Wednesday, January 30, 2019

"Paddington 2" and "Mission: Impossible – Fallout" Were… Fine?

Working my way through the critics' lists at the end of every year is a lot of fun.  I get to find new titles that I overlooked, compare notes with other critics, and make guesses about the awards season based on who's getting the buzz and attention.  There are always a couple of populist hits in mix, usually a PIXAR film and occasionally a fun genre outlier like "Mad Max: Fury Road." However, this year there are two titles that have thrown me for a bit of a loop: "Paddington 2" and "Mission: Impossible – Fallout."

Let me make it clear that I have no major complaints against either of these films.  However, I find myself very surprised at the level of acclaim that they've received. "Paddington 2" is perhaps a little more understandable, with its cheery Wes Anderson-esque visuals, crowd-pleasing whimsy,  and a career-resurrecting performance by Hugh Grant. Still, I didn't find anything about it that I'd classify as exceptional. It was better than the original "Paddington," and yet I thought it had too many characters and a few too many bits of manufactured drama at the end.  I appreciate it for being a gentle, charming family picture, because we always need more of them, but this wasn't something really special on the level of "Babe" or "Where the Wild Things Are."

As for "Fallout," well, I guess taste plays into it more here.  I like the "Mission: Impossible" franchise, but tend to forget them about twenty minutes after I finish watching them.  I've also found myself unable to care about Ethan Hunt as a human being since around the third movie, since I've had difficulty seeing the character as anything but an extension of Tom Cruise's warped ego. Still, I'm perfectly content to watch the crazy action sequences and slick demonstrations of spycraft, and there were plenty of then in "Fallout."  I liked the addition of Henry Cavill and Vanessa Kirby. However, there was also the return of Michelle Monaghan and Rebecca Ferguson as Cruise's love interests. I like both actresses, but is there anything more emblematic of a male power fantasy than Ethan Hunt's estranged wife absolving him of all guilt and shooing him into the arms of another woman?  Ugh.

I didn't write posts on either of these films, or even have them share a post with another title, because I only had enough of an opinion about them to fill a paragraph apiece.  The only reason I'm bringing them up now is in the context of the recent groundswell of acclaim in connection with the release of critics' Top Ten lists. Frankly, I find the critical reaction to "Paddington 2" and "Fallout" more interesting than the films themselves.  At the time of writing, Metacritic currently has them ranked as the 18th and 33rd most well regarded films of 2018, respectively. "Paddington 2" pulled off a rare 100% positive review haul. They're not going to be major contenders for any awards, because they're both very firmly escapist genre films, but their popularity ensures that they're going to be around in the public consciousness for a long time.  

I understand why some people connected with these films where I didn't.  They offer a lot of simple, beautifully executed cinematic pleasures that can be hard to get right.  There are so many action spectaculars these days, but "Fallout" boasts top tier stunt work and inventive thrills that make it feel more exciting that the bulk of its competitors.  The sequence in the bathroom is my personal favorite. "Paddington" is part of an even more dodgy genre - the family film with major CGI characters. Next to "Peter Rabbit" and "Monster Trucks," "Paddington" looks like high art.

I suspect that I'm also resistant because I think that these films aren't as good as they could be.  I'm glad the talent involved is getting plenty of encouragement though. Hugh Grant was nominated for a BAFTA, and "Paddington" director Paul King was attached to Disney's live action "Pinocchio" for a while. Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise are working on the "Top Gun" sequel next, and I'm sure it's going to be as good a version of a "Top Gun" sequel as we're ever going to get.  And maybe "Paddington 3" and "Mission Impossible 7" will be the installments that finally win me over.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

"Searching" and Screen Life on Film

"Searching" is not the first film to take place mostly on a computer desktop. Techno-thrillers like "Open Windows" and the "Unfriended" films got there first. "Searching" also incorporates video calls, news reports, and other screen content, making it closer in spirit to traditional found footage films like "Paranormal Activity" and "Chronicle." However, "Searching" is one of the most successful at using these devices to tell an engaging story, and at portraying our present day relationships with computers, social media, and other tech in a more grounded way.

John Cho plays David Kim, the protective father of high school sophomore Margot (Michelle La). They've been distant since Margot's mother died, and David learns how little he knows about his daughter's life when she disappears one night after a study group. After multiple attempts at contact fail, he calls the police. A detective, Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case and turns up some concerning information. At her urging, David digs into Margot's online activity for clues, finding different facets of his daughter's life that he had no idea existed.

I love how effective "Searching" is at being a crime thriller using only present-day technology and completely plausible, everyday human interactions. We've seen so many of these movies gleefully involve the dark web, criminal underworlds, and grand conspiracies, that it's good to have a reminder that normal people using the internet the way real people do, already results in plenty of drama. And as a result, "Searching" is able to comment quite a bit about online mobs, catfishing, privacy concerns, and parental monitoring without feeling so sensationalist. Well, mostly.

At its heart, "Searching" is one of those parental paranoia stories that preys on our fears about the kind of trouble that kids are getting into online. However, in this movie many of those fears turn out to be unfounded, and search engines and Facebook are very helpful at times. A good chunk of the running time is spent simply following along as David Kim works his way along the digital trail and uncovers more and more information. This isn't as tedious as it sounds, thanks to good editing and the filmmakers' unusually strong facility with internet and mobile phone visual language. If you've ever watched someone play a point-and-click adventure game, or followed an event over the internet in real time, this feels very similar.

A lot of the film's immersiveness comes from director Aneesh Chaganty and his crew largely using real world sites, apps, and social media like Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, Venmo, Youtube, and so on. There are a lot of clever uses of familiar bits of computing imagery, like seeing the old Windows XP "Bliss" desktop image in a flashback, or the Apple "Flurry" screensaver shepherding along a scene transition. It's also apparent that the filmmakers went to extreme lengths to make sure that David and Margot's online worlds feel fully fleshed out and populated. Every E-mail subject line, Instagram screen name, Facebook photo, and Youtube sidebar recommendation feels believably clickable. There are some moments that strain credulity - David's is way too good at video surveillance - but not many.

When it comes to the family drama, however, it's the actors who sell it, with John Cho having no trouble carrying the picture for long stretches of time. This is one of his few headlining dramatic roles, and proves that he should absolutely be getting more work in this vein. When I first heard about the film, I was expecting a more traditional action thriller. Instead, "Searching" provides the opportunity for Cho to do something much more intimate and relatable. Because so much of the film is limited to the desktop, often all we see is Cho's face in a window, or hear his voice over a mobile phone.

