Tuesday, October 30, 2018

"Tully" and "A Quiet Place"

Life as a new mother is difficult, and the movies generally shy away from the ugly realities of it.  Not so with "Tully," which puts all the exhaustion, the aggravation, the boredom, and the guilt involved with taking care of a baby at center stage.  Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody are collaborating again here to bring us a snapshot of the life of Marlo (Charlize Theron), a forty year-old woman with two children and an unplanned third on the way.  With a special needs kindergartener and a husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), who isn't much help, Marlo is pushed to her limits. Though initially wary, she accepts the help of her brother Craig (Mark Duplass), who gifts her with the services of a very special night nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis).  

The main event here is Charlize Theron's performance.  She gained and lost significant amounts of weight for the role, but the sheer amount of mental exhaustion coming off of her is what really sells it.  I've never seen any piece of media capture the descent into survival mode and the physical strain of newborn care the way that this film does. There's a wonderful montage that really hammers home the repetitiveness, the monotony, and the feelings of utter defeat that can result.  And when the film is in this gear, it's excellent. All of Cody's little observations about motherhood, microaggressions, and the impossible standards of modern parenting are great. So it's a shame that the larger story about Marlo's friendship with Tully, and her reckoning with her past, falls so very, very flat.  

Tully is the bestie version of the manic-pixie dreamgirl, a Millennial free spirit with a head full of interesting facts.  And it's only because the eminently lovable Mackenzie Davis plays her that I found her tolerable. I cottoned on to Tully's secret fairly early on in the film, which I don't think hurts the experience of watching it.  However, the film really bungles the reveals and the denouement, making the whole premise of the film come off is as ill-considered. "Tully" would be a much better film if it had committed to being about Marlo's struggles without trying to tie them to this broader crisis about her identity and psychological state.  I still love the first three-quarters of the film, and this is the best thing I've seen from Reitman and Cody in a while, but its flaws left me lukewarm on "Tully."

Now on to "A Quiet Place," which I debated over writing a review for, as I don't have too much to say about it.  It's an interesting little creature feature, firmly in the category of a good film, but not a great film. It's built entirely around a couple of good gimmicks and strong worldbuilding.  John Krasinski directs and stars as the patriarch of a family living in the aftermath of human society's destruction by sound-sensitive monsters. Emily Blunt plays his wife, and his deaf preteen daughter and younger son are played by Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe respectively.  

How do you live day to day without being able to make a sound?  Anything above a whisper attracts the monsters, so the family has to soundproof every aspect of their lives, from communicating through sign language, to muffling footsteps with trails of sand on walkways, to banishing all the dishes.  It's a lot of fun seeing all the different ways they've adapted, and clearly a lot of thought went into all the changes. The family has been mostly successful at keeping the monsters away from their isolated farm, but there are the inevitable gut-wrenching slip-ups and Blunt's character is pregnant, putting all of them in more danger.  The family dynamics are handled very well, with tensions between the father and daughter, and past tragedies hanging over everyone's heads.

The usual action and suspense sequences take over in the second half of the film.  These are inventive and enjoyable, especially the deft use of the sound design to escalate the tension.  However, the funhouse scares are pretty familiar, and the velociraptor-like creatures aren't all that exciting.  It's the performances that do much of the heavy lifting, and fortunately Blunt and Millicent Simmonds are excellent at channeling terror and fright.  "A Quiet Place" is pretty adept at being a delivery system for thrills, and the family drama aspects are very satisfying. However, the way the universe is set up, I don't think that it fulfilled the potential of the premise.  I was a little disappointed at how simple some of the resolutions were, and some of the opportunities not taken. I'm grateful that the movie offers a fairly unique cinematic experience, but I can't shake the feeling that this could have really been something special in other hands.  

Sunday, October 28, 2018

"Game Night" and "Blockers"

I know I don't write enough about comedy on this blog, so today I'm going to make an effort and spotlight the two most prominent comedies from the first half of this year.  I liked them both, and find myself in the unusual position of actually hoping we get sequels, because I enjoyed the characters so much.

"Game Night" is about Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), who regularly get together with two other couples for game nights.  After Max's overachiever older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) crashes one get-together, he insists on hosting the next one, a role-playing mystery game that involves Brooks getting kidnapped.  Or has he actually been kidnapped? Other players include seemingly solid married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and the lunkheaded Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his classy date Sarah (Sharon Horgan).  Then there's Gary (Jesse Plemons), the extremely awkward neighbor that everyone's been trying to avoid inviting to game night since he got divorced.

Jason Bateman has starred in several comedies that I've really disliked, so it's nice to see him in a good one, and paired up with a very charming and funny Rachel McAdams.  Most of the comedy here is character based, with some good gags, and it doesn't feel the need to harp on its R-rated content. The writing, by Mark Perez, is stronger and sharper than most, and there's some lively direction from John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein.  The opening and ending sequences offer a lot of fun visuals, and there's a nicely choreographed chase sequence with a Faberge egg at the end of the second act, helping to keep the momentum going.

It's Jesse Plemons who ends up stealing the show, however, as the awkward neighbor who nobody wants to hang out with.  He makes a very memorable weirdo, the latest in a great run of roles he's had over the past few years. Plemons is quickly turning into one of our most dependable character actors, and here he is a lot of fun to watch walking a thin line between possibly crazy and just your average garden-variety sad sack with really bad interpersonal skills.  There are also a couple of bigger names playing various baddies and secondary characters, but they're used in a limited way. I appreciate this, as comic actors I hadn't seen much of before, like Billy Magnussen and Lamorne Morris get more time to shine.

