Tuesday, May 29, 2018

"Roseanne" Goes Down in Flames

Well this is a cancellation I certainly didn't see coming.

When I wrote about the premiere of the revival season of "Roseanne" a couple of weeks ago, I was probably a little too optimistic. I thought that the character's support of Donald Trump was a good thing to see portrayed on television, and maybe it could help to mend the country's cultural rifts instead of deepening them. The show's creators insisted that the show wasn't going to be about politics, and mostly kept them out of spotlight, but I thought it was brave simply to bring up the incendiary subject matter in the first place.

What I did not realize was that Roseanne Barr, the actress, is a Trump supporter in real life, a conspiracy theorist, and apparently a raging bigot online. She's been parroting right wing talking points on Twitter for the past several months, which largely went ignored. However, after an especially ugly, racist tweet aimed at a former Obama advisor, ABC shockingly did the right thing and cancelled her show. Let me put that into further context. ABC cancelled the highest rated comedy currently airing on network television, and the third highest rated program overall. The success of the revival was so big, ABC built its entire Upfront presentation around it, and "Roseanne" was likely was responsible for a slew of other revivals and the un-cancellation of Tim Allen's "Last Man Standing." As one of the few outright hits of the last network television season, I fully expected the new "Roseanne" to run another hundred episodes or more.

However, as badly as I feel for everyone else involved in "Roseanne," who are now looking for work, I feel so happy that ABC made this decision, and made it so swiftly. It's exactly in keeping with the spirit of the #Metoo movement where Hollywood made several male stars persona non grata practically overnight, often massively impacting the production of current films and television series. It's also a relief to see this kind of reaction after months of Donald Trump's unhinged behavior on Twitter, where he lies and berates his political rivals constantly with impunity. Even if this kind of bullying is currently being tolerated or even encouraged in Washington D.C., it doesn't fly in the entertainment industry. It's a very strange time when Hollywood is consistently and publicly displaying more moral behavior than Capitol Hill.

The loss of the "Roseanne" revival is not a particularly great one to popular culture. I made it to the end of the current season, and debated over whether I wanted to bother writing up another post for it. The series remained consistently entertaining, but it was never as good as I wanted it to be. The episode with the Conners' new Muslim neighbors was pretty bad, but the episode where Johnny Galecki showed up as David was pretty good. All the guest spots were fun, especially Estelle Parsons' Bev shacking up with a new boyfriend played by Christopher Lloyd in Reverend Jim mode. All in all, I was hoping that the show would improve over further seasons, but that was far from a sure thing. I'm perfectly happy to let it go at this point.

Others, of course, are not. I've been watching the reactions to the cancellation unfold. There's been discussion of how the show might be salvaged by writing Roseanne out and creating a "Hogan Family" style spinoff. Or maybe a right-wing outlet might scrape the funds together to pick the show up from ABC. That's not likely, considering how much of the core talent has now gone on record distancing themselves from Roseanne Barr. Maybe co-showrunner Whitney Cummings sensed what was coming and got out ahead of the storm.

Out of everyone involved, I hope Sara Gilbert will find more work soon. Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman are much in demand and will land on their feet, but Gilbert was the one who I found that I'd really missed seeing on television, and she was a big reason why I felt that the "Roseanne" revival had a future. Now, I'm facing down another "Cosby Show" situation, wondering if the behavior of Roseanne Barr is going to end up ruining one of my favorite sitcoms for me permanently.

The situation is still shaking out as we speak, so I'm sure there will be more developments over the next few days, and the repercussions - both good and bad - are going to be felt for a long time to come.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 1988

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - There are some films where it feels like it's a miracle that they exist.  In the case of "Roger Rabbit," you not only have a ripping detective yarn told through the most technically astonishing combination of live action and traditional hand-drawn animation ever put on film, but somehow it also gets all the classic cartoon characters  from Disney and Warners to appear together on the same screen. Such a feat has never been accomplished since, or even attempted. And it's to the credit of every artist involved in this obvious labor of love that the movie is still a wonder to this day.

Cinema Paradiso - One of my favorite movie moments of all time is the ending of this film, a tribute to the movie magic of the past and the fans whose lives it helped to shape.  I am literally unable to hear Ennio Morricone's score for the film or even look at the poster art without welling up. I've only seen the longer version of "Cinema Paradiso," so I can't speak to the controversy about the international or Italian version of the film being superior, but either way I know this is an unassailable achievement in Italian filmmaking.  Of all the movies about loving the movies, there's nothing that remotely compares.

Dead Ringers - My very first David Cronenberg film, and one of his most potent and memorable explorations of body horror.  Jeremy Irons' double performance does most of the heavy lifting here, bringing the curious Mantle twins and their increasingly disturbing relationship to life.  What's really impressive here is that though there are allusions to the supernatural and threats of terrible violence, nearly all the horror in the film stays firmly in the realm of the psychological.  And yet it plays out like the most florid and ostentatious Grand Guignol, a macabre tragedy as impenetrable as it is entrancing.

Coming to America - A modern day fairy tale makes a prince of Eddie Murphy and a happy mockery of pampered foreign elites and the American immigrant experience.  The older the film gets, the more I appreciate its sense of humor and its commitment to its outlandish premise. The obscenely wealthy Zamundan royals in particular are an endless source of laughs.  The opening twenty minutes have some of the most fantastically silly and memorable gag work of the entire decade. This is also easily the best showcase of Eddie Murphy's relentless charm and talent at the height of his career.   

Die Hard - For a certain breed of red-blooded American, the original "Die Hard" might as well be a founding document.  It may not be the best action film ever made, but I think it's a strong candidate for being the most viscerally enjoyable.  The good guy is eminently relatable, spouts cool one-liners, and saves the day. The baddies are all greedy, deceptive nogoodniks, who underestimate our scrappy underdog.  The violence is plentiful and beautifully choreographed. It's no wonder that "Die Hard" became the template for so much media that followed, all the way up to the present day.    

Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro - 1988 was a fantastic year for animation, particularly Japanese anime.  To date, the industry has never made anything better than the unlikely Studio Ghibli double feature of Hayao Miyazaki's lovely childhood fantasy, "My Neighbor Totoro," and Isao Takahata's gutting war memoir, "The Grave of the Fireflies."  Both share similar animation styles and character designs, but their sensibilities couldn't be more different. "Totoro" is a lighthearted, pastoral adventure film filled with excitement and incident, but little conflict. The film's iconic fantasy creatures express themselves without words, and are easily understood by the smallest children.  The beautifully observed natural details and child's-eye view of the world would characterize much of Miyazaki's work. "Fireflies," by contrast, brings the audience into the intimate tragedy of a pair orphaned siblings trying to survive during WWII. Though often somber and elegiac, there are also moments of wonder here on par with anything I've ever seen in Ghibli's other films.  However, it's the emotional weight of the unfolding tragedy that makes it unforgettable. It remains my choice for the best animated film ever made.

