Monday, April 29, 2019

"High Flying Bird" and "Triple Frontier"

What have we been watching on Netflix lately?  Well, let's see…

"High Flying Bird" is Stephen Soderbergh's latest, about a sports agent named Ray Burke (André Holland) trying to steer his latest client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), through an NBA lockdown.  Other figures in Ray's orbit include his clueless boss (Zachary Quinto), a labor negotiator, Myra (Sonja Sohn), Ray's ambitious assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), Erick's rival, Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), Jamero's intimidating mother/manager, Emera (Jeryl Prescott), and Bill Duke as Spencer, the elderly coach who serves as a pillar of the local basketball community.  

With a predominantly African-American cast and a sensational script by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, "High Flying Bird" offers a rare, insightful critique of the way professional basketball operates and the cut-throat culture that it encourages.  Though billed in some quarters as a sports movie, there's hardly any basketball played onscreen. Rather, this is a sports economics movie, keen to dig into all the politics and pitfalls around professional basketball, criticizing the way the system has been set up to the disadvantage of the players.  The movie is built around these wonderful conversations and negotiations between different characters, as they struggle to come out ahead. Soderbergh includes Interviews with real professional players interspersed throughout the film, little reminders that the issues being discussed in the story are all very real.

Soderbergh shot the film largely with an iPhone, the same way he shot "Unsane."  He follows Ray and Erick around New York, meeting with all these different people and trying to get on top of a bad situation.  I didn't find the end results all that interesting visually, but it does add a certain verisimilitude to the interactions, and immediately imbues the characters with a sense of place and culture.  Holland is especially entertaining to watch as this epitome of the smooth operator, who may seem to be in over his head at times, but always has another trump card in reserve to play at a crucial moment.  The entire ensemble is excellent, including an ornery Bill Dukes still holding his own effortlessly in every scene.

Now on to "Triple Frontier," the long-simmering action thriller scripted by Mark Boal that went through countless cast and creative changes before finally landing J.C. Chandor as director and an all-star cast lead by Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac.  I'd assumed this was a war film based on some of the earlier reporting, but it turns out that "Triple Frontier" is a heist movie of sorts, but one with a much closer resemblance to "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" than "Ocean's 11." Isaac takes point as "Pope" Garcia, battling Colombia's drug cartels as a military consultant.  One day he receives a tip from an informant, Yovanna (Adria Arjona), about an infamous drug lord's jungle safehouse full of ill-gotten funds. Garcia recruits his old Special Forces pals to help him pull off a heist, including Tom "Redfly" Davis (Ben Affleck), now a realtor, Ben and William Miller (Garrett Hedlund, Charlie Hunnam), and pilot Catfish Morales (Pedro Pascal).    

The "triple frontier" of the title refers to the area where the borders of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil converge in the Amazon rainforest.  This is where the heist goes down, and is the source of some of the film's best visuals. There's also a lengthy section of the story that takes place in the stark Andes mountains, where surviving the wilderness becomes a major concern.  However, the scenery can only contribute so much, and this is sadly one of those cases where the story could have used more help. Now as an action film, there's little to complain about. The set-pieces are well staged and the tension is terrific.  Chandor makes good use of the South American settings, and the various twists and turns of the heist and its aftermath are deployed well.

The trouble comes when the film tries to incorporate anything more substantive.  And I don't mean anything related to the region's drug wars and culture of corruption and exploitation, but just the basic character interactions whenever the pace slows down.  It's all very generic and surface level. Despite the stacked cast, there's no getting away from how thin these characters are. The script does a decent job of setting them up as a troupe of ex-military badasses who didn't transition well to civilian life, but on an individual level, there is very little to work with.  Ben Affleck's character is the only one who seems to come to the situation with any stakes, and the others are barely distinguished from each other. This drastically undercuts the impact of the later parts of the film.

So, as an action film this is a decent film.  But as drama, especially one that flirts with the same themes of greed and desperation that have featured in some of the greatest films of all time, it's a miss.  I don't expect this to be "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" or Kubrick's "The Killing," but it's very disheartening to see such a talented group of filmmakers deliver such glib treatment of similar subject matter.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The "Dumbo" Edit

The News: According to The Hollywood Reporter a few days ago, the new Disney+ service will not be offering the controversial "Song of the South."  Worse, however, is that while the 1940 animated "Dumbo" will be available, the crows and their song number will be cut.