Now on to "Blockers," which is a subversion of the usual teen sex comedy in a couple of ways.  First, three teenage girls make a sex pact to lose their virginity on prom night instead of three boys.  Second, the movie is mostly told from the point of view of their parents, who learn about the sex pact and take it upon themselves to cock-block their offspring.  Yes, that is what the title is referring to. Leslie Mann stars as Lisa, the mother of the girls' ringleader, Julie (Kathryn Newton). Overprotective Mitchell (John Cena) and his wife Marcie (Sarayu Blue) are the parents of Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan).  Then there's Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), who is a mess. He's divorced from his wife and estranged from his daughter Sam (Gideon Adlon), but still desperate to be part of her life.

It's important to point out that though the film is mostly from the parents' point of view, there's plenty of attention on the girls themselves, working out if they actually want to lose their virginity, and with who.  They talk frankly about sex, drugs, and alcohol, and are an appealing mix of different personalities and types. Sam is a geek and Kayla is an athlete. Seeing their adventures during prom night in counterpoint to the ones their panicking parents are having is a big reason why the film works as well as it does.  The moral is, of course, that the girls should make their own choices and their own mistakes, and having that emotional investment really helps that sentiment hit home.

As for the adults, Leslie Mann has been one of my favorites forever, and it's great seeing her play off of John Cena, in cuddly strongman mode, and Ike Barinholtz, who gradually reveals that his character may be the most reasonable of the bunch.  The script gets a lot of mileage out of maneuvering the straightlaced parents through teen sex comedy scenarios, and there are some gross-out moments and cringe humor that I found a little excessive. However, the leads were strong enough that I didn't mind too much.  And I'll be happy to see them reunite for the inevitable "Blockers Spring Break" or "Blockers Greek Week" in a year or two.


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A Fumbled "Fahrenheit 451"

Ramin Bahrani is a great filmmaker, best known for a certain type of small scale, socially conscious film. "Fahrenheit 451" is his first real foray outside that milieu, and it's a pretty clear failure. It is, however, an interesting failure. Ray Bradbury's work has been notoriously difficult to translate to the screen, often because the pleasures of his writing lie more in the prose than in the plot. The Francois Truffaut 1966 film version of "Fahrenheit 451," though relatively faithful, had some glaring issues hampering its effectiveness. Half a century later, the story is more relevant than ever, and a new, updated film version seemed like a very good idea on paper.

How Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi decided to update the story of the Firemen who burn books, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Some of their creative decisions are fine - Michael B. Jordan makes a decent Guy Montag, and Michael Shannon is all you could ask for as his self-hating superior, Captain Beatty. The addition of social media and live-streaming as new distractions in their dystopia make a certain amount of sense. However, the free-thinking innocent Clarisse becoming a police informant and member of an underground movement of knowledge-saving "Eels" is more concerning. She's also Montag's explicit love interest, and played by Sofia Boutella. And then there's the wholesale invention of a sci-fi MacGuffin that forces a showdown between the Firemen and the Eels over the fate of human knowledge.

The whole thing reeks of the story being dumbed down and sexed up to appeal to the baser tastes of a mainstream audience, one of the very things that the book warned against. Perhaps this isn't such a surprise considering this version is a television movie. However, it's HBO footing the bill, with a notable filmmaker in full creative control. Usually that means we get better results than this. With loose adaptations of difficult material, I'm all for ignoring the title and trying to take a piece of media on its own terms, and treating it like something original. However, the movie is a messy, half-baked disappointment even by that measure. There are roughly similar "Black Mirror" and "Electric Dreams" episodes that outdo the new "Fahrenheit" by an embarrassingly wide margin.

The primary issue is with the script, full of strange dead ends and unfinished thoughts. Captain Beatty transcribes and puzzles over quotes from forbidden books in private, a transgression that never really seems to have anything to do with his actions or illuminates anything about his thoughts. Clarisse has terribly unclear motives throughout, often seeming to act against her own interests. Montag is given a new hidden past to have flashbacks to, but they lead to no real resolution. The stolen books he reads give him reason to ask new questions and value knowledge, but he remains oddly opaque and shallow throughout. Michael B. Jordan's performance is fine, but I feel like I missed his character's transformation.

I have to wonder why the character of Montag's wife was removed from the film, because her absence leaves a gaping hole both narratively and thematically. Now there's no vapid, illiterate dullard to compare Clarice against or to show the terrible consequences of a world where mindless distractions have totally replaced critical thought. An actress was announced for the part months ago, so I imagine that at some point Bahrani decided she wasn't working and cut her from the film. Hower, he didn't replace her material with anything equally compelling, instead streamlining the rest of the story into a generic action/adventure narrative.

There are flashes of ambition here and there. The characters spend quite a bit of time appreciating the written word, especially Dostoevsky "Notes From the Underground," which Montag reads excerpts from. Shannon's performance is very memorable, though the character is ultimately a disappointment. I even found the Montag and Clarisse romance promising, but the film doesn't really commit to that storyline either. Montag and Beatty's relationship is the one that is treated as the most important one at the climax, but it's never developed enough to give us a sense of real stakes.

Frankly, there was a significant amount of work that had to be done before this version of the film should have been attempted. As is, this is a sad waste of good material and a wonderful opportunity.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Revivals I Want, and Why They Won't Happen

I've toyed with writing some version of this post ever since the revival trend really got under way with the return of "The X-files." However, a wishlist of cancelled shows seemed to be just asking for trouble. Most of the time, revivals aren't a good idea, because the shows in question left the airwaves for a reason. However, as time has worn on, and we've seen more of these revivals come and go, it's clear that the networks have certain ideas of what should be revived and what shouldn't.

So now, I'm going to tentatively discuss a few of the shows I'd like to see rise from the dead, and why this is unlikely to happen based on the revivals that have happened so far.

