Saturday, March 30, 2019

"If Beale Street Could Talk" and "Widows"

I had a difficult time connecting with Barry Jenkins' last film, "Moonlight," and initially I thought I was in for another struggle with his adaptation of "If Beale Street Could Talk."  However, I found the material far more accessible, and I was better able to appreciate what Jenkins was able to do with it. The story is a familiar one, even if the particulars are of a very specific milieu.  Girl and boy are in love, but fate separates them. The girl, Tish (KiKi Layne) is expecting a baby, but the boy, Fonny (Stephan James) has been falsely accused of rape and stews in jail. Her family is sympathetic, but his is not.  The film watches the situation develop, while flashing back to earlier events in Tish and Fonny's lives and courtship.

Like "Moonlight," this is a love story, and it's the way that the film gets us so invested in the relationship that I found remarkable.  The mood and atmosphere here are everything, the smoke curling from Fonny's cigarette as he regards a new woodworking project, the nocturnal intimacy of Tish and Fonny's first night together, and the warm kinship of Tish's family celebrating her announcement.  Jenkins is so adept at getting us inside the characters' heads, putting us in these private spaces - sometimes uncomfortably close. When Tish's mother Sharon (Regina King) hits a setback, her face fills the screen, her desolation inescapable. And then there's the chilling encounter with a white police officer played by Ed Skrein, where the discordant music and the queasy cinematography make him seem positively demonic from Tish's frightened perspective.  

Again, however, there were places where I found myself struggling with slower pacing or incidental moments that didn't work for me the way they were intended.  I still think there are a few cultural and stylistic barriers that kept me from enjoying this as much as I wanted to - and this time, I really wanted to. Romantic mood pieces may just not hold my interest as much as more plotty pieces of media, no matter how exquisitely executed.  And "If Beale Street Could Talk" is exquisite filmmaking through and through.

Now on to "Widows," which is admittedly more my speed.  Steve McQueen has assembled a sensational cast for a heist movie of rare ambition.  We don't just learn about the lives and motives of each of the women involved in pulling off the big job, but we learn a great deal about the social circumstances in which they operate.  Set in Chicago, against the backdrop of a hotly contested election, "Widows" initially sets up a juicy genre premise. A robbery, led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), goes wrong and all four of the men involved are killed.  The victim, a local crime boss named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), goes after Harry's widow Veronica (Viola Davis) for the missing money. So she plots with the widows of the other robbers, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), to pull off a heist of their own.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the story, but McQueen's primary interest is with character and setting.  We spend a lot of time with Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), one of the candidates in the election, whose involvement with the heist initially appears to be minimal.  However, through him we learn the ins and outs of South Side Chicago, its politics and its tensions. Veronica is constantly on the move, traveling all over the city for meetings with people in high and low places.  She's often elegantly dressed with her dog in tow, a figure of fortitude and power even though she's frequently underestimated. In her quieter moments, we watch her grieve for Harry as a woman still very much in love.  Alice, and to a lesser extent Linda and her friend Belle (Cynthia Erivo), are very well fleshed out, living their own lives and dealing with their own sets of problems and concerns.

I'd heard some complaints that all of this extra work got in the way of the actual mechanics of the heist film, but I didn't find this to be the case.  There's plenty of action and confrontation, and room for all the actresses to shine, Davis in particular. I will caution that it takes more time and patience to get there than your average heist film.  However, along the way you get to meet people like Jamal's brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), an enforcer with a sadistic streak, and Bash (Garrett Dillahunt), Veronica's loyal chauffeur. You get to see the sights and enjoy the view a little more, before the bullets start to fly.    

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

My Top Ten Films of 1980

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.      

The Long Good Friday - Bob Hoskins delivers a career best performance, playing an ambitious London gangster who makes a doomed attempt at going straight.  Alas, respectability and real estate dealings aren't as easy as they looks. It's a wonderful character piece, full of colorful dialogue and hot-tempered altercations.  The jazzy score, slick violence, and trips into the darker corners of the London underground make this one of the most memorable of the '70s UK crime films. Helen Mirren also puts in a good appearance as Hoskins' girlfriend, a far from typical gun moll.     

The Falls - One of Peter Greenaway's first features, and one of his most experimental.  The entire film consists of video entries for a fictional directory of the various victims of a sinister "Violent Unknown Event" or VUE that has greatly altered the world.  The 92 entries consist of short biographies and a brief listing of symptoms. Each offers hints about the nature of the VUE, which causes its victims to take on certain characteristics of birds.  The visuals are mostly photo stills and fanciful scientific diagrams, accompanied by the deadpan narration. It's bizarre and unforgettable.

The Blues Brothers - Any description of the film makes it sound too unlikely to exist.  So, I'll just express my deepest gratitude for the musical performances of Little Richard, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway, the epic car chase and resulting wreckage, Carrie Fisher, hating Illinois Nazis, Elwood Blues' appreciation of police cars, cameos by famous directors and puppeteers, getting the band back together, 116 parking tickets and 56 moving violations, Jake Blues' dining habits, everybody needing somebody to love, the great city of Chicago, and missions from God.   

The Elephant Man - An odd film for David Lynch, as it's one of his most straightforward features, and almost totally lacks his usual surrealist elements.  However, there's still an air of melancholy oddity to the black-and-white world of "The Elephant Man," and a directness and candidness about the deformities of John Merrick that keep it from ever feeling like a dry historical biopic or a lurid piece of exploitation.  The performances of Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt are wonderfully humanizing, and Christopher Tucker's makeup work, of course, is legendary.

Berlin Alexanderplatz - Is this really a movie?  I've seen enough film lovers count this fifteen-hour serial as a feature, even though it originally premiered on German television before its theatrical run.  So I'm comfortable putting it on this list, especially as it is one of the greatest achievements of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I admit I found many of the installments to be unrelenting studies in misery, and they were difficult to get through.  The finale, however, with its naked catharsis and fantasy sequences made the whole strange, fascinating trek through the hero's psyche worth it.

Gloria - Like all of Cassavetes' films, at its core "Gloria" is a character study of a very imperfect woman, played by Gena Rowlands.  However, I like Gloria more than I like the usual Cassavetes heroines. There's an admirable directness and toughness to her, and at the same time a very appealing vulnerable side.  Watching Gloria wrangle late-blooming maternal feelings while fleeing the mob is a joy. I admit that many of Rowland's other roles in Cassavetes films have a tendency to blend together in my mind, but Gloria stands apart as a tough cookie worth rooting for.  