Distant Voices, Still Lives - Watching Terence Davies' work feels like looking at snapshots of the past.  And so, two different periods in the lives of a British family are presented here like two different photo albums, one covering the 1940s and one covering the 1950s.  Both halves of the film are unusually immersive and feel painfully personal, showing the characters in both the good times and the bad. Music plays a central role, helping to establish communal ties, the changing atmosphere of post-war Britain, and the persistence of hope in even the darkest and most trying circumstances.

Rain Man - Dustin Hoffman is one of my favorite actors, and the iconic Raymond Babbitt is one of his career highlights.  The film is a smart examination of dysfunctional family dynamics and personal responsibility that provides an alternative to the usual, sentimentalized portrayal of people on the autism spectrum in films of the era.  It's immensely watchable too, using the common tropes of road trip and odd couple buddy movies to excellent effect. Tom Cruise also hasn't gotten nearly enough credit over the years for playing the harried straight man here to Hoffman's more colorful performance.  

The Thin Blue Line - If the techniques and format of Errol Morris's landmark investigative documentary feel overly familiar, it's only because so many other films and television shows have copied them over the years.  It's hard to imagine the true crime genre today without the use of crime scene reenactments and interview subjects talking directly to the camera. Morris's thorough, careful building of his case is still engrossing to see unfold onscreen, and the political implications remain sobering.  There are still very few films that have had such a tangible impact in such a specific, visible way.

Honorable Mention



Friday, May 25, 2018

My Favorite Wim Wenders Film

The road movie is not an American invention, but it is surely the natural home for them.  There's more open road and more empty expanse in America than in most other countries, with an ubiquitous car culture like no other.  So it should be no surprise that a German director who became famous for directing a series of deeply thoughtful, existential road movies should make his greatest one set in America.  

It's always fascinating to see America through the eyes of a foreign director, and Wim Wenders offers a particularly memorable view.  "Paris, Texas" presents an America that is so vast that a man can lose himself there wholly. The protagonist, Travis, played by Harry Dean Stanton, wanders into view at the beginning of the movie from out of an endless desert, his memory lost and his past a mystery.  Silent and unresponsive, it's not clear if he's all there. Travis's return to civilization is only the beginning of a long, eventful journey to find and try to reconnect to members of his family. He spends most of the film in transit, on foot and by car, traversing great distances both mentally and physically.  

Robby Müller's cinematography here is legendary, not only for the bleak landscape shots of the American West, but the eye-popping neon-lit night scenes, and the separation and merging of two people's faces through a pane of glass.  With such sparse dialogue, much of the story is told through the framing and interactions of the characters. Objects, places, and characters are color-coded to help chart the progression of Travis's journey, emotionally heightening many scenes.  What we're not shown and not told is often as important as what we are. Harry Dean Stanton's performance is another key element. Travis spends the early part of the film nearly catatonic, seemingly lost in his own world as he stumbles through the desert.  Looking as weathered and wild as the wilderness he emerges from, he's an intriguing, mysterious presence. And when his personality and emotions begin to resurface, he also proves a deeply compelling one. Stanton's scenes with Nastassja Kinski in particular are haunting, and it's here that Travis is finally revealed to be a tragic, elegeic figure.        

"Paris, Texas" follows the form of Wenders' previous trilogy of road movies, "Alice in the Cities," "The Wrong Move," and "Kings of the Road," which were  all set in and around European locales. However the story here, loosely based on the work of Sam Shepard, represents a clear shift in tone and content. The characters' journeys in the German trilogy were generally aimless, and represented a disorienting, but also freeing break from the established order, mirroring the changing times.  In "Paris, Texas," Travis is trying to return to a former state of being, represented by his efforts to reunify his scattered family. Regret and nostalgic yearning drive him, rather than a more amorphous search for meaning and purpose. And ultimately, this journey ends when he has to face the reality that he no longer has a place in the lives of his loved ones.    

The movie has been called Wenders' love letter to the vanishing American west, and can be classified as one of his many homages to American cinema.  Prior to "Paris, Texas," he directed American-influenced gangster and crime films, even casting some of his favorite American directors as lowlifes in "The American Friend."  Wenders has become as famous for his documentaries about other artists around the world as he is for his narrative features. He claims that his propensity for globetrotting started with his preparation for "Paris, Texas."  The characters criss-cross America, so Wenders went on his own road trip through the Midwest, taking the first series of photographs that would begin his "Pictures from the Surface of the Earth" project that now spans many countries and continents.  

So it's very tempting to want to connect the journey of Wim Wenders with that of his main character, searching for a bygone America that perhaps only existed in old movies.  Wenders, however, didn't fade away into obsolescence, but has continued making beloved, acclaimed films to this day. I suspect it's because he never really got off the road, even after he stopped making his road movies.  

What I've Seen - Wim Wenders

Alice in the Cities (1974)
The Wrong Move (1975)
Kings of the Road (1976)
The American Friend (1977)
Hammett (1982)
The State of Things (1982)
Paris, Texas (1984)
Wings of Desire (1987)
Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Pina (2011)
The Salt of the Earth (2014)


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The New Perils of Social Media

It has been a long time since I've written anything on this blog about social media, because I honestly don't use much of it these days.  I abandoned Twitter for the most part. I never used Snapchat or Instagram, being very privacy-conscious and a little paranoid about too much exposure.  Facebook, however, I still check daily, mostly to see what my friends and family are up to. I'm also still addicted to Reddit.

At the same time, social media has become the latest battle ground in the culture wars.  Russian bots and influencers have unleashed waves of fake news and other propaganda to influence unsuspecting users around the world.  Cambridge Analytica stole information left and right.  The neo-nazis, now rebranded the alt-right, use them heavily for recruitment. I remember the early days of Twitter, when people were scoffing at the prospect of anyone being able to say anything important with a 140-character limit.  Now it's the U.S. President's primary means of communication. Frankly, it's little terrifying.

Looking back over my own posts on the subject, we were all wrestling with these questions and pointing out the potential for abuse for years.  I was more worried about corporate giants trying to sell me things, honestly, as I watched the Facebook advertisements invade my feed and the proliferation of sponsored content popping up like daisies on news sites.  The hoaxers and the conspiracy theorists pushing alternative narratives and propaganda were very obvious, or so I thought, and I never took their efforts very seriously. The early skirmishes with fake news, like the ACORN scandal, felt like rare occurrences.  It wasn't until the 2016 election that everyone finally seemed to realize how susceptible a huge portion of the online public was to these tactics, and how willing various groups were to use them to push their agendas.