"The Middleman" - Let's start with an easy one. This 2008 ABC Family geek comedy was near and dear to my heart from the moment it premiered. It ran for twelve episodes and published its finale in comic book form. However, there is no conceivable reason why ABC or anyone else would want to revive this. The show has a its fans, but they're a small number, and have remained a small number in the decade since the show went off the air. There are a lot of shows in the same vein like "Alphas" and "Pushing Daisies," that were gone too soon and I want to see get second chances. However, the networks have made it clear that revivals are not about second chances. They're about bringing back established hits, especially nostalgic sitcoms with their original stars. "The Middleman" can't even offer that much. Of its two leads, one is starring in a Mike Schur sitcom for NBC next year, and the other quit acting some time ago to be a biologist. Yes, really.

"Angel" - I'd love to see a return to the Whedonverse, and both "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" were successful enough in their day to tempt network executives, unlike poor "Firefly" and "Dollhouse." They've also done quite well in comics format, with the "Buffy" series still ongoing, currently in the middle of Season Twelve. I suspect that a revival of "Buffy" might be viable if enough of the talent can come together - most of the core cast seems to be between major projects at the moment. "Angel," however, is another story. There's no getting away from the fact that David Boreanaz is nearly fifty, and two decades older than he was when he first started playing the immortal vampire character. It's far more likely that the whole "Buffy" universe will see a reboot eventually, like Fox has been gunning for since at least 2010.

"Thundercats" - Specifically, I want to see a continuation of the 2011 revival that Cartoon Network produced with Studio 4°C. It had a serialized story, fantastic production values, and fun takes on the original characters. Despite all signs pointing to the show having a lot of story left to tell, it never came back for a second season, and the creators eventually told fans what their plans were for the rest of the series. Now Cartoon Network has decided to go in another direction entirely, and has ordered "Thundercats Roar!" Patterned after the massively successful "Teen Titans Go!" the new series will be aimed at a much younger audience, be a comedy series rather than an action series, and utilizes a, um, perhaps too familiar art style that has caused something of a ruckus in the Twitterverse among animation enthusiasts.

"Friends" - Okay, so if '90s sitcoms are the main target of revivals, how about one of NBC's most successful ones? "Seinfeld" already kind of had a reunion/revival on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and "Will & Grace" is doing great. The trouble with "Friends" lies with logistics. Either everybody comes back or there's no reason to do it. And I find it doubtful that NBC is going to be able to wrangle all six lead actors back on to the same set soon. NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt doesn't think it's possible. None of the actors will definitively say no to a revival, but it's clear that nobody has much enthusiasm for the idea either. Maybe in another five to ten years after a few of their careers have cooled, we can revisit this.


Friday, October 19, 2018

Star Wars Spinoffs

"Solo" has come and gone. "Kenobi" and "Boba Fett" are likely, "Lando" is possible, and there's still hope for "Jabba the Hutt." The "Star Wars" spinoff films are currently on hold, but the speculation isn't. Below, are a few suggestions for other corners of the "Star Wars" universe that I'd like to see onscreen.

Young Leia - Leia is now officially a Disney Princess, and deserves her own movie. Remember that she was a resistance fighter who was handy with a blaster, and had to take charge of her own rescue in the original "Star Wars." That clearly points to a childhood that was more exciting than just being a posh royal. Alderaan seemed like a pretty peaceful place, but there's always room for some court intrigue. Also, Leia's early days would be a good chance to take a peek into the inception of the Rebellion, and maybe provide origin stories for other characters like Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar, and General Dodonna.

Young Mace Windu - There wasn't much that I liked about the prequels, but I was always curious about the history of Mace Windu. I like the idea of him or Qui-Gon Jinn in their early days having samurai-esque adventures way out in some less civilized star system. "Star Wars" was heavily influenced by Kurosawa's jidaigeki films, especially "Hidden Fortress," and I've always wanted to see the series embrace these roots a little more. A "Star Wars" version of "Seven Samurai" or "Yojimbo" feels like it would be appropriate. Then again, it's already heavily rumored that this might be direction that DIsney is going with the Obi-Wan Kenobi movie.

The Droids - So, I know there was already a "Star Wars" project that centered around the droid characters back in the 1980s, the obscure Saturday morning cartoon "Droids." Frankly, I think the idea still has some possibilities and that Disney could do much better. Let's use BB-8 as the main character this time, and give him (her? It?) their own adventure. It could be a prequel, detailing how it met Poe Dameron, or a tangential adventure taking place after "The Last Jedi." I also like the idea of a new "Droid" feature being done in CGI animation, in the vein of "WALL-E." We could also use more "Star Wars" media aimed at the younger fans.

The Bothans - When "Rogue One" first came out, I know I wasn't the only one who wondered where the Bothans were, many of whom famously died in order to bring the plans for the Death Star to the Rebels. Of course, I was misremembering, and those were plans for the second Death Star from "Return of the Jedi," not the first. I still want to know about those Bothans, especially since it's been revealed that they're these big, werewolf-like critters, they're spies, and they just sound badass all around. There's the danger of this story being a retread of "Rogue One," but surely there's room in the "Star Wars" universe for more than one heist picture.

Mara Jade - Some of the best imagery from the "Star Wars" franchise comes from the Empire, and I'd love to see a movie fully set in that world. However, the character I think it would be best to explore that through is the one member of the "Star Wars" Extended Universe I'd like to see brought back - Mara Jade, the Emperor's special agent. She's one of the most interesting female characters who ever appeared in anything related to "Star Wars," and frankly the new films could use more like her. The way the movies have played out make it unlikely to keep her original backstory intact, but with a little adjusting, she'd be a great antihero.

Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes - Finally, if Disney wants to go lighter and funnier, why not get the band back together? Specifically, the Cantina Band, made up of seven Bith from the planet Clak'dor VII. The aliens of the "Star Wars" universe haven't been used much in the new movies, but they're a major element that distinguishes the franchise from all the others competing for our attention. So get those musicians an unscrupulous manager, some groupies, and run-ins with shady characters on their road to fame and fortune. Let them get mixed up in bad business trying to raise the money to get their instruments out of hock. Or have 'em play Jabba's wedding.