The Shining - Kubrick's first and only horror film is a sensational sensory experience that turns the snowbound Overlook Hotel into one of the most eerie and unnerving cinematic landmarks of all time.  This was my first Kubrick film, and remains my favorite for its the unparalleled menace and psychological thrills. Jack Nicholson is somehow more charming the more unhinged he gets, and all the old horror cliches, from the jump scares to the smash cuts, are all magnificently effective thanks to Kubrick's exacting execution and and obsessive attention to detail.   

Kagemusha - One of Akira Kurosawa's final period epics sees Tatsuya Nakadai playing the double role of a beleaguered warlord and the lowly thief who becomes his decoy, and later his reluctant stand-in.  The impressive battle sequences are clearly a prelude to the all-out carnage of "Ran" a few years later, but "Kagemusha" stands on its own as both stirring drama and often overwhelming spectacle. With a narrative as potent as any Shakespearean tragedy, and Nakadai's excellent performance, "Kagemusha" is easily one of the highlights of Kurosawa's later career.   

Demon Lover Diary - A curious documentary, which chronicles the production of a '70s B-movie that goes terribly wrong.  The first time filmmakers behind the "Demon Lover" feature were clearly in over the heads, and as the film shoot spirals out of their control, and more details about their finances come out, the more jawdropping the situation becomes.  The documentary's filmmaking may be very mediocre stuff, with its whispered narration and many out-of-focus shots, but what the camera manages to capture is the stuff of cult movie legend.

The Empire Strikes Back - This is one of the foundational films of my childhood, and it honestly might not be here if I were able to be more objective about it.  Much of my continued admiration for the film comes from viewing it in context of the original "Star Wars." "Empire" was the film that really made the series what it is today, something darker and sadder, where the heroes don't win in the end, and disillusionment and doubt plague them at every step.  The effects work is still stunning, but here it's the deepening characters and ideas that make the movie special.

Monday, March 25, 2019

"Suspiria" and "Bohemian Rhapsody"

I wasn't a big fan of the original "Suspiria," finding it too light on story and character to feel very substantial.  When I heard that Luca Guadagnino was going to remake it, I was hopeful that he would come up with something more to my tastes.  And boy, did he succeed.

Once again, an American dancer, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), comes to Berlin to join a prestigious dance company.  Under the guidance of her instructor, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), she flourishes. However, other students have been experiencing strange ailments, and there have been several sudden departures and disappearances.  One missing girl, Patricia (Chloe Moretz), was seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf), who takes it upon himself to investigate Patricia's claims of the dance company being run by witches.

Where the 1977 was a brightly colored Technicolor phantasmagoria, the 2018 edition chooses a more subdued, autumnal palette.  The imagery, however, is no less shocking and gruesome. There's far more emphasis on the dancing this time, and it's actually used as the source of some very potent body horror.  Susie's dreams are full of provocative imagery, and the makeup department clearly had a lot of fun turning several of the lovely actresses into monstrous grotesques. And I so appreciate that Guadagnino and company took advantage of modern effects and laxer content restrictions to really show us the full, weird, macabre glory of the witches and their depravity.  The horror elements are all top notch.

The story is much more coherent and easier to follow, though there were clearly pains taken to preserve the hallucinatory, dreamlike nature of the original.  There are also new thematic elements in the mix, with the story set in 1977 during a period of social unrest, and a power struggle going on within the coven. The characters are stronger and more complex, particularly Susie, and the performances are likewise more enjoyable.  The only disappointment I had is the music. I'm usually a fan of Thom Yorke, but I didn't think his selections worked with many of the bloodier sequences. And, frankly, nobody is ever going to match up to the Goblins.

Speaking of great music from the '70s, "Bohemian Rhapsody," the Freddie Mercury biopic, is an unabashed good time, thanks largely to its soundtrack of famous Queen songs and the performance of Rami Malek as Mercury.  We follow the life and times of Queen from the band's formation in the early '70s to the iconic Live Aid performance in 1985, and Mercury's evolution from an Indian-Arab college student named Farrokh Bulsara, to international rock star.

This long-awaited film has survived years in development purgatory and the firing of the credited director, Bryan Singer.  It gets some things very right, like the casting of the band members, the ending recreation of nearly the entire Live Aid performance, and the acknowledgement of  Mercury's heritage and difficult sexual awakening. However, it's also already notorious for playing fast and loose with the timeline, being a bit too kind to surviving band members, and essentially making a lot of things up.  There's a whole section of the film where Mercury breaks up Queen to become a solo artist that simply did not happen. However, "Bohemian Rhapsody" doggedly sticks to its "Behind the Music" formula, and I have to admit that it's all terribly entertaining.

I give a lot of credit to Rami Malek, who only bears the vaguest resemblance to Mercury, and is saddled with a very unfortunate dental prosthetic in many scenes.  He does a fantastic job in the performance recreations in particular, getting across Freddie Mercury's famous stage presence and charisma. The more intimate details of his private life may be largely fabricated, but Malek is convincing enough to evoke some real pathos for Mercury when he hits his low points.  The rest of the cast doesn't get as much to do as they probably should, with so much of the spotlight going to Malek. However, I still can't get over what a dead ringer Gwilym Lee is for the young Brian May.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" is at its best when the film focuses on the music - either the band performing or creating and recording iconic songs like the title track.  I wonder if Queen's recording of "Bohemian Rhapsody" by itself would have been enough to sustain an entire feature by itself. That part of the film certainly has the best moments of humor, cinematic creativity, and there's good use of the full ensemble.  As is, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a good time at the theater, but this could have been considerably better.


Saturday, March 23, 2019

"The Good Place," Year Three

Spoilers for the whole season ahead.

There's no getting around that "The Good Place" lost a couple of steps this year, having ditched its original premise, location, and modus operandi several times over for something a lot more free-form and untethered.  There were still plenty of good moments and a couple of great episodes, but I was a lot less invested in this season than the previous ones.

I think a big part of my criticisms have to do with the show's shift from Eleanor to Michael as the main protagonist.  Michael is the one who knows what's actually going on the whole time and is able to pull many of the strings, first orchestrating the reunion of the four humans on Earth, and then directing their existential adventures as they bounce from one arbitrary goal to the next.  As much as I enjoy Ted Danson, and as much as Kristen Bell is still a big part of the season, Michael's just not as compelling a lead as Eleanor. Her moral development is still ongoing, but largely backgrounded, and the love story isn't prominent enough to feel like the stakes are equally as important.  Michael, after last year's change of heart, isn't really growing or changing much anymore.