One of the biggest things that changed was the sheer volume of the propaganda.  A major early warning sign was the steady disappearance of comment sections on the major news sites, which were increasingly being taken over by vitriolic agitators.  Since the early days of the internet I would stumble across the occasional pocket of white nationalists or NRA die-hards who spent all their time online ranting about their pet causes, but they usually stayed in their own little bubbles.  Suddenly there was a new breed of more vocal, more aggressive zealots who were instigating fights everywhere you looked. And it makes so much sense now to know that a lot of these agitators weren't just our home-grown crazies, but deliberately deployed trolls from Russia and other countries looking to cause disruptions in online discussions.  So many sites just did away with comment sections because they didn't have the resources to deal with it.

Of course, social media can't do that because the whole point of them is the person to person interaction.  There's been a lot of hand-wringing about how to combat the onslaught of propaganda, mainly looking at ways to make the platforms more responsible for their content the way the old school media like television and newspapers are.  There's also been a huge push to educate the public about fake news and manipulation before the next round of American elections. Twitter and Facebook have made some very public efforts to curb hate speech and step up their enforcement of existing rules against notable bad actors.  How much of an effect they're actually having is a matter of debate, and it may be an issue of too little too late.

I've very carefully curated my Facebook experience so that there are almost no political postings.  I banished the majority of third party links and only a few odd relatives continue to rail about Trump or Marine Le Pen with any regularity.  Mostly I just see baby and vacation photos, and the occasional silly meme. In Reddit, I stick to the media subs and try to avoid the main subreddits.  It's a little harder, but I can usually ignore the trolls.

However, I know that this is no longer the common social media experience for a lot of people.  I've watched friends and relatives get caught up in online fights, share ridiculously hyperbolic or outright fake stories, and become increasingly polarized and pushed to the extremes of the political spectrum.  The fact that we're all liberals doesn't mean we're any less susceptible to the same mechanisms that got Trump elected.

To be continued...

Monday, May 21, 2018

The 2017 Movies I Didn't See

I've been writing these posts every year for the past several years to sort out my feelings toward some of the more prominent movies I've made a conscious decision to skip watching. Once again, I'm working through the last handful of 2017 films on my "To Watch" list, mostly foreign films with later domestic releases.  The bigger 2018 titles are starting to roll in, so it's time to make some decisions. This year I have to be especially tough, because the amount of time I have to consume media has shrunk considerably.

Below are seven movies that didn't make the cut this year.  I reserve the right to revisit and reverse my viewing choices in the future.   However, I still haven't watched anything from last year's list.

"Hostiles" - Well, I'm just going to be blunt.  I haven't enjoyed much of anything that director Scott Cooper has made, and I'm a little sick of Christian Bale at the moment.  "Hostiles" was positioned as an Oscar film, and got positive reviews, but little passionate reaction. And while I'm glad to see so many Native American actors employed in a film with authentic portrayals of Native Americans, that seems to be the best thing going for it.  And frankly, that's not enough, especially since the POV characters are still the white male characters. I'd be much more receptive to the film if it were actually about the Native American experience instead of your typical Hollywood movie about a white guy processing his trauma through interaction with another culture, a la "Dances With Wolves" and "The Last Samurai."     

"Suburbicon" - I think I've given George Clooney enough chances to dismiss this one sight unseen, especially considering the amount of negative press it has gotten.  Review after review lists the same complaints, that it's trying to do too much at once, and it doesn't have a handle on the satirical elements and the social commentary.  The presence of a Coen brothers' script sounds mildly intriguing, but the consensus seems to be that Clooney bungled the all-important tone, especially in regards to the parts of the movie dealing with a black family moving into an all-white neighborhood in the 1950s.  Oscar Isaac is supposed to be very good in this, and I do like Oscar Isaac very much, but not enough to want to watch this. Can Clooney just go be a humanitarian full time for a while?

"Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" - Another prestige pic that got some attention in the lead-up to the Oscars, but was never really a contender.  The performances got a lot of acclaim, and I like Annette Bening and Jamie Bell, but the particulars of the plot here make me cringe just reading them.  I haven't seen any film about the older Hollywood stars done well recently, including "My Week With Marilyn," "Trumbo," and "Hitchcock." There's just something terribly artificial about them, and the reliance on nostalgia often galls.  I'm not that familiar with actress Gloria Grahame, which might actually help here, but I suspect that the genre may just not be for me. And it's not a good sign that the director is Paul McGuigan, whose most recent film was the disastrous "Victor Frankenstein."

"Goodbye Christopher Robin" and "The Man Who Invented Christmas" - Two biopics about famous writers of literary classics that came out within a few months of each other.  Both seem to be following the "Shakespeare in Love" formula of explaining elements in the plots of the written stories by examining the lives of their authors, something that's hard to do well.  A lot of similar films end up feeling awfully contrived, like "Saving Mr. Banks." The reviews were decent for both of the new movies, but frankly I'm not enough of a fan of Winnie-the-Pooh or "A Christmas Carol" to care about the circumstances of their creation.  More to the point, both movies came and went quickly without much fanfare, so I doubt there's much to them worth making a fuss about.

"The Glass Castle" - Woody Harrelson had several smaller films out this year that I wound up skipping, including "Wilson" and "LBJ."  However, the one I feel bad about passing over is Destin Cretton's second film, "The Glass Castle." I enjoyed "Short Term 12" very much, and was interested in what he was going to do next.  However, the subject matter of "Glass Castle" gave me pause immediately. Dysfunctional family dramas are all well and good, but this one features exceptionally miserable content, including child abuse.  I kept this one on my "To Watch" list for a very long time, but ultimately the critics were fairly cool on it, so I was never in much of a hurry to seek it out. Eventually I just wrote it off as a title I didn't think I was going to get much out of.  

"The Snowman" - Now, in a different year I'd watch a movie like "The Snowman" just because of its notoriety.    Director Tomas Alfredson claims this detective thriller came out so badly because the production ran out of time and important scenes were never shot.  The flabbergasted audience reactions to the unfortunate finished product have been very entertaining to read. I'd like to get in on the fun myself, but I can't justify spending two hours on a movie I'd only be watching to mock.  Maybe if I find more breathing room later in the year I can sneak it in somewhere, but for now I still have way, way, way too many other films to watch.


Thursday, May 17, 2018

"Faces Places" is Off to the Races

It has been a very, very long time since the last Agnes Varda film, "Beaches of Agnes," which was announced at the time to be her swan song.  So when I heard that she was coming back for another documentary, I knew I had to see it. Like several of her other later films, "Faces Places" turns the camera on 88 year-old Varda herself, along with her co-director JR, a 33 year-old photographer and street artist.  The pair reportedly liked each other's work, and decided to embark on this movie together.