The possibilities are endless.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

"The Handmaid's Tale," Year Two

I seriously toyed with bailing out on the second season of "The Handmaid's Tale" after five episodes.  The show continues to be a very tough watch, with storylines full of abuse and oppression. I'd run across a few spoilers that suggested that the main narrative was going in directions I found very unappealing.  However, the show remains one of the most queasily topical, if not outright prophetic pieces of media currently running, and it's all exceptionally well done. In fact, the show I find myself constantly comparing it to is "The Crown."  Minor spoilers ahead.

This year of "The Handmaid's Tale" is still largely still following June/Offred in her role as handmaid to the Waterfords.  Most of the season's big developments involve her pregnancy and attempts to escape Gilead. We also follow Emily and Janine, who have been exiled to the Colonies as "Unwomen," and Moira who is living with Luke in Canada.  Flashbacks and new characters continue to shed light on Gilead's history and the current state of affairs. The character with the most interesting arc this year is Serena Joy, whose faith in Gilead is tested by several traumatic events and impending motherhood.         

I'm being very intentionally vague, because there are a lot of twists and turns this season that it's better not to know about in advance.  This includes major new characters, guest stars, and of course the state of June's baby. I was impressed by how much story the creators were able to pack into each episode, and the status quo often changes drastically from week to week.  Like "The Crown," installments are often built around certain events or characters in ways that let us see the wider social implications. The Waterfords going on a diplomatic trip to Canada obviously gives us an opportunity to see Gilead's relationships with its neighbors, but even the smaller incidents like a baby falling ill can highlight the painful contradictions and injustices of Gilead's society.  The show's writing is very good on both the micro and macro levels.

The acting continues to be a major draw.  Elizabeth Moss is still a powerhouse, but Yvonne Strahovski is on fire this year.  Serena Joy continues to be a contemptible tyrant who is fun to hate, but she's also occasionally sympathetic as she realizes how little power she actually has.  Her slow coming-to-terms with the nightmare world that she helped to create is equally as compelling as June's struggle to keep resisting. The two of them share a couple of really intense scenes together that make the rougher parts of the season worth powering through.  I don't think the other major characters had material that was up to the same level, though Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel get a couple of good moments apiece. It's also helpful that there are none of the odd episodes focused on the male characters this year. Nick, Luke, and Fred are still very present, but the focus stays firmly with the women.

Unlike the previous season, this one is entirely based on original material, but it would be hard to tell if you were unfamiliar with the book.  The quality is very consistent, and in some ways I like this season better. Gilead gets fleshed out quite a bit, and there are multiple episodes with a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to them and echoes of the recent antics of the Trump administration, though some of this was apparently a coincidence.  Nevertheless, the show addresses current events in a way that few others do, and I find it very satisfying to see a piece of media that reflects how I've been feeling about the state of the U.S. lately. I also enjoy the unusually frank depictions of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and early motherhood.

And yet, the prospect of another season gives me pause.   I found the ending of this year's finale absolutely infuriating, even though I knew it had to happen.  There is a significant danger of "The Handmaid's Tale" becoming drawn out and repetitive if it keeps going along in the same vein.  I'd love to see how this tale concludes, but if it takes more than another season or two of depressive misery to get there, I may have to call it quits for good.    

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Rank Em: "The Pirates of the Caribbean" Movies

Clearly, there are going to be more "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, considering the massive financial incentive and the fact that the last film had a very prominent sequel hook.  However, I think it's going to be a while. Star Johnny Depp is still embroiled in various scandals and the franchise has been in a critical and box office decline for the last two films.  So I think it's a good time to look back and take stock of the series, film by film. I've ranked them below from best to worst. And spoilers ahead!

"The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003) - One of the best surprises that Disney ever sprang on us was the first "Pirates" film, an expectation-defying, wildly original adventure film that was so much fun to watch.  Captain Jack Sparrow was instantly iconic, and Depp was so good in the part that he was nominated for an Oscar for his efforts. I always felt that the young leads were awfully bland and some of the big battle scenes were too long and chaotic, but the humor was so effective, and the plotting and dialogue were so cleverly written by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott.  There are sequences like Jack's introduction and "Why is the rum gone?" that are just flat-out classic. And that Hans Zimmer score? I couldn't get enough of it.

"At World's End" (2007) - I liked the third installment of "Pirates" considerably more than the second because it provided a clear and definite ending to the arcs of several characters, it was darker in tone, and it had a good, hateable villain.  Did you ever think you'd see a Disney movie that started with a kid getting executed? I also liked the business with Jack being stuck in a bizarre limbo, and everything to do with the Brethren Court. The action is super repetitive and drawn out, unfortunately, and the massive 168 minute run time makes it feel like a slog, especially in the back half.  The plotting also gets so convoluted, it's hard to keep track of what's going on. The set pieces, at least, are still a lot of fun.

"Dead Man's Chest" (2006) - Oh boy did I have some issues with this one, from the more slapsticky, cartoonish action sequences, to the endless callbacks to the first film, to lots of cringeworthy business with the island natives.  Who thought it would be a good idea to do cannibal natives in this day and age? Also, aside from Will going off to find his father, the character arcs for the other leads aren't very strong or well executed. Pairing Elizabeth and Jack in any capacity was a mistake.  At least Tia Dalma was pretty cool. And Davy Jones and the Flying Dutchman crew are still hugely impressive special effects creations. I like a lot of the setpieces here too, including the sequence with the hat-switching and some of the kraken attacks.

"On Stranger Tides" (2011) - Oh good grief, was that Sam Claflin playing the new kid?  He was so bland, I forgot he was in the movie. And there's plenty more that I'm sure I've forgotten, as there wasn't much in the movie worth remembering.  I wasn't too opposed to the idea of continuing the "Pirates" franchise, since I figured that it would be a nice opportunity for a quasi-reboot, as several characters were presumably given their happy endings.  However, the new batch just weren't much fun. Claflin and Kaya Scodelario's young lovers were pretty useless. Ian McShane's Blackbeard and Salma Hayek's Angelica didn't get much to do. The departure of director Gore Verbinski was a major loss, and it showed.  

"Dead Men Tell No Tales" (2017) - And finally, we come to the most recent "Pirates" movie, which was also the shortest and dullest.  Jack Sparrow's clowning got less and less effective with each movie throughout the series, and here you can really tell his heart's not in it anymore.   There's one decent action sequence at the start, and Geoffrey Rush's reappearance as Barbossa is very welcome. Alas, the rest is a bore. I also find it disheartening that the series is not going to leave well enough alone, and wants to pull just about everyone back from the original trilogy.  It might be fun for one last, big, nostalgic hurrah - but only if it's definitely the last one.


Friday, October 12, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 1984

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.

This is Spinal Tap - The line between fantasy and reality is delightfully blurred in this classic rock mockumentary. The lead actors are actually very good musicians, the songs are catchy, and all the absurdity (minus the spontaneous combustion) is totally plausible.  Some of the funniest scenes are the simplest ones, like the band getting lost backstage and Derek setting off the metal detector. "Spinal Tap" has become a nostalgic snapshot of the metal era over the years, and I love that the band continues to perform and make appearances in character.

Paris, Texas - We lost cinematographer Robby Mueller this year, who helped Wim Wenders to summon a haunting vision of the American Midwest full of wide expanses, colored lights, and deeply wounded, lost souls.  The journey of Harry Dean Stanton's Travis as he attempts to reconnect with his scattered family is as much a spiritual quest as it is a physical one. There's very little dialogue, so most of the story is told through the absorbing visuals and Stanton's fantastic performance.  It remains the absolute best of Wenders' road movies, reflecting the lonely side of America.

Beverly Hills Cop - Eddie Murphy was already very well known for his appearances in "48 Hours" and "Trading Places," but "Beverly Hills Cop" made him a bona fide superstar.  Playing the fast-talking underdog Axel Foley, he is electric, and it's impossible not to be impressed by his talent and charisma. The underlying bones of the detective story are pretty solid, but it's the cocky attitude and the exuberant style of "Beverly Hills Cop" that make it so memorable.  And then there's the immortal "Axel F" instrumental, which is still one of my favorite movie themes ever.

Amadeus - On its surface, "Amadeus" looks like a typical prestige biopic, but the themes and the conflicts in play make for some great drama.  The film remains remarkably compelling and accessible after all this time, with the career-defining performances of F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce at the forefront.  The filmmaking craft on display is legendary, particularly the art direction that revived one of the grand opera houses of the era, the costuming, and of course, the music.  Above all, I love the film for finally helping me to appreciate some of the greatest music ever written.

Blood Simple - The feature film debut of the Coen brothers is this darkly satisfying little neo-noir, one that wends its way through several twists and turns until a nail-biting finale.  The film is a great example of the Coens' emerging filmmaking style and inventiveness, with several standout suspense sequences and a particularly strong facility with violence. The sound design of that shovel on the asphalt is unforgettable.  This was the screen debut of Frances McDormand, alongside a menacing Jon Getz and M. Emmet Walsh. All of them deliver strong, gripping performances.

The Company of Wolves - A hallucinatory fever dream of a film from Neil Jordan, that uses the "Little Red Riding Hood" fairy tale to explore several other stories of sexual awakening and primal fears.  Most of the nested narratives take place in a dark, wooded fantasy world full of strange symbols and hidden dangers, where the innocent must be wary of cunning werewolves and vindictive witches. The ending sequence is one of my favorites, a disturbing collision of fantasy and reality set to George Fenton's magnificent score.  There's no other fantasy or horror film quite like it.

Love Streams - Sometimes all you need for a great movie is a couple of great actors given the opportunity to show what they can do.  Gena Rowlands is indisputably one of the great American screen actresses, and John Cassavetes always gave her the best parts and plenty of spotlight. Here, he and Rowlands play a brother and sister pair who are mentally and emotionally coming apart.  The film was made with few frills, mostly shot in Cassavetes' own home. However, it in no way impedes the actors as they tear into their characters, delivering stunning portraits of despair.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind - Though best known as an animator, Hayao Miyazaki also notable for his manga.  The most famous is "Nausicaa," and the early volumes form the basis for the beloved feature film. He hadn't fully fleshed out the post-apocalyptic universe yet, so some of the storytelling is a little abbreviated and simplified.  However, it's still a fantastic animated world that he brings to life, full of strange creatures and thrilling heroics. Nausicaa herself is one of Miyazaki's best heroines, spirited and daring, who devotes her efforts to averting a devastating war.

Splash - I doubt that there's ever been a fantasy romance with a leading lady quite as fantastic as Madison, a literal fish out of water played by a luminous young Darryl Hannah.  There's a winning sweetness to how the relationship develops, capped off by a delightful flight, er swim, of fancy that simply wouldn't fly in the cynical modern era. It's all the little things that make this work - Tom Hanks in his comedic leading man mode, John Candy playing supporting comedic relief, the slightly naughty humor, and special effects work that still looks pretty convincing to this day.    

Birdy - The eighties were the heyday of Vietnam War dramas, and "Birdy" is among the most unique.  It's a dreamy character study an an afflicted veteran, played by Matthew Modine, who is obsessed with birds and flight.  The way the film is structured, using extensive flashbacks, being told from the POV of Birdy's friend, and incorporating a gorgeous fantasy sequence shot with a Skycam, leaves the audience guessing at Birdy's mental state until the very end.  Modine's performance also caught my attention, very showy and peculiar, but with a heartbreaking ring of truth.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Attack of the "Disney Emoji Blitz"

At the end of my Tsum Tsum post, I mentioned I was going to try the Disney themed match-three game, "Disney Emoji Blitz," which I hoped might scratch my itch for Disney collectibles.  Well, I certainly got what I was looking for. I'm currently a little over two months into this game, and pretty hopelessly addicted. "Disney Emoji Blitz" (hereafter DEB) is one of the most ruthlessly efficient timesinks that I've ever come across in my brief mobile gaming career.