After several years of films depicting life online to various degrees of success, "Searching" is the first where it doesn't feel like a gimmick, but a legitimate storytelling choice. I expect we'll be seeing many more like it in the future. They're cheap, they're effective, and they're increasingly relevant. As our lives keep moving online to a greater and greater degree, it's only natural that our movies should follow suit.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Spike Lee is Back With "BlacKkKlansman"

The rise of Donald Trump and the Alt Right have galvanized many of our artists recently, and it's apparent that they've spurred Spike Lee to make his most blisteringly critical, powerful film in years.

"BlacKkKlansman" is a historical drama about Colorado police detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who runs an undercover operation that infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Stallworth converses with Klan members over the phone, including its leader David Duke (Topher Grace), while face to face meetings are handled by Jewish officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). In his personal life, Stallworth also struggles to reconcile his position as a police officer with his loyalty to the black community. He faces hostility and discrimination at work, and dates a student organizer, Patrice (Laura Harrier), with the Black Power movement.

As you would expect from Spike Lee, "BlacKkKlansman" is a sharply insightful look at racism and hate groups, full of pointed details that tie the events in the '70s to our present day situation. However, what I think makes this one such a standout is that it's so thoroughly entertaining. Scenes where characters seriously discuss race and activism are interspersed with all the fun of seeing the investigation unfold. A lot of suspense is mined from Flip's undercover meetings with colorful local Klan members, including chapter president Walter (Ryan Eggold), aggressive race-war prepper Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), his hefty wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) and dim bulb Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser). Their awfulness is often played for laughs, but Lee never loses sight of how dangerous they are.

Washington and Driver are both excellent as the leads, and handle a lot of tough material featuring a lot of racial epithets with care. The films is very good at depicting how both of their characters grapple with their identities and their responsibilities as members of oppressed groups. However, it's the whole ensemble that makes the movie. I love the scene of Felix and Connie cuddling while discussing the terrible things they want to do to black people. I love Stallworth's sergeant, Trapp (Ken Garito), cracking up in the background during the calls with David Duke. I love that Harry Belafonte was recruited to deliver one of the film's stirring anti-racism speeches. Here, nobody makes the mistake of denouncing the film's villains without also providing the appropriate counterpoints to their poisonous propaganda.

There's also a good amount of time devoted to the Black Power movement of the times, which the director clearly admires. Stallworth's feelings are much more mixed, however, as he believes that he can effect change from within the police organization. His relationship with Patrice, a committed radical, is one of the more interesting parts of the film. It points to intolerance and myopia not only being the domain of white Americans, adding some nuance to the conversation. There's no subtlely whatsoever to the film's intentions, but I like that it does try to give everyone their due. Even the Klan members are all fairly well fleshed out human beings in the end.

This is one of Lee's denser films, full of little historical details and film references for cinema nerds. The very first shot is borrowed from "Gone With the Wind," and a key sequence involves the Klan members reacting to a screening of "Birth of a Nation." It's also a gorgeous production, shot on 35mm and designed to look like a film from the '70s. Lee's trademarks like the "floating man" dolly shots and use of archival material are present, but used with restraint. When they do appear, they have plenty of impact though. The film's ending is the most daring thing I've seen all year, refusing to let the audience ignore the real world implications of the story they've seen play out.

A lot of great art comes out of troubled times. The Trump administration and all the damage that it has wrought will be influencing our movies for years to come. "BlacKkKlansmen" wasn't the first to tackle it, but to date it's one of the most provocative and thoughtful and unabashed responses. And I hope that plenty more follow its example.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Your 2019 Oscar Nominations

It's a weird year at the Oscars.  Many promising titles like "Widows," "First Man," "Mary Poppins Returns," "Leave No Trace,""Boy Erased," and "If Beale Street Could Talk" never managed to gain the necessary support and momentum to make any kind of impact on the awards races.  There's the big influence of Netflix this year, the big diversity push, and a clear shift toward more populist choices. It feels like the "Best Popular Film" kerfuffle and the hosting controversy really set the tone.

That leaves us with one of the most curious sets of Oscar nominees in some time.  Many of the Best Picture nominees are noticeably weak, including "Vice," "Black Panther," and "Bohemian Rhapsody."  There's certainly a lot to like about these films, but they also have massive flaws. "Black Panther" was in no way the best action film this year, and has been mocked for its poor CGI.  "Bohemian Rhapsody" was a treat to watch, but much of the narrative falls apart under any scrutiny. The current frontrunner is a black and white Spanish language period film, "Roma," with no recognizable stars.  Yorgos Lanthimos and Spike Lee are both nominated for Best Director, and their films, "Blackkklansman" and "The Favourite," are some of the stronger contenders. I suspect that "A Star Is Born" or "Green Book" might win because they're the only nominees that resemble the typical prestige drama we expect Oscar films to be.  

I get less and less interested in the acting races every year, as they feel more and more arbitrary.  However, I'm secretly glad that a lot of the performances that were getting a lot of buzz and heat, despite not really being all that impressive, didn't land nominations in the end.  I have nothing against Timothee Chalamet, Claire Foy, or even Ethan Hawke, but I'm not remotely surprised or bothered that they didn't make the cut. That said, there were few real surprises.  Marina de Tavira for "Roma" is the big one. It's easy to make predictions for most of the winners this year: Bale for "Vice," Mahershala Ali for "Green Book," and Regina King for "If Beale Street Could Talk."  Best Actress could go to Lady Gaga, Olivia Colman, or Glenn Close, but I'll be rooting for Colman personally.

Other major categories have some interesting races.  The Polish Foreign Language film nominee "Cold War" scored nominations for Best Director and Best Cinematography, while the German nominee "Never Look Back" also got a Cinematography nomination.  This has contributed to an unusual situation where the Best Cinematography and Best Editing categories, usually bellwethers for Best Picture, only have a single nominee in common: "The Favourite."  Alfonso Cuaron will probably prevail for director, but it's the other nominees in Best Director that raise some eyebrows. Pawel Pawlikowski and Adam McKay beat out newbie Bradley Cooper for slots. Bryan Singer is still persona non grata, which is why he's missing.  

There has been some grumbling about "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" missing out on Best Documentary, and "Eighth Grade" not getting a screenplay nod, but the only snub I really have any strong feelings about is the lack of Lee Chang-dong's "Burning" for Best Foreign Language film.  That said, I haven't seen most of the Foreign Language nominees yet. The surprise nomination that makes me happiest to see is "When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings" from "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" making it into Best Song. Netflix scored a very good haul, and I hope their squabbles with the Academy are over for now.  I'm also glad that despite the rule changes, the little seen anime "Mirai" made it into the Best Animated Film category.

