It's quite another to simply have a plot synopsis of everything that's going to happen. I don't understand the appeal of the latter, but apparently there's ravenous demand in the "Game of Thrones" fandom for these details. Nobody would have leaked the synopsis if there wasn't. Along with the breakdown that turned out to be real, I found several others with erroneous speculation about what was going to happen this season. More fascinating were people piecing together information from set reports and media coverage to figure out which characters were going to appear in which locations, and in what combinations.

HBO has been very proactive about stopping early leaks of the completed episodes, and scripts are subject to all kinds of security measures, but how do you prevent something like these latest spoilers? I suppose that the saving grace is that there was no way to confirm the synopsis was real until the new episodes were actually released. And I should note that there were enough eyebrow-raising developments in the last season of "Game of Thrones" that the leaks were suspected of being fakes for a good long while. Without that confirmation, the spoilers wouldn't be considered newsworthy, so there was little danger of a spoilerphobe like me accidentally stumbling across them.

Still, there is a lingering risk. There are always those internet pests who love posting spoilers everywhere, and once the leaks were confirmed at the start of the season, they would have surely been emboldened to go on another rampage. I think what really disturbs me most about this situation is that somebody close enough to the production to have all this information is knowingly enabling this kind of behavior. At the time of writing, the leaker remains anonymous, so there's a good possibility that what happens in the final season of "Game of Thrones" may also wind up leaked well in advance. And this time around, more people may pay attention - willingly or unwillingly.

And if "Game of Thrones," one of the most lucrative and high profile productions isn't safe, what is? I cringe at the thought of "Star Wars" or "Avengers" spoilers floating around out there, especially as those film series are approaching some pretty significant climaxes. For those viewers who like their spoilers, and can somehow enjoy a piece of media in spite of knowing all the surprises in advance, I suppose there's nothing really wrong with that. However, the spoiler culture that they've allowed to flourish is getting out of hand.

I'm grateful now that I've detached myself a bit from the current entertainment media, because the distance provides some insulation from these kinds of spoilers. However, this is also a reminder that I have to be more vigilant than ever to enjoy my media the way I want to.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Missmediajunkie v. A Serious Editorial Error

I've screwed something up. I realized today as I was going over the last several months of posts that my rate of television reviews had shot way up. November was absurdly lopsided, with eight posts about specific television series only one review of a recent film. And upon more thorough inspection, I realized that I had essentially reviewed every single series I had watched throughout 2017, but maybe only a fifth of the films, throwing the balance of the content on this blog seriously out of whack.

I know exactly why this happened too. I find it easier to write about media I like, and I've spent most of the fall catching up with "Twin Peaks" and "Game of Thrones," while my rental queue has been mostly full of the so-so remainders of last summer like "Cars 3," "The Dark Tower," and "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets." However, I want to clarify that I don't think the issue is that television has been better than films lately. It's just that there's so much more television. Series take much longer to watch than films, so I end limiting myself to only the very, very best shows to maintain any kind of parity with the amount of time I spend watching movies.

Except, there hasn't exactly been parity lately. Over the last few months my schedule has changed and it's been more convenient for me to watch 20-40 minute episodes of a series than 90-150 minute features. On top of that, the latest seasons of several major shows have become available recently and I've been playing catch-up while I can. This is actually fairly out of the ordinary for me because I'm more of a completist about cinema, so I tend to watch more titles, including a lot of the mediocre ones. On the television side, I didn't even bother watching "The Defenders" crossover event series after some of the less-than-enthusiastic reviews came in.

And since series represent more of a time commitment, it feels like a much bigger omission if I don't write about a season of television that I've watched compared to a film I felt similarly about. That's why I have a review of Netflix's "Mindhunter" in the works and not Taylor Sheridan's "Wind River." They're both about as equally compelling and well made, but "Mindhunter" was ten episodes and took a whole weekend to get through, while "Wind River" was two hours and took an evening. Honestly, "Wind River" probably could use some more exposure because it was one of those smaller films that went under the radar, but I don't feel strongly enough about it to write anything. With "Mindhunter," spending ten hours with the main characters at least helped me to solidify a more concrete opinion.

And I think this is a problem because my output on this blog ends up not reflecting the kind of media that I'm actually watching. If I'm watching more movies, why aren't I writing about those movies? If I took the time to watch "Cars 3," why not spend a couple of paragraphs taking it apart? If I'm mostly writing about the media that I enjoy, we could take that to mean that I'm not writing as many negative and ambivalent reviews as I should. But on the other hand, I don't care enough about "Cars 3" to do more than acknowledge that it exists. If I'm going to put my opinions on this blog, shouldn't they be the opinions that I'm more invested in? When I write an mixed or ambivalent review, I think it should be one I'm writing because I still care about the media I'm reviewing.

This all may be beside the point anyhow. With Oscar season upon us and the prestige pictures starting to roll in, I expect that the balance is going to shift towards movies for a while. Pretty much every television and web series I've been watching is on hiatus, and I have my usual massive end-of-the-year list of movies to go and hunt down for 2017. Still, now that I've identified this set of biases, I can keep a better eye on them and ensure that they don't get out of hand again in the future.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Your 2018 Oscar Nominees

It's been an interesting awards season, with a lot of different narratives battling it out and a lot of different interests in play. I've been lucky enough to see most of the big contenders (reviews are forthcoming, but I have a hell of a backlog) so I feel pretty good about offering some thoughts on the nominees this time around.

Let's start right off with Best Picture. "Call Me by Your Name," "Dunkirk," "Get Out," "Lady Bird," "The Shape of Water," "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," and "The Post" were pretty close to locks, so the real news here is "Darkest Hour" and "Phantom Thread" winning themselves spots. This is a pretty strong group, and the only change I'd make would be substituting "Darkest Hour" with "The Florida Project." At least it managed one well-deserved nomination for Willem Dafoe.

Best Director nominees usually point to the actual frontrunners, so "Dunkirk," "Lady Bird," "Get Out," "The Shape of Water" and "Phantom Thread" are apparently on top. However, with so much politicking around getting more diversity into this category, I wonder if Peele and Gerwig might have gotten a boost via campaigning. Meanwhile, Paul Thomas Anderson has claimed "Phantom Thread" is his swan song, which may have helped his case too. I feel Luca Guadagnino should be here, but the direction was probably the least successful part of "Three Billboards," so Martin McDonagh does not. He deserved the nomination he got, for Original Screenplay. Best Editing, another key predictor category for Best Picture, points to the real competition being between "Three Billboards" and "The Shape of Water" this year.