The basic mechanics are simple.  Play timed match-three games, win coins and power-ups, and use the coins to buy the various character emoji.  It's a great selection of emoji too, drawing from characters from every corner of the Disney empire, from their classic films, the theme parks, and a handful of television shows.  Each emoji is playable and has its own special power in the game - creating power-ups or clearing emoji in certain patterns. Get multiples of each emoji to level up their powers and make them stronger.  Some of the emoji animation and gameplay is very clever. The Beast, for example, is cleared from the board by magic beams that briefly turn him into a Prince before he disappears. Jiminy Cricket makes star power-ups.  Elsa freezes rows of emojis with ice blasts. Dory can summon a whale. Over the two months that I've been playing DEB, I've averaged getting one new emoji per day.

Where the timesink comes in is with the multiple avenues that are offered through which to earn coins.  The main one is grinding through the 250 levels of challenges - use three sun power-ups in one game, play five games with a blue emoji, etc. - to earn various rewards.  These progressively get harder the further you go. There are also three daily challenges of increasing difficulty, a leaderboard with weekly prizes, and collections of non-character emoji you can get through regular gameplay.  And then there are the events, which are themed challenges that are only playable for a set period of time, usually two to five days. Events usually offer new or rare emojis as prizes, such as villain characters. If you want Captain Hook or the "Star Wars" emojis, but missed their event, you may have to wait months for them to show up again.  If you don't check in constantly, you risk missing a chance at getting something neat.

What's especially aggravating (and clever) is that you're almost never able to specifically pick which emoji you're buying with your coins.  Selections are randomized so you're really paying for a chance at getting a certain emoji. However, sometimes the chances for certain emoji are increased, so on certain days you have a 50% chance of getting a "Beauty and the Beast" emoji or an "Aladdin" emoji.  Very rare power ups guarantee getting an emoji you haven't gotten before, or specific duplicates to level up already collected emoji. These are usually event or levelling up prizes. Of course, you can pay for more currency to increase your chances, or you can "max out" if you get a certain number of the same emoji, and the game will stop giving you more.  

DEB plays nice, and you can get every single emoji and prize without paying a dime.  And of course, you don't have to play any of the events or even any of the regular challenges.  This is a game enjoyed by a lot of kids, so this is important. However, the monetization efforts are obvious.  Some of the rarer "exclusives" are very difficult to get without paying, there are timers everywhere that you can pay to circumvent, and smaller prizes that can be collected by watching video ads.  So far I haven't spent real money on the game, but I have watched an awful lot of the ads. And I admit I've joined Reddit's DEB community to get a heads-up on upcoming events and new emoji, to strategize when to play and what to save up for.  

I've always been a completionist, but I'm not too invested in getting every single emoji in DEB - a few require Facebook interactions, which is a very hard line I'm not crossing.  I honestly just like playing the game. It's like "Candy Crush," but with cuter graphics and a big old wallop of Disney nostalgia. It's also constantly being updated and adjusted and improved, by remarkably responsive developers, so there's always something new to see...  

I think I've found my new favorite game.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

This is "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"

"How to Talk to Girls at Parties" is a weird little movie.  It looks weird, it sounds weird, and it's full of weird characters who behave in weird ways.  It's an earnest teen romance between a '70s British punk rock enthusiast and a cannibalistic alien tourist, so clearly some weirdness was inevitable, but "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" just revels in its nonconformity.  It enjoys its weirdness, and that enjoyment is very infectious.

So, once upon a time in Croydon in the 1977, a boy named Enn (Alex Sharp) and his best mates Vic (AJ Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence), go out for a good time one night, and end up at a mysterious party where Enn meets Zan (Elle Fanning), the lovely and mysterious tourist who may be an alien or may be part of an American space cult.  Zan goes off with Enn and his friends to fall in love and enjoy the local scene, while her "Parent Teacher" Waldo (Tom Brooke) and the group's other leaders fret about her rebelliousness and the upcoming end of their tour - when the "eating" happens. Ruth Wilson, Matt Lucas, and Edward Petherbridge play some of the other aliens, while Nicole Kidman is the proprietor of the local punk club.

Based loosely on a Neil Gaiman short story, and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, there's a distinctly fairy-tale feeling to the film.  It's easy to see Zan as the foreign princess on a Roman Holiday, running off to play young lover and punk rocker, possibly sparking a revolution in the process.  She and Enn share a giddy whirlwind courtship that includes awkward sex and an impromptu rock duet that's the highlight of the film. Elle Fanning is perfectly lovable as the rebellious, innocent Zan.  Her otherworldly demeanor and total lack of guile are a big reason why the character works. And I bought the core relationship between Zan and Enn, which is important because the rest of the film is pretty bonkers.

The alien tourists are both the best and worst thing about the movie.  They come bedecked in bizarre color-coded avant garde outfits that make them look like they were ejected from a Devo video, or possibly Cirque du Soleil.  They mostly don't bother trying to pretend to be human, constantly chatting about prior physical manifestations, the various different space colonies participating in the tour, and eating each other.  They're fascinating to look at and listen to, and are played by several very good actors who gamely wear the ridiculous costumes and sell the ridiculous dialogue. Unfortunately, the film doesn't spend much time really developing them as characters.