Most of the film is taken up with our duo travelling about the French countryside in JR's van, a whimsical mobile photo booth that has been painted to look like a giant SLR camera.  They engage in the creation of several art projects together, mostly involving taking photos, enlarging them, and then using these to make gigantic murals on blank walls or other empty spaces.  At their first stop they put giant pictures of miners all over a neighborhood in a former mining town, sparking discussions and remembrances. At another, they blow up a picture of a farmer and place him on an empty barn, overseeing the fields that he works.  With every project, they do their best to involve the locals, both as subjects and as contributors of commentary and criticism. Varda remarks at one point that the best part of making the film was getting to meet all these people - factory workers, dock workers, cheesemakers, and plenty of others.

After several of these mural projects, they get to be a little repetitive, but this isn't all the film has up its sleeve.  There's also a meta-narrative interwoven throughout "Faces Places" about Varda and JR's developing friendship. They start off the film with a series of fake scenarios of when they first met - at a bus stop, at a bakery, or most amusingly, at a dance club.  We see the pair having conversations on various public benches. They talk about getting old, about their careers, and how JR never takes off his sunglasses, like Varda's old friend Jean-Luc Godard. JR accompanies Varda to the optometrist, to see about her blurring vision.  Varda pays a visit to JR's grandmother to ask about his childhood. Most of these vignettes are clearly staged, but others leave room for doubt. There's a particularly touching moment at the climax, where the scenario may be fake, but Varda's emotional reaction to it clearly isn't.    

There are some absolutely breathtaking images here, and the whole film is brimming over with creativity, inspiration, and artistic provocation.  I want to describe some of my favorite scenes, including an absolutely glorious Jean-Luc Godard tribute, but they're much better left for the viewer to discover for maximum impact.  The odd couple pairing of the grandmotherly Agnes Varda and the fleet-footed JR is a lot of fun, especially the different ways that they are able to approach people, and what happens when they're at odds.  I want to stress that this disagreement is brief, and very cordial. Unlike most of the heavy, serious documentaries I've been watching lately, "Faces Places" is such a lark. Varda and JR have no message to push but the joy of creating art and the excitement of exploration.  Their energies, even if Varda needs to rest often, are infectious and invigorating.

And there are moments of poignancy too.  While the film touches on JR's background briefly, much more time is devoted to Varda returning to bits of her past, as she did in "Beaches of Agnes."  Visits to a former model's house, to a cemetery, and to the home of an old friend prompt occasionally painful reminiscences. There's no getting away from Varda's sadness at the loss of so many important collaborators and friends over the course of her long career, and "Faces Places" takes the time to deal with this directly.  It all leads up to a delightful final shot that reminds the audience that however much Varda likes to share personal moments with her viewers, there are many parts of her life and relationships that will always remain a mystery.

Finally, I wish we could have gotten an epilogue of some sort with JR and his Varda standee at the Oscar luncheon, which was just too perfect for words.            


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"Star Trek: Discovery" Year One

All the spoilers.  All of them.

For the first half of "Star Trek: Discovery," I was firmly in the position of the patient, long-time Trek fan who wasn't particularly happy with what the new series was doing, but who understood that "Star Trek" shows often had bumpy first seasons.  There were a lot of things that weren't working, but I was optimistic that things could improve with time.

And then the Discovery went to the infamous Mirror Universe, and everything got much better in a hurry.  It honestly didn't occur to me that the first half of the season was doing so much set-up for the second half, because that's not how "Star Trek" traditionally operates.  However, this time around with the benefit of a serialized story and ongoing character arcs, "Discovery" could do things like big plot twists and evolving relationships and all that good space opera melodrama.  And the payoffs, though often predictable, were so satisfying to see play out. Purists might have fretted that this wasn't what they wanted out of "Star Trek," but I was ecstatic to find the show's creators committed to trying something so different.  There was a definite sense of ambitious experimentation, of turning the old formulas upside down and seeing what interesting things could be done with all the familiar "Trek" tropes.

The flip side of this, of course, is that the series is dreadfully inconsistent and some of the ideas are very badly executed.  Most of the season embraces a darker, gloomier aesthetic and more serious atmosphere, which works great when the show is fully in that groove.  This is the most apparent in the Mirror Universe episodes, where the narrative momentum gets a big boost from the nightmare scenario of an alternate dimension populated by evil versions of everyone we know.  Much less successful are the adventures that try to incorporate lighter material, like the Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) episode with the time loops. It's mostly thrilling and darkly humorous, but then has a weirdly sentimental ending that doesn't fit.  Or there's the finale, where a lot of time is spent on a big exciting mission, except it also has to tie up all these loose ends, and winds up feeling sloppy and unfocused.

I liked the central character of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) more than most, though her stoicism made it difficult to really empathize with her, and rendered her romance with Ash (Shazad Latif) difficult to swallow at times.  There have been a lot of awkward romantic relationships in "Star Trek" history, but this one was still pretty rough. Fortunately Martin-Green's performance was consistently strong throughout, and she managed to sell the tougher aspects of the character and nail a few big monologues.  The rest of the Discovery crew quickly grew on me, especially Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Commander Saru (Doug Jones). I will also be extremely disappointed if this is the last we ever see of Ash, Lorca (Jason Isaacs), Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and Culber (Wilson Cruz).

It has to be said that Fuller's treatment of the Klingons was a huge misstep, not only because the redesign made it so much more difficult for the actors to get anything across, but having all those lengthy Klingon language scenes in the early episodes was mind-numbing to sit through.  I don't think the Voq storyline was worth it, even if the twist was very clever. The Discovery handing L'Rell (Mary Chieffo) ultimate power doesn't make any damn sense. The whole resolution of the war happened far too quickly. I suspect that there was some significant rewriting that went on to reduce the amount of Klingon involvement in the second half.  This is a disappointment, since the Klingons have a lot of potential for more epic storylines, and they were never remotely so problematic in the past.

Going forward, my hope is that "Discovery" relies less on spectacle and stunts, and widens its scope a bit so that we can focus on characters other than Michael Burnham.  I had no issue with how corny some of the big plot developments were - this is "Star Trek" after all - but it did get tiresome how everything seemed to revolve around Michael.  Stamets (Anthony Rapp) or Tilly or even Ash would be good candidates to take a bigger role next year. And I'll definitely be back for next year, if only to see how "Discovery" continues to change and grow.  I don't think the show is done surprising us yet.


Monday, May 14, 2018

Cancellation Watch 2018

The yearly Upfronts are in full swing, which means that the network television world has just gone through its latest wave of cancellations and renewals. I swear it's getting more dramatic every year as audiences continue to splinter and a cancelled show isn't really cancelled as long as there are web services and other networks that might be enticed to pick them up.