The acting categories offered some surprises. I suspect the controversy around James Franco cost him a nomination. Not much of a loss, honestly. I haven't seen Denzel Washington in "Roman J. Israel," but I wasn't especially impressed with Franco's Tommy Wiseau. "The Disaster Artist" only got a nomination for Screenplay, and I'm not sure it deserved even that much. Over in the Supporting Actor category, the big surprise is that Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg both lost out on nominations for "Call Me By Your Name." Instead the slots went to Woody Harrelson, who did an okay but unremarkable job in "Three Billboards," and Christopher Plummer for "All the Money in the World," the notorious rush replacement performance after Kevin Spacey had to be removed. I haven't seen Plummer's work yet, but Stuhlbarg should definitely be up there over Harrelson.

Over in Best Actress, these are the same names that have been up for awards all season long, and deservedly so. Supporting actress is more interesting, with the expected nods for Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf, who will be duking it out, but Lesley Manville edged out Hong Chau and Holly Hunter for a nomination. Also, it's a relief that the Oscars have finally settled the eligibility issues around Netflix titles. Mary J. Blige is here for "Mudbound," one of four nominations the movie received. The other big nomination "Mudbound" netted was a Best Cinematography slot for Rachel Morrison, the first female nominee in the category. I'm still rooting for Roger Deakins for "Blade Runner 2049" though.

Over in Screenplay are a good sampling of other strong contenders that didn't quite make it into the running for Best Picture, including "Molly's Game," "The Big Sick," and "Mudbound." We also got a welcome surprise nod for "Logan," which should make the comic book fans happy. It's interesting that "Dunkirk," "The Post," "Phantom Thread," and "Darkest Hour" are absent. Also note the nominations for "Baby Driver" and "I, Tonya" in Best Editing.

In the smaller categories, I'm glad to see that the rule changes in Best Animated Feature don't seem to have affected the nominations much. We still got two indie pictures alongside the usual studio pictures. "Blade Runner" managed five nominations in an array of production categories, all richly deserved. And finally, I'm ticked that Agnes Varda, grand dame of the French New Wave, got a nomination for Best Documentary Feature for "Faces Places."

Alas, nothing for "Wonder Woman," "The Beguiled," "mother!" "Lady Macbeth," "Columbus," or "Detroit," which all had elements that were very award-worthy, even if the whole films weren't. Overall it feels like a strong year, so it's hard to feel too down about snubs with so many interesting races to watch. And away we go.


Monday, January 22, 2018

"Ingrid" Goes Deep

There have been a spate of recent films that have tried to tackle the dark side of life online, from domestic dramas lamenting the loss of real interpersonal connections, to horror films full of supercharged stalkers and online bullies gone viral.  And while these portrayals have been well-meaning, and usually got the broad outlines of the bad behavior right, there was also a sort of overblown alarmist feel to many of them.  

And now along comes Ingrid, played by Aubrey Plaza, who is an absolutely perfect, terrifying example of someone who the internet is turning into a monster.  Ingrid is an internet stalker, who we first see disrupting a former friend's wedding, a friend we learn that Ingrid has been hounding on social media.  Blocked from seeing any of her victim's accounts, Ingrid decides to move onto a new target, a trendsetter named Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), who lives in Venice, California with her husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell).  Using her inheritance from her recently deceased mother, Ingrid moves to Venice, and sets out to become Taylor's new best friend.

I related so much to Ingrid, it was unsettling.  I distinctly remember being that lonely, socially-awkward twenty-something, who did not have her life together in the slightest, and was envious of friends who seemed to know what they were doing.  Ten years ago, however, social media wasn't what it is today, and people were still wary of sharing so much of their lives online.  If I were that same twenty-something now, would I be obsessively checking other people's beautifully curated Instagram and Facebook feeds the way Ingrid does, trying to live vicariously through them?  Taylor's LA aesthetic is not my thing, but I admit being drawn toward an artsier crowd I only knew via online blogs.  Would I have been a potential Ingrid, just a few clicks away from going after someone with a can of mace?

As black comedies go, "Ingrid Goes West" is on the gentler side, which I found made it more memorable and effective.  Ingrid is a terrible person, but thanks to Aubrey Plaza, she's also a lot of fun to watch.  And even when she's at her worst, taking advantage of new friend Dan Pinto (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), or luring Taylor's dog away so she can play hero, it's easy to sympathize with her.  Humanizing Ingrid, and to a lesser extent Taylor and Ezra, keeps the audience on its toes.  We can't simply write off Ingrid as a nutter for her behavior, because we're shown that it's stemming from deeper problems, and she has the capacity to be someone better.  And when it becomes clear that Taylor isn't everything she's made herself out to be, it still doesn't excuse Ingrid's treatment of her or mean that Taylor doesn't get to be angry.

As a small indie production with a limited budget, and made by a first time filmmaker, "Ingrid Goes West" has the usual technical limitations you would expect.  However, I like the way that director Matt Spicer frames Aubrey Plaza, keeping us firmly in Ingrid's headspace through all the different phases of her relationship with Taylor.  This is one of the best performances I've seen Plaza give, selling Ingrid's every emotional high and low as she swerves from trainwreck to picture-perfect bestie to jealous girlfriend.  The film's biggest strength is the script, specifically how it finds all these little moments to fill in the details about Taylor and Ezra's relationship, or what happened to Ingrid's mother.  Dan is probably the least likely character - way too forgiving and nice to be true - but O'Shea Jackson is such a charmer, I was just happy every time he was onscreen.

And I appreciate the way that "Ingrid" handles Internet addiction, showing it from different angles, and pointing out that it's really an extension of other issues that the characters already have.  Ingrid without social media would still be obsessive and miserable.  Her ready access to more information is just exacerbating and enabling an existing problem.  The internet stalker is becoming such a common trope in media, it's nice to get a more nuanced portrait of one.  And Aubrey Plaza was seriously overdue for a starring role like this one.  

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Returning to "Twin Peaks"

The much-hyped return of "Twin Peaks" resulted in absolutely dismal ratings for Showtime.  I'm not surprised, because the audience for the show was limited from the start.  It only makes sense to watch the new "Twin Peaks" if you watched and enjoyed the original.  Also, you'd better be a fan of the increasingly esoteric work of David Lynch since "Twin Peaks" went off the air in 1991.  There's material in the revival that is daring for a premium cable outfit to be airing, and would be unthinkable on network television.  

In other ways, however, the return of "Twin Peaks" feels like a throwback.  Eighteen episodes were aired across fifteen weeks, making it one of the lengthier television seasons for any cable drama.  Each episode also ends with a full scroll of production credits, often over a closing musical act.  The pacing is unhurried, making room for dozens of characters and subplots.  The show more or less retains the broader structure of an evening soap and detective program, but only bothers about things like plot toward the very end of the season.   

Instead, David Lynch is more interested in his own experiments in mood and tone, sometimes horrific, sometimes satirical, and sometimes just inexplicable.  Bizarre things happen every week, sometimes to further the story or add character shadings, but more often because this is "Twin Peaks," and weird happenings are par for the course.  An entire episode is devoted to giving context to the show's supernatural mythology, but it unfolds like an experimental film with little exposition or dialogue. Michael Cera drops by for a single scene to play the son of Andy and Lucy, impersonating a young Marlon Brando the whole time.  Why?  Well, why not?    

The revival is full of little cameos like this, making some episodes feel like a string of loosely collected vignettes.  Several of the new characters are played by Lynch regulars like Laura Dern and Naomi Watts.  Nearly every surviving member of the original cast returned, though the twenty-five year hiatus means that even the youngest cast members are now middle-aged, and most of the leads are in their sixties.  In some cases this means a radical transformation of a character like Bobby Briggs, from troublemaker teenager to sympathetic police officer.  Due to the long production time, several actors passed away in the time between shooting scenes for the show, and the episodes going to air, including Catherine Coulson and Miguel Ferrer.  It gives the whole revival a melancholy, elegiac air at times.

One original cast member who hasn't lost a step is Kyle MacLachlan, who returns playing three versions of his Agent Cooper character.  He gets the most coherent and complete storyline here, trying to navigate his way back to the town of Twin Peaks after a long absence, with an evil doppelganger causing trouble along the way.  However, MacLachlan actually spends most of the season as "Dougie," a third, idiot-savant version of Cooper, who goes off on a series of totally unrelated adventures.  Those who are invested in the plot will find plenty of labyrinthine new developments to puzzle over, but I quickly found it futile to try and keep track of all the obscure character names and obtuse symbolism.  Apparently it all does make sense, but that's beside the point.

So what is the point?  Well, it's watching a tender scene play out between Norma and Big Ed in the diner, or a spectacularly horrific one involving Sarah Palmer in a nearby bar, or a delightfully silly one with a gangster played by Robert Knepper and a trio of pink-clad gun molls.  It's hearing the wonderfully distinct sound design, which Lynch himself is credited for in every single episode.  It's seeing MacLachlan and Laura Dern reunited again.  It's appreciating how much better Dana Ashbrook's acting chops have become.  It's doing a double take every time you spot a famous face like Eddie Vedder or Monica Bellucci.  It's being absolutely infuriated by Audrey Horne's brief storyline.     

And it's marvelling at the fact that David Lynch was given complete carte blanche by Showtime to make the new "Twin Peaks" exactly the way he wanted, without compromise.  And whatever you make of the show, that's a rare and wonderful thing.  

Thursday, January 18, 2018

"Game of Thrones" Year Seven

Spoilers ahead

This was the year that "Game of Thrones" transitioned from following the logic and pacing of a prestige television series to something closer to a run of blockbuster action films.  Suddenly we're skipping all travel time, allowing characters to journey all over the Westeros map seemingly instantaneously.  Character drama has been cut back in favor of more action scenes, which are fancier and more polished than ever.  More importantly, we're quickly barrelling toward the end of the series, and "Game of Thrones" is fully in set-up mode for the finale.  That means lots of table setting - killing off inconvenient and extraneous minor characters,  accelerating story arcs, and forcing more and more meetings of various characters and storylines to get everyone where they need to be for the big showdowns.  

And this is a pretty jarring change, considering that in prior seasons it felt like the show was dragging out many developments, and there was a lot of drama being milked out of certain characters barely missing coming into contact with each other.  So this year, when three of the surviving Stark siblings are reunited at Winterfell, Danaerys reaches Westeros and becomes allies with Jon Snow, and a whole passel of half-forgotten minor characters wind up teaming up for an adventure beyond the Wall, it feels like "Game of Thrones" has cranked up the momentum to pretty reckless speeds.  Suddenly multiple players that we haven't seen for years are back in the thick of the action, while others are quickly bundled off into obscurity with hasty farewells.  Some of these reunions and partings simply do not get the necessary time or attention that they should, though there's an undeniable thrill from seeing so much plot advancement at last.

It's especially noticeable since this year's plot is largely original material concocted by Benioff and Weiss, that is noticeably weaker than George R.R. Martin's work.  Much of Jon and Danaerys's season is spent on a very slapdash, foolhardy plan to convince Cersei to put aside hostilities long enough to deal with the invaders from the north.  They're also supposed to be getting romantically involved, though the two hardly have any chemistry to speak of.  And then there's Arya and Sansa dealing with Littlefinger's machinations, a promising situation that is mucked up by poor execution more than anything else.  The performances help salvage some of this - Lena Heady keeps the King's Landing scenes on track while Peter Dinklage does his best to sell some of the more ridiculous business at Dragonstone.  Minor characters like Bronn, Tormund, and Sir Davos fare better than the headliners like Jon and Sansa, because they aren't so mired in the dense plotting.   I'll miss Diana Rigg, who got the best scene of the year.

What does work consistently, however, is the spectacle.  We're treated to plenty of CGI-heavy battles, white walkers, and dragons this year.  The action and effects work has been ramped up to new heights, and the production has never looked more impressive.  Seeing the dragons deployed for battle is especially satisfying after years of build-up.  In short, this season of "Game of Thrones" is worth a watch for the eye-candy alone.  Of course, "Game of Thrones" was never a show you only watched for the eye candy before this, which doesn't bode well for the future.   Those viewers who like the show for its rough-edged, smartly written medieval world where anyone could die at a moment's notice, may be especially disappointed.  At this point, all the leads have plot armor a mile thick, and seem to be losing IQ points with every passing episode.  

Then again, this year of "Game of Thrones" may well be a fluke.  It's such a departure from the previous six seasons of the show, I can see the creators doing a course correction for the final year.  Also, if we treat the seventh and eighth years as a single season, as they were originally intended to be, the series could be saving the meatier character drama for the final stretch the way they have with previous seasons.  This close to the end, I'm hoping these stumbles are the show getting all the kinks out in preparation for its final year.      

Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"Stranger Things," Year Two

Minor spoilers ahead.

While the second series of Netflix's "Stranger Things" didn't manage to make lightning strike twice, I was plenty satisfied with the direction that the Duffer brothers decided to take things.  Everything people liked about the first series is back, from the never-ending '80s references to the stellar kid actors.  There are a few missteps and some shameless pandering to contend with, but "Stranger Things" remains one of the most wildly entertaining shows currently running on any platform.  

A year has passed and it's 1984 in Hawkins, Indiana.  Things are normal, aside from the arrival of some new kids in town - tough girl Max (Sadie Sink), who becomes a classmate of Mike and  the gang, and her bullying older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery).  Oh, and Will is still seeing sinister visions of the Upside-Down, requiring regular visits to Hawkins Lab, under the new management of the seemingly nice Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser).  And then there's that mysterious blight killing local crops that might be connected to a looming shadow monster Will sees in his visions.  

Unlike the first year, where the storylines had the adults, teens, and kids grouped separately, this time around the character dynamics see some shaking up.  The Byers family mostly functions together as a unit, trying to deal with Will's "episodes."  Everyone else, however, gets to combine in more interesting ways.  There are some fun new pairings like Eleven and Hopper forging a father-daughter relationship, and Dustin and Steve become unlikely brothers-in-arms.  Some of the kids warm to Max immediately, but others don't - notably Mike - creating new tensions and splits.  We still have all these stories eventually converging in one big event at the end of the series, but it's a twistier road to get there.   

And the approach works pretty well, keeping the plotting from getting repetitive and mostly balancing out the amount of screen time everyone has.  Mike noticeably gets less attention this year, possibly because Finn Wolfhard went off to make "It," but he makes the most of the time he does have in the spotlight.  And while the new kids could have done with more fleshing out, there's also a sense that the creators are saving that for next season - because this time around everyone knows that there's going to be a next season.  The story is more open-ended, and some things are set up that definitely haven't played out all the way yet.

While the budget for special effects has been beefed up, particularly for several CGI critters, the highlights of this year are the performances.  Several of these are much improved, notably Winona Ryder, who thankfully takes things down a few notches.  Joe Keery is one of the surprise MVPs, who ends up playing the Josh Brolin big brother role to the younger kids' Goonies in the last few episodes.  Noah Schnapp gets way more to do this time around, and he's great.  I also really enjoyed Millie Bobby Brown's Eleven, who remains the best part of the show, getting to go off on her own adventures for a bit, before rejoining her friends.  

We still end up with confrontation scenes that are overly screamy, and nerdy elements that are way too self-indulgent, but the Duffer brothers display an excellent sense of how to keep things fresh and entertaining for their audience.  I love the way they manage to mine so much humor out of serious situations, and can't resist poking fun at many old cliches.  Nancy and Jonathan's subplot, for instance, would have been a lot more tedious if it weren't for the intervention of a local conspiracy theorist.  And I admit, the boys dressing up as the Ghostbusters for Halloween, and nobody wanting to be Winston, is too perfect for words.    

"Stranger Things" remains a show of very specific genre pleasures, leaning heavily on nostalgia and familiarity.  However, no other show comes close to filling this niche, and few are as consistently entertaining.  I can't help feeling uneasy that the Duffer brothers and Netflix are pressing their luck continuing the series, because they're almost certainly going to hit diminishing returns soon.  But it hasn't happened yet, so I suppose we should just enjoy the ride while we can.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

My Favorite Sam Peckinpah Movie

It's always the violence that people seem to remember Sam Peckinpah films for, the shootouts in "The Wild Bunch," the assaults in "Straw Dogs," and that chattery head of Alfredo Garcia in the burlap bag.  That's certainly what I expected when I when I first saw my favorite Peckinpah film, so I was caught completely off guard by a gentle, mostly non-violent revisionist western comedy, made with several members of the same crew from "The Wild Bunch."

"The Ballad of Cable Hogue" is a mythic tale of the American West, that begins with Jason Robards, playing the title character, betrayed and stranded in the endless desert.  It's only by great luck, and perhaps spiritual intervention, that he manages to find water and survive.  Hogue decides to exploit his good fortune, lays claim to the source of the water, builds a stagecoach stop, and soon flourishes as a businessman.  However, his successes are short-lived, as the world is quickly changing around him.  The era of the iconic cowboy and the isolated Western frontier is coming to an end.  

While I certainly appreciate Peckinpah's more intense crime and western films, I find it very difficult to connect with any of the characters.  "Cable Hogue," however, is a film where I sympathize with just about everyone, because ultimately they're all just trying to get by.  Peckinpah assembles a collection of unapologetic oddballs, miscreants, and outsiders, but they're all very likeable ones.   It's a hard world that they inhabit, where the cinematography emphasizes the bleakness of the landscapes rather than the vastness, and nearly everything looks weathered and worn.  Humanity, however, proves irrepressible.  The first segment of the film is devoted to the lone figure of Cable Hogue battling his way through the desert, withstanding a sandstorm, and bargaining with a distant God.  HIs survival feels hard-won and miraculous at the same time.      

Hogue is probably my favorite Jason Robard character.  He's an ornery old vagabond with few social graces, who delights in being a little wicked, and showing his visitors the real, unvarnished West.  In short, he's about as perfect a stand-in for Peckinpah as you could wish for.  Hogue befriends an itinerant preacher, Joshua (David Warner), falls in love with a prostitute, Hildy (Stella Stevens), and eventually makes peace with Bowen (Strother Martin), one of the men who left him in the desert to die.  Peckinpah treats Hogue as emblematic of the Old West, a more unsavory character than the more civilized townsfolk are comfortable with, but an admirable man in his own way.  The more time we spend with Hogue, the funnier and more endearing he becomes.  Hogue may be unsophisticated, but he has enough wits to impress the local banker into giving him a loan.  He may be crude, but his affections for Hildy are genuine and well-intentioned.  

I was initially expecting a very different kind of film, and it was such a pleasure to discover that "Cable Hogue" was such a light-hearted comic piece.  It's offbeat and subversive, as you'd expect from Peckinpah, but also warmly sentimental and good-natured.  There are only a few instances of violence, mostly played for laughs or pathos.  And while this is certainly not the picturesque, sanitized Old West of Hollywood's classic Western era, neither is is the more nihilistic, cynical world of "The Wild Bunch" and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia."  Our heroes are rough-edged, but still hopeful and spirited to the end.  Peckinpah puts aside any fancy editing tricks, save for a fast-motion lark or two, in favor of sunny romantic reveries and old-fashioned comedic pratfalls.  Music plays a big role in the film, with a soundtrack full of folksy tunes from Richard Gillis, plus a duet sung by Stella Stevens and Jason Robards.    

Sam Peckinpah westerns may be known for their harshness, but this approached proved not to be incompatible with a brighter outlook on life.  And though the film's depiction of the frontier is far from nostalgic, there's still a great sense of affection for it.  Like "Little Big Man" and other revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s, "Cable Hogue" could seek to change our perceptions of the  American West while also paying its respects.      

What I've Seen - Sam Peckinpah

Ride the High Country (1962)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
Straw Dogs(1971)
Junior Bonner (1972)
The Getaway (1972)
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
The Killer Elite (1975)
Cross of Iron (1977)
Convoy (1978)

Friday, January 12, 2018

Trailers! Trailers!: Upcoming 2018 Edition

It's been a long time since I've done one of these, but I'm itching to put down some preliminary thoughts on some of 2018's most prominent would-be blockbusters. As always, all links lead to Trailer Addict.

Avengers: The Infinity Wars - Thanos looks different than I'd imagined. More pink. Anyhoo, the best part of the trailer is inevitably the hints of all the different crossovers finally happening: Thor meeting the Guardians, and the "Doctor Strange" crew coming across Bruce Banner. I also like some of the new looks for various characters. Black Widow has gone blonde, and Vision has gone very human, which I take to mean that they're going to step up his romance with the Scarlet Witch. And my guess is that he's the most likely to get killed off. The callback to Nick Fury's dialogue practically guarantees that somebody significant is finally going to kick the bucket. Oh, and they finally got the theme music in there! Praise Tony Zhou!

Alita: Battle Angel - The big question is, would this have looked any better if James Cameron were directing it instead of Robert Rodriguez? We know that he was going to use a heavily CGI enhanced Alita, but would he have gone with the gigantic eyes that everyone is so obsessed with? As for the rest of the trailer, it looks like the filmmakers are adapting the same storyline that was used for the anime version of "Battle Angel Alita" way back in 1993. The casting is excellent - I'm looking forward to Christoph Waltz as Dr. Ido and Mahershala Ali as Vector in particular. However, after the recent failures of "Ghost in the Shell" and "Death Note," the big question is how well the story is going to translate. And we shouldn't forget that Neill Blomkamp already borrowed a big chunk of "Alita" for "Elysium" a few years ago.

Ready Player One - The Comic-Con teaser was fantastic, the absolute highlight of the whole con. The trailer can't hope to live up to it, but does provide some new details and help us to get a better idea of the shape of this thing. We finally have our first look at the Oasis avatars, which are pretty spiffy, and some of the other characters. Ben Mendelsohn and Mark Rylance are always good to see in anything. However, I can't deny that what got me the most excited was the shot of the Gundam. Along with the "Akira" motorcycle, it looks like some significant anime IP is going to be represented in the film's giant fanservice melee. There's also a new shot of Chucky and a closer one of the Iron Giant, who reportedly plays a big part in the finale. I have no idea if this thing is going to be good or bad, but I'm itching to see what it's all about.

A Wrinkle in Time - I'm rooting for this movie, not just because I love the book, the director, and most of the stars involved, but because it's been made very clear to me that it is vital to have a kids' fantasy movie like this with a non-white female lead. And thankfully, it appears that it might be a good one too. I think the costuming and makeup on Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Witch are a little too much, but the rest of the film just looks gorgeous. I'm slightly worried about the blockbuster-ization of the story, which seems to involve a big action finale that didn't exist in the book, but that was bound to happen with any major studio adaptation. Also, keep in mind that there are several other books in the "Time" series if this one does well.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - The biggest reason that I want to see this is because Juan Antonio Bayona has taken over directing duties, and his films have all been very solid. I also find it gratifying that after four movies, we're finally going to be actively rooting for the dinosaurs this time around. The plot involves rescuing the hapless dinos stranded after the last movie, as an active volcano is threatening their island. Alas, Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly are still writing this thing, which doesn't inspire much confidence that Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard's characters will be much improved.

Ocean's 8 - Yes. Yes to all of this.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Fate of Fox Animation

It's too early yet to say what's going to happen in the historic acquisition of the 21st Century Fox entertainment assets bt the Walt Disney Company. All sorts of regulatory and legal hurdles have to be cleared first, but I'm pretty certain that the deal is going to go through eventually. And Disney being Disney, they're going to clean house and we're going to see some of the Fox divisions closed, reorganized, or downsized the way we did after the Lucasfilm acquisition. There's a significant likelihood that we might see the axe fall on FX programs, the more adult-oriented "X-men" movies, and more.

However, right now the most vulnerable looking piece of Fox is Fox Animation and the Blue Sky Studios, which has been responsible for twelve feature films over the past fifteen years. This includes the "Ice Age" and "Rio" movies, as well as titles like "The Peanuts Movie," "Epic," and their recent "Ferdinand." Disney already has two major animation studios, PIXAR and Walt Disney Animation, and several smaller ones. Are they going to keep Blue Sky actively producing features, or will they see their future slate cancelled the way that LucasArts did? Currently in the works are a pigeon buddy comedy called "Spies in Disguise," an adaptation of Noelle Stevenson's "Nimona," and a new Chris Sanders picture, "Call of the Wild." There's plenty more in development too.