The way the story is structured, several major characters aren't introduced until nearly halfway through the movie, and there's not really time to get to know them as well as we probably should.  Ditto Enn's cohorts, John and Vic, whose subplots are so abbreviated that you blink and you miss them. There's not enough time spent on the boys in general, and the whole metaphor of approaching girls being like approaching alien beings gets completely lost.  Several scenes feel messy and rushed, culminating in a poorly considered action finale. Also, any attempt at special effects is pretty dire. I like most of the pieces here, but it feels like quite a few went missing when it came time to assemble the bigger picture.

Still, there's an awful lot that I like about the film.  Nicole Kidman as a punk matriarch is great, and she's clearly enjoying herself in the part.  The kids bring a lot of good energy, the music is suitably rousing, and I like that the love story is so sweet and optimistic.  The movie's just not very well put together on a fundamental level. However, it has all the earmarks of a future cult film, thanks to its subject matter and the people involved.  (The pandering to Neil Gaiman's fanbase is especially obvious.) I'm sure that "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" will eventually find an audience that will cherish it for its strengths and flaws alike.    

And dear god, but I can't wait for someone to attempt cosplaying the aliens.


Friday, October 5, 2018

To the "Isle of Dogs"

There's been a bit of a ruckus over Wes Anderson's latest film, which is one of those instances of a Western artist doing some dabbling in a non-Western milieu.  In this case, "Isle of Dogs" takes place in Japan, many of the major characters speak only in Japanese, and there is extensive use of Japanese imagery and culture throughout.  It's also a stop-motion animated film, Anderson's first since "Fantastic Mr. Fox."

The story is a charming one, about a group of canines exiled to an island landfill, off the fictional city of Megasaki, after an outbreak of "dog flu."  A little boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a plane a crashes there, searching for his dog Spots. A group of five dogs, including Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Rex (Edward Norton), and the loner stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), agree to help Atari in his search.  Meanwhile, the corrupt Megasaki mayor, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), is plotting a more permanent solution to the epidemic. Opposing him is a foreign exchange student, Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), who is determined the expose the anti-dog conspiracy.

The film's version of Japan is clearly a Western enthusiast's idea of Japan, full of exaggerated designs and obvious Japanese signifiers taiko drummers, torii gates, and sakura trees.  However, it's a very self-aware one, that clearly took pains to ensure some cultural authenticity. Witness the painstaking sushi preparation scene, beautifully animated to show the care and craft of creating each piece of food.  Viewers have pointed out dozens of fun little details that only Japanese natives would notice. The stereotyping also runs both ways. Tracy is a caricature of an American from a Japanese viewpoint, with her brash outspokenness and giant blonde Afro.  She's also a pretty good skewering of the white savior trope.

Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel" set up a fanciful version of pre-war Europe created by unreliable narrators, with its multiple framing devices.  "Isle of Dogs" does something similar with its many unreliable translators. The film draws attention to this many times, having the dogs speak English, while the humans mostly speak Japanese.  Sometimes their dialogue is translated with the help of computer or human aides, but other times we're left in dark as to what Atari and Kobayashi are actually saying. And it works as part of the narrative, letting us identify more with the dogs as they face communication barriers and other misunderstandings with the humans.

The look of the film is a treat.  The environments are beautifully constructed, from Megasaki noodle shops to abandoned theme parks, and there's a wonderful tactility and to the animation.  One detail I especially enjoyed was all the dust clouds from explosions and fights being rendered with clumps of lint and fuzz. I found the characters more visually appealing than the ones in  "Fantastic Mr. Fox," probably because none of the dogs are too anthropomorphized, and they behave like proper canines. It's also fun seeing some of the usual Anderson-isms done in animation, like the meticulous framing, long panning shots, and carefully catalogued objects.  

The cast is populated by Anderson's usual suspects, but a notable newcomer is Bryan Cranston as the lead dog, Chief.  And he's a big reason why Chief is now one of my favorite Wes Anderson characters, a gruff, standoffish stray who resists bonding with Atari.  Sure, he's a very familiar character type if you're at all familiar with Anderson's work, but he's such a lovable one who undergoes such an enjoyable transformation.  He's the heart of the film, and so well executed that I happily went along for the ride and ignored the Anderson-isms that I generally dislike. Tracy is a keeper, but the other female characters are very blah.

"Isle of Dogs"is such an oddity from start to finish, a strange combination of elements and ideas, told in a way that most filmmakers wouldn't even consider.  It makes some missteps here and there, but I'm delighted that the film exists and has found an audience. There are so many ways that this project could have gone wrong, but Anderson and his crew have delivered something wonderfully well-considered and thoughtful.  I hope to see more animated projects from him sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

"The Expanse," Year Three

Moderate spoilers ahead.

The more I watch "The Expanse," the more it reminds me of "Babylon 5," except for one important thing.  Both series are very story driven and built around large events like wars and the appearance of alien phenomena, that affect multiple groups of people.  They also continually introduce new characters in order to help us experience how these events unfold from multiple perspectives. However, unlike "Babylon 5," which had a very strong core cast, "The Expanse" doesn't offer many heroes I feel much like rooting for.  Part of this is by design - the universe of "The Expanse" is much harsher and full of morally gray types. However, I think "The Expanse" simply isn't as good at drama on an interpersonal level.

This year is split into two very distinct parts.  The first picks up from last year, following the crew of the Rocinante as they chase down Mei Meng (Leah Jung) and the rest of the kids being experimented on by Lawrence Strickland (Ted Atherton) and Jules Pierre Mao (Fran├žois Chau).  Meanwhile Avrasarala and Bobbie Draper race to stop the war between Earth and Mars from escalating. We're introduced to Rev. Dr. Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell), a preacher and activist who becomes very important in the second half of the season, which is devoted to discovering the larger purpose of the protomolecule.  Other new characters in this arc include Mao's other daughter Clarissa (Nadine Nicole), and Ashford (David Strathairn), an ex-pirate who becomes second in command of the new Belter flagship under Camina Drummer (Cara Gee).