Then there's the plotting.  The first part of the season takes place on Earth, giving us a chance to see how the humans use their second chances at life.  However, Michael and Janet's machinations to get everyone into the same academic study in Australia feels like a lot of work for a premise that doesn't really pay off in a satisfying way.  New character Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) has exactly one good scene, then a whole lot of nothing. Then, several episodes are spent with everyone making up with their estranged family members - the first time it's felt like "The Good Place" has had filler.  It's only in the last five episodes that a really interesting new mystery emerges, and the show goes back to its cliffhanger endings. And in the end, everyone is right where they started - with a few new variations, of course.

I've always liked the ambitious, big-concept, "anything can happen" nature of "The Good Place," and this season had some good examples.  The "Janet(s)" episode with D'Arcy Carden pulling a Tatiana Maslany was a fun digression. The visits to Accounting, the Good Place Correspondence Center, and Doug Forcett's place do a good job of worldbuilding.  However, other big ideas like Tahani dating an overlooked Hemsworth brother, the Good Place bureaucracy being made up of useless time-wasters, and the humans deciding to band together to be do-gooders, didn't really land.  It's the more character based episodes that I found the most impressive. By far, the season highlight was "Jeremy Bearimy," where everyone finds out about the Judge's experiment, and William Jackson Harper's straitlaced Chidi goes temporarily off the deep end.

I found a lot of the humor more hit-or-miss this year too.  The chili made of junk food and the terrible wine T-shirt in "Jeremy Bearimy"  worked. I didn't find much amusing about the Florida episode though. And a ton of the call backs and references to in-universe in-jokes scattered throughout the season fell flat.  I always loved the show's absurd eatery names and background visual gags, but it felt like there were too many of them this year, awkwardly shoehorned into too many scenes. Especially when the characters were on Earth, there was often such an atmosphere of comic-book zaniness that it was distracting.  The prior flashbacks to life on earth clearly took place in sitcom world, but it was a sitcom world with a more grounded sense of reality.

Still, the show is consistently more entertaining and thought-provoking than not.  I admire and appreciate that "the Good Place" has committed to seriously exploring moral philosophy, going so far as to having Michael and Eleanor spend an entire bottle episode debating over the existence of free will, and turning Doug Forcett into an example of a "happiness pump."  The resolution over the mystery of the point system makes total sense, and is perfectly in keeping with what the show is doing thematically. I suspect a lot of the ups and downs of this season where due to the creators trying to find ways to explore more material in this vein. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but I'm glad that they're still trying new things and new storytelling devices.    


Thursday, March 21, 2019

"Burning" and "Beast"

Let's get away from Hollywood for a bit today.

Lee Chang-dong is one of my favorite filmmakers, and "Burning" lived up to my very high expectations for it.  A young man named Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), estranged from most of his family, falls in love with a dreamy, childlike young woman named Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo).  He looks after her apartment and pet cat while she's traveling. When Hae-mi returns with a sinister new acquaintance, Ben (Steven Yeun), Jong-su continues their friendship, but worries over the new relationship.

"Burning," much like Lee's last film, "Poetry," is full of ellipses.  There's a mystery that plays out in the second half of the film, one that none of the characters discuss directly, but which has devastating consequences for everyone.  Our hero is has to decide whether Hae-mi is trustworthy, and if a crime happened that he has no real evidence for. On a more existential level, he has to decide whether it's worth spending so much time and attention on things of dubious tangibility.  Should he keep coming around to feed a cat who never shows himself? Should he keep working on a novel that may never materialize? Hae-mi herself is frequently elusive, a young woman with no connections, a flighty temperament, and an unstable position in society.

I adore Lee Chang-dong films because the storytelling is so cinematic.  The pace is slow, but the narrative hums along, giving us plenty of character-building moments, and setting up many elements that pay off in satisfying ways.  Jong-su isn't much for conversation, so the majority of his investigations and realizations play out silently. We watch him take care of his absent father's farm, and then a scene later he wanders into the back of a courtroom, where we learn more about his father's fate.  Ben's wealth and status are made apparent long before Jong-su pegs him as "The Great Gatsby," his coldly spacious apartment contrasting with the cluttered homes of Jong-su and Hae-mi.

And then there's the spiritual and emotional journey that Jong-su goes through - all the ups and downs of his mostly one-sided romance with Hae-mi and his doubts over what to do when Ben appears in their lives.  Steven Yeun does a fantastic job of playing Ben as a cold-blooded, careless elite, who slowly reveals the extent of his sociopathy. However, it's Yoo Ah-in who delivers the most memorable performance. There's such an intimacy to the story and to Yoo's work.  The ending is terrifically bizarre and unexpected, but it makes complete sense for the character.

A similar, but more bluntly realized film is Michael Pearce's debut feature "Beast," a thriller set on the British island of Jersey.  A young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley) works as a tour guide and lives at home with her wealthy parents, in order to help look after her ailing father.  However, Moll chafes at the social expectations and familial obligations placed on her by her overbearing mother, Hilary (Geraldine James), and police office brother Harrison (Oliver Maltman).  One night, she's helped out of a bad situation by a poacher, Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn), and they become romantically involved. However, Pascal is suspected of being involved in a series of disturbing murders.

"Beast" is a winning mix of the usual tropes of romance and crime films, anchored by a fierce performance from Jessie Buckley.  I wasn't sure what kind of story it was telling at the outset, and the various twists and turns left me guessing up until the end.  However, I was always fully invested in Moll's growing pains, her tensions with her family, and her rising guilt and inner turmoil as the investigation goes on.  I think it's her difficult family dynamics that are really the key to the picture, since it gives us clear antagonists to root against, and provides additional stakes to the romance.  Also, Geraldine James makes a wonderfully hateable evil screen mum.

Pearce's filmmaking has a few rough edges, but he does some interesting things with the editing and sound design, and takes plenty of advantage of the gorgeous Jersey scenery.  There's nice handling of the different tones, as the movie shifts from romance to thriller. Moll has occasional nightmares that add just the right amount of ambiguity and lurking violence to the mix.  At the same time, the portrayal of the romance is lovely and sensitive. This is a great start for Michael Pearce, and I look forward to seeing more.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Luther," Series Five

It's been four years since we last saw "Luther," the longest gap in the series yet.  I was surprised that the show had returned, since the leads have been busy with other projects, and the last season wasn't nearly as well-received as the previous ones.  However, everyone is back, including the show's creator and main writer Neil Cross. And the latest adventures of our favorite black British detective are some of his most satisfying so far, and well worth the audience's time.

DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) is still working in London, chasing crooks under the supervision of DSU Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley), with a new officer working under them, Catherine Halliday (Wunmi Mosaku).  Their newest case involves a grisly series of murders that appear to be connected to a psychiatrist, Vivian Lake (Hermione Norris), and her her surgeon husband, Jeremy Lake (Enzo Cilenti). Luther is also being menaced by local crime boss, George Cornelius (Patrick Malahide), who suspects that Luther had someting to do with the kidnapping of George's son.  So, our hero is already busy when Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), his serial killer ex-lover/ex-enemy, crashes back into his life.

Unlike previous series of "Luther," there's no being coy about Alice's involvement.  She's an integral part of the show this year, and her complicated relationship with Luther sees major consequences that have been long overdue.  Ruth Wilson's performance has always been one of my favorite parts of "Luther," and here she gets lots of screen time and the opportunity to really get to dig into the character in a way that she hasn't since the first series, way back in 2010.  Elba is certainly still compelling as Luther, trying to keep ahead of all the different crises that eventually start feeding into each other, while battling his own demons. It's also helpful that there's only one police investigation going on this year, and it's one that plays out over all four episodes of the series.  This year feels less like a typical police procedural and more like a character-based thriller.

There's also a nice sense of continuity and progression to the writing.  Alice isn't the only familiar face from Luther's past to show up, and there are references to other prior events and departed characters.  Much of the new storyline is built around Luther dealing with the ongoing issues created by all of his prior adventures, many of which have been compounding for years.  Idris Elba is graying noticeably, and his scenes with Wunmi Mosaku see Luther getting comfortable with an older mentor role. And at the end of the final episode, it's suggested that there are many more places the series could go, and much more that you could do with the character of John Luther.  I'm very excited about hints that the next series (and there will be a next series) might move away from investigations altogether. The over-the-top serial killers have always been the least believable part of this show - or at least, the frequency of them.

The supporting cast is especially strong this time out, helped out by the serialized nature of the series giving everyone more screen time.  Mosaku is very appealing in the greenhorn role (and it's about time we saw another major black character on this show), Cilenti and Norris are memorably awful as the Lakes, and Patrick Malahide makes an excellent mobster.  However, I was happiest to see Dermot Crowley getting so much more of the spotlight as Schenk. He's the only cast member, aside from Elba and Wilson, to have been with "Luther" since the beginning, and has always felt underutilized.  This is the first time he's gotten in on the action in any meaningful way, and I hope it's not the last.

There's been talk for a while now about a standalone "Luther" feature film, and I can see the appeal of the idea.  However, I'd much rather see more "Luther" series like this one, because it would allow for a more complex narrative and the ability to take more advantage of the universe that  Neil Cross and company have built up over nearly a decade now. Sure, a "Luther" film would probably be great, but it just wouldn't be the same.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Middling Stay at the "El Royale"

I very nearly didn't write a review for "Bad Times at the El Royale."  It was one of my most anticipated films of last year because Drew Goddard was writing and directing.  When I finally saw the film, however, it wasn't what I was expecting, and not in a good way. Instead of a broad ensemble action film full of colorful characters, this is a moodier, twistier piece of noir that takes itself more seriously.  The characters are plenty colorful, but not nearly as much fun as I'd hoped, and the humor I associate with Goddard's work is toned way down. I like the film, ultimately, but can't help feeling disappointed too.

The El Royale hotel, an establishment of declining fortunes, sits on the border between California and Nevada.  One fateful night in 1969, a priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a travelling salesman, Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a soul singer, Darlene Love (Cynthia Erivo), and a mystery woman (Dakota Johnson), check into the El Royale.  There is only one employee, a nervous young man named Miles (Lewis Pullman). Everyone is hiding things, and the motley group will soon be joined by another young woman, Rose (Cailee Spaeny), and the charismatic and very dangerous Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).

"Bad Times at the El Royale" has a lot in common with Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" and Martin McDonagh's "Seven Psychopaths."  These are all films that try to tell a collection of different stories about its various shady characters, and all of them end in violence and mayhem.  They also share a few major flaws, the most prominent being that there's not enough time to give all these characters and their stories their due. In the case of "El Royale," I kept being frustrated by interesting characters being killed off before we could learn more about them, or little hints of bigger storylines happening offscreen.  The movie ended with loose threads of plot hanging everywhere, to my frustration.

The two main characters are Father Flynn and Darlene Love, who manage to become something like friends during their brief stay at the El Royale.  It's a relationship punctuated by betrayals, assaults, and gunfire, but it actually plays out in a rather heartwarming fashion. Jeff Bridges is a lot of fun here, and Broadway star Cynthia Erivo makes her big screen debut as Darlene - and she's a total delight.  If the film kept itself focused on the two of them, I would have been much happier with "El Royale" overall. However, there's also the messy history of Dakota Johnson's character, Emily, a subplot involving a secret film of an affair, and a very late twist that might have worked better if it didn't feel so rushed.

I liked the first two thirds of the movie fine, and there are certain sequences that are very memorable and impressive.  Goddard does suspense very well, and it's enjoyable watching the various mysteries being set up, and some of the reveals playing out.  I like that the pacing is leisurely and takes its time. The opening sequence is a fantastic little mini-movie in and of itself, detailing another dark episode in the history of the hotel.  There's a rehearsal sequence with Darlene that slowly expands into something far more sinister. I love a lot of the little stylistic touches, like the movie being split into Tarantino-esque chapters, all the period details, and the fantastic look of the El Royale.  It's one of the only film locations in some time that I would visit if I could.

However, I think "El Royale" takes a bad turn in the last act, roughly when Billy Lee shows up.  Chris Hemsworth is fine, but the character doesn't gel with the rest of the movie well, and there's so much of that long, simmering build-up that just doesn't pay off.  I don't know if it was an editing problem or if the writing doesn't hold up, but the ending came off so badly that I left the film wondering if there had been major scenes left on the cutting room floor.  I wish I liked "El Royale" more, because it has some wonderful things in it - Lewis Pullman turns out to be the film's secret weapon - but its missteps were bad enough that I can't give it a pass.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

"Green Book" and "Vice"

Today, quick reviews of two prestige pics that have won more awards this season than they probably should have.

First up is "Green Book," which you've probably heard described as a twist on "Driving Miss Daisy" because it features a black pianist, Don "Doc" Shirley (Mahershala Ali), being chauffeured on a concert tour through the Deep South by a white driver, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), in the 1960s.  I suspect another reason the comparison keeps coming up is because "Green Book" feels like a film made in the late 1980s. The language is more profane, and there's a same-sex encounter that probably wouldn't have passed muster thirty years ago, but otherwise the way the characters are treated and the way the themes are handled feels positively old fashioned.   