Overall, I'm not disappointed with this year's nominations, probably because I haven't been paying as much attention to the awards race this year.  It only seems to be by extraordinary luck that I've managed to see as many of the nominees as I have. Maybe the nominees are just the films that Academy voters actually managed to see on their own this season and didn't have to expend too much energy hunting down.  A related trend I've noticed is that the Best Picture nominees are generally the more positive, feel-good titles. I'm not surprised "First Man" and "First Reformed" lost out, for instance, because they're so somber and dark. This year, in the current climate, the more uplifting watches may just be what everybody is more receptive to.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Peak TV Has Become an Avalanche

Oh boy. While writing up my list of my most anticipated new television and web series of 2019, I went and looked at my lists from 2017 and 2018. It just served as a reminder of how many shows I've missed or skipped. "The Romanoffs" and "FLCL: Progressive" were on previous lists, and I haven't watched. I don't plan to, since I'm no longer interested in those shows. I have way too many programs to watch that I actually am interested in. I made it through a single episode of "Counterpart" before becoming distracted by a rush of new releases. I don't know if I'll ever get around to a second.

How is it that I haven't seen any of the new "Duck Tales" yet? I'm a massive Disney nerd, and grew up with the original. Everything I've been hearing about the reboot has been fantastic, and all the little cameos and crossovers I've heard about are aimed directly at me! What about the revival of "Murphy Brown"? It's been cancelled due to ratings, but I still want to see for myself how the show has handled certain things. Omigod, "GLOW." "GLOW" looks like so much fun, but I never seem to be in the mood to start it. I've also been curious about "Castle Rock," "Titans," "Dark," the new "She-Ra" and "Patriot." I would have watched two or three episodes of the massively hyped "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" a few years ago. Now, I can't even get past the goofy title sequence.

Part of the issue is that I've made a conscious decision to prioritize films over television, so even though I've cut down on viewing hours overall, there's been a big shift toward films. I've accepted that I'll never be able to properly keep up with the Emmy race, but the Oscars are much easier. You only have to watch about twenty to thirty films to be decently informed enough to participate in the awards season chatter. However, those twenty to thirty films still eat up a lot of time. During the winter crunch, I just end up letting episodes of current shows I'm watching pile up for later. I still haven't finished the latest series of "Doctor Who," and that ended months ago. Haven't even started "Runaways," but I'll probably wait until that one's released all its episodes and binge it. Not thinking about "Young Justice" right now.

I'm very reluctant to start new shows, especially if they're ongoing, because I'm wary of not being able to keep up with recent cinematic releases. It's gotten to the point where I'm secretly a little relieved after one of the show's I've committed to finishing finally comes to an end. Saying goodbye to "The Americans" last year was easy, and I was a little annoyed "The Expanse" was saved at the last minute. It's a good show and deserves another season, but does it really need one? And as a compulsive completionist, I can't not see how the series ends. I've gotten better about this in recent years, dropping "Mr. Robot" and "Orange is the New Black" after their first seasons, but sunk cost fallacy eventually gets to me after two or three.

"True Detective"is back this month. So are "Luther," "Star Trek: Discovery" and "The Good Place." I'll get around to all of these eventually since I've watched and enjoyed their prior seasons. I'm more willing to give chances to the shows that have been consistent performers in the past. So "The Crown" is an automatic yes, even though the entire cast will be changing this year. However, I've noticed that I'm also terribly prone to getting swept up in buzz, especially when limited streaming series are involved. That's why I watched "Maniac," "Homecoming," and "The Haunting of Hill House" last year. It's a combination of the novelty, less commitment, and immediate access, I think. Sure, the first season of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" is only eight episodes, but what if it runs eight seasons?

I'm skipping the new episodes of "Making a Murderer" and "Arrested Development," but I'll give "Disenchantment" another shot. I'm doubtful about a second season of "Big Little Lies," but the appeal of Meryl Streep is strong. And frankly, the "Game of Thrones" finale is looking more and more like a disaster, but it's way too late to pull out now.

Sigh. Here we go again.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Netflix and "Bandersnatch"

Here comes another late review of a movie that's been readily accessible to everyone for weeks, because all of my reviews have been late these days.  Due to a combination of work-related and personal obligations, plus being ill for most of December, I've barely consumed any media in weeks, and will be playing catch-up for the foreseeable future.  I've only seen 187 films in 2018 in total, one of my lowest tallies since I started keeping track. Even then, a pretty significant chunk of these are Netflix releases. I've seen over a dozen of their "original" films since September, and they're the only reason I'm remotely informed about the current awards race at all.

But I want to write about Netflix's "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch" today, the interactive viewing experience that lets the viewer direct the fate of a young video game creator in the 1980s as he works on a game called "Bandersnatch."  It's been described as a "Choose Your Own Adventure" title, as a narrative-directed video game, as a brilliant experiment, and as a colossal bore. "Black Mirror" creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones reportedly spent months on this single project, which features multiple endings, the opportunity to rewind and replay previous choices, and lots of metatextual elements in its narrative.  I spent a weekend replaying and exploring the various branching options, using online guides to reach some of the the different endings. I found it a lot of fun the first, but the whole thing got very repetitive and tedious very quickly. I can see why there have been comparisons to video games, as it felt like I was replaying bits of the story over and over again.

Was "Bandersnatch" successful and entertaining as a piece of media?  I'm very mixed on this. The interactive elements were novel, and I'm glad Netflix provided the resources to really commit to the concept.  Initially, it was fun figuring out all the ins and outs of how the narrative worked, and the mechanisms to get to the different choices. I've always been notoriously bad at "Choose Your Own Adventure," and this was no different.  I hit several dead ends early on, and had to keep going back. However, overall I didn't find the experience as satisfying as watching a regular episode of "Black Mirror." Or was it just that I didn't like the story in this particular episode?  I've been generally cooler on the installments like "Shut Up and Dance" and "Playtest," where a nerdy young protagonist finds themselves persecuted by their personal demons. Fionn Whitehead's reclusive Stefan wasn't a very compelling lead. Would I have felt different if the episode were based on "Metalhead" or "Fifteen Million Merits"?

I'm inclined to categorize "Bandersnatch" as closer to a video game than a movie, due to the nature of how the narrative plays out.  Though there is an option to simply let the system make default choices for the viewer, everything is built around the interactive element, and going through it often feels like working your way through a high budget graphic adventure game, the kind that would have video cutscenes throughout.  From that perspective, the interactive element isn't very interesting. You go around talking to other characters and gathering information like an adventure RPG, but there aren't really any puzzles to solve or tasks to accomplish. A bigger, more ambitious project might be more satisfying, but that would also take far longer to create and probably require some adjustments to Netflix's existing streaming platform.  "Bandersnatch" is already unable to be watched through certain providers that render the interactivity non-functional. Still, this is by far the widest exposure this kind of interactive media has had.

I liked the experience of going through "Bandersnatch" enough that I'd love to see Netflix continue to experiment in this space.  I wonder what other kinds of stories could be told through this format. Would I have liked it better if the story were more linear, had less (or more) choices, or were a different genre?  A romantic comedy might unfold like a Japanese dating simulator game. A mystery might offer different final culprits depending on which clues you decide to investigate. There's a "Clue" remake here just waiting to happen.  But would this kind of experience still be sustainable once the novelty factor wore off? I think so, based on the reaction we've seen to "Bandersnatch" so far, but it would be a niche audience, at least to start with. Personally, I don't think I've quite got a handle on how to process the whole experience yet.

Yet I can't help wondering about  what certain filmmakers might do with interactive media.  Francis Ford Coppola tried something like this before with "Twixt," which wasn't well received.  But what about the real boundary-pushers like Michael Haneke or Leos Carax? Dear god, what would Gaspar Noe or Lars von Trier do?      

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Top Ten Films of 1982

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.

Missing - Costa Gravas looks at the 1973 Chilean coup from the POV of an ordinary American man. This is Ed, played with heartbreaking sincerity by Jack Lemmon, who wades into the middle of the chaos to search for his missing son Charles, a political activist. Faced by bureaucracy and lies at every turn, the film charts Ed's disillusionment with the American government, and reaching a gradual rapprochement with his daughter-in-law, played by Sissy Spacek. Gravas doesn't shy away from confrontation, and the results are harrowing. This is a difficult film, but a very brave and admirable one.

Pink Floyd – The Wall - I love the band and I love their music, but "The Wall" is on this list for being such an indelible cinematic experience. The deeply weird Gerald Scarfe animated sequences are still fascinating, and Bob Geldof's performance as the tortured Pink is a force to behold. This is still one of the darkest and strangest musical films ever made, full of apocalyptic visions, cynical self-examination, and surreal wartime horrors. This was one of the last great rock operas of its era, and serves as a wonderful snapshot of both the music and filmmaking of the times.

Boat People - It's still rare to see any depictions of the Vietnam war from the point of view of anyone from Asia. Hong Kong New Wave filmmaker Ann Hui takes a look at the nightmarish post-war lives of the Vietnamese under the control of Ho Chi Minh's government, using a fictional Japanese reporter as her naive stranger in a strange land. It's a rough, but very effective cautionary tale about the false promises of authoritarianism, full of big emotions and heart-tugging dramatics. The original, and much more fitting title of the feature is "Run Towards the Angry Sea."

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial - One of the most iconic films of the 1980s, and perhaps the quintessential Steven Spielberg fantasy. Echoes of this film are still being felt in our media today, especially with the recent surge of '80s nostalgia for kids on bikes having adventures. As a small child, I loved the film for its special effects, chase sequences, and the John Williams score. As an adult, I love it for its depiction of the kids and their dynamics, the sunny views of suburbia, and the John Williams score even more. They don't make them like this anymore, and probably never will again.

Victor/Victoria - To date, this is my favorite Blake Edwards film by far. It's a cheeky musical comedy about cross-dressing, homosexuality, and gender-bending that's safe enough for even the smallest tots and most uptight puritans to enjoy. Julie Andrews was never so charming or attractive as she is here, as a woman playing a man playing a woman. The musical numbers composed by Henry Mancini are magnificent, the farce is delightful, and the romance is exactly what it should be. Lively and lighthearted, but never flippant, it's a very difficult film to resist.

Fitzcarraldo - The arduous making of "Fitzcarraldo" often threatens to overshadow the finished product. However, the film was clearly worth the effort. Madness has rarely been brought to screen with the same gusto as it has by Werner Herzog, and leading man Klaus Kinski is at his most unhinged. It's difficult to argue against the dedication and daring of the filmmakers when you behold a real steamship actually being dragged over the Peruvian jungle, with a roaring Kinski at the helm. It may work better as spectacle than drama, but it's spectacle that is unmatched.

Moonlighting - Jerzy Skolimowski presents a nasty little parable about exploitation, exile, and social inequities, starring Jeremy Irons as a Polish official illegally smuggling workers into London to remodel an apartment. The scale is small and the frills are minimal, but the satire is excellent and darkly enjoyable. The disastrous building project makes a great visual metaphor for the state of Poland, putting the fate of the abused workers in sharp relief. Best of all, the themes are so universal, you don't need to know anything about Poland in the '80s to appreciate it.

Poltergeist - One of my favorite haunted house films, because it challenged my view of what a haunted house film could be. Instead of something dark and drab, "Poltergeist" is full of fantastic Spielbergian special effects, absorbing mythology, and characters I cared about. It's terrifying at times, especially when it offers manifestations of childhood fears, but also full of wonder and weird delights. It brought horror home to a suburbia that I recognized, and a family dynamic that hits close to home. And I now enjoy it in an entirely different way as a parent with small children.

The Atomic Café - A look back on the Cold War era and Americans' fears of nuclear war, using only media from the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. News footage, government training films, and other archival material are edited together to give the audience a look into once common attitudes toward nuclear war. Far more concerning than the threat of nuclear annihilation is the way the public was often mislead about it, and the extent of the paranoia surrounding the subject. It's also fascinating to see the different ways that the popular culture came to reflect the nuclear age.

Koyaanisqatsi - A groundbreaking experimental documentary feature that pairs a hypnotic Philip Glass score with macroscopic views of human civilization. There are no characters, no plot, and not a single word of dialogue or narration. Instead, the visuals speak for themselves. A secondary title of the film is "Life Out of Balance," as much of the running time is devoted to observing the negative impact that industrialization has had on the planet. Two subsequent documentaries from the same filmmakers further chart the relationships between humans, nature, and technology.

Honorable mention:

Blade Runner


Monday, January 14, 2019

"The Incredibles 2" and "Hotel Transylvania 3"

The Incredibles are back! Everyone's favorite super-powered family is adjusting to a new dynamic, after Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets a new job with an industrialist, Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who wants to bring back superheroes via a splashy PR campaign. This leaves Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) to look after Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huckleberry Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). Childcare should be a breeze for a superhero, right?

The "Incredibles" sequel is very good. However, it doesn't come close to matching up to the 2004 original, which I consider one of the high water marks of modern animation. The stakes in the new movie are lower, the storytelling more messy, and the social satire and commentary are noticeably less thoughtful. Brad Bird has revealed that he lost an entire year of development time when the project was fast-tracked, which probably accounts for some of the differences. The dialogue is still refreshingly smart, and I like a lot of the new characters, but the film feels very rough around the edges. Notably, one major character seems to be missing an emotional arc entirely, and another frequently feels like an afterthought.

As spectacle, however, "Incredibles 2" is a blast. CGI animation has seen massive technological improvements since the first film, and the sequel benefits in every way. Individual action sequences are amazing, especially Elastigirl's chase and fight scenes with a new villain named the Screenslaver. Jack-Jack also becomes a scene-stealer, as his array of new powers allow him to get into all kinds of trouble. His brawl with a raccoon and his encounter with Edna Mode are both hysterical, and my favorite parts of the film. Though "The Incredibles" has the most mature and realistic characters out of all the PIXAR creations, they work best when they fully embrace being cartoons. And they do here, frequently. So while this adventure isn't as well-rounded and polished as the first, it's just as much fun to watch.

I also enjoy how self-aware the movie is. Brad Bird actively avoids typical cliches and tired conventions. He also continually re-emphasizes that this is a family film. That doesn't mean the material is dumbed down, or that it doesn't get dark and intense when it needs to, but rather that there's something for everyone. Problems are relatable, and handled in healthy, realistic ways. Mr. Incredible deals with caregiver burnout and resentment (but doesn't blame his wife). Violet is devastated by teenage love woes (but is only briefly angry at her father for interfering). Dash has poor impulse control. Jack-Jack has poor control, period. The adults have adult concerns and have serious adult conversations addressing them. However, the kids get their turn in the spotlight, and the movie doesn't lose anything when they do.

Now, on to the latest "Hotel Transylvania" movie, "Summer Vacation." I wrote this one off sight unseen at the beginning of last year, but it turned out to be a perfectly good cartoon feature, loaded with sight gags and clever ideas. I like it better than either of the prior installments, because it totally embraces being a zany cartoon, and commits to delivering a good time. The plot is simple stuff, but provides a lot of opportunity for hijinks - the whole gang goes on a cruise and Drac (Adam Sandler) falls in love with the ship's captain, a human named Erica (Kathryn Hahn). But alas, she's secretly the granddaughter of Drac's longtime rival, the monster hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan). Along the way, there are stops at an underwater volcano and the lost city of Atlantis, along with plenty of cruise ship chaos.

The "Hotel Transylvania" movies have turned out to be some of the most watchable animated movies currently being made, largely due to the animation. Genndy Tartakovsky and his team make sure that their characters are always very visually dynamic and comedically expressive in the grand tradition of the Looney Toons and Max Fleischer shorts. This installment doubles down on some tired elements, like ending with a giant dance party, but there's a lot of creativity and inventiveness on display too. There are lots of running jokes like the cruise ship porters all being fish, the werewolf couple's swarm of destructive pups, and a slime monster family. My favorite sequence is Drac and friends being stuck on an airplane being piloted and crewed by gremlins.

This one will play better to younger audiences, but I was surprised at how positively I felt toward "Summer Vacation" in the end. We need more cartoons that really take advantage of being cartoons.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

"Maniac" is a Messy Mind-Bender

Minor spoilers ahead.

The ten-part Netflix miniseries "Maniac" looked so promising in the previews. Cary Joji-Fukunaga directs, and Jonah Hill and Emma Stone star in a science-fiction dramedy about an experimental drug trial that goes a little wonky. Full of wild concepts, stylized visuals, and multiple fantasy version of the main characters, "Maniac" seemed to be right up my alley.

And it starts out great, introducing Owen Milgrim (Hill), a paranoid schizophrenia who has agreed to lie in court for his more successful brother Jed (Billy Magnussen), and Annie Landsberg (Stone), who became addicted to pills after the death of her sister, Ellie (Julia Garner). Watching the two of them find their way into the Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech drug trial, under the supervision of unstable scientists and an even more unstable supercomputer, is a lot of fun. There are a lot of interesting elements set up, like Annie and Owen's family dynamics, the bickering ex-lovers, Dr. Fujita (Sonya Mizuno) and Dr. Mantleray (Justin Theroux), and a society that's off-kilter in some very specific ways - you can hire people to stand in for absent loved-ones and make pocket change by watching ads.

As the show goes on, and follows Owen and Annie through multiple phases of the drug trial and different drug-induced realities, I realized that many of these elements weren't actually contributing anything to the story. It was fun to see the characters' mental issues manifesting in ridiculous ways, but this was undercut by the baseline reality of the show already being full of wacky Terry Gilliam-esque devices. It didn't help that the various alternate realities feel randomly generated, and it is often difficult to connect them back to the main story. There's an explanation provided for why Owen and Annie end up in a reality where they're a blue collar couple trying to recover a stolen lemur, but it's not very convincing, and the subplot is poorly resolved. The other realities are even worse about this, offering snippets of story that don't really go anywhere, and revelations that are confusing or badly defined. It's never clear how these fantasies are actually helping Owen and Annie.

The show exists in this weird tonal place where it's very broad, fantastical, and high-concept, but still wants to reflect the real struggles of the afflicted. "Legion" pulled off something similar, but the main character's illness in that show is largely a metaphorical dramatic device. The leads of "Maniac" are suffering afflictions that are far more specific and recognizable. I appreciate that the show tries very hard to tell a story aimed at destigmatizing mental illness, but it doesn't really take itself seriously enough to be meaningful in that regard. Owen, for instance, only experiences the most cinematically convenient form of schizophrenia, where he hallucinates a nicer version of his brother and standard conspiracy elements. And somehow, Annie's mental baggage can be alleviated by sharing a "Lord of the Rings" themed adventure with an elfin version of her sister. All this extra set dressing just ends up getting in the way of the storytelling.

Still, the production values are high and the performances are great. Some of the more out-there concepts are very well executed, and the worldbuilding is impressive. However, I think this may be a case of the show's creators being too ambitious. There's no reason "Maniac" had to be ten episodes, include so many different dream realities, and spend so much time on the distracting subplots with the scientists. I'm not sure it knew what it wanted to be. Sometimes it feels like an anthology show where the framing device isn't working, or conversely like a straight movie about a drug trial where the drug-trip interludes were just tacked on to pad out time. There are some great, emotionally resonant moments like Owen and Annie being given their diagnoses, but they don't feel earned. And aside from a few moments of choice absurdity, the humor rarely worked for me.

Oh well. Every failed experiment still provides good data that can help in future endeavors. To the show's credit, I had no problem watching every episode all the way through and I was never bored. Jonah Hill gets special kudos for delivering my favorite performance of his yet. Owen's storyline was the best conceived and the most satisfying to follow. Plus, the hapless Scandinavian diplomat version of him that shows up in the ninth episode is easily the show's most successful comic creation. I wouldn't go as far as saying that "Maniac" was worth it for Hill's performance, but I'm glad he got the chance to show his versatility here.