This year, for instance, the biggest story was Fox cancelling "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," the Mike Schur cop comedy that has been a low rated, but much beloved part of their lineup since 2013. After a Twitter storm of reaction, fans spent a tense day waiting to see if Amazon or Hulu might pick it up. The next morning, NBC picked it up, which makes sense since NBC is and has been the home of all of Schur's other network comedies. Alas, there has been no such rescue announced for Fox's other cancellations, "Last Man on Earth," which is going to end on a cliffhanger, and "Lucifer." However, they are resurrecting "Last Man Standing," the Tim Allen sitcom that ABC cancelled last year after six seasons.

I've largely stopped watching shows according to any sane schedule, and frankly haven't been paying as much attention to developments in the television world as much as I used to. It feels like many shows I had just heard about, like "Deception" and "Rise," are already on their way out. I'll be sad to see "Superior Donuts" and "Lucifer" go, as I liked what little I saw of them. Good riddance to "Scorpion" and "Inhumans." The only recently cancelled show that I'm actually still watching is Syfy's "The Expanse," via Amazon Prime. I watched and enjoyed "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" during its first year and liked it, but once it stopped being a priority for me, I gradually drifted away from it. And while I'm happy for everyone working on the show, it's already run five seasons and losing it wouldn't have been so bad.

Still, the drama around the cancellations and renewals each year is fascinating. Fan campaigns are now a regular part of each cycle. There are even ones for shows that weren't picked up, like the "Supernatural" spinoff "Wayward Sisters." Creatives actively encourage this - I suspect the "Tremors" pilot being leaked was to try and garner some attention for the cancelled project. I think part of this is due to the programming decisions being so much more visible now than they used to be, with reactions online able to be virtually instantaneous. In the old days, the networks felt much more remote, and most of the campaigns to save shows were treated as futile endeavors. Now, you have Mark Hamill and Lin-Manuel Miranda weighing in on the cancellation of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" on Twitter within hours of the announcement.

It's also easier to save a show than it used to be. The rules have changed drastically over the past few years, with the television landscape still in flux, and cable and web series often setting the standard. Bringing a struggling show back for an abbreviated final season is now common. "Agents of SHIELD" is going to have thirteen episodes next year to wrap things up. The "Lethal Weapon" series is being retooled, with its misbehaving lead actor replaced with a more familiar face for its third year. Reportedly, Seann William Scott will not be playing Riggs, but his brother - who is also named Riggs, of course.

The way network television operates has felt antiquated for a while now. The pilot process looks increasingly wasteful and clunky. Attempts to revamp the ratings systems have come across as increasingly desperate. Nothing has stemmed the steady exodus of viewers, and the networks have finally decided to try reducing the amount of ads next season after years of increases. Even the concept of the Upfronts, with all of these programming decisions being made in a few frenzied days in May, seems very outdated in an era where Netflix premieres new content every month and rarely releases viewer data.

I guess I'd better enjoy all the drama while it lasts, because in a few more years we may not have what we currently recognize as network television at all.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Ups and Downs of "Downsizing"

It's a sad day when a dependable director makes a truly terrible film.  Alexander Payne, who has an absolutely sterling record of making darkly comedic smaller films like "Election," "Sideways," and "Nebraska," decided to take the plunge into his first genre picture, based on a shelved script Payne wrote with Jim Taylor roughly a decade ago.  And a first glance, "Downsizing" looks very promising.

It's a science-fiction story, heavy on the social commentary, about a near future version of our world where the technology exists to shrink human beings to under six inches tall.  The benefits of "downsizing" include much cheaper cost of living and, theoretically, less resource consumption in an ecologically deteriorating civilization. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to go through with the procedure, and roughly the first third of the movie is seeing how they deal with the transition.  Later, we're introduced to the downsized refugee activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) and playboy opportunist Dušan (Christoph Waltz), and the film explores how the miniaturized society functions in more detail.

I really enjoyed the first half of the film, where lots of fantastic worldbuilding is done, and we learn about all the ins and outs of living life as one of the Small.  The impact on everything from living arrangements to travel to economic systems is a lot of fun to see in action. There are also many hints and allusions to the downsizing technology being used for more sinister purposes - Ngoc Lan was downsized against her will, for instance, by a repressive Vietnamese government.  However, when the film gets around to fully exploring the ugly down sides of downsizing, it ends up stumbling very badly. While I can buy the idea that downsizing society ends up upsizing social inequality, the allegorical representations of this are just too hamfisted to be effective at all.

Also, we have to talk about the character of Ngoc Lan Tran.  Hong Chau gives a winning performance in spite of putting on one of the most over-the-top, distracting, stereotypical South-Asian sing-song accents I've ever heard, and being given dialogue that is often just painful.  There are some bits of conversation that are so cringeworthy, I couldn't believe that they had made it to the screen without anyone pointing out how bad they were. As glad as I am to see an Asian actress in such a prominent and memorable role, it really galls that it had to be such a caricatured one.  Everyone else in the film is fine, with Matt Damon playing an everyman schlub, and Christoph Waltz turning in another charming European sleazeball, but it's hard to get past the Vietnamese elephant in the room.

Even at this point, with the dodgy social commentary and the obnoxious dialogue, I could have given the film a pass.  Its intentions were clearly good, even if the execution was tone deaf. I admired the production design, the restrained use of special effects, and some of the film's smaller touches.  I was happy to see Payne being ambitious, and trying something he never had before. He was trying to talk about social ills that nobody else was, and I find that very commendable. However, then we got to the last act of the movie, where the film abruptly shifts course and decides that it's been about Paul Safranek's search for personal meaning the whole time, and ditches about 90% of the material that it had set up in favor of an entirely different storyline.

And though I thought the new story was actually pretty good on its own, and would have been fine as part of a separate project, it completely derailed "Downsizing."  If the film had been structured differently, had a stronger character arc for Paul, or figured out how to thematically tie the disparate pieces together better, maybe it would have worked.  Instead, the result was a fatally disjointed film, full of wasted ideas and storylines that ultimately went nowhere. And there's no mistake that this is clearly the work of Alexander Payne, with his sense of humor and his filmmaking sensibilities.  I'm left wondering how such a talented, perceptive director could get this movie so wrong.

Better luck next time, I guess.

Friday, May 11, 2018

My Top Ten '90s Shows I Can't Make Top Ten Lists For

I've hit a definite stopping point in my series of Top Ten lists for the '90s television shows that I watched in my youth.  Nearly every list I've tried writing over the past few months has come up has come out incomplete due to my muddled memory or the fact that I simply didn't watch as much of the shows as I thought I did.  So, because I've already sunk a lot of time into the various lists and I might as well retire this feature with a bang, here are the ten shows I most regret not being able to put together Top Ten episode lists for.