First thought: This is a travesty.  "Dumbo" is a classic of animation and one of my favorite films.  Boo. Hiss.

Second thought: Clearly the crows are a touchy topic and there are some legitimate worries about continuing to keep a film with this kind of content in circulation.  Just because I have no issue with the crows doesn't mean its not right to be sensitive to the concerns of others. The Tim Burton live action remake left them out. This is a socially responsible decision, even if it's an artistically compromised one.

Third: It sets a horrid precedent though. Does this mean we're losing the ""What Made the Red Man Red?" number from "Peter Pan"?  The Siamese cats from "Lady and the Tramp"? Heck, "Dumbo" itself has the arguably more problematic "Roustabout Song" and Dumbo's drunken escapades leading into "Pink Elephants."  The feature is barely an hour to begin with. How much will be left if all the mildly objectionable content is eventually tossed?

Fourth: This edited version of the film is specifically for the new Disney+ service.  So this is essentially like"Dumbo" being edited for television, not a full excision of the material from Disney history like Sunflower being removed from "Fantasia."  I expect you should still be able to buy the full version on official home media.

Fifth: This is also a business decision.  Disney+ is being billed as family friendly, which none of the other streaming services has really pulled off yet.  Sure, Netflix and Amazon and the rest have kids' programming, but a whole service dedicated to family entertainment is fairly novel.  The curation will allow parents to set their kids free on the service the way they can't on something like Youtube. That's going to be a selling point.  

Sixth: This introduction of more stringent content standards on a major streaming service feels like another step in online streaming's gradual replacement of broadcast and cable television.  Other services are sure to follow suit, as streaming services keep looking more and more like cable channels. Apple's streaming service, if it ever gets off the ground, is also looking to be family oriented.  

Seventh: However, the dynamic is going to be different from television, where the carefully curated, mainstream-oriented broadcast networks have largely been the default option.  With the all-inclusive Netflix having so much market share, it's the default in the streaming world. I expect that family friendly options like Disney+ will be treated as more specialized since it's aimed at a narrower segment of the audience.  I don't think this bodes well for Disney+ being a real Netflix challenger.

Eighth: This also tempers my expectations a bit for Disney+ content.  While we'll be getting a lot of content from the hallowed Disney vault, it's not likely to be nearly as much as I was hoping for, and it's going to be limited to family friendly material.  Disney means kid-safe. That means we're not likely to see all those Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures movies, or similar content from the Fox library. Ralph Bakshi will be spared the indignity of seeing his films put under the Disney banner in any context.  But where will this content end up online, if at all? Hulu?

Ninth: I expect that we'll come across more examples of content restrictions on Disney+ when it launches in November - broadcast friendly versions of movies, missing episodes of certain series that have problematic content, and so on.  This was standard operating procedure for Disney cable channels like the Disney Channel and Toon Disney for ages. Just because Disney is trying to compete with Netflix doesn't mean it's going to behave like Netflix.

Tenth: Since I own "Dumbo" in multiple formats, I'll be showing my kids the original version anyway.  And I'll be holding on to my collection of physical media a little tighter.

Eleventh: I'll also still be subscribing to Disney+ in November just to get a look what they're doing with it.  Whether I'll keep it around is another matter.


Friday, April 26, 2019

The Startling "Shirkers"

It's very rare that a movie feels like it's speaking directly to me, that really hits me on a fundamental level.  "Shirkers," however, fits the bill. It's a documentary made in extraordinary circumstances about a lost film, also titled "Shirkers."  Netflix released it with little fanfare last year, about a week before they released Orson Welles' "The Other Side of the Wind." Unlike that film, alas, the original "Shirkers" is doomed to remain unfinished.

Once upon time in the summer of 1992, a trio of college-aged Singaporean film-lovers, Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng, and Sophia Siddique, decided to follow their dreams and make an indie road movie together.  At the end of the film shoot, their unstable teacher and mentor George Cardona, made off with all the footage and was never to be heard from again. Roughly twenty years later, the materials were recovered after Cardona died.  Sandi Tan, who scripted and starred in the film, decided to resurrect "Shirkers" as a documentary about what happened in 1992, and the impact it had on her life and the lives of her friends.

Could there be anything more emblematic of the struggles of female filmmakers and minority filmmakers, than a film where a white male con-artist literally steals the work and money of the Asian female creative team, sabotaging what could have been several very promising filmmaking careers?  Hollywood loves films about scrappy young filmmakers, and we've seen several of them over the years. There have also been the stories of filmmaking attempts gone wrong, or gone sideways, like 2017's "The Disaster Artist." However, I've rarely seen one like this, a painful example of a film project destroyed through an act of unimaginable malice.

However, the film isn't really about the crime.  While Tan does spend some time picking apart Georges Cardona's psyche and his sad little history of grifts and betrayals, I'm glad that for the most part "Shirkers" is about Sandi Tan.  She uses most of the film to tell her own story of being a film enthusiast and burgeoning filmmaker in a country that barely had a filmmaking community to speak of in the 1990s. And then, twenty-odd years later, about her journey to reclaim her work and finally put the old ghosts to rest.  I identified with her passion something fierce. And it's so satisfying to see Tan cement her status as a filmmaker in the end, even if it's not with the film she started out making in 1992.

Most of the documentary's effectiveness comes from the way it's been pieced together, using nostalgic archival materials, interviews, and copious amounts of the unfinished "Shirkers."  The more I saw of the colorful, absurdist film that Tan and her friends were trying to make, the more I wanted to see the finished product. Sadly, it's eventually revealed that too many elements are missing, including the entire original audio track, for this to be possible.  Still, Tan's use of various clips creates this wonderfully appealing mirage of the film that could have been.

Ultimately, "Shirkers" is celebratory of creativity and perseverance and the joys of moviemaking in a way that I found tremendously appealing.  Even though the film wasn't finished, the experience of making it touched the lives of everyone involved, and Tan's repurposing of the surviving footage ensures that their efforts are finally being seen and appreciated.  I love that the final moments of the documentary are turned over to the man who composed the music for "Shirkers," which was never recovered. He gets to recreate a few minutes of it for audiences to hear at last, as the credits roll by.        

Finally, on a personal note, I remarked a few months ago that in 2018 I felt like I was finally the target audience, thanks to multiple films and shows suddenly coming out lead by Asian women over thirty.  We can add "Shirkers" to the list, one that may be the most relevant to me of all, because it features Asian women who love film as much as I do, who share the same kind of creative impulses and geeky worldview.  It's a comforting feeling to know that I'm not as rare a bird as I thought I was.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Rank 'Em: The Muppet Movies

Despite the recent revival, I think the age of the theatrical Muppet movie is behind us for the time being.  However, eight installments over thirty-five years is nothing to sneeze at. Kermit and friends have given me a lot of laughs and a lot of good times over the years, and I think they're due for a little more attention on this blog.  So below, are the Muppet movies ranked from greatest to not-so great.

The Muppet Movie (1979) - The Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher songs are magic, the cameos are priceless, and the whole sunny, positive philosophy of the Muppets couldn't have been better presented.  There are a lot of fun bits of technical wizardry, like Kermit on a bicycle and the giant Animal, but I always loved the film for being so unabashedly heartfelt and sentimental. Kermit with his banjo, Gonzo with his balloons, and everyone at the grand finale with the rainbow - it's pure movie magic.  

The Great Muppet Caper (1981) - The sequel did what most sequels do, which was to become more conventional and formulaic.  However, there's a lot of good material here, with some of the Muppets' best running gags and jokes. Miss Piggy gets more of the spotlight, giving Esther Williams a run for her money and riding that motorcycle to glory in the big action climax.  The human actors are especially well used here, with Diana Rigg and Charles Grodin turning in a pair of very memorable performances.

The Muppet Treasure Island (1996) - I don't really know why this movie became one of my go-to guilty pleasures, but I've seen it at least twenty times and know all the songs by heart.  It's ridiculous on every level, many of the jokes are groan-worthy, and the plotting is kind of a mess. However, Tim Curry is perfectly cast as Long John Silver, and there's a subplot with Sam the Eagle that never fails to make me giggle.  If pressed, I would have to admit this is not a good movie, but for me it is an essential one.

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) - The last of the original run of Muppet movies made when Jim Henson was still with us.  Frankly, I never much liked the storyline with Kermit getting amnesia, but Rizzo and the rats were a great addition to the Muppet universe, and who doesn't love a big wedding?  This was actually the first Muppet film I encountered as a kid, specifically in audiobook form. It wasn't a great one to start with, as all the references and Muppet history were completely lost on me.    

Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) - Michael Caine is a great Scrooge, but having already been exposed to so many other Scrooges in so many other versions of "A Christmas Carol," he was never going to be one of my favorites.  While there are some delightful moments here, what surprised me about the film was how faithful it was to the original Dickens story - to the point where it's really much longer than it should be. This was a good direction for the Muppets, but I found the results more mixed than merry.

Muppets Most Wanted (2014) - I wasn't a fan of Jason Segel and Walter taking up so much of the time and attention in "The Muppets" revival, so the sequel having less of them was a big plus for me.  So yes, there are way too many cameos and everything feels very slapdash, but the fundamentals are pretty solid here. I like Kermit's evil double Constantine, and a couple of the songs are catchy. This is a minor effort for the Muppets, but it's still diverting enough that I don't have bad feelings toward the movie.  

The Muppets (2011) - I know they tried.  I know everyone's intentions were good. Unfortunately, "The Muppets" rarely worked for me.  Bret McKenzie's songs are mostly good, and the sight of Chris Cooper as the evil rapping oilman is an image I will long cherish. However, there's so much of the movie that feels weirdly forced, and it completely failed to get me to care about the new characters.  It was nice to see Kermit and the gang again, but there wasn't enough of them onscreen.

Muppets from Space (1999) - I actually saw this in theaters, and knew there was something very wrong almost instantly.  Sure, the idea of Gonzo finally finding his place in the world was great, but the execution is a mess. There are no original songs, the cameos are terrible, and everything feels very compromised and derivative.  Seriously, how did they make "Muppets in Space" without even once referencing "Pigs in SPAAAAAACE"?

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Amazing "Spider-verse"

Some minor spoilers ahead.

A few years ago, when Sony was making plans for a cinematic universe based on Spider-man characters, I was skeptical.  Was there really enough material to support films based around characters like Aunt May and the Sinister Six? However, my knowledge of Spider-lore was mostly limited to the 1990s and earlier.  I had no idea about the various new Spider-characters that had been created in the last decade, many of them in an effort to diversify the universe a bit. These are the heroes of the animated "Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse," and they may be the key to Sony finally getting what they want.

As we all know, Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is New York's friendly neighborhood superhero, Spider-man, who got his superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider.  However, he's not the only one who got bitten. We're also introduced to teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who lives in Brooklyn with his African-American father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), a cop, and his Puerto Rican mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), a nurse.  A gifted student, Miles is struggling to adapt to a new school, and lets off steam by sneaking off to visit his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) and painting graffiti. This is how he encounters the fateful spider, and what leads him to stumble into the middle of a dangerous scheme by The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) to access parallel dimensions.

One thing leads to another, and Miles meets other Spider-men and Spider-women characters while learning to master his own developing powers.  These include an older, down-on-his-luck version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), and a teenage Spider-woman version of Peter's gal-pal Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld).  So we have an origin story told alongside several other stories about very different kinds of Spider-folks. There are also several other familiar characters in the mix, both friends and foes, but discovering where and how they're used in "Spider-verse" is part of the fun.  The story continually drives the message home that anybody can be behind the Spider-man mask, and thus anyone can be a superhero.

"Into the Spider-verse" doesn't just diversify its heroes, but creates a wonderfully distinctive visual world for them that doesn't look quite like anything else we've seen in mainstream animation.  3D rendered characters and environments have 2D linework animated over them, giving them a look that evokes traditional comic books. Also, comic book visual language is used throughout, including speech bubbles, sound effects, and even the old halftone dot patterns on closeups of some of the characters.   Occasionally some of these visuals don't mesh right, especially when you've got photorealistic elements like cars and trains in the same frame with flatter, cartoony elements. Still, the overall the effect is wonderfully dynamic and fresh.

We've seen Spider-man and friends animated many times before, but this is the first animated Spidey film, and clearly there were significant efforts made to ensure that the "Spider-verse" characters offered something new. The characters designs feature exaggerated shapes and movements that could only work in animation.  Kingpin, for instance, has never looked so massive and impenetrable, sometimes filling the entire frame There are several sequences of Spider-man swinging through the city, but this time around it's a city that is abstracted or stylized in various ways, creating some fantastic, unique images. And supporting the visuals are a vibrant, hip-hop heavy soundtrack, strong vocal performances, and a gorgeous score.

Parents should be aware that this isn't a feature meant for the youngest Spider-man fans.  The content gets pretty dark at times, and there are some potentially upsetting deaths. Moreover, the plotting is complicated enough that kids under the age of eight or so likely aren't going to be able to follow what's going on. Many of the most clever gags and in-jokes are aimed at older fans, or are remixing elements that the creators expect viewers are already familiar with.  No one stops to explain who Aunt May and the Green Goblin are. At the same time, the humor and the energy of the film are so strong, newcomers won't be bored.

As for me, I've never been a big Spider-man booster, but these last couple of features aimed at a younger generation of fans have been wonderful to see.  If Sony and Marvel keep focusing on the more recent comics spinoffs, with their more eclectic sensibilities and inclusive worldview, then I'll happily look forward to more Spider-man (and Spider-woman) movies.  

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

What is "Guava Island"?

I put "Guava Island" on my list of most anticipated 2019 movies a couple of months ago, on the strengths of its talent.  Donald Glover/Childish Gambino and Rihanna star in a film directed by Hiro Murai, Glover's longtime collaborator who helmed the "This is America" music video and every episode of "Atlanta" to date.  The news that they were making a feature together filled me with glee. The end result, however, is not what I expected.

For one thing, the movie is very short.  It's only 55 minutes with credits, and plays more like a super-long episode of "Atlanta" with musical numbers than anything else.  Glover starts as a musician named Deni, and Rihanna plays his lady love, Kofi. They live on the fictional Guava Island, a tropical paradise where Deni observes that none of the people have time to enjoy it.  Everyone is beholden to the Red Cargo (Nonso Anozie), the businessman who runs the factories and workshops where everyone labors. Deni intends to throw a music festival, but this goes against the interests of Red Cargo, who takes action to shut it down.

The best thing about "Guava island" is its setting.  The project was shot in Cuba and uses many Cuban locations and extras, also incorporating bits of the culture through a fictionalized lens.  The island is immediately an inviting, colorful, immersive place where everyone knows everyone else. We learn the ins and outs of how it operates just following Deni through his day, from doing announcements and commercials at the tiny radio station, to being held up by some kids for money he doesn't have, to being menaced by Red Cargo.  The cast uses a mishmash of different accents, and characters seem to come from a variety of different backgrounds, but there's a strong sense of community.

The story incorporates recent Childish Gambino songs like "This is America" and "Feels Like Summer" into the narrative, recontextualizing them from their previous appearances.  "This is America" is used by Deni to lightly chide a co-worker who dreams about leaving the island for a better life. "Feels Like Summer" has a more celebratory tone as it accompanies good news.  The performances of these songs are fine, but none of them really stand out, and few match up to the previous incarnations I've seen. However, there's an undeniable charm to seeing Glover perform them while in character as Deni, a good-natured, easy-going troubadour figure.     

I wish I could say the same about Rihanna's appearance, but she gets very little to do as Kofi.  Surprisingly, she doesn't sing in the film at all. However, she narrates the opening and closing sequences, including a colorful animated segment that sets the mood for the rest of the picture.  Letitia Wright is in the movie for about ten minutes as Kofi's co-worker, just long enough for me to wonder why she was being wasted in such a thankless bit part. This is where the short length of the feature hurts it, because these characters and their problems need much more fleshing out.  As is, the ending is moving but doesn't have nearly the amount of impact that it could have.

"Guava Island" left me with very mixed feelings.  I liked what I saw, but it feels very incomplete, like a proof of concept for a bigger, longer film that I don't think is coming.  I have some suspicions that the project was just thrown together as a lark by the creative team - maybe as an excuse to visit Cuba.  There's a wealth of ideas and impressions, but few feel like they're being used to their fullest. So while this was an interesting experiment, I hope the next Childish Gambino film and/or Hiro Murai film aims its sights a little higher.     

Monday, April 15, 2019

On the "Star Wars IX" Trailer and Hype

The ninth American Star Wars Celebration event happened over the weekend, a fan convention devoted to all things "Star Wars," which Lucasfilm often uses to promote the franchise.  It usually comes around these days whenever Lucasfilm has new projects to hype, and boy did they have some doozies this year. In addition to the new video game "Jedi: Fallen Order," and the new Disney Plus series, "The Mandalorian," Friday's panel was the first place where you could see the teaser trailer for the latest "Star Wars" film, where the title was finally announced: "Rise of Skywalker."

I find it a little bewildering that we're at the point where simply announcing the title of an upcoming franchise film like "Avengers: Endgