Sunday, March 25, 2018

Look Out for "Lady Bird"

Greta Gerwig's directing debut is exactly what I expected to some extent, a story about an immature young woman coming to terms with her own faults as she enters a new stage of her life. Christine "Lady Bird" MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a high school senior who yearns to leave the suburban boredom of Sacramento to attend college on the East Coast "where culture is." She refuses to let her difficult personal circumstances diminish her confidence in herself. These circumstances include being part of a financially struggling family, not being especially smart or talented, and having some wholly unrealistic expectations of how her life is going to play out. In short, she echoes several characters that Gerwig has played in other films over the past decade, like "Frances Ha," which she co-wrote, and "Damsels in Distress."

What distinguishes "Lady Bird," however, is all the different relationships that the main character has to navigate. There's her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), her biggest booster, who Lady Bird often takes for granted. There are her love interests, theater kid Danny (Lucas Hedges) and wannabe rebel Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). There's her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), a bit of a depressed schlub but mostly a positive presence. And then there's Lady Bird's loving, frustrating mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe), who keeps trying to bring her daughter's head out of the clouds, and winds up nagging and clashing with her constantly. This is not just a film about Lady Bird, but about her whole universe of friends and loved ones, who all have their own problems to overcome. She spends a lot of the movie testing, redefining, and reconsidering all of these relationships, and through them her values and priorities.

This is very familiar ground for a coming-of-age story, but the execution is really what makes or breaks it, and the execution here is just wonderful. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe are both fantastic, playing characters who can be completely fed up with each other one minute, and then oohing over a rare find at the thrift shop together the next. Ronan is especially good at finding all these ways to keep reminding us that Lady Bird is naive rather than truly selfish, and still experimenting with her own persona and identity. We get to understand why those around her are willing to overlook flaws and put their faith in her, and it's such a joy to see that pay off in various ways. The film is also densely packed with smaller character portraits, often unexpectedly funny or touching ones. I love the way that these little mini-arcs are sprinkled throughout, some which you won't even notice are happening until a final punchline or sudden reversal. For instance there's the theater program's director, Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson), humanized so wonderfully with a handful of small scenes.

I also appreciate that the movie has such a strong sense of time and place, in many ways acting as a love letter to Sacramento and its community. Gerwig has acknowledged that the film is autobiographical to an extent, taking place where she grew up. This may also be the most positive portrayal of the Catholic school experience in some time, as Lady Bird attends one as a scholarship student, and finds no shortage of healthy encouragement and support there. Faith, though not examined very directly, is certainly thematically present in an engaging way. Like many things in the film, it doesn't call attention to itself, but turns out to be crucial. I suspect that some may find the film's ending too nostalgic, but the movie earns its warmer sentiments as Lady Bird's worldview widens and changes. The film gets a considerable boost from letting some of Gerwig's present day POV sneak into the finale.

"Lady Bird" is a very strong film, with its success due largely to its smart writing and a collection of good performances. However, I will give Greta Gerwig all due recognition for finding her own style and her own voice as a director. "Lady Bird" couldn't be mistaken for the work of Noah Baumbach or any of her other past collaborators. And this has me very excited to see where she'll go next.


Friday, March 23, 2018

My Top Ten Episodes of "Saved by the Bell"

Because I desperately need a break from writing about Oscar movies, let's go back to Bayside High School for a quick jaunt down memory lane. Now, I need to state a couple of caveats about this list. The picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate, but due to production snafus, a bunch of the completed episodes from the first season wound up airing much, much later in the show's run so this is obviously not in any chronological order. Also, I chose to ignore the quasi prequel series "Good Morning, Miss Bliss," which was used to pad out the syndication runs of the series, and all the sequel series.

"Dancing to the Max" - I identified with Jessie the most out of the kids, because she was brainy and had a non-conformist streak, but still worried about stupid teen stuff like being too tall. I also love that the actual dance contest puts everyone in silly costumes and choreographs silly dances for them. And did any kid still know who Casey Kasem was in 1989? I sure didn't.

"Cream for a Day" - There are a couple of good visual gags in this one, as Zach and Screech's homemade zit cream scheme blows up in their faces and threatens Kelly's chances at being Homecoming Queen. And a special shoutout to Crater Face Coburn, the show's best one-shot character, whose annoying laugh I can somehow still remember after more than twenty years.

"Beauty and the Screech" - The idea of a cheerleader dating a geek was apparently such an earth-shaking notion that Kelly and Screech's brief romance required comment by President Bush ("Way to go Screech!") and Mikhail Gorbachev. And Zack and Slater's nightmare of a world where nerds are heartthrobs is all the more hilarious now for being so woefully out of date.

"Jessie's Song" - I was young enough to take the caffeine pill addiction story at face value long before it became the show's most notorious example of over-the-top cheesiness. It was a drug episode that didn't even use actual drugs! So while the episode is entertaining to see now in a rubberneck-the-car-crash kind of way, I still find myself feeling for poor, pill-popping Jessie.

"The Fabulous Belding Boys" - There's really only one reason that I'm listing this, Screech's immortal line: "A building with two Beldings, one of whom is balding." I have no idea how Principal Belding didn't murder Screech during all those years during "The New Class" where Screech was his assistant. Anyway, humanizing the schlubby authority figure is always nice to see. Cheers.

"Breaking Up is Hard to Undo" - Zack, Slater, and Mr. Belding briefly swear off women and embrace bachelorhood together, before coming to their senses and winning back their respective mates. This involves Screech dressing up as Kelly for reenactments with Zack and Slater demonstrating his appreciation for ballet in a manner that no teen girl will ever forget.

"Rockumentary" - Casey Kasem returns! This is probably my favorite episode of the series because it's actually a successful spoof of "Behind the Music" rock docs of the era, and the band's signature song, "Friends Forever," is pretty catchy. Also, you've got to love the fake flash-forward reunion that sees Zack become the "male Madonna" and Lisa join an "American Gladiators" knockoff.

"Mystery Weekend"- Any episode where Larry Cedar guest stars and winds up in drag is a good episode. Anyway, sticking the cast in the middle of an extended mystery spoof is a nice break from formula. Screech gets to dress up and annoy people, horrible British and French accents abound, and the resolution really makes no sense whatsoever. But really, nothing does in this show.

"Snow White and the Seven Dorks" - The gang in a rap version of "Snow White" where Slater plays an eighth dwarf named Studly? How could I not love this? Of all the episodes about contrived love triangles (and there were lots), this was probably the most contrived, but also oddly the most satisfying. I guess I just liked seeing the fairy tale formula turned on its head in the name of love.

"Slater's Friend" - I swear the plot to this episode was stolen from "The Cosby Show." Anyway, Artie the lizard (obviously plastic) gets a glorious sendoff, marked by a rewritten version of "Danny Boy" sung with fearless gusto by Elizabeth Berkeley. It's really terrible and quite sweet at the same time. I guess that's how I still feel about "Saved by the Bell" in general. It's a mess, but a fondly remembered one.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Watching Terrible Netflix Originals

I've been following Netflix's forays into moviemaking and movie distribution with considerable interest over the past few years (disclaimer - I'm still technically one of their shareholders).  I've happily charted their growing success with prestige fare, notably their fantastic documentary selections and their support of smaller indie productions like "Mudbound" and "The Meyerowitz Stories."  However, all the attention lately has been on their bigger budget genre fare, the titles aimed at more mainstream tastes. Namely, how they've been absolutely terrible.

Over the past few months, Netflix has premiered the fantastical Will Smith cop procedural "Bright," the space thriller "The Cloverfield Paradox," and the futuristic noir, "Mute."  I've watched them all and been sorely disappointed each time, despite doing my best to ignore the lousy reviews. "Mute" was high on my list of anticipated films for the past two years.  The best thing I can say about these movies is that they're all bad in different ways. "Bright" is a half-baked premise, badly executed by a director with the totally wrong sensibilities for it.  "Paradox" is a subpar take on a typical horror scenario, made worse by being retrofitted as part of the "Cloverfield" franchise. Then there's "Mute," a high concept passion project gone very, very wrong.  

The last time I wrote about Netflix originals, I claimed that the platform felt like it had become a distributor of last resort.  This latest batch of films doesn't do much to dispel that notion. An interesting wrinkle is that "The Cloverfield Paradox" was initially a Paramount film in line for a traditional theatrical release like the previous two "Cloverfield" films, originally with a release date of February, 2017.  However, after several significant delays and the growing likelihood that Paramount was going to lose money on the film, it was acquired by Netflix in a surprise deal. They announced it with a Superbowl ad that also announced the film's immediate release online, a marketing gimmick that made headlines.  

In fact, there's every indication that these films are doing quite well for Netflix.  "Bright" has been hailed as a success, with plenty of viewers who enjoyed it, and sequels reportedly in the pipeline.  Initial Nielsen numbers for "The Cloverfield Paradox" indicate that it didn't do nearly as well, but it was definitely a huge topic of conversation due to the marketing stunt.  Also, consider the advantage that the Netflix releases have - limited marketing costs, few early reviews, none of the expenditures required for theatrical exhibition, and no access issues.  Everyone with a Netflix account could watch "Paradox" instantaneously after the Superbowl.

The "Paradox" deal, along with one that gives Netflix the distribution rights to "Annihilation" in foreign markets, has suddenly created a potential new escape hatch for the studios looking to offload projects that are expected to underperform in theaters.  Paramount recouped the cost of "Paradox" instead of losing money. Netflix got a flashy new piece of content. It's a win-win for both sides, right? Well, I worry that if these higher profile Netflix films keep getting such terrible reviews, eventually the viewers are going to cry wolf and start avoiding them.  And a stunt like the Superbowl Netflix ad is going to have diminishing returns quickly. Netflix may not be able to repeat it at all.

And yet, this string of films being so awful may have just been bad luck.  "Bright" might have worked better in other hands. "Mute" came from a usually dependable director, Duncan Jones, who previously made "Moon" and "Source Code."  "Paradox" came to Netflix because it was projected to be a flop, not because it was a bad film. "Annihilation" was also a domestic bust at the box office, but has seen heaps of critical praise.  And considering all the development deals Netflix has been making lately with top tier talent, and several extremely promising projects in the works, including Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman," eventually one of these films is going to be a winner.

I'm glad that Netflix has strengthened its position as a major player in the media world, and the rest of Hollywood is starting to treat it like one.  However, one bothersome detail that worries me about their distribution practices is that "Bright," "Cloverfield Paradox," and "Mute" have had no theatrical releases to date.  It seems that their past fights with exhibitors has resulted in them skipping the theaters entirely when it comes to films that aren't up for awards contention. Another worry is, then, that if deals like the ones with Paramount  become more common, films like "Annihilation" that should be seen on a big screen might miss out.

To be continued...

Monday, March 19, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 1990

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.

Close-Up - A fascinating conundrum of a film, about the nature of filmmaking itself. "Close-Up" was originally meant to be a documentary about an imposter who passed himself off as a famous filmmaker. However, the involvement of Abbas Kiarostami, whose examinations and recreations of the events heavily blur the lines between fact and fiction, wind up changing the course of the story in some key ways. By the end of the film, you could say that the imposter's actions ultimately did allow him to make good on his word and become a real filmmaker in his own right.

Edward Scissorhands - Tim Burton's most sentimental and heartfelt fairy-tale creates a new kind of movie monster in Edward Scissorhands, played by Johnny Depp channeling the great silent comedians. Simultaneously an homage to the the Gothic creature features of his youth and a goof on the pastel suburbia of Southern California, this was Burton at the height of his creative powers. The imagery may have clashed and some ideas were dead ends, but there was never a film more soulfully earnest in its portrayal or more sympathetic to the perspective of the lonely outsider

The Match Factory Girl - Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki presents a brief, but memorable tale of a poor soul who lives a life of unrelenting misery. The protagonist, Iris, is a curious figure who seems to absorb all the cruelties inflicted upon her with a passive detachment, until she hits a crucial breaking point. Past that moment, she goes from victim to merciless villain with chilling ease. It's never clear how much sympathy we're meant to have for Iris, but it certainly is easy to identify with her, and to become invested in her campaign of cold revenge with uncomfortable ease.

Awakenings - The 1990 Robert DeNiro film everyone remembers is "Goodfellas," of course, but I prefer him the the gentler, quieter role of Leonard Lowe, an encephalitis patient who is "awakened" from catatonia one day by a new treatment, decades after falling ill. "Awakenings" is the kind of warmly humane, perfectly balanced tragicomedy that nobody seems to make anymore. The material is handled with such delicacy and good humor that it never comes across as schmaltz. And neither does it shy away from the poignancy and pathos, which feel unusually well-earned.

Ju Dou - The film that really cemented the brilliance of Zhang Yimou's work with his greatest leading lady, Gong Li. As with many of Zhang's best films, the story reveals the cruelties of strict traditional Chinese family roles, and the folly of rebellion. It is also visually spectacular, taking place in a silk dyeing mill where the brightly colored fabrics and dyes often mirror the emotions of the passionate lovers. My favorite sequence is a funeral toward the end of the film, that requires the relatives of the deceased to be subjected to several unexpectedly hilarious mourning customs.

The Grifters - A story of confidence artists and criminal dealings that is the opposite of slick and stylish. "The Grifters" exposes a seedy, desperate world where loyalties are few and everyone's luck ultimately turns bad. This is the film that first got me to pay attention to British director Stephen Frears. It also features career highlights for Angelica Houston and Annette Bening, plus a key transitional role for former teen star John Cusack. As crime thrillers go, there are few that can match this one for narrative twistiness and pitch-black humor. The ending in particular is a stunner.

Miller's Crossing - The sight of Albert Finney gunning down his would-be assassins with a Thompson, in his bathrobe, and then relighting his half-smoked cigar, is one of my favorite images in all of the Coen brothers' extensive and wonderful filmography. Full of classic characters and dialogue, with a melancholy atmosphere, this is a mobster story that isn't afraid of a little levity, a little whimsy, and a little existential musing. Also note that this is one of the two films on this list with cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld before he embarked on his directing career.

Misery - Directed by Rob Reiner, shot by the aforementioned Barry Sonnenfeld, written by William Goldman, based on the book by Stephen King, and totally dominated by the menacing performance of Kathy Bates, "Misery" remains one of the best claustrophobic thrillers ever made. It's also one of the scariest King adaptations because the situation is so plausible, and it just escalates and escalates to these terrifying heights. As for Annie Wilkes, she's a good reminder that screen villains don't have to be ostentatious to be effective. Sometimes they can even be terribly sweet.

Goodfellas - This is not a film that I am fond of revisiting, but "Goodfellas" has been such a massive influence on every crime picture and television show that came after it, there's no denying its power and importance. The Copacabana tracking shot, the dinner at Tommy's with his mother (played by Scorsese's mother), and Ray Liotta's opening and closing monologues are my favorite moments, but they're not even among the most iconic parts of the film. To this day, Scorsese retains a reputation for making mob movies, largely due to the success of "Goodfellas."

Quick Change - The Bill Murray comedy everyone forgets, though it's one of his best. He plays one of a trio of bank robbers trying to make it to their flight out of town with the stolen loot, but of course there are unforeseen complications. I love the movie for the surreal dark comic vignettes throughout, like the unintelligible taxi driver played by Tony Shalhoub, or the final stretch to the airport with the old Mexican flower seller. And I love it for the cast, which includes a winning Geena Davis and a lovable Randy Quaid, who gets more and more hilariously distraught as the film goes on.

Honorable Mention

Joe Versus the Volcano


Saturday, March 17, 2018

"I, Tonya" Takes No Prisoners

Biopics have acquired a reputation in recent years for being a little on the stuffy side. Almost solely sold as prestige pictures, and commonly populated by Very Important Historical Figures, it's easy to feel cynical about them. And now along comes a blisteringly caustic look at the life of the notorious figure skater Tonya Harding, who I think it's fair to say everyone wrote off as a miserable sore loser twenty years ago. It is the opposite of stuffy, full of terrible people doing terrible things to each other. It is also very, very entertaining to watch.

"I, Tonya" is structured like a fake documentary, built around interviews with modern day versions of Tonya Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who narrate and interject their thoughts on the scenes of their younger selves playing out in the past. We also hear from Tonya's estranged mother LaVona (Allison Janney), one of her old coaches, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), a bodyguard, Shaun (Paul Walter Hauser), and a producer (Bobby Cannavale) for the old television tabloid "Hard Copy." This allows for a lot of fourth wall breaking humor and meta-commentary. We're told from the beginning that many of the accounts are contradictory, and there are some flat-out lies. At one point, Tonya even pauses in the middle of a fight with Jeff in one of his recollections to protest to the audience that "I never did this!"

Watching Tonya's trainwreck of a life and career play out in this fashion often feels like watching trashy reality television, but the scripting is smart enough to get across some uncomfortable messages and make a strong case for why Harding's awful reputation is worthy of reassessment. This is not about setting the record straight, but about giving a vilified figure a chance to have her say, while introducing a lot of new information that suggests certain events should be viewed in a different light. Wisely, the film doesn't play up any rivalry between Harding and Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), but suggests that "the incident" where Gillooly paid to have Kerrigan attacked, was mostly the result of several stupid people making stupid decisions that spiralled out of their control. Exactly how culpable Harding was in the crime is left for the audience to decide.

Margot Robbie is the main event here, delivering a ferocious performance that paints Tonya Harding as a deeply flawed, monstrous, tragic woman with everything stacked against her. Robbie doesn't look much like Harding, but is excellent at embodying all the resentment, pain, and misdirected fury that set her on her path to ruin. She lashes out at everyone, including the audience in a cutting monologue toward the end of the film. And just as impressive are an unrecognizable Sebastian Stan as the lowlife Jeff Gillooly, and Allison Janney as one of the most chilling, merciless stage mothers to ever grace the silver screen. The script does an admirable job of keeping them both very human though, with their moments of doubt and regret. The film recognizes that if it lets Tonya Harding say her piece, it has to let her worst abusers say theirs too.

The faux-documentary style allows the filmmakers to play around with various forms of media and framing devices to great effect. Shaun the bodyguard, for instance, only appears via degraded, low quality video tapes in his interviews, mirroring his shady nature. Drawing attention to these various filters on the film's reality is very fitting, as so much of Tonya Harding's bad girl image was due to the way that the media in 1994 decided to portray her. Where the production stumbles a bit is with the depictions of the figure skating, which largely uses digital doubles. There's something about the results that never look quite right, possibly because Margot Robbie really is far too lanky and angular to pass for a professional figure skater. Fortunately, the majority of the drama takes place off the ice.

"I, Tonya" makes a great case for biopics still being a genre that can generate some good, watchable movies, especially when they choose the right subjects. I can't imagine a biopic about Nancy Kerrigan being half as eventful or as much fun as this.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Three Billboards" and "Call Me By Your Name"

Quick thoughts on two of the year's big Oscar contenders.

Martin McDonagh's third film is a dark comedy about violence and revenge, much like the first two. This one, however, is easily the most successful to date, because it has the best characters and knows exactly where to stop. I've found McDonagh's previous work pretty uneven due to his insistence on over-the-top violence and fussy male leads I could never get very invested in. "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" doesn't have these problems.

Our protagonist is a stubborn woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose teenage daughter was raped and murdered several months ago. Frustrated by a stymied police investigation, she uses the three billboards of the title to call out police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). This turns the town against her and sparks an escalating feud between Mildred and the police department, especially one Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a troubled man with poor impulse control. Full of twists and turns and colorful characters, it is impossible to predict where the story is going to go.

The writing and the performances drive the film, especially as the situation becomes more complicated and morally murky. What initially looks like a fun, straightforward vigilante picture gets much thornier once it becomes clear that there's no real bad guy here to root against or easy resolutions. The violent outbursts and misdirected anger, as spectacular as they are to watch, are ultimately self-destructive. Watching each character figure this out, or fail to, or just not give a damn, is fascinating. I also appreciate the way that McDonagh uses the traditional structure of a murder mystery to pull the rug out from under the audience multiple times.

The ensemble is great, with Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell expertly lobbing insults and threats at each other, while teasing out their characters' humanity in the quieter moments. Rockwell undergoes an especially impressive transformation, quickly shedding the image of the simple racist hick he appears to be at first glance. Woody Harrelson also proves invaluable, though in a very different sort of role than I anticipated. My only real quibble with the film is the actual filmmaking itself, which is pretty pedestrian. McDonagh has a great ear for dialogue, but his vision of Ebbing, Missouri is disappointingly generic.

Now on to northern Italy, where a seventeen year-old Jewish-American boy named Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) and his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar) receive a new houseguest in the summer of 1983. This is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate student who Elio's father has invited to visit, and to help with an archaeological project. Though Elio and Oliver have little in common and keep their distance at first, as the long summer wears on, the two of them develop a friendship that quickly turns romantic.

I wasn't surprised to see Luca Gugadino's name on the picture as director, bringing the same immersive tactility to the encounters here that he did in "I Am Love." However, it was a nice surprise to discover that James Ivory, of the famed Merchant Ivory films, wrote the script. He's the one who does the heavy lifting of setting up the characters as very intellectual, with very Continental attitudes about love and sex. Elio, for instance, already has an active love life and can talk circles around Oliver when it comes to literature and music. The fact that he still has a lot of growing up to do doesn't make him less of an equal partner in the love affair.

In fact, "Call Me By Your Name" completely ignores all the potential minefields in Elio and Oliver's romance - their age difference, their homosexuality, Elio's parents, and even the fact that they're both in relationships with girls. The movie chooses to focus solely on the business of two people circling each other, seducing each other, and falling in love. And there's a lovely sort of simplicity to that, where we can just enjoy two characters having a summer fling without having to rummage through all their personal baggage. Instead, obscene amounts of screen time are spent showing off the picturesque Italian countryside and Armie Hammer's physique.

I spent the majority of the film mildly engaged with it, enjoying Chalamet and Hammer's performances, and soaking up the lush atmosphere. However, it didn't really grab me emotionally until very, very late. And it's Michael Stuhlbarg who ends up stealing the show with a beautiful monologue about love and heartbreak that neatly recontextualizes everything that came before. "Call Me By Your Name" was made for a certain audience of art house romantics and I don't quite fit the bill, but in the end it makes a good case for broader appeal.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

About That Sexy Fish-Man Movie

The first thing that struck me about Guillermo Del Toro's delightfully subversive new monster movie is how openly sexual it is. Our daring heroine, a mute woman named Eliza (Sally Hawkins), can be found pleasuring herself in the bath every morning as part of her usual routine. Likewise, the villain of the piece, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), appears to enjoy a healthy, if unfulfilling sex life. So I think it's quite logical to think of the entire film as a metaphor for sexual awakening and sexual freedom, directly going against the squeaky-clean, and often terribly repressive image of American family values in the 1960s, where our little fairy tale is set.

Eliza works as a cleaning woman for a government facility in Baltimore. She communicates via sign language with her two closest friends, her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay artist, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her outspoken black co-worker. One day the government scientists and military men bring in "The Asset" (Doug Jones), an amphibious humanoid who is kept in a tank and mistreated by Colonel Strickland, the man who captured him. Eliza slowly starts to communicate and forms a friendship with the creature. And after learning Strickland's terrible plans, she and one of the scientists, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhbarg), plot a daring escape.

"The Shape of Water" appears to be very deliberately designed as an inversion of the old monster movies and creature features of the Cold War era like "The Creature From the Black Lagoon." Our heroes are marginalized folks like minorities and homosexuals, a Russian spy turns out to be an unlikely ally, and the monster is presented as a charming romantic lead. Our villain aspires to be the paragon of American masculinity, and only ends up embodying the worst abuses of power and spiritual rot. The metaphors are extremely blatant here, to the point where I found them a little too heavily underlined and bluntly executed, especially where Shannon's character was concerned. However, when the film is being a romance, it is a charmer, full of dreamy aquatic imagery, and backed by a fanciful score that does some lovely things with a theremin.

The film is anchored by the excellent performance of Sally Hawkins. Eliza is silent and meek-looking, but very expressive and insistent when she wants to be. Hawkins also completely sells Eliza's feelings toward her amphibious beau, and despite a few silly moments, the romance is played completely straight. With two non-verbal lovebirds, body language becomes vital, and Hawkins and Doug Jones communicate with ease. They even pull off an unexpected, but very tender love scene. The rest of the ensemble is just as strong, particularly Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg.

Del Toro fans will be glad to find his usual phantasmagoric imagery here in full force. The effects work on the Asset in particular is a treat, and he's easily one of the most memorable monsters in Del Toro's considerable cinematic bestiary. Other visual wonders include haunting underwater scenes, the sinister government laboratory, a dream sequence recreation of a '30s movie musical set, a vintage theater, torrents of rainwater, and some of the most enticing slices of pie I've seen onscreen since "Waitress." Visually, "The Shape of Water" is well worth the watch.

And yet, I left the theater feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the film. I wanted more of Eliza and her fishy paramour. The chemistry between them was palpable, but the romance always felt a little one-sided. As fantastic a creature as the Asset was, I wish he'd been more of an active leading man as advertised. The little subplots with Jenkins and Stuhlbarg were wonderful, but they took up a lot of time, and frankly I'm not clear on why we spent so much of the third act with Michael Shannon's cartoonishly evil colonel as opposed to teasing out more of the mysteries around our main couple.

As with Del Toro's previous "Crimson Peak," this is a loving tribute to the films of an earlier age, and is at its best when it fully embraces all the genre conventions of its predecessors. However, at times the lack of subtlety is to its detriment, occasionally undercutting the delicate atmosphere and entrancingly weird romance. With more tightening of the script and a little more editing, this feels like it could have been something great. Instead, it's a solid, daring effort from a director who I'm always glad to find is still working.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Wonderful World of "The Florida Project"

In 2013, there was a film called "Escape From Tomorrow," which was an edgy, dark, psychological thriller shot guerilla style at the Disney parks in Florida. The film was meant to be subversive and critical of Disney as "The Happiest Place on Earth." It was not very good, but I thought it was a noble effort. And now we have a film made in the same spirit that does almost everything right.

Sean Baker, best known for "Tangerine," is back with "The Florida Project." Again, he returns to the lives of the marginalized, this time the tenants of a budget motel called The Magic Castle, not too far away from the Disney theme parks. Six-year-old Moonnee (Brooklynn Prince) lives there with her foul-mouthed, unemployed mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), and spends most of her time playing unsupervised with other children around the motel. The closest thing they have to a babysitter is the manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who puts up a stern front, but lets a lot of things slide.

None of the Disney IP appears in the film directly, aside from a quick shot of Cinderella's castle, but its presence is felt everywhere. The stores all have signs promising Disney merchandise, and a major plot point involves Halley pawning off stolen park passes. Most of her income comes from grifting and running little cons on unsuspecting tourists in parking lots, behavior that Moonnee is starting to emulate. All of it emphasizes the massive gulf that exists between the lives of the motel dwellers and the heavily marketed Disney experience. Despite living practically next door, all that the kids get to experience of the parks is watching the fireworks from an empty lot nearby.

And the real magic, of course, is that Moonee and her friends don't understand that they're so badly off. Through their eyes, their world is as colorful as any amusement park. The Magic Castle has a bright purple exterior and the Futureworld motel next door is adorned with rocket ships. Nearby businesses are all gaudy tourist traps with bright signage. Halley sports faded blue hair and is covered in tattoos. With all the adults too busy to look after them, the kids find their way into the Florida wetlands, abandoned condos, and every corner of the Magic Castle, constantly exasperating Bobby. It's all innocent fun, but only up to a point. As times goes on, Hallee's money troubles and spats with their neighbors start to compound, and some of Moonnee's pranks have serious consequences.

Little Brooklynn Prince gives Moonnee an irrepressible joy as she runs wild through the motel, fearlessly sasses every adult she comes across, and worms her way out of trouble. There's a tremendous poignancy in the moments of happiness she shares with her mother, who often indulges her and acts more like a playmate than a parent. The more time we spend with Halley in the second half of the film, struggling to get by, the more Bria Vinaite gets to shine. Halley may be close to rock bottom, but she's not going down quietly. And then there's Willem Dafoe, in the gentlest role I've ever seen him play, who keeps an eye on both of them with growing concern.

What I found the most endearing about "The Florida Project" is its tremendous sweetness. This is a film that has real faith in its characters and in humanity in general. There's a small, but solid community among the motel guests, and people look out for each other as best they can. Halley may be a mess, but she loves Moonnee fiercely. The kids may drive Bobby nuts, but he's quick to act to keep them out of harm's way. Even when things start to fall apart in the end, it always feels like everyone is trying to do right by Moonnee, as misguided as they may be.

The very, very end of "The Florida Project" has been rightly criticized for being too saccharine, and it ends up undercutting some of the film's messages too. However, I liked it because it left the characters on a hopeful note and re-emphasizes the sad implications of the Disney Dream. After all, it's when we're at our lowest that we need our fantasy lands the most.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Notes on the 2018 Award Season

This is the first year in a long time that I had to skip all the major awards ceremonies.  I found it was impossible to put aside the time to watch the multi-hour ceremonies all in one go, though I did eventually managed go back and watch the Oscars and Golden Globes in bits and pieces.  This was immensely frustrating for me because I generally enjoy award shows, and still managed to follow all the races. This was a pretty eventful year too, with a strong field of contenders, and all the fallout of the recent scandals in play.  

We're going to look back on this season as the year of #Metoo and #Timesup, the year that Oprah delivering an inspiring speech at the Golden Globes led to many people seriously pushing for her to run for office.  The award shows have always had political moments, but this year we weren't just ducking barbs at Trump and the NRA, but watching a painfully self-conscious industry in the middle of trying to redress an avalanche of past wrongs.  If the #OscarsSoWhite controversy had them scrambling to diversity and modernize, the far more visible post-Weinstein furor effected some breathtakingly fast changes. Several familiar faces are now persona non grata. The assets of the Weinstein Company were nearly bought by a female led investor group.  The Oscars went so far as to incorporate Time's Up content into an official Twitter campaign and parts of the ceremony itself.

This is doing absolutely nothing for the ratings, of course, which continue to slide even after the amazing gaffe with the Best Picture winner announcement last year.  "The Shape of Water" was also the highest grossing best picture winner in years, and the Academy Awards ceremonies usually see more interest when the contenders are more popular.  "Get Out" and "Dunkirk" were other box office winners, but it doesn't seem to have helped this year. Everyone still seems to love talking about what's going on at the Globes and the Oscars, and clips of the telecasts went viral afterwards, but nobody much seems to like watching them live anymore.  For my part, one of the reasons why I couldn't watch the Oscars is because ABC continues to make it impossible to watch it live online without a cable subscription.

It gets a little harder to care about who actually wins the Oscar statuettes every year.  With the exception of Roger Deakins finally getting his Best Cinematography win, and Jordan Peele's triumph in Original Screenplay, pretty much none of the major awards went to the nominees I wanted them to.  Sure, it was nice to see Guillermo Del Toro up on stage, because I love Del Toro and could listen to him talk for hours, but "The Shape of Water" was pretty far down in my rankings of the Best Picture nominees this year.  I suppose, like with Gary Oldman and Allison Janney, I don't mind so much because these are artists who have done plenty of good work in the past that I've enjoyed. I was more upset that Bill Paxton somehow wasn't in the In Memoriam montage (again).      

The actual ceremony was fun though.  I loved the montages. The jet ski running joke yielded some good things and had a magnificent punchline.  Jimmy Kimmel handled a lot of politically charged material with admirable directness and sensitivity, way better than Seth Meyers managed at the Globes.  And I will never not applaud an appearance by Eddie Vedder. It was heartening to see so much support in the room when Salma Hayek, Annabella Sciorra and Ashley Judd had their moment, and I can only hope that the momentum behind Times Up doesn't fade.  Hollywood still has a long way to go.

I fully expect to be back to watching the Oscar ceremony live next year, or at least a lot sooner than I managed this year.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Youtube and Kids

The last couple of months have made it very clear that Youtube is a terrible platform for children's media, despite them having put some significant efforts into a Youtube Kids' app. Most of the problems boil down to Youtube still being almost a total free-for-all, governed by machine algorithms that will weed out anything with a hint of copyrighted music, but that does nothing to help ensure that that videos aimed at kids are actually appropriate for kids.

One of the most high profile issues has been "Elsagate," the controversy named after Elsa from "Frozen," who has shown up in all kinds of bizarre Youtube videos that appear to have been created specifically to target young viewers who will watch anything with Elsa in it without question. Panicked parents have reported some of these videos have graphic violence, sex, and disturbing content. And it's not just Elsa of course, but other Disney characters, Peppa Pig, My Little Pony, Spider-man, the Sesame Street muppets, and any other popular children's character you could name.

Much of the media coverage around Elsagate has focused on the weird, cheaply made videos that appear to be mass-generated animation shorts, with nonsense titles designed to hit as many popular keywords as possible. Created with very little apparent human input, these are clearly designed to rack up views and advertising dollars. Other videos are more elaborate, with live actors and surreal situations. The most upsetting are the satirical ones purposefully filled with shock imagery and adult humor, but easily mistaken for children's content. Because Youtube's computer algorithms can't tell these videos apart from the legitimate ones for children, they would pop up in the queue of "recommended" videos after your watched something with the same characters, songs, or format. Unattended kids who didn't know better would click on them. Or if the autoplay was on, they didn't even need to do that much.

And then consider the case of Logan Paul, a popular Youtube personality who generates video diaries of himself being a "savage" prankster to millions of adoring fans, most of them children. The recent stunt that landed him in hot water was filming a corpse in a Japanese forest that's popular for suicides. Paul and his cohorts behaved like jackasses on the video, prompting a wave of backlash. However, it's notable that Youtube didn't actually pull the video - Paul did it himself in response to the criticism. And there hasn't been any apparent pushback regarding any of his other videos that show him running around Japan harassing the locals and behaving badly. I want to emphasize again that the majority of Logan Paul's fans are kids. And he's far from the only purveyor of this kind of content. Last year, the DaddyofFive channel came under similar scrutiny for videos that showed abusive "pranks" being inflicted on the youngest members of the Martin family - activity that ultimately resulted in the parents losing custody of two of the children. DaddyofFive's subscriber base also appears to be mostly kids.

In short, kids like watching a lot of content that's absolutely terrible for them to be watching, and Youtube has proven to be an easy way for them to access it. The scolds have complained of bad parenting, but several generations have set their kids down in front of television sets to watch cartoons and puppets and silly grown-up actors without having to worry about this kind of hazardous material. The internet, however, has never been subject to the kind of stringent - and some would say outdated - content regulation as the television airwaves. Over the last few years as the mother of a toddler, I learned that it is very unwise to watch any online video content without headphones on. Profanity is plentiful among Youtube personalities, and nobody warns for content. Of course, there are no automatic bleeps to cover up F-bombs, and no blurring of nudity. Even with parental controls and age restrictions, filtering out the videos with objectionable content has been a challenge. I don't want to be a helicopter parent, but sometimes it feels like I don't have much of a choice.

Youtube's reaction to Elsagate has been to ban several of these content creators, demonetize the videos of others, and it's gone on a hiring spree figure out how to fix its algorithms and keep young viewers away from the worst of this kind of content. They're planning much more stringent requirements for monetization, including a layer of human checks, but I suspect that it's too little too late. There's far too much content being uploaded to Youtube now to implement the kind of broader review system that would make Youtube more kid-friendly. Also, they're clearly only willing to go so far. Both Logan Paul and the Martin family are still active on the site, despite the negative publicity having lost them viewers.

To be clear, Youtube as it exists in its current form has plenty of good aspects. However, like the wider internet, I'd never give a kid unrestricted access to it. There are far too many content creators out there willing to trade on children's naivete for clicks. Or worse.


Monday, March 5, 2018

2018 Films I'm Anticipating, Part 2

This is a continuation of my list of the 2018 films I'm anticipating most. This post is for the smaller films, many of which don't have distribution or release dates yet. There's a good chance that a few won't be released in 2017 at all. However, I remain an optimist, and I'm spotlighting all of them regardless. Films are listed in no particular order below.

You Were Never Really Here - Lynne Ramsay's thriller about a violent man doing a violent job won major prizes at Cannes last year, including a Best Actor laurel for Joaquin Phoenix. Amazon snagged the rights and will be releasing it in April. It has been far, far too long since we've had a film from Ramsay, though I'm certainly looking forward to more good work from Phoenix too. I find it a little odd that Amazon sat on this for nearly a whole year and sat out the awards race though.

The Little Stranger - Lenny Abrahamson is working on a Gothic ghost story next, based on a Sarah Waters novel. I'm interested in this one primarily for the cast, which includes Domhnall Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Ruth Wilson, and Will Poulter. Abrahamson's been hit-or-miss for me, but he certainly has a nose for good material and seems like a good fit for a supernatural thriller. This was picked up last year by Focus, and we can expect a release around Labor Day.

Psychokinesis - I don't know much about this movie except that it's some kind of superhero comedy and "Train to Busan" director Yeon Sang-ho is at the helm. The trailer makes it look like the South Korean answer to "Chronicle," which would be fantastic. Netflix picked up distribution rights, so when exactly we'll get to see this is unclear. There are several other Netflix releases I'm also keeping an eye on, including "Outlaw King," and the restored "The Other Side of the Wind."

Fahrenheit 451 - The last person I would expect to find directing an adaptation of "Fahrenheit 451" is Ramin Bahrani, who is best known for very small scale films about vulnerable people living on the lowest rungs of society. But why shouldn't he? The Bradbury story doesn't need to be some CGI-smothered epic, and it certainly has characters who exist on the fringes. The cast is lead by Michael B. Jordan, and we can also expect appearances by Michael Shannon and Sofia Boutella.

Peterloo - British director Mike Leigh has quietly become a powerhouse director of period films over the course of his career, notably "Mr. Turner" and "Topsy-Turvy." His next, the historical drama "Peterloo," looks to be one of his most ambitious projects yet. It revisits a notorious massacre that happened two hundred years ago during a political protest in in Manchester, England. Rory Kinnear, Christopher Eccleston, and Maxine Peake will lead the ensemble cast. Amazon will be distributing.

The House That Jack Built - It's strange to think that this is Lars von Trier's first film that is properly about a serial killer since the '80s, considering how violent and depraved his work usually is. Matt Dillon will star as the titular Jack, an American killer operating in the '70s, and Von Trier has already gone and described the film as celebrating "the idea that life is evil and soulless." He also wants to premiere it at Cannes this year despite being banned from the festival, of course.

Burning - Frankly, I'd watch the film no matter what it was about, since it's the first feature from the great Korean director Lee Chang-Dong in an unfathomable eight years. Hi last one, "Poetry," is still one of my favorite films of the last decade. However, what's really intriguing here is that "The Walking Dead" alum Steven Yeun will be playing one of the three leads, a character who is possibly an arsonist. Plus, the source material is a Haruki Murakami short story I'd never heard of.

The Nightingale - Jennifer Kent is following up "The Babadook" with a period revenge picture, set in Tasmania. Apparently this is also a female-led horror film of some stripe, though details are still scarce. I'm very heartened that Kent is staying in Australia and focused on making her own films for now, instead of answering Hollywood's call. Sony has the distribution rights for this one, and we should be seeing it Stateside toward the end of the year, in time for awards season.

Suspiria - Luca Guadagnino is tackling this remake of the classic Italian horror film, with Dakota Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Tilda Swinton, and Jessica Harper - yes, Jessica Harper. Guadagnino hasn't done much genre work, but his deeply sensual style could translate very well to a horror picture. Also, while I appreciate some of the imagery, "Suspiria" was always a movie I found difficult to understand, and I'm hoping for a version with a more coherent story.

The Favourite - I'm not a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos's recent work, though the man clearly has talent. So I'm intrigued by his next project, which looks to be a possible break from form. He'll be directing a period drama, set in the court of Queen Anne during the 18th century. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz will star as two rival noblewomen, jockeying for power. There's only so far Lanthimos can impose his usual nihilistic tendencies on something like this - though I may be wrong.


Saturday, March 3, 2018

2018 Films I'm Anticipating, Part 1

It's that time again! I write these posts every year a little later than everyone else, in order to get a better sense of what the year's film landscape is going to look like. There are never guarantees about what's going to make it to screens by December and what isn't.

As always, I will split this feature up into two posts, one for the mainstream, would-be blockbusters released by big studios, that everybody hears about, and one for the art house fare that may break through to the mainstream eventually, but only the cinephiles anticipate this far in advance. Big releases go first. Films are ordered below by release date. There are also a couple of titles that were delayed from 2017, like "Annihilation," which I'll leave off the new lists.

Ready Player One - It's been a long while since there's been a Spielberg film that really looks like something groundbreaking. Sure, we've seen virtual and online realities onscreen before, but this is a new beast in that it's playing with a big chunk of existing pop culture iconography. The more I've learned about the actual plot, the more I've curbed expectations, but I'm pretty certain that there will be images in this movie that I've never seen the likes of before.

The Incredibles 2 - It certainly has been long enough since the original film that nobody is going to accuse PIXAR of cashing in, but I'm still a little wary. Brad Bird's "Tomorrowland" was a bust, and the plot details I've seen point to this being a spiritual successor to "Mr. Mom," which feels a little outdated. Still, it's PIXAR, and they've repeatedly made good films out of unlikely premises, and most of their recent sequels like "Finding Dory" and "Cars 3" have been very decent.

Solo: A Star Wars Story - I'm bracing myself for a "Justice League" style Franken-film, but there's a part of me that really wants this to be a good time. I mean, look at that cast! Consider the story possibilities! And even if this is terrible, the drama that will unfold across the "Star Wars" fandom should be plenty entertaining. It's important to remember that even if this is a failure, it will be far from the franchise's first failure, and there's no way it'll be the most egregious one.

Deadpool 2 - I resisted the hype for a while, but I am really looking forward to having everyone's favorite foul-mouthed anti-hero mercenary back on the screen again. And I may be even more excited for Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Colossus to return. This time out, we've got the director of "John Wick" and a bigger budget to play with, which may or may not be a good thing. At least the casting of Cable is spot on. Josh Brolin looks fabulous in the costume.

Ocean's 8 - I'd be happy to watch Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, and Helena Bonham Carter, in any movie together, but I get a special thrill out of thinking about them taking over the stylish "Oceans" franchise together. We haven't had a big budget female ensemble film in ages, and certainly little that looks as fun as this. Alas, no Soderbergh, but Gary Ross is certainly no slouch. And I'm already hoping for sequels, crossovers, team-ups, and all the rest.

Crazy Rich Asians - I confess to Asian solidarity impulses at work here, but I sorely, sorely want this to be a hit. It has been so long since we've had anything with an East-Asian cast make any real waves with mainstream audiences. If crazy wedding catfights and disgustingly opulent lifestyle porn are required, so be it. I'm also very curious to see if Constance Wu can carry a movie and if Jon M. Chu is up to the task of doing something a little down to earth. Don't waste this shot, guys.

Bad Times At The El Royale - Hey, Drew Goddard is directing another film! The last time that happened, we got "Cabin in the Woods," one of my favorite comedies of the past decade. I suspect that the less we know going in, the better, but it involves Chris Hemsworth, Russell Crowe, and Jeff Bridges leading a cast of shady characters who clash at a rundown hotel in the 1960s. I suspect that it may be the kind of action comedy that I was hoping last year's "Free Fire" was going to be. Fingers crossed.

First Man - Damien Chazelle is taking on the Apollo program and the moon landing with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife. There are no indications that this is any sort of musical at this time, though I'd be completely okay with it if it was. While I wasn't a big fan of "La La Land," Chazelle is definitely a talent worth keeping up with, and I'll watch just about anything with Ryan Gosling in it - even if he's apparently going to turn himself into James Cromwell for the part.

Widows - This may be the year of the female ensemble heist movie. Steve McQueen is finally directing another flick, this one based on a British television series about the widows of group of robbers who were killed during a job gone wrong. Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, and Michelle Rodriguez will be leading the cast. This isn't as flashy a lineup as "Ocean's 8," but it's a strong one, and I'm very curious to see how McQueen is going to fare with a more mainstream project.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 - And here's our second movie where a lot of different IP all interact together in movie that simulates life online. I'm actually not all that excited about the epic Disney princess crossover we've been promised or Ralph and friends exploring the internet. I'm really just happy to see all of these characters again, as "Wreck-it-Ralph" is one of my favorite of the recent Disney animated features. Do we need a sequel? No, but it'll be fun anyway.


Thursday, March 1, 2018

Rank 'Em: "Black Mirror" Year Four

It took me longer than expected to watch all of "Black Mirror," in part because I really haven't been in the mood for bleak, nihilistic media lately. Fortunately, this run of episodes had fewer shocks, and there was only one episode that I would describe as properly disturbing. The quality of the show remains very high, but it's inevitable that some of the stories are beginning to feel repetitive. Several concepts from prior episodes are revisited or expanded upon. Still, there wasn't an egregiously bad one in the bunch, as there have been in previous seasons, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of it.

Episodes below are ranked from best to least, and I've tried to keep spoilers to a minimum.

"U.S.S. Callister" - How could it be anything else? You have a screamingly funny parody of "Star Trek" and MMOs, with references to Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," lead by a rocking girl geek who gets to kick workplace misogyny's butt. The climactic ending, wry humor, pop-culture references, and star-studded cast my strike some viewers as "Black Mirror" getting too mainstream, but this is as smartly written and darkly ironic as any other installment. It also looks absolutely gorgeous, with instantly iconic production design and costuming.

"Metalhead" - The closest thing to a pure horror episode this year pits a woman against a robot "dog" in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. It's the starkness and the simplicity of the premise that make this one so effective. There's long stretches of no dialogue and no music, and the black and white cinematography emphasizes the brutality of the situation. Few details are offered about the bleak universe, but it also points the viewer towards some pretty awful conclusions. The robot itself is all the more chilling because it is similar to already existing technology, and executed flawlessly.

"Black Museum" - The concluding chapter of this year's "Black Mirror" series could be treated as a series finale. It revists several concepts used in other episodes, not to mention all the Easter eggs and references. Like "White Christmas," it's another anthology of smaller wicked tales leading up to a big finale. And yes, it's pulpy and repetitive and has some gaping plot holes, but the execution is great. I also love the performance by Douglas Hodge as our sweaty tour guide, who happily embellishes all his stories of technological horrors. It also provides a couple of the show's best, most absurd images.

"Hang the DJ" - Breaks from formula to consider how online dating programs might evolve in the future. And this is all handled in a very thoughtful, evenhanded manner. The setup is pretty ingenious, and the only reason this isn't higher in the rankings is because I had some trouble with the central couple, who aren't as well fleshed out as I thought they could be. Still, this is a very refreshing change of pace for "Black Mirror," the only episode that I wouldn't describe as a thriller or horror piece from this series. I suspect more sentimental viewers would enjoy it more than I did.

"Arkangel" - Another episode where the idea for the story is sound, but the delivery could have been better. I don't have many specific complaints here, but this feels like one of those scripts that should have percolated a little longer. The Arkangel device is worryingly plausible, as are the actions of the helicopter mom, but there's something about the sequence of events and the reactions at the climax that felt much too forced. And it's a shame because there's ample material to mine from the way that new technology affects parenting and child development.

"Crocodile" - Even though I think this is the least successful episode of the set, with the most gimmicky premise and the most predictable plotting, it's a testament to the show's quality that there was plenty that I still liked about it. There's the picturesque Icelandic setting, the performances of both female leads, and the way that the insurance investigation story was handled. However, there were way too many contrivances in play, especially the ending. Also, it doesn't help that "Crocodile" is awfully similar to last year's "Shut Up and Dance."