Xena: Warrior Princess - There was a time when I loved "Xena."  I watched it along with "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" every weekend for years.  It was a fantasy action series! With a strong female lead! It honestly didn't happen that much back then.  Alas, going through the episode lists, it became clear in a hurry that I only watched the first couple of seasons with much enthusiasm.  I also heavily, heavily favored the comedic, meta, and gimmick episodes. I'm all for the cheese and the schlock, but the more melodramatic ones really got tedious over time.

Frasier - There are episodes of this show I adore.  My favorite is the one where Niles duels Maris's German fencing instructor with Frasier and the maid serving as translators.  The truth is, however, that I never watched "Frasier" regularly and mostly just caught the occasional syndicated episode. When I tried to put together a list, I wound up listing pretty much every episode that I remember seeing from start to finish, and that still wasn't enough to fill out the whole list.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised since the exact same thing happened to my attempted "Cheers" list.

NewsRadio - There were a lot of wacky workplace sitcoms like "Just Shoot Me" and "Spin City" that I watched a lot of, and "NewsRadio" was definitely the best of them.  The writing was a little sharper than anything else on network TV at the time. I just can't seem to remember individual episodes. I remember gags and one-liners and occasional subplots, but full episodes and storylines elude me completely.  So, here's to the one with the horrible sandwiches, and the one with the Boba Fett action figure, and the time they finally got Dave Foley back in drag. Good times, good times.

That 70s Show - I was in denial for ages about this one, because I remember watching the reruns constantly in college.  Well, it turns out that I was mostly just rewatching the first two seasons. Also, when making my list of favorites, I kept topping out at seven or eight that I felt I could write anything coherent about.  Most episodes had extremely repetitive plots, and the show was heavily dependent on repeating gags and formulaic humor. I still love the characters and their dynamic though, especially Red and Hyde. And it makes me happy that Kelso and Jackie wound up together in real life.  

King of the Hill - I really wanted to do right by this show because I wasn't a fan of it at first, and it won me over after a couple of years of watching random episodes here and there.  It was a bit of a shock when the show ended, because it had been on for so long and had become something of a constant in the TV landscape. I never watched it regularly because it was never on at the right time, but I don't think there was a single episode that I saw that I didn't appreciate.  However, when I tried to make up a list of episodes, I only came up with six that I knew I'd seen the whole way through.

The Golden Girls - I have wonderful memories of watching this every Saturday with my mother throughout the late '80s and early '90s.  I even managed to watch episodes of all three spinoffs. Unfortunately, the series is way too far back in time for me, and I can't recall the specifics of more than three or four episodes now.  So while I remember Shady Pines, and the cheesecakes, and Rose's stories about St. Olaf, and Blanche's stories about Big Daddy, they all exist in a lovely sort of shapeless melange of multiple episodes.  For the record, Dorothy was my favorite but I loved them all.

Home Improvement - Lack of enthusiasm is what sank the list for this one.  I can perfectly remember plenty of episodes, but I only got up to about six or seven episodes that I could really say I enjoyed watching.  Even then, it was mostly for one good gag or sequence, like the crazy Tool Time stunts. I appreciate the show being a very solid relationship and family show at its core, and it's no wonder it was such a ratings juggernaut at its height.  I associate "Home Improvement" with the '90s more than any other show on this list, but I have to admit it was never really one of my favorites.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - How could I not write up a list for such an obvious cultural touchstone?  Well I tried more than once, and kept coming up short of episodes. Frankly, after the pool hall grift episode and the one with Ben Vereen, this is another show that exists in my mind as a lot of great clips and one-liners unattached to any actual plots.  I love Carlton dancing to Tom Jones, for instance, but couldn't say what else happened in any episode where he does it. And I feel bad about having such a spotty memory, because the show was so ubiquitous and remains so beloved to this day.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit -  "Law & Order" has gotten worse and worse over time.  I haven't watched the show in ages, roughly since Chris Meloni called it quits.  Still, I figured I could get a list out of the better episodes from those first couple of seasons I used to enjoy, right?  Well, it turns out that crime procedurals have a tendency to all run together in my mind. Unless there was a notable guest star or a particularly outlandish premise involved, I couldn't remember any of the individual episodes from seasons I know I'd seen and enjoyed.  And the outrageous episodes weren't usually the good ones.

Malcolm in the Middle - And finally, a bit of a cheat.  "Malcolm" isn't a '90s show, but I remember it fondly as the last real family sitcom I watched regularly in its early seasons.  Sadly, I only watched the majority of the episodes once, which wasn't enough for them to stick in my memory very well. My viewing patterns were already changing, you see, and I was no longer watching shows over and over again in syndication.  I managed to work up a list of six episodes I loved, including the one with Hal on roller-skates, but the rest is just a blur.

Honorable Mentions: Murphy Brown, Perfect Strangers, Out of This World, The Drew Carey Show, Dinosaurs, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and The Nanny.


Monday, May 7, 2018

Remember "Coco"

I'm a little embarrassed that it's taken me this long to watch PIXAR's latest film, one that I admit that I wasn't particularly looking forward to.  A Dia de los Muertos themed movie featuring Mexican culture seemed all well and good, but the trailers featuring the kid with a big dream and a serious case of hero worship seemed like awfully well-tread ground.  Also, PIXAR's track record has been very hit-or-miss lately. The last film of theirs I really liked was "Inside Out."

Fortunately, "Coco" is a film well aware of its progenitors in more ways than one.  In a little town in Mexico, our story unfolds with the introduction of twelve year-old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), who comes from a family that has banned music, because his great-great-grandfather abandoned the family long ago to seek glory as a musician.  Miguel, however, has dreams of following in the footsteps of his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a legendary musician known for his songwriting skills. On Dia de los Muertos, some tomfoolery with curses and a stolen guitar lands Miguel in the Land of the Dead, where spirits remain in animated (ahem) skeletal form as long as someone in the land of the living remembers them.  Miguel decides to take the opportunity to meet De la Cruz, with the help of a con-artist spirit named Héctor (Gael García Bernal).

And who is Coco?  She's Miguel's great-grandmother, Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía).  Though very old and mostly senile, she's still a much beloved part of the Rivera family.  It turns out that she's the key to unravelling the complicated Rivera family history, in a story that turns out to be about appreciating your loved ones and remembering your past.  No heart string is left untugged, as Miguel learns that family bonds can transcend the gulf between life and death. This also ties in beautifully to the depiction of Dia de los Muertos, which offers some lively, colorful iconography that the PIXAR artists take full advantage of.  The Land of the Dead, which is only accessible via a shimmering bridge made of marigold petals, is a visual wonder. And I love the scenes of the dead returning on their holiday and interacting with their friends and families.

"Coco" is yet another example of the studio's dedication to getting things right.  What immediately struck me about the film was how thoroughly authentic everything feels, from Miguel's family dynamics to De la Cruz's old movies.  Sure, certain things like the spirit animals, the alebrije, are played up because they look very cool, but care is taken to correctly depict and explain the importance of Dia de los Muertos traditions, and nods to the wider Mexican culture are everywhere.  Apparently a Spanish language version of the film was prepared simultaneously with the English one. Quite few bits of Spanish dialogue are left untranslated in the English version, and the entire cast is Latino, with the exception, of course, of John Ratzenberger.     

A big part of the film's appeal is its soundtrack, full of vibrant guitars and several hummable songs.  Miguel is an aspiring musician, after all. The filmmakers took the opportunity to pay homage to Mexican culture here too, including a version of the traditional "La Llorona" and several mariachi numbers.  The music does a fantastic job of selling the big emotional moments. The ballad "Remember Me" is crucial to the plot, and gets better every time you hear another character sing it. This is the closest that PIXAR has ever gotten to a full scale musical, and considering the results, they may want to consider doing this more often.    

I had some minor gripes with "Coco," mostly to do with an overly busy action sequence near the end, and some of the humor.  Goofy skeleton jokes have been around since the early days of animation, but "Coco" leans on it pretty hard. Otherwise, this is PIXAR at their best.  "Coco" is made with sensitivity and consideration by passionate artists. Best of all, they tackle subjects that we don't see enough of in the mainstream.  I've only seen it once so far, so it's far too early to say where it ranks in the PIXAR pantheon with any certainty, but "Coco" is certainly up there with the greats.    


Saturday, May 5, 2018

"Altered Carbon" Year One

High concept science fiction series have been having a great run lately, and "Altered Carbon" is another fascinating new title to add to the list.  Based on a series of novels by Richard K. Morgan, "Altered Carbon" imagines a world where the human consciousness can be transferred from one body or "sleeve" to another, allowing people to live for multiple lifetimes and making space travel and colonization possible.  This has also lead to a massive social divide between the unimaginably rich "meths" who are essentially immortal and untouchable, and the poor who have been left to stagnate technologically and economically.

Our hero in this universe is Takeshi Kovacs, who is played in the present by Joel Kinnaman, but who we also seen in flashbacks in his prior sleeves played by Will Yun Lee and Byron Mann.  He's a world-weary mercenary with a past who is recruited into the service of a meth, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), who wants him to solve an impossible murder. Kovacs is haunted by memories of his old mentor Quell (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and his sister Rei (Dichen Lachman).  And as he works through the case, he's trailed by a suspicious police detective, Ortega (Martha Higareda), and has run-ins with a vengeful soldier (Ato Essandoh) and the AI of a macabre hotel (Chris Conner).

"Altered Carbon" is reportedly one of Netflix's most expensive projects to date, due to a staggering amount of CGI and other effects work.  And though the aesthetics are on the derivative side, echoing "Blade Runner" more than anything else, naturally, it all looks great. The worldbuilding is the best part of the show by far, exploring how the ability to "resleeve" has affected this future society from top to bottom.  Murder victims can be brought back to testify against their killers. The bodies of the incarcerated can be rented out or borrowed. One episode sees a character's dead grandmother come home for the holidays in someone else's body. We also see cloning, interstellar travel, virtual reality, sentient AI, cyborgs, synthetic bodies, and mass surveillance in the mix.

The show is also very R-rated, with lots of nudity, sex, and violence.  Things occasionally verge on gratuitous, especially where the fight scenes are concerned, but I found the lack of content restrictions helped to emphasize how cheap lives were in a world where death is no longer meaningful.  This also allowed for some interesting concepts like gladiatorial deathmatches and extreme interrogation tactics to land with more impact. "Altered Carbon" is similar to "The Expanse" in this regard, though it doesn't have that show's sweeping scope and rigorous scientific accuracy.  I prefer the characters on "Altered Carbon" though, who are more colorful and more fun to watch.

It's an unusually diverse cast that the show's creators have put together.  Closed captions are necessary to get the maximum effect of this, as characters have dialogue in multiple languages, including Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic.  I have to remark on the dissonance of Joel Kinnaman playing a character named Takashi Kovacs, but this is part of the show's premise, and there were clearly great pains taken to ensure diversity in the rest of the cast.  And in large part, everyone does an excellent job. I especially enjoyed Martha Higareda's Detective Ortiz, who seems like a stereotype at first, but becomes compelling in a hurry. Also, Chris Conner's AI character is a charmer.

Of course, when you get past all the fancy sci-fi trappings, this is a detective story.  And it's here that the show's weaknesses are the most apparent. The writing is fairly good throughout, but I found that it did start to slip in the last few episodes when it came time to execute all the big reveals.  The show is much better at introducing the world and concepts of "Altered Carbon," bit by bit, than it is at enlivening the murder mystery elements of its familiar plot or making up excuses for more action scenes. I'm actually relieved that any further seasons of will be leaving the majority of these characters behind, as the universe they inhabit is far more interesting than they are.    

All in all this is a very satisfying piece of genre television, and an unusually committed one to the quality and the cohesiveness of its vision.  I don't think it's quite one of the greats, being ultimately more interested in the fireworks over the ideas, but it's a great sign of the times for science-fiction fans that a show like "Altered Carbon" exists.


Thursday, May 3, 2018

"The Disaster Artist" Explains it All

The amount of attention that the cult movie, "The Room," has received for being unusually entertaining despite also being a total trainwreck, has always struck me as odd. I've seen the film and understand why people enjoy its bizarreness, but the enthusiastic fandom that has sprung up around it and its creator, Tommy Wiseau, is more puzzling. And now along comes "The Disaster Artist," a comedic dramatization of the behind the scenes madness during the making of "The Room," to help shed some light on the allure of this notorious auteur and his immortal contribution to cinema.

Aspiring thespian Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) meets the strange, ostentatious Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in acting classes, and the pair become friends. After moving to Los Angeles together to try and break into Hollywood, Wiseau decides to finance and make his own film, "The Room." Having no experience but plenty of money, Wiseau embarks on a lengthy film shoot marked by his tyrannical behavior, disorganized working style, and total inability to act competently. Greg tries to be supportive, but the situation inevitably boils over as Tommy's demands start to affect Greg's relationships and career.

You don't need to be a fan of "The Room" in order to enjoy "The Disaster Artist," but I think you do need to have some sympathy for and interest in the conundrum that is Tommy Wiseau. "The Disaster Artist" makes the mistake of making him a little too sympathetic, painting him as a well-intentioned wannabe who can't reconcile his own image of himself with actual reality. James Franco does a good job of mimicking Wiseau's distinctive accent and mannerisms, but he's less successful and getting across the sheer strangeness of his subject. I think demystifying Wiseau hurts the film a bit, because part of what makes him so fascinating in "The Room" is his absolute incompatibility with everything we expect from a leading man. Franco's Wiseau is memorably eccentric, but not nearly weird enough.

Franco is also clearly a fan of "The Room," and spends a considerable amount of effort recreating scenes from the movie with actors like Josh Hutcherson and Jacki Weaver playing the very mediocre actors playing the parts. I think this was meant to help emphasize just how strange much of the dialogue and production choices were, but there's far too much time spent on this in "The Disaster Artist," including a very self-satisfied final sequence that directly compares the real scenes from "The Room" with the recreations. And while I'm all for giving Tommy Wiseau his due, the overly happy ending doesn't really sit right. Or the opening scenes with various celebrities praising "The Room" for that matter.

The best scenes end up being the ones that dramatize the miserable shoot for "The Room." Most of the crew is played by familiar comedians, including Seth Rogen, as the script supervisor who ends up actually running the set, and Paul Scheer as an increasingly frustrated DP. I wish there was more time spent here, instead of on the fairly humdrum Greg and Tommy friendship. While I understand that "The Disaster Artist" was based on a book by the same name by the real Greg Sestero, and his POV is vital, his storyline results in an unfortunate amount of manufactured melodrama and pedestrian feel-good smarm that gets in the way of the comedy.

I suppose I didn't enjoy "The Disaster Artist" very much because it offers too much of an explanation for "The Room" and Tommy Wiseau when I wasn't looking for one. And while it's nice that Wiseau did manage to become a famous filmmaker to some extent, trying to paint this as some kind of happy success story also feels disingenuous. There are parts of a good film here, a dark comedy about a first time director run amok. Unfortunately, it's surrounded on all sides by a mediocre one about the power of believing in yourself and supporting your friends.

For those die-hard fans of "The Room," this should be a fun watch because there are a lot of little in-jokes and James Franco's performance is impressive. For non-fans, however, I think there's significantly less appeal. The experience of watching "The Room" is enjoyably inexplicable, and I see no point in trying to explain it. I think people would get more out of simply viewing "The Room" and enjoying the mystery.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

"The Post" and "Phantom Thread"

Let's finish up the Oscar contenders.

I was looking forward to "The Post," Steven Spielberg's dramatization of the tumultuous decisionmaking behind the Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers back in 1971.  The film has an all-star cast, lead by Tom Hanks as newspaper editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham. All of Spielberg's usual sterling collaborators are listed in the credits.  "The Post" also has added bonus of being very timely, deliberately positioned as a rebuke to the age of fake news and outrage-based journalism.

Initially, everything seems to be on the right track as we watch the Post's newsroom rally to cover the unfolding story around the Pentagon Papers, while Graham struggles with the newspaper's IPO and her evolving leadership role.  Hanks is in a more acerbic part than usual, and Streep in a more understated one, and they're both great. I like the look of the picture, which has several obvious homages to "All the President's Men," and the smaller performances from Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, and others.  But as time goes on, more and more distracting little Spielberg-isms keep creeping into the frame. There's the running joke about Bradlee's daughter's lemonade business. And the literal quoting of the Supreme Court decision to underline the lesson of the day. In the end, pretty much every attempt to lionize the fourth estate comes across as hokey and outdated instead of inspiring.

"The Post," like much of Spielberg's other recent output, plays like a throwback to a much older breed of motion picture, or actually two at once.  Occasionally it felt like he was making a gritty '70s social drama with a script from a romanticized prestige pic from the '40s or '50s. The heroes are larger than life, and the dialogue can't help but make a few grand pronouncements full of shining idealism.  The cinematography, however, is moody and stark, full of unglamorous people in glumly utilitarian environments. These tonal clashes aren't too bad, but the film never stops feeling aesthetically odd and unbalanced. I found that most of the movie was still very watchable and enjoyable, showcasing the work of a lot of talented people.  And yet, I couldn't help comparing it negatively to the much simpler, more straightforward "Spotlight" in terms of effective championing of the free press. And it doesn't come close to "All the President's Men" as far as portraying the social and political tensions of post-Vietnam America.

I had no expectations for "The Phantom Thread" at all, and was lucky enough to see the film knowing almost nothing about it except that Paul Thomas Anderson was directing, and Daniel Day Lewis was playing a fashion designer.  Specifically, he plays Reynolds Woodcock, who runs a couture fashion house in 1950s London. He and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) run the business to exacting standards, driven by Reynolds' obsessive attention to detail and his uncompromising adherence to his own set preferences and schedules.  And it's into this strict little world that Reynolds brings Alma (Vicky Krieps), his latest paramour and muse. She agrees to model for him and live with him, but finds the relationship too imbalanced for her tastes. This leads to a nail-biting power struggle between the two of them that pushes both parties to uncomfortable extremes.
I'm not used to domestic dramas and romances being this tense, but I should have expected nothing less from Paul Thomas Anderson.  The film is full of gorgeous imagery, from the painstakingly recreated period gowns to steaming cups of tea to a riotous New Year's party full of colorful revelry.  However, it's the actors who are impossible to take your eyes off of, often playing out incredibly suspenseful scenes in the middle of deceptively elegant settings. One dress fitting doubles as a seduction scene, and another as an exercise in  humiliation and diminishment. The aforementioned party sequence is full of motion and sound, but the overwhelming emotion it conveys is that of loneliness, as we watch Reynolds traverse the cacophony in search of Alma. Daniel Day Lewis is at his very best, playing the prickly Reynolds as one of those infuriating artistic geniuses who has heard far too much praise and is too used to getting his own way.  And it's an absolute delight to find that Vicky Krieps, who is practically unknown in American films, matches him scene for scene, and beat for beat.

One might be tempted to call "Phantom Thread" Anderson's own attempt at a throwback to the moviemaking of a previous era.  However, this proves not to be the case at all. In spite of the period set designs, Jonny Greenwood's lavish instrumental score, and the echoes of many classical romances in the narrative, "Phantom Thread" is very modern in its attitudes toward love and life.  How the story ultimately resolves is anything but traditional. I had a wonderful time with it, because I had absolutely no idea where it was going, or even what genre we were ultimately dealing with. Anderson didn't tip his hand, all the way up to the end, and I'm so glad that he didn't.  This was one of the best surprises I've had at the movies in a while, and one of the best movies of the year, period.