This isn't to say that "Green Book" is a bad film.  The performances by Mortensen and Ali are great. Ali, in particular, is playing a completely different kind of character than I've ever seen him play before, and he's instantly memorable in the role.  Watching the two of them doing "Odd Couple" schtick on the road together is very entertaining, and they do a good job of distracting the viewer from all the ancient tropes of American race relations films that get trotted out here for the millionth time.  Of course Tony learns to shed his casual racism upon getting to know Doc and his struggles. Of course the erudite Doc learns to better appreciate the common man through his interactions with Tony.

It's not that this kind of story doesn't still work, but the film's elevation by Hollywood strikes a very odd note in a year that also gave us "Blindspotting," "Sorry to Bother You," and "This is America."  As fun as the relationship between Doc and Tony is, it also comes off as highly manufactured and overly simplified. One of the credited screenwriters is the son of the real Tony Vallelonga, which probably explains why the script feels scrubbed of any real rough edges.  It's also a shame that the first substantial onscreen portrayal of Don Shirley, a fascinating figure in musical history, should be through this lens. Do you think they could get Mahershala Ali back for a proper biopic?

Now on to "Vice," the movie about the infamous Dick Cheney's rise to power.  The whole film is built around two major conceits. The first is Christian Bale's transformation into Cheney, via a lot of good makeup work and an impressive performance.  To a lesser extent, Sam Rockwell's George W. Bush and Steve Carrell's Donald Rumsfeld also deserve their kudos. The second is writer/director Adam McKay's approach to the material, which is similar to how he tackled the 2008 financial crisis in "The Big Short."  There's fourth-wall breaking everywhere, meta and cutaways used for satirical effect, and a very biting, sardonic tone with a lot of dark humor. It's not nearly as successful this time around.

I think my viewing of the film was colored by my own interest in politics.  I'm relatively well informed about recent history and a lot of the bad behavior being spotlighted by McKay wasn't new to me.  I also didn't need much convincing that Dick Cheney and his associates did a lot of damage in his time as the Vice President. So as far as I was concerned, "Vice" was preaching to the choir.  And maybe that's why I spent so much of the film so utterly bored. Sure, Bale makes an uncanny Cheney, but Cheney isn't a particularly cinematic figure, and in the later parts of the film often speaks in a low grumble.  McKay tries to make up for it by relaying his lessons in recent history with a lot of flash and dazzle, but it's not very effective.

There's one sequence toward the end of the film that sticks out as a good example of the movie's problems.  At this point George W. Bush has just been elected, and Cheney is being briefed on all of his various allies in different departments and organizations around Washington.  We're rapidly bombarded by about a dozen names and all the details of their positions, accompanied by some animation that shows us each person rendered like a game piece being set up on a board.  And after this scene is finished, absolutely none of this information ever comes up again. Yes, the point was made that Cheney had a lot of crooked friends in high places to help him, but was it worth having to sit through all this tedious exposition to do it?  That never feels like it pays off anything?

I'm glad we've got a filmmaker willing to call out Dick Cheney like this, but it feels like the politics got in the way of the filmmaking here, and that's an awful shame.       

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"Support the Girls" and "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again"

Facing a glut of prestige movies I need to watch, I've decided to turn the spotlight on some of last year's well-deserving girl power pics today.  Both are movies I had almost no expectations for, and was very pleasantly surprised. Let's start off with "Support the Girls," the latest microbudget indie film from Andrew Bujalski.  Like his other films, it's an unsparingly realistic look at regular people struggling to get along and get by. This one just happens to be set in the garish world of a small Hooters sports bar knock-off called Double Whammies, managed by the motherly Lisa (Regina Hall), and owned by the grungy Cubby (James Le Gros).  

We follow Lisa through her day, handling one crisis after another.  A would-be thief is found trapped in the HVAC system. New hires, including Jenelle (Dylan Gelula), need to be trained.  Shaina (Jana Kramer) had an altercation with her scumbag boyfriend, and needs to pay for a lawyer. Danyelle (Shayna McHale) has to be persuaded to flirt with a sound system salesman, so he'll provide music for their unsanctioned fundraiser.  Maci (Hayley Lu Richardson) may be sleeping with one of the customers. Krista (AJ Michalka) has just gotten an inappropriate tattoo. There's an unscheduled visit and disruptions from Cubby. And the cable's out.

If you're not familiar with Mumblecore films, "Support the Girls" may feel amateurish and ungainly at first.  The production is bare bones and often looks rough. There's an improvisational feel to much of the dialogue, and many of the little subplots don't end up going anywhere.  However, the film deftly paints a sympathetic picture of all the behind-the-scenes effort that goes into keeping the tawdry business afloat, and details all the various indignities that the staff has to put up with.  It's especially appreciative of Lisa, who cares about her co-workers, often to her own detriment. Regina Hall is great in the role, and is vital in grounding the occasional silliness of various plot twists and a few bits of humor that don't quite work.  The female camaraderie is kept front and center, giving the film more heart than I was expecting. "Support the Girls" ends up being a cheerfully idiosyncratic ode to women persevering in tough times, and it's easily the best Bujalski film I've seen to date.

And now, on to "Mamma Mia!  Here We Go Again," which I put off watching for ages because I was not a fan of the first movie, and couldn't believe that the sequel could possibly be any better, despite all the good press I was hearing.  Well, I was wrong. "Here We Go Again" is not a film for everyone, but it's about the most delightful, effervescent movie musical I've seen in ages. It's both a sequel and a prequel, splitting its narrative between a young Donna (Lily James), who travels the world and ends up in Greece after whirlwind romances with three different suitors, and her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), in the present day, who is reopening Donna's hotel and mourning the loss of her recently departed mother.  Everyone is back in some capacity, including all three of Sophie's possible fathers from the first film, a very sweet Meryl Streep cameo, and new characters played by Andy Garcia and Cher. Oh, and there are ABBA numbers everywhere, of course, performed with great enthusiasm.

The plotting here is absolutely preposterous, but it's also completely beside the point.  The movie is built on good feelings and big dreams, expressed through its elaborate musical numbers, colorful production design, and the sunny Grecian scenery.  This is the kind of movie where crowds convene and dance along the street with a complete lack of self-consciousness, where ancient cartoon sight gags are resurrected during the goofy "Waterloo" number, and Cher arrives totally out of the blue by helicopter for her big number.  Not having all the manufactured tension of figuring out who Sophie's father was from the first film actually helps, because it allows "Here We Go Again" to be much looser and free-form. Also, having Lily James as the second lead instead of Meryl Streep is a huge upgrade. In addition to being a much stronger singer, James just oozes charm and charisma here, making her free-spirited young Donna a surprisingly compelling character to watch.       

There are flaws aplenty, of course, and those viewers who don't get swept up in the film's energy will notice them more readily.  Character motives are flimsy, some of the songs go on forever, and Cher has never seemed more stiff. But when she starts singing, it's clear that she's still got the same flair that she had in the '70s, and I adored seeing her onscreen again.  This is my kind of feel-good movie, full of catchy music, idyllic visuals, and lots of appealing actors who look like they're having a ball. And though it's been widely billed as a rom-com, the mother-daughter story is its heart, and when was the last time you saw a summer blockbuster built around one of those?


Sunday, March 10, 2019

"Eighth Grade" and "First Reformed"

And now, a couple of quick thoughts on films in the awards race.

"Eighth Grade" is a smart, touching film that I found far too painful a watch to really enjoy.  We meet Kayla (Elsie Fisher), just a few days before the end of her eighth grade year, and looking ahead to high school.  She's an avid vlogger, but is shy and quiet offline. Her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton) tries to be encouraging, but she resists his efforts to connect.  Attempts to be more social and attract boys tend to only lead to anxiety and embarrassment. Skirmishes with sexual activity are terrifying. Kayla finds herself frequently miserable, and increasingly uncertain about her future.

What's so fascinating about the movie isn't only that it's such a warts-and-all picture of an average American teenager, but that it's deliberately about a girl growing up in 2018, with a real teenager's relationships to social media and other modern technology.  Kayla's woes are familiar, but amplified by alternately too much or too little information about sex and relationships. Director Bo Burnham also uses the lack of privacy inherent in social media to get us uncomfortably close to the heroine. Kayla's vlogs are used as a framing device, filling the movie screen with her pretty, but blemished face, and her voice desperately trying to sound more mature and confident than she clearly feels.  We're forced to look at her directly, to acknowledge her as important unlike most of the other people in her life.

Elsie Fisher is quite a talent, able to convey Kayla's underlying discomfort and loneliness in scenes where she's pretending that she's okay.  She's relatable and raw, and completely appropriate for the low-budget indie aesthetic Burnham embraces. I look forward to seeing her in other projects, and hope that she doesn't become too much of a polished ingenue too quickly.  There have been a few complaints that the film is very roughly hewn, but I think that makes it feel all the more genuine. Due to the specificity of the references, "Eighth Grade" is going to age very quickly, but it has managed to capture a moment in time in a way that few films of this kind do.           

And now for something completely different.  I've been putting off writing about "First Reformed," because I didn't like it much, even though it does some very impressive things.  Paul Schrader's profile of a priest who becomes consumed by his crisis of faith is angry, intelligent, and moving. Ethan Hawke delivers a very good performance as Reverend Toller, who looks after a historic Roman Catholic church and its dwindling congregation.  The film's messages are refreshingly topical and direct, and I like the concept of a priest confronting what he doesn't like about modern Christianity in America. I'm just not sold on what Schrader does with the idea.

I suppose the biggest issue I have with "First Reformed" is that it comes off as more of a polemic than a character piece.  We watch as Father Toller struggles to counsel a radical environmental activist, Michael Mansana (Philip Ettinger), who has become distraught at the idea of bringing a child into a world on the brink of climate change catastrophe.  We watch Father Toller grow dissatisfied with the Church leadership, and the spiritual failings of a more prosperous local megachurch, run by Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer). We watch as Father Toller resists the charms of Michael's pregnant wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who is obviously symbolic of salvation.

And all this is very well and good, but I didn't buy where Father Toller's spiritual journey took him.  I found the film's ending to be fundamentally misguided, and deployed in such a way that didn't remotely ring true to life.  We've seen priests undergoing crises of faith before - John Michael McDonagh's "Calvary" with Brendan Gleeson is a good recent example.  Schrader, however, is focused on earthly matters more than spiritual ones, and even with Father Toller helpfully providing narration of his inner thoughts via diary entries, I couldn't follow how his disillusionment and depression caused him to go full Travis Bickle.  Ethan Hawke does what he can, but Father Toller never stopped feeling like a convenient construct rather than a red-blooded human being. So as much as I admire the various parts and pieces, the film never worked for me.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Classic Films on Television

When I was a kid, the way I saw most movies was via television broadcasts.  There were occasionally video cassettes borrowed from the library, or the rare trip to the theater, but otherwise movies were only accessible via the television set.  This was especially true of classic films, which were often treated as event programming. "It's a Wonderful Life" came every Christmas, and "The Ten Commandments" every Easter.  CBS aired "The Wizard of Oz" yearly from 1959 until 1991, usually in February or March.

A popular movie airing on network television used to be a big deal.  The two night NBC debut of "Gone With the Wind" in 1976 was the highest-rated program ever aired on a single network at the time.  A record 47% of American households tuned in. During sweeps weeks in the '80s and '90s, it was very common to have regular programming pre-empted for broadcasts of "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones," or "E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial."  Special presentations of movies like "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" were heavily promoted and heralded with fanfare. My parents amassed stacks of VHS tapes with recordings taken from these broadcasts. In many cases, the edited TV versions of these movies are still the ones I'm the most familiar with.         

For a good chunk of my life, a film that didn't air on television might as well not have existed, but the ones that kept coming back year after year, like "The Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins," became my touchstones.    The Hollywood studios were well aware of this. For a while, films were made with the future television broadcasts in mind. R-rated and PG-13 rated films would sometimes shoot tamer alternate takes to avoid content being awkwardly edited out.  Running times were adjusted so that they could run in two or three hour slots with commercials comfortably. Francis Ford Coppola famously recut the first two "Godfather" movies to run as a miniseries event in 1977. As for the networks, large chunks of programming time were set aside for "The ABC Sunday Night Movie" or "The CBS Thursday Night Movie" for decades, and the most popular titles commanded hefty licensing fees.    

Then came basic cable, which gave audiences more access to more movies.  Ted Turner snapped up the rights to hundreds of old favorites, paying for exclusivity to "The Wizard of Oz" for a number of years, and creating TCM as a permanent home for the older libraries of cinema treasures.  It was the constant basic cable broadcasts of "The Iron Giant" and "Shawshank Redemption" that made them favorites to my generation, while looser content standards and fewer time constraints greatly reduced the incidents of terrible editing.  Well, for a while, anyway, until streaming started eating into cable audiences, and suddenly it became very important to stuff as many ads as possible into every broadcast.

Movies have been an important part of television for so long that I took it for granted.  And it was only recently that I realized that they've been quietly disappearing. Oh, basic cable still runs plenty of recent films.  Networks like TNT, FX, and USA are still heavily dependent on them to fill their schedules. However, fewer and fewer films have been airing on regular old network television.  There's not as much cachet to a film premiering on ABC or NBC as there used to be. The movies that do air are often programmed in odd time slots, like Saturday nights. Older classic films are almost totally gone, with a few big exceptions.  "The Ten Commandments" will still air over Easter weekend on ABC, as it has every year since 1973.

And that's a sad thing to see, with streaming services having consistently failed to make classic films more accessible, and cable rapidly becoming unaffordable to vast swathes of the public.  There are still plenty of classics being programmed on the smaller over-the-air syndicated channels, and my local PBS station runs occasional double features on the weekends. It's not the same as being able to watch "Sleeping Beauty" or "Titanic" via a national network broadcast though.  Sure, the commercials were a pain, but the networks were always good about making the classics feel like something special and important.

It's disheartening to imagine future generations growing up without Dorothy, the Wicked Witch, and Scarlett O'Hara the way I did. Then again, that probably is just the nostalgia talking.  There are far better ways to consume media, and as we've seen time and time again, the truly great movies will always be rediscovered and remembered. And any cinephile worth their salt will go looking for them the first chance they get.  Television introduced me to some of my favorites, but nowhere near all of them.

It's still nice to stumble across "Blue Hawaii" or "Victor Victoria" in a random weekend slot, but I much prefer watching older films on my own schedule in these days.   


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Let's Speculate About Marvel Movies

Remember way back in October 2014, right after the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" was released, when Kevin Feige held that big press conference and announced the entire slate of Marvel Phase Three films, all the way up to the fourth "Avengers" movie slated for summer 2019?  Remarkably, there were very few deviations from that initial plan. "Inhumans" was dumped, "Spider-man" came home, and a few dates were changed around, but what was announced was mostly what we got.

And now we're only a few days away from "Captain Marvel," the first of three big Marvel films being released in 2019, and there have been no official announcements as to what's coming in 2020 and beyond.  Up until last summer, the big 2020 release was going to be "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3," except the controversy with James Gunn happened, and the sequel has now been pushed into limbo. It will get made eventually, but there are no guarantees as to when we'll see it.  The whole situation is a good reminder as to why announcing ambitious slates of films so far in advance generally isn't done. There's no predicting what's going to throw a wrench into the works, and something always inevitably does. Just look at what happened to the DC and Sony superhero slates.  

Even at Disney, which has seen the most success with these kinds of franchise films, and has the most resources, clearly keeping to that announced Phase Three schedule was tough.  If there weren't those release dates set in stone, would we have gotten better versions of some of these films? Would they have been able to react to certain criticisms faster, and maybe avoided some of the negative fallout?  There's no arguing that the Marvel films haven't been massively successful, but there are plenty of things that could have been done better, both onscreen and off. So while I'm as curious as anyone else about what's coming up, the lack of a big, splashy Phase Four announcement doesn't bother me.  The lack of one will give the filmmakers more flexibility to make better movies. And to weather the next inevitable crises better.

So what is coming up in 2020 and beyond for the MCU?  We know Marvel has called dibs on two release dates in 2020, three in 2021, and three in 2022.  The general rule that there are three years between direct sequels isn't holding true anymore, since the "Spider-man" movies came two years apart, and it'll be at least five years between "Doctor Strange" movies.  With "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" in a holding pattern, until at least 2021, that means that the most likely 2020 titles are the ones that we know are being filmed this year - "Black Widow" and "The Eternals." Cate Shortland has been announced as the director of "Black Widow," and casting is underway at the time of writing.  We know very, very little about "The Eternals," based on another cosmic title about a group of off-world superheroes, but Chloe Zhao is directing.

Beyond that, things become much more uncertain.  "Guardians 3" is getting made one way or another, and my guess is that it'll show up at some point in 2021, along with the next "Doctor Strange" and either a "Spider-man" or "Ant-man" sequel.  The "Black Panther" sequel is also a possibility here, though my guess is that it'll be positioned as the big title for 2022. There's also been recent news of Marvel fast-tracking a film about "Shang-Chi," an Asian superhero.  I think that the earliest we can expect another "Avengers" movie or anything involving the newly acquired X-men characters would be 2023. And of course, this is all assuming that another Gunn-level disaster doesn't happen.

Characters we know are not getting their own films include the Winter Soldier, Falcon, Loki, Scarlet Witch and Vision, because they're currently slated for series on the Disney+ streaming service.  Hulk is also unlikely at this time due to rights issues.

In short, there is plenty of Marvel content headed our way soon, and some of it very exciting.  However, with the uncertainty of the Fox merger and a major title still in a precarious place, Disney has every reason not to want to commit to anything before they have to.

Monday, March 4, 2019

My Most Anticipated Films of 2019, Part II

This is the second part of my list of the 2019 films I'm anticipating most this year. This post is for the smaller films, many of which don't have distribution or release dates yet. There's a good chance that a few won't be released in 2019 at all. However,  I'm spotlighting them regardless. Films are listed in no particular order below.

"Jojo Rabbit" - Taika Waititi's next film is a dark comedy about a member of the Hitler Youth during WWII, who has made Adolf Hitler into his imaginary friend.  Waititi will be playing the imaginary Hitler. The whole thing sounds bizarre and perfectly appropriate for Taika Waititi. Fox Searchlight has this one, and we'll probably see it pop up toward the end of the year during the awards crunch.  No updates on the status of "We're Wolves," alas.

"The Laundromat" - Steven Soderbergh's next film will star Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman investigating the Panama Papers.  It's been a while since Soderbergh has made such an obvious prestige project, but he's always experimented with different genres, including his recent basketball movie "High Flying Bird." Netflix is funding this one, so the timeline on a release isn't clear.  If it's ready in time, it'll be part of this year's awards slate. If not, then next year's.

"Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile" - Speaking of Sundance premieres, I'm really curious about Zac Efron playing Ted Bundy.  I can take or leave director Joe Berlinger, and I've heard mixed things about the way the story plays out, but I've had my eye on this project since the first stills with Efron as Bundy came out.  Just the image is so unsettling, I can't wait to see the full performance. I've been waiting for Efron to break out for a while now, and this may just do it.

"La Vérité" - Hirokazu Koreeda is making an English-language film, set in Europe, with Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke as a married couple.  That checks off so many of my cinephile boxes, there's no way that I wouldn't want to see this. Koreeda has had his ups and downs over the years, but he's been enjoying renewed success after "Shoplifters," and I'm glad to see him taking advantage of all the attention to try something different.    