One might be tempted to write off Blue Sky as a minor player, but they've been around since the 1980s and made some significant contributions to the early development of computer animation. Ironically, their predecessor company, MAGI, worked on the graphics for Disney's "TRON." Blue Sky operated independently for roughly a decade, creating animation for commercials and live-action films before they were acquired by Fox. Shortly afterwards, they won an Oscar for "Bunny," the lovely 1998 short directed by Blue Sky founder Chris Wedge. The win would give them the opportunity to pursue work in features, starting with the first "Ice Age" movie in 2002.

It's worth remembering that not too long ago Disney was really the only producer of big budget animated features in the pre-CGI age. The growth of Blue Sky, along with Dreamworks, Illumination, Sony, Warners, Laika, and all the rest has done a fantastic job of fostering competition and renewed success in the American animation industry. We're seeing more feature animation produced now than at any point in history. And, sure, we didn't really need five "Ice Age" movies, or even three, but I did love the recent "Peanuts" movie, and "Horton Hears a Who" remains the least objectionable Seuss feature by a wide margin, and I've been happy to see Blue Sky continue to be ambitious and stretching themselves. Their output has been more interesting than what Illumination Entertainment or Sony Animation have been doing lately, certainly.

And now Scrat and company are going over to the Magic Kingdom, along with the rest of Fox's IP. "Ice Age" is still a valuable brand, and I expect that we'll still see it pop up in some form or another over the next few years. It would translate very easily to a television series, for instance. However, after five movies, the latest of which only made an anemic $64 million domestically, I don't think we'll be seeing more theatrical features for a while. Even if Disney weren't part of the equation, "Ice Age" clearly needs a break. There's not much else that's done well for Blue Sky recently either, with "Ferdinand" posting especially disappointing numbers over the holidays. Still, the studio is far from creatively out of juice, and I want to see them have the chance to keep doing good work.

Meanwhile, Disney is also getting some of the old Fox Animation library titles like "Ferngully: The Last Rainforest," "Raggedy Ann and Andy," Don Bluth's "Anastasia" and "Titan A.E." and to the immense displeasure of Ralph Bakshi, his early features "Wizards" and "Fire and Ice." And over on the television side, Disney will also also have rights to "The Simpsons," "Futurama," "Bob's Burgers," "King of the Hill," "Family Guy," "Archer," and a lot of other adult-oriented programming that is very lucrative and completely antithetical to everything family-friendly that Disney stands for. But that's a post for another day, I think.


Monday, January 8, 2018

My Most Anticipated Web and Television Programs of 2018

"Sharp Objects" - HBO and director Jean-Marc VallĂ©e are teaming up for another miniseries, this one based on the Gillian Flynn murder mystery "Sharp Objects."  Marti Noxon is writing, producing, and showrunning.  Amy Adams will star, along with Patricia Clarkson and Elizabeth Perkins.  After the success of "Big Little Lies" last year, I was hopeful that we would see similar female-centric projects in the same vein, and this definitely fits the bill.  The premiere is currently slated for mid-to-late  summer.   

"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" - The Coen brothers are making their first series.  They will direct, write, and produce a six-episode western anthology for Netflix.  James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Stephen Root, and Ralph Ineson  are among the confirmed cast. Tim Blake Nelson too, playing Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy.  Episode titles and synopses were released last summer.  My current favorite is “The Mortal Remains,” described as "about the five very different passengers on a stagecoach of mysterious destination."

“The Romanoffs” - A good chunk of the creative team of "Mad Men" is working on the new series about modern-day descendants of the Russian royals for Amazon.    The cast currently includes Isabelle Huppert, Christina Hendricks, Corey Stoll, John Slattery, and Aaron Eckhardt.  It's being described as an eight-episode anthology series, but otherwise details have been scarce.  I don't need them though, because with this kind of pedigree, "The Romanoffs" definitely already has me curious.

"Tong Wars" - And what has Wong Kar-Wai been up to?  He's directing an epic crime series for Amazon, that begins in 19th century San Francisco Chinatown and ends in the 1970s.  Paul Attanasio is writing the scripts.  There hasn't been much news about this one since Amazon ordered it to series in September, and with no cast yet announced, this will probably be one that shows up very late in the year if at all.  There's no doubt, however, that this is one of the most ambitious programs currently in the works.

"Altered Carbon" - There are quite a few head-turning science fiction projects currently in development.  The most likely one to premiere next year is the ten-episode adaptation of  "Altered Carbon," which takes place in a dystopia where human consciousness can be digitized and transferred into different bodies.  It's going to be one of the most expensive Netflix series, mostly due to extensive use of CGI.  Joel Kinnaman will star, and "Game of Thrones" favorite Miguel Sapochnik is directing the pilot.     

"Doctor Who" - The prospect of a female Doctor Who played by Jodie Whittaker really has me intrigued.  Along with the introduction  of a new showrunner Chris Chibnall, this definitely marks the start of a new era for the long-running series.  But along with onscreen changes, I'm also curious to see how the audience is going to react.  "Doctor Who" has one of those extensive fanbases that can be a hotbed of drama.  And there's no more dramatic development that's come along to this franchise in ages.    

"Roseanne" - I'm happy to hear that the revival of "Will & Grace" has been doing so well, but the show was never one of my favorites.  I'm a big fan of "Roseanne," however, and await its return with trepidation.  This could be trainwreck, like the final season of the show, but the opportunity to look in on the lives of the Conners again is irresistible.  Nearly everyone is coming back, including John Goodman and both Beckys.  No word yet on Johnny Galecki, who has commitments to "Big Bang Theory."  

"Young Justice: Outsiders" - I've become something of a connoisseur of short-lived superhero cartoons.  "Young Justice" was definitely one of the better ones, a soapy teen drama with way too many characters by the second season, but it carved out its own niche in the DC animated universe, and maintained a strong continuity with the rest of the franchise.  And the nice thing about animated shows is, of course, that the creators can pretty much pick up right where they left off in 2013 without much fuss.  

"True Detective," Year Three - I didn't end up watching the second series after hearing all the contentious reactions to it.  Consensus was that it suffered from being too rushed.  However, I have considerably more hope for the next attempt.  First, Nic Pizzolatto has gotten significantly more time to work on scripts, and David Milch joined the creative team.  Also, Mahershala Ali will be starring, in his first big role since his Oscar win.  With "Fargo" benched for the foreseeable future, this is my next best bet for a high-end crime series.    

"The Americans," Finale - I didn't mind at all that the last season of "The Americans" got slower and more contemplative.  This is a very different show that it was when it started, and the world has changed too.  "The Americans" is more relevant and more powerful television now than it has ever been.  And I'm very excited to see how the endgame is going to play out, especially since the show's creators have demonstrated time and again that they don't pull their punches.    

Saturday, January 6, 2018

"Baby Driver" And "The Big Sick"

Still playing catch-up.  Bear with me.

I've been a big fan of Edgar Wright's work so far, and was very upset when his "Ant-man" gig fell apart.  So I was rootingfor "Baby Driver" from the start, especially when I learned what a personal project it was for Wright.  And as one of the few original films of last summer, it was an irresistable underdog right out of the gate.  And so it pains me to have to declare that this is one of Wright's least successfully executed films.  Oh, there are parts of it that are brilliant, with ideas and images and bits of sound design that are pretty close to perfect.  Unfortunately, he couldn't sustain this over a whole feature.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young man who works as a getaway driver.  He has tinnitus and listens to music constantly to drown out the noise, so everything in his life is synced to different songs.  The various heists he works are handled by Doc (Kevin Spacey), who Baby is in debt to.  His life is going fine until Baby falls for a waitress name Debora (Lily James), and agrees to work a heist involving the unpredictable crew of Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eliza Gonzalez) and Bats (Jamie Foxx).  The real star of the picture, however, may be the soundtrack, which drives every major set-piece of the film.  

At first, the gimmick of Baby's constant soundtrack works beautifully.  The opening car chase set to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms" is a breathless delight, and I love all the little ways that Baby's environment visually matches song lyrics and instrumentation when he goes out to get coffee to "Harlem Shuffle."  But the concept starts wearing thin by the time we get to a shootout set to "Tequila," and is run completely into the ground by the time we reach a poorly conceived finale set to "Brighton Rock."  And then there's the coda, which is one of the most oddly incompetent pieces of filmmaking I've seen this year.  I have to wonder if Wright might have run out of time or money or if there was some accident with the footage.

And it's such a shame because Ansel Elgort and Lily James are both so enjoyable here, and there are so many clever little moments that are representative of Wright at his filmmaking best.  I love the post office visit with Doc's nephew (Brogan Hall), and the Paul Williams cameo, and just about everything with Baby's foster father Joe (CJ Jones).  I'd estimate about sixty percent of this movie is flat-out fantastic, but the rest is subpar enough that I can't in good conscience call it a good movie.  I am, however, gratified to know that "Baby Driver" has done well enough at the box office that a sequel may be a possibility.

And now for something completely different.

"The Big Sick" features Pakistani-American comic Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself at the beginning of his standup career.  He falls in love with a white American girl named Emily (Zoe Kazan), but keeps the relationship a secret from his immigrant parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff), who want him to marry a Pakistani woman.  The situation becomes complicated when Emily winds up in the hospital with life-threatening infection, and Kumail meets Emily's parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano).  The story is based on the real events of Kumail's early relationship with writer Emily V. Gordon, and works as both a romantic comedy and family melodrama.       

Kumail Nanjiani has been a familiar face for a while now, appearing in smaller roles in various sitcoms and movies.  I know him best as the host of "The X-Files Files" podcast.  As a Pakistani entertainer, the roles offered by Hollywood were limited, so of course he had to go and write himself his own leading man part.  And it's quite a charmer.  Nanjiani has a pleasant screen presence, and he wisely takes a backseat in many scenes to more veteran performers like Kher, Romano, and Hunter.  However, when he's front and center, he proves more than capable of carrying the film by himself.  There's a wonderful honesty to his performance, and his willingness to let the audience see such a personal chapter of his life up close is commendable.   

The film is divided up into fairly discrete parts - Nanjiani with his family, Nanjiani doing stand-up, and Nanjiani with Emily and later her parents.  And even when the going gets tough, there's not much crossover between one part of Nanjiani's life and any of the others.  My one major quibble with "The Big Sick" is that the stand-up segments are considerably less interesting than what's going on in the ones with Nanjiani's various relationships.  I wish more time could have been spent with the Nanjiani family, particularly as it's such a rare positive depiction of a devout Muslim family.  The film even takes a very even-handed approach to depicting arranged marriages, which is fascinating.   

Judd Apatow apparently helped shepherd Nanjiani and Gordon through writing the script, which unfolds in a very genuine, and frequently amusing manner.  It's great to see a film like this that feels so off the beaten path, combining bits of immigrant narratives, medical crisis dramas,  and modern romance in ways that seem very novel, and yet clearly true to life.  I'm glad that Nanjiani and Gordon decided to share it with us, because it's definitely a story worth exploring, and nobody was closer to the material or more qualified to bring it to the screen.  

Thursday, January 4, 2018

My Top Ten Episodes of "Orphan Black"

I've written up some lopsided lists before, but this is one of the most extreme.    Eight of the ten picks below are from the first two seasons, which I found significantly better than the latter three.  However, it's a mistake to write those latter seasons off completely, as several major characters only came into their own late in the series run.

Picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate.  Moderate spoilers for the first two series ahead:

"Natural Selection" - It's so much fun to watch Sarah flying by the seat of her pants, trying to step into Beth's shoes after stealing her identity.  Confronted with one crisis after another, the audience learns new information along with Sarah, and it's fun trying to puzzle out what's going on.  Looking back, it's also interesting to see what a different kind of show "Orphan Black" was at the outset, far more grounded and serious about its central mysteries.   

"Effects of External Conditions" - Our introduction to Helena, who was immediately one of my favorite characters.  Her impersonation of Beth, and Alison's impersonation of Sarah, also cemented for me that Tatiana Maslany's performances were orders of magnitude above anything I'd ever seen in a genre program. The clones-playing-other-clones trick was something that the creators wisely limited to only a few times a season, and it was never as effective as the first time they did it.

"Variations Under Domestication" - Alison's first big episode sees her trying to figure out whether Donnie is her monitor, while also hosting a party for her neighbors .  Alison's comedic turns were always highlights for me, and the show got a lot of mileage out of poking fun at her suburban life.  Here, turning golf clubs and glue guns against her husband tells us so much about how Alison operates.  Also note that this is the first time that Vic has an unpleasant altercation in the Hendrix garage.

"Endless Forms Most Beautiful" - Honestly, this episode is a little pat in the way that it ties everything up.  However, it introduces Rachel, who would quickly become another of my favorites, and it starkly underlines one of the major themes of the show by revealing that the clones are considered intellectual property by their creators.  In a series that manages some really creepy moments, this is one of the best.  Also, I did not see the Aynsley storyline playing out the way it did.  

"Governed as It Were by Chance" - Helena certainly knows how to make a good entrance.  After Sarah's latest investigation into Rachel's background goes sideways, her storyline and Helena's converge in the most violent way possible.  I love that at this point, after several weeks of seeing Helena as the victimized prisoner of Henrik and his flock, the show can still use her as this terrifying force of horror and mayhem at the drop of a hat.  Maslany's reactions to her as Sarah really sell it.    

"Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things" - Another darkly funny Alison episode, centered around Sarah's visit to Alison and Vic's rehab center on Family Day.  However, it's Donnie who turns out to be the real star here, when he finally learns the truth about the monitoring program and decides to confront Dr. Leekie.  This leads up to another shocker of an ending that I didn't see coming.  And after this point, Donnie would officially become the Clone Club's best comic relief.

"Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done" - The episode where Donnie and Alison have to bury a body in their garage and fend off a nosy Vic.  This is one of my absolute favorites, because it's when the Hendrixes really become a team, both in crime and in comedy.  And in subsequent seasons, when things started going off the rails, they remained dependably fun to watch.  This episode also pulls off a clone impersonation that I didn't see coming, which sets up the end of the second series.  

"By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried" - There are a lot of big reveals in the second finale, but I like the episode best as a Rachel episode.  After toying with being sympathetic all year long, here she suffers a terrible loss and we see her really commit to her villainy.  Cosima also gets one of her rare early spotlights where she gets to do more than just be a source of exposition or further a romantic subplot.  And one of my biggest disappointments is that we never got more Marion after this.    

"Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method" - Krystal, despite being introduced so late in the show, was a great clone character.  Here, she's being investigated by an undercover Felix.  This allows Jordan Gavaris to use a different accent and Tatiana Maslany to embrace her inner bimbo, and it's a delight.  It's also a pretty good Rachel episode, where there's a major development in the ongoing subplot about her recovery.  I think furious, in-recovery Rachel may be my favorite Rachel.    

"To Right the Wrongs of Many" - The last series of the show was only middling, but they found a great way to end it.  Sarah is in danger of winding up right where she started, except that she's gently reminded that now she has a support network of loving sisters to lend an ear.  The show's special effects wizardry, allowing for the multiple clone sequences, was never utilized better than in the big family bonding scene.  And who Helena names the babies after, tickles me to no end.  

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Least Anticipated Films of 2018

The start of any cinematic year is a time of promise.  With every title yet unseen, there's not a confirmed stinker anywhere.  Alas, bad movies are inevitable and 2018 will have no shortage of them  So below, I'll discuss some of the most distressing titles that have somehow found their way to the slate of upcoming theatrical releases.  Please keep in mind that  I sincerely hope that I'm wrong about all of the movies in this post, and that they beat the odds and actually turn out to be decent cinema. But if past years are any indication, it's likely this will be the last time you see discussion of any of these titles on this blog.

Let's start with the horror films, which include another "Purge" movie, another "Insidious" movie, and a "Conjuring" spinoff called "The Nun."  There's also the very late sequel to 2008's "The Strangers," and a film based on the Slender Man internet creepypasta meme.  Eli Roth is also making a comeback next year with two films.  I'm trying to stay optimistic about the more kid-oriented "The House With a Clock in its Walls," but I can summon up no enthusiasm for his impending "Death Wish" remake starring Bruce Willis.  Good grief, I can't think of worse timing for the resurrection of the "Death Wish" franchise.

There are a lot of animated films from smaller studios hoping to break through next year.  I'm reserving judgment on most of these, because occasionally a no-name studio will put out something decent, but I'm writing off a few obvious bad eggs based on their credentials.  From the people that brought you "Space Chimps," we have "Gnome Alone."  From the people that brought you "Norm of the North," there's "Arctic Justice: Thunder Squad."  Compared to these, "Sherlock Gnomes," the sequel to "Gnomeo and Juliet," doesn't look that bad.  Oh, and while I'm happy that Genndy Tartakovsky is still getting work, do we really need a "Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation"?

Speaking of unwelcome sequels, brace yourselves for "Fifty Shades Freed," "Mama Mia! Here We Go Again" and "God's Not Dead 3."  I suppose I shouldn't begrudge the Madea fans "Tyler Perry's A Madea Family Funeral," but really now.  I also have some very strong doubts about "The Girl in the Spider's Web," being billed as a sequel to "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," especially since the source material seems pretty shaky.  It really feels like the opportunity for this franchise to take off has come and gone.  I'm still holding out some hope (perhaps unwisely) for "X-men: The Dark Phoenix," and "Creed 2," even though Sylvester Stallone has way too much creative control here for comfort.

And now we come to the films from floundering talent that Hollywood may be willing to give more chances, but I'm not.  While I enjoy Melissa McCarthy on occasion, her collaborations with husband Ben Falcone have been reliably terrible.  So "Life of the Party" is getting a hard pass.  Illumination Entertainment has a lousy track record and made a mess of "The Lorax," so I have zero faith in their ability to adapt "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."  And then you have "The War With Grandpa," a kids' film from the director of "Alvin and the Chipmunks," "Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties," and "Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever." I don't know how Robert De Niro agreed to be in this thing, but his recent string of comedy roles hasn't exactly been inspiring either.

There are also a ton of iffy-looking remakes on the schedule (Did we really need another "Valley Girl"?), several long-gestating projects like "The Happytime Murders" and "The Meg" that I never thought would see the light of day, and three of my least anticipated superhero films of all time: "Ant-Man and the Wasp," "Aquaman," and "Venom."  However, there are enough talented people involved with all of these that I'll leave them as question marks for now.  

It's not all doom and gloom though.  Look out for my lists of my most anticipated  films of 2018 in a month or two, after Sundance.  And I'll have my list of my most anticipated web and television programs of 2018 up in a day or two.