Thursday, January 10, 2019

"Lean on Pete" and "Leave no Trace"

I knew very little about "Lean on Pete" going in, only that it was about a racehorse named Lean on Pete, and that it was some kind of coming-of-age film. I assumed that it was a typical feel-good narrative about an underdog rising to glory in the racing world, in the same vein as "Seabiscuit." "Lean on Pete" is definitely not that kind of movie. Instead, it's a much more unpredictable, harrowing story about a teenager, Charley (Charlie Plummer), who struggles to get by alongside his irresponsible father Ray (Travis Fimmel). Charley becomes obsessed with Lean on Pete, who belongs to Del (Steve Buscemi), a horse trainer that he works for.

Andrew Haigh, who made "45 Years" and "Weekend," wrote and directed "Lean on Pete." And it's very much a film in his wheelhouse, where the main character's interior emotional journey is always at the forefront. It's not an easy journey either, full of disillusionment, loss, and moments of despair. Little time is spent on Charley bonding with the aging racehorse. Instead, we learn the lonely ins and outs of Charley's life, mostly spent at the racetrack, the stables, or at the barebones apartment he shares with his father. It's a hardscrabble world full of blue collar folks, living on the margins. Del is friendly, but his economic prospects are poor. Ray loves his son, but barely pulls his own weight, and offers little support. Charley has to learn his hardest lessons on his own.

Most of the story is told through the cinematography, following Charley on his journeys through the Pacific Northwest. The visuals are bleakly beautiful at times, emphasizing the harsh terrain and Charley's isolation. Charlie Plummer's performance is also vital, as he spends so much time onscreen essentially by himself. He doesn't say much, but proves a compelling figure, vulnerable but hardy in the face of adversity. Haigh's filmmaking is sparse and unsentimental, letting scenes play out matter-of-factly, and leaving many questions unanswered. I found the film a difficult watch, but a very rewarding one. I had no idea where the story was going from one minute to the next, but was always completely invested in Charley's fate.

"Leave no Trace" is similarly a coming-of-age story about a teenager who has to learn how to live on her own terms. Thirteen year-old Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) survives in the wilderness with her PTSD-afflicted father Will (Ben Foster). The pair live off the land and make camp in a national park together, carefully hidden from the rest of the world. One day, however, Tom is spotted and the authorities get involved. Suddenly, the pair are thrust back into society - Tom discovering it as a newcomer, and Will forced to confront everything that he left behind. And for the first time, real tensions develop between father and daughter that threaten their relationship.

Quite a bit of the film takes place in and around Oregon, but very different parts of it than we see in "Lean on Pete." Tom and Will's world is a lushly green one, full of forests and wilderness. The environments are very immersive, and director Debra Granik lets her actors' often worldless interactions drive much of the story. Will's reasons for going off the grid are easy to suss out, but remain largely unremarked upon by any of the characters. Foster and McKenzie's performances are stellar, telling us everything we need to know about their characters' interior lives with little dialogue. McKenzie in particular is a promising new talent, with a wonderfully bright, self-assured presence.

I like how deliberately paced the film is. It's not slow or uneventful, but there's a patience to it, giving us a chance to experience each new development and change of scenery along with Tom, and appreciate how it impacts her. I also find its worldview a tremendously appealing one. Though life in modern society is unbearable for Will, for understandable reasons, everyone that he and Tom meet are perfectly sympathetic towards them, and only want to help. That help isn't always welcome, but there's an absence of any malice or disrespect. The major conflict ends up being between Tom and Will's diverging attitudes toward modern civilization, but it's handled with remarkable empathy and care. And in the end, "Leave No Trace" turns out to be one of the most touching films I've seen in some time.


Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Revealing "Roma"

It's been far too long between Alfonso Cuaron films - five years since "Gravity," which came seven years after "Children of Men."  When "Roma" was first announced, a Spanish language film about a Mexican family during the 1970s, it was billed as a smaller, personal film more in the vein of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Solo Con Tu Pareja."  "Roma" is certainly personal, taking elements from Cuaron's own childhood in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. However, there's nothing small about the filmmaking, which contains shots and images as epic as anything found in his Hollywood work.

"Roma" follows a Mixteco nanny, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works in the household of the well-to-do Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), who have four lively children.  Sofia also employs a maid, Adela (Nancy García), who is Cleo's closest friend. Turmoil strikes the household in 1970, as Antonio goes on a business trip, and it eventually becomes clear that he has abandoned his family for another woman.  Social unrest grips the country, resulting in bursts of violence. Cleo also becomes pregnant by her unreliable boyfriend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), putting her future in doubt.

Initially, I was fooled by the film's slower pace and incidental storytelling.  The domestic scenes are leisurely, and though the black and white images are artfully composed, with Cuaron serving as his own cinematographer, the scope of "Roma" appeared to be very small and sedate.  However, the technical complexity of the filmmaking kept catching me off guard. There's a scene early on in the house, where the maids are turning off the lights for the night, and a full 360 degree pan shot follows the characters as they go through their routines.  Later on there's a stunning tracking shot that moves from the interior of a department store to a massive protest outside in the street, and back again. Then there's another at the climax involving Cleo and the children at the beach, one of those shots where I can't fathom how it was accomplished, because it looks so perfect.  For the discerning cinephile "Roma" is a treat.

At the same time, there's a wonderful accessibility to the story, largely thanks to Yalitza Aparicio's work as Cleo.  Aparicio came to the film with no acting experience, but her screen presence is lovely and natural. She ensures that Cleo's struggles in the face of one calamity after another are very moving.  It would have been easy to have her be an idealized martyr figure, but Cleo has some interesting moral shadings to her that help to keep the audience guessing about her fate. It took me longer to warm up to Sofia and the kids, whose big dramatic moments often play out in the background.  However, as the film went on I found myself getting more and more invested in their lives too.

It's fitting that this turns out to be a major theme of the film - huge, monumental events happen in the background of ordinary life, often beginning as tiny details that might escape our notice.  An argument happening in an adjacent room, a glimpse of a couple in the street, and a man performing a stunt in the distance, are all important and all have an impact on the main characters' lives.  Cuaron's frames are often densely packed with detail, resurrecting the Mexico City of his youth, and adding little historical and cultural details for the benefit of eagle-eyed viewers. As with Cuaron's other Mexican films, there are critical moments aimed at class divides, political divides, and social issues of all stripes.

In short, "Roma" was a wonderful surprise, a film as ambitious and rewarding as anything that Cuaron has ever done.  I appreciate how thoroughly well made it is, where the composition of every shot, and the movement of the camera, and the sound design, and the set design, and every other element you could name are just a pleasure to experience.  At times it felt like I was watching a much older classic from the '60s or '70s, except that it is clearly Alfonso Cuaron's work. "Roma" was worth the wait, and I can only hope that he won't make us wait for so long until the next one.           


Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Chinese Co-Production Genre

I watched "Skyscraper" and "The Meg" recently, two of the latest American films that heavily involve Chinese talent. One is a co-production between Hollywood and Chinese studios, and one isn't but shares a lot of the same earmarks. I think I've seen enough of these now that I'm comfortable pointing out certain trends in them that are threatening to become full-blown cinematic tropes. The old stereotypes about the Chinese are out, but they're quickly being replaced by different ones, not necessarily better ones.

Most of these co-productions are action pictures, patterned off of older, established hits from the '80 and '90s. "Skyscraper" and "The Meg" are pretty obvious takes on "Die Hard" and "Jaws" respectively. You take a headliner like the Rock or Jason Statham, put them in China, and let them play out the familiar disaster or man-on-a-mission scenario with a lot of help from the locals. The most prominent Chinese character is almost always an admirable, competent female counterpart who is also a love interest, though anything remotely physical is kept offscreen.

The Chinese leading lady, whether it's Jing Tian, Fan Bing-Bing, or Li Bing-Bing, always conforms to a very specific physical type, such that it can be difficult to tell the actresses apart. They're mostly mainland Chinese actresses, not Hong Kong, Taiwan, Asian-American, or Asian-European actresses. As a result, their English is heavily accented and they can be difficult to understand. Nobody else in the picture ever comments on this. To the contrary, you'll often have the American leading man or a comedic sidekick try to say a few phrases in Chinese, to illustrate how difficult the language gap can be to overcome. The Chinese heroine is always flawless and hyper-competent as a scientist, pilot, business woman, or administrator. Nobody ever questions her abilities, though her motives may be briefly suspect.

Male Chinese characters tend to be treated less delicately, though there's always an emphasis on polite mutual respect with the American characters. There have been few buddy pictures featuring male Chinese stars, probably because there are few Chinese actors with remotely the same pull as the American headliners. Jackie Chan made "Skiptrace" with Johnny Knoxville, but that one wasn't even properly released in the U.S. Instead, you usually see a few local authority figures like cops or soldiers played by Chinese actors, who help out at a crucial moment. You also have the older male visionary industrialist type, played by Chin Hahn in "Skyscraper" and Winston Chao in "The Meg," who often bankroll a lot of the mayhem, or at least the scenery.

China itself is always featured heavily in these films, specifically shiny new cities full of high-tech toys. Back in 2006, shots of Shanghai clotheslines were deleted from "Mission Impossible III" because Chinese critics complained that it made China look like a poorer developing country. Conspicuous consumption is verboten - "Crazy Rich Asians" barely got an official Chinese release - but otherwise making the Chinese look prosperous and modern is a must. There are a lot of beauty shots of architecture and public works, often meant to help tourism efforts. Chinese product placement also pops up occasionally, even when it makes no sense. "Transformers: The Last Knight" memorably had Chinese branding everywhere, making it a laughingstock on Chinese social media.

Ideally, none of this should affect the rest of the content in these films, but it always does. Whether it's a random Chinese scientist showing up for five minutes and two lines in "Kong: Skull Island" or Mark Wahlberg being obliged to use a Chinese smart phone, the pandering is never subtle. What I find more aggravating, however, is that these productions' efforts to please the Chinese censors and sponsors often results in bland characters and storytelling. There's never a hint of interpersonal tensions, racial or otherwise. Political issues are verboten, of course. Rough-edged leading men like Jason Statham get toned way down when interacting with the Chinese characters, who are often so idealized as to barely have personalities at all. Brainless action films aren't exactly hotbeds of great acting, but the stilted line readings and kid-glove treatment really start to grate after a while.

I realized about halfway through "The Meg," one of the few recent Chinese co-productions that actually features some decent banter and self-aware cheesiness, how much of a disservice that these films do to the Chinese. They come off as humorless, passionless automatons, who are totally interchangeable. I've never found any of them memorable or worth caring about. Where are the goofy, roguish types who are the loveable heroes of such recent Chinese hits like "The Mermaid," "Monster Hunter," and "Lost in Thailand"? Why does the imported cinematic image of the Chinese have to be the boring porcelain princess?

Because the thing is, the Chinese talent has been steadily improving and there's no reason why these co-productions always have to feel as awkward and as compromised as they often do. Because the requirements are so stifling, it limits the kinds of films that can be co-productions to a few very predictable types - action spectaculars and disaster movies. I've enjoyed some of them in spite of this, but I'm looking forward to the day when the involvement of Chinese talent isn't confined to the narrow forms we see now, and might be a real benefit instead of the unappetizing pander-fest it currently is.


Friday, January 4, 2019

My Most Anticipated Television and Web Series of 2019

TV and movie calendars are very different beasts. January is a dead month for new theatrical releases, and things won't really pick up until March, so I'll be writing my "most anticipated" movie lists then, after Sundance. January, however, is midseason for television series, and we'll be seeing the return of shows like "True Detective" and "Star Trek: Discovery" in a couple of days. So it feels more appropriate to be writing this list now.

I'm leaving off any delayed shows that I wrote about in last year's post, like "Young Justice: Outsiders." Oh, and the last season of "Game of Thrones" is a given. I'll be writing plenty about that one in the months to come.

Good Omens - The BBC and Amazon are producing the adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's comic fantasy novel, about an angel and demon Odd Couple joining forces to stop the apocalypse. Michael Sheen plays the angel and David Tennant plays the demon, and the previews look fantastic. I've been hearing about this project for ages, since Terry Gilliam was circling a proposed film version back in 2001. It's so satisfying to see the six part miniseries adaptation finally get off the ground, and with a pitch perfect cast to boot.

Watchmen - Everything about Damon Lindelof's new HBO "Watchman" series intrigues me. All we really have right now is a list of actors, including Regina King, Jeremy Irons, and Tim Blake Nelson, and a promise that the series will take place in the "Watchmen" universe. It's not a reboot, a remake of the movie, or a direct sequel. Lindelof has remained cryptic as to what the show is actually going to be about, But considering that he's coming off the ingenious finale of "The Leftovers," I am inclined to trust him to know what he's doing.

His Dark Materials - The film version of the first volume of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy was a major disappointment. I'm happy that the BBC is taking another stab at it, with Dafne Keen as the new Lyra in an eight part miniseries. Lin-Manuel Miranda, James McAvoy, and Ruth Wilson have also been cast in major roles. If it does well enough, adaptations of the other books will follow. Filming has wrapped up, but due to the time necessary for extensive special effects, a series premiere is more probable toward the end of the year.

The Twilight Zone - The Jordan Peele produced and hosted relaunch on CBS All Access will be the third time "The Twilight Zone" has been brought back to television. Ten episodes are planned, and Peele has promised to stick to the format of the 1960s original. With the recent success of "Black Mirror," there have been a slew of new horror and science-fiction anthology series. None, however, have incorporated the same degree of social commentary and engagement with contemporary issues. I'm hoping that Peele's "Zone" will be an exception.

The Umbrella Academy - Ellen Page is having a bit of a comeback. She'll be leading the Netflix adaptation of the superhero comic series, which deals with a group of super-powered foster siblings trying to solve their adoptive father's murder. Steve Blackman, who has been involved with "Altered Carbon" and several of Noah Hawley's programs, is showrunner. And from the previews that came out of Comic-Con, apparently he'll be bringing the "Legion" dance numbers with him. This one already has a release date - February 15th.

Veronica Mars - Hulu is bringing "Veronica" back for what's being described as a limited series of eight episodes. Rob Thomas, Kristen Bell, and most of the old cast are onboard, for a new mystery that takes place five years after the events of the Kickstarter-funded movie. I'm looking forward to catching up with all the familiar characters, but being a fan of "The Good Place," I'm glad that this isn't a full revival of the show. The limited series approach sounds just about right, and I hope "Veronica" can keep coming back every few years this way.

The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance - I have very strong doubts as to how watchable this series is going to be. It's all well and good to romanticize doing a longer dark fantasy series starring Jim Henson's muppet creations, but the technological limitations simply can't be ignored. At the same time, I'm immensely curious to see what this is is actually going to look like. How much of the "Dark Crystal" universe can be translated to the small screen? Are they aiming at an audience of nostalgic adults or younger kids? And is Aughra coming back?

The Mandalorian - Production is already well underway, so there's a good chance that we'll see the new "Star Wars" series with Pedro Pascal this year. A strong lineup of directors has been unveiled, the budget is suitably ridiculous, and Jon Favreau certainly seems to be enjoying himself. It'll also cover the time period between the original and sequel trilogies, so there shouldn't be too much crossover with the new movies. And that's a plus for me, as too much interconnectivity has tripped up "Star Wars" media in recent years. I'm hoping this one can stand on its own.

The Boys - I like what Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have done with "Preacher," so I'm interested in seeing what they do with an adaptation of another Garth Ennis comic, "The Boys." This one is about a group of vigilantes who go up against corrupt celebrity superheroes, which is a premise that feels very timely in the current deluge of superhero series. Karl Urban is headliing, and Dan Trachtenberg is directing the pilot. Amazon is giving this an eight-episode first season, which promises to be very bloody, very adult and very subversive.

The Big Bang Theory (Finale) - And finally, I'm not likely to be watching weekly, but I can't help but look forward to upcoming farewell of "The Big Bang Theory." I loved Sheldon and Amy's wedding last year, and I look forward to whatever nerdy shenanigans the creators cook up for the gang to say goodbye. The lives of the characters have pretty closely mirrored my own for the past few years, and though I've drifted away from the show (and most network television), it was always nice to be able to check in once in a while. And I always loved sitcom finales.

Happy watching.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

My Least Anticipated Films of 2019

In January, with every title yet unseen, it's easy to be optimistic about the forthcoming year in cinema. Alas, bad movies are inevitable and 2019 will have no shortage of them. So below, I'll discuss some of the most groan-worthy titles that have somehow found their way to the slate of upcoming theatrical releases. Please keep in mind that I sincerely hope that I'm wrong about all of the movies in this post, and that they beat the odds and actually turn out to be decent cinema. But if past years are any indication, it's likely this will be the last time you see discussion of any of these titles on this blog.

Let's start with Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy. I like McCarthy, but her collaborations with her husband have been uniformly terrible, and there are two on the schedule for next year. First comes "Margie Claus," a musical about Santa's wife having to fill in for him one fateful Christmas. Then there's "Super Intelligence," where McCarthy plays an ordinary woman who has to contend with a rogue AI voiced by James Corden. These are both currently slotted for late in the year, and they may end up delayed or cancelled. McCarthy is also in a third movie not directed by Falcone, "The Kitchen," about a trio of mobster wives, that looks far more promising.

Next year will also see several adaptations of popular children's characters and toy tie-ins. I'm very doubtful about the live-action animation hybrid films about Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, but there's enough good talent involved in these that I'm willing to wait and see. Ditto the live-action "Dora the Explorer," which has been rejiggered into a Latino family adventure film. However, I'm not holding my breath for the animated "UglyDolls" and "Playmobil" movies, both based on toy lines. Next year will also see the return of the "Angry Birds" and "The Secret Life of Pets" franchises, which both had less-than-stellar first films. But hey, I was wrong about "Hotel Transylvania: Summer Vacation." You never know with kids' films.

There is also going to be a bumper crop of iffy-sounding remakes. French film "Intouchables" will soon become "The Upside" with Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart. Mexican crime film "Miss Bala," is getting an American update with Gina Rodriguez. And then there's Roland Emmerich, disaster film impresario, who will be returning cineplexes with a new version of "Midway," the 1976 WWII film. The involvement of Woody Harrelson and Luke Evans probably won't be enough to counter the inevitable CGI effects overload or a complete disregard of historical accuracy. Taraji P. Henson will be leading a gender-swapped version of "What Women Want" called "What Men Want." It looks good on paper, but it's Adam Shankman at the helm, so I'd approach with extreme caution.

Of course there are the usual suspects. "Annabelle" is getting another sequel. Tyler Perry will soon present "A Madea Family Funeral." We can also expect several Christian themed films with political messages from the faith-based film community, including the pro-life "Unplanned" and "Roe v. Wade." The latter kept losing cast and crew over the course of its disastrous production last year, but I expect that we'll see it in some form anyway. Adam Sandler's latest comedy will also premiere on Netflix, one "Murder Mystery" co-starring Jennifer Aniston. Netflix has turned into a real clearinghouse for cinematic blunders lately, and I expect a few more of their acquisitions will turn out to be busts.

Still, the really awful films have been getting harder to spot. Uwe Boll, Friedberg and Seltzer, and Paul W.S. Anderson have all be scarce for a while. Studios have been curbing the number of theatrical releases, preferring to send their commercially riskier offerings to VOD or streaming to cut down on costs. Sure, there are always going to be a couple of bad horror pictures made on the cheap, underwhelming action schlock, and tone-deaf prestige pics at a theater near you, but the egregiously bad stuff has been scarce. This year's post was harder to write than usual, and I really had to go digging to turn up some of the titles.

With any luck, in a couple of years I won't need to write this post at all.