"The Expanse" remains exceptionally good at worldbuilding, setting up several storylines that intersect and pay off in some very satisfying ways.  I was happy to see Avrasarala, Bobbie Draper, and the Roci crew finally having the chance to interact this year. The show also figures out some clever ways to get characters from previous seasons back into the mix, and the newcomers are pretty strong.  The scientific accuracy and attention to detail continue to impress. My favorite episode this season was the one where the entire hour was devoted to zero gravity emergency rescue efforts after a multi-ship disaster. Best of all, there weren't any storylines that fell flat the way some have in the past.  Good performances were responsible for much of this, particularly from Elizabeth Mitchell and David Strathairn, who rocks the Belter accent.

Ironically, it's the main storyline that often feels the weakest.  After three years the crew of the Roci are not nearly as engaging or interesting to follow as they should be.  I've grown to appreciate Amos, especially through the touching friendship that develops between him and Prax. James Holden, however, remains terribly bland and generic.  It's aggravating that in a universe of so many colorful characters, so much of the action has to revolve around the dullest, whitebread audience surrogate in the lineup. Aside from the usual action hero business, the only real character development he has is his on-again, off-again relationship with Naomi, and some pretty tepid business with a spectre who gives him cryptic directions.  At least, the writing is consistently strong enough throughout that everything moves along at a good clip, but many developments would have had much more impact if Holden and other Roci characters were stronger.

Compared to the previous seasons, this year of "The Expanse" feels more straightforward and more streamlined.  There aren't as many one-off characters or disparate locations to juggle, and payoffs happen more quickly. The shift between the two halves of the season is a little jarring, but perfectly in keeping with how the show has operated so far.  I'm glad that the series will be getting future seasons, but this season ended in such a way that it wrapped up the whole series very nicely. Certainly there's room for more adventures, and plenty of loose ends that could use tying up, but "The Expanse" is already easily one of the most accomplished science-fiction shows of the decade.    

However, I'm hard pressed to call it a great show.  As rough as "Babylon 5" looks now, and as hokey as some of the dialogue is, I love those characters and would gladly watch many of the episodes again.  There's coldness to "The Expanse" that makes it difficult to embrace in the same way. I admire it, and find it entertaining, but I rarely find it moving.  They get the science right, but the humanity could use some work.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Icky "Unsane"

"Unsane" may be the most unpleasant Steven Soderbergh film I've ever watched.  It was shot on an iPhone 7 and looks consistently unappealing in every sense, which is in keeping with Soderbergh's penchant for cinematic experimentation.  It was made in secret on a paltry budget, and it definitely shows. That's not to suggest that Soderberg didn't do an excellent job, however, or that "Unsane" isn't successful at being a entertainingly trashy psycho-thriller.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a troubled woman who is being stalked by a man named David Strine (Joshua Leonard).  Sawyer visits a counselor at a mental hospital for help with her feelings of anxiety and paranoia, and is confined there by the unscrupulous psychiatrists as part of an insurance scam.  She befriends another patient, Nate (Jay Pharoah), and is able to contact her mother, Angela (Amy Irving). However, Sawyer and Angela are both thwarted in their attempts to get Swayer released.  To make matters worse, Sawyer believes that David is working at the hospital as one of the orderlies.

It's odd seeing Claire Foy playing a woman so high-strung and constantly on edge after her work on "The Crown" as the regal Elizabeth.  However, it's impressive how she does all the heavy lifting here, keeping the audience guessing as to whether Sawyer is being manipulated into staying at the mental hospital, or if she actually belongs there.  I think that Soderbergh actually gave away the game too quickly, but Foy and Joshua Leonard's confrontation scenes together are the best parts of the movie, so I can't complain too much. Leonard, an indie film fixture, makes an excellent soft-spoken creeper, and I hope this part leads to him getting more of the spotlight in the future.  I'd like to see more from him.

The most notable thing about "Unsane" is the look of the film, which doesn't do much to disguise that it was shot on an iPhone.  It immediately evokes the waning found-footage trend, with its stark lighting and high-angle shots, which make several scenes feel like we're watching the action unfold via surveillance cameras.  However, more cinematic elements, like occasional tracking shots and superimposed images, regularly break the illusion. All of this helps to create a creepily claustrophobic atmosphere where mundane environments come across as stranger and harsher.  The baseline reality is harder to pin down and familiar actors like Jay Pharoah and Juno Temple, who plays another mental patient, are nearly unrecognizable.

The B-movie plotting is very predictable, some of the dialogue is very clunky, and certain sequences feel oddly staged.  This is a far more unpolished piece of work than Soderbergh's similar genre pieces like "Side Effects." However, the visceral thrills and sequences of suspense work perfectly well.  The realism of the visuals gives the violence and the threats of violence more bite. Foy and Leonard also get a couple of stronger interactions together that elevate things considerably.  By the time the movie reaches the third act and the really schlocky B-movie business kicks in, all subtlety goes out the window, but it's very satisfying to watch. I wouldn't call it a fun watch, but there's a definite gratification to seeing how things play out.  

All in all, I found that "Unsane" reminded me the most of "Haywire," another Soderbergh film stacked with plenty of strong acting talent, but that really wasn't interested in doing more than delivering some very specific cinematic pleasures.  In that case, it was watching the heroine brawl with a series of baddies played by much more high-profile actors. Here in "Unsane," it's really all about enjoying the uneasy tension of Claire Foy's character teetering on the brink of insanity and then playing cat and mouse with a man she believes is her stalker.  The filmmaking might be on the crude side, but it successfully gets the audience into Sawyer's unstable mind, so it all works.

As for Soderbergh, this is his second film since he came back from his filmmaking hiatus, and I don't think it's too early to say that it's good to have him back.  I don't think "Unsane" is one of his better movies, but it's one that definitely benefits from his attention. We're not lacking in psycho-thrillers these days, but nobody makes a movie quite like Steven Soderbergh.