"Untitled Noah Baumbach Project" (2019) - I have slowly but surely become a Noah Baumbach fan after his last couple of films.  I have great affection for "The Meyerowitz Stories," and Baumbach has another one with Netflix in the works.  This one is a comedy starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple getting a divorce. Driver has also been having a fantastic streak lately, and he and Baumbach have already shown they work well together.

"Guava Island" - This is the film on the list that I know the least about, but what I do know is more than enough to have me excited.  Donald Glover and Rihanna will star in a tropical heist picture, directed by Hiro Murai, who worked with Glover on "Atlanta" and the music video for Childish Gambino's "This is America" -  which I watched about a hundred times on a loop last year. "Guava Island" is being billed as a "Childish Gambino Film." Bring it on.

"The French Dispatch" - The next Wes Anderson film will be a WWII period piece, involve journalists in Paris, and already has a massive cast of notable names, including Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan.  I'm glad Anderson is staying in Europe, as I prefer his brand of Continental nostalgia quite a bit more than the American variety. At one point this was reported to be a musical, but that proved to only be wishful thinking.  Oh well, maybe next time.

"Harriet" - How is it that there hasn't been a major Harriet Tubman biopic until now?  Well, Focus Features seems poised to do it right, pushing a long-percolating prestige pic forward, with Kasi Lemmons directing, and the endlessly impressive Cynthia Erivo starring as Tubman.  There's already been some controversy about the casting, because Erivo is a non-American, but you can't argue with her talent. Expect this one to make an appearance at awards time.

"The Last Thing He Wanted" - Yet another Netflix project, this one based on a Joan Didion novel about a woman who becomes an arms dealer in the 1980s.  Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck will star, and Dee Rees is directing. I've enjoyed the resurgence in political thrillers we've seen lately, and this one sounds right up my alley.  I'm also very interested to see what Rees will do with a genre piece, something completely different than anything she's done before.

"The Personal History of David Copperfield" - An adaptation of "David Copperfield" starring Dev Patel in the title role would be interesting enough, but this one has Armando Iannucci directing, which immediately puts it on the must-see list.  It's not clear yet how straight an adaptation this is going to be, colorblind casting aside, but with Iannucci and his writing partner Simon Blackwell involved, there's sure to be more emphasis on the satire and wit.


Saturday, March 2, 2019

My Most Anticipated Films of 2019, Part I

It's that time again! I write these preview posts later than everyone else, in order to get a better sense of what the year's film landscape is going to look like. Please remember that there are never guarantees about what's going to make it to screens by December and what isn't, so some titles may end up delayed or cancelled.

As always, I split this feature up into two posts, one for the mainstream, would-be blockbusters released by big studios, and one for the smaller fare that may break through to the mainstream eventually, but only the cinephiles anticipate this far in advance.  After some debate, Netflix releases will be going in the second post, due to their unorthodox distribution, at least for the time being. Big tent poles go first, today, and are ordered below by release date. Finally, take anticipation for the next "Avengers" and "Star Wars" as a given.  

"Us" - Jordan Peele's follow-up to "Get Out" stars Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, and Elisabeth Moss.  Not much is known about the plot, but the creepy marketing campaign has been dropping some big clues, and Peele has promised it will be a socially conscious horror film of some stripe.  Expectations are running high, and I doubt that it will match up to the success of "Get Out," but I'm also itching to know what else Peele's got percolating in his head.

"Shazam!" - That's right.  The other Captain Marvel film.  DC is finally embracing some humor, with this kid-oriented stand-alone superhero flick about Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel and Zachary Levi, the ordinary boy who can turn into an adult superhero.  There's just something so appealing and silly about the premise, based on one of the oldest DC characters from the 1940s. And if this goes well, DC has a very deep bench of other superheroes I want to see onscreen.

"Aladdin" - Of all the live action Disney remakes coming  this year, "Aladdin" is the one I think has the most potential.  The remakes that have been carbon copies of their source cartoons have been bland and boring.  The ones that have managed to make themselves more distinctive have been better, and "Aladdin" definitely looks different.  With a Will Smith genie, a younger Jafar, and Guy Ritchie directing, this may turn out to be a mess - but it won't be a boring one.   

"Godzilla: King of the Monsters" - This was my favorite trailer from last year.  Kaiju movies have always been one of my guilty pleasures, and I love that a passel of the classic Toho monsters are finally getting a modern update, including Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidora.  I have no idea if horror director Michael Dougherty is up to the challenge, but all I really want is some decent monster-on-monster brawling. I'm also very much looking forward to the match with Kong next year.  

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" - A Quentin Tarantino film is always going to be an event, especially one starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.  This one is going to be a period mystery film set in Hollywood during the late '60s. The Manson Family murders will be prominently featured, wth Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate.  The cast list is massive and riddled with other familiar names, many of them in unspecified roles. I can't wait to see them all get specified.

"It: Chapter Two" - Now, I'm not expecting this one to be as good as the first, but I'm convinced that it could be with proper execution.  There are a lot of big adaptation choices that Andy Muschietti is going to have to make. The orgy probably won't make the cut, but I'm hoping that the Chinese restaurant scene does.  The terrific kid actors won't be center stage this time around, but the new cast ain't bad - lead by Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Bill Hader.

"Zombieland: Double Tap" - Now that the careers of everyone involved in the original "Zombieland" have suitably cooled down, or at least paused long enough for them to all sync up their schedules, at last we can return to the world of "Zombieland," the little zombie apocalypse comedy that could.  The first one was a lot of fun, and far back enough in time that it's getting nostalgic too. I expect a good romp with more clever sight gags, celebrity cameos, and helpful survival tips.

"Knives Out" - I'm a sucker for ensemble murder mysteries, and Rian Johnson has one of the most intriguing ones on the horizon.  Starring Daniel Craig and Lakeith Stanfield, the plot details are being kept quiet for now, but with a title like "Knives Out," I'm expecting more pulpy violence than cerebral thrills in this whodunit.  This is currently scheduled for late November, so there are no guarantees where it's going to end up on the slate in a few months' time.

"Little Women" - Greta Gerwig's follow-up to "Lady Bird" will be an adaptation of one of the seminal books of girls' literature.  It was one of my favorites growing up, and the announced cast is terrific. Saoirse Ronan is playing Jo March, because of course she is.  The project was a surprise when it was announced, because Hollywood hasn't had much interest in making gentler, intimate family films in some time.  Maybe if we're lucky, it'll start a trend.

"The Irishman" - The long-awaited crime film that Martin Scorsese is making for Netflix has a huge budget and huge expectations being piled on it.  Whatever happens, I hope Scorsese gets to make the film that he wants, and we won't have to wait too much longer to see it, whether it's on the big screen on the small one.

More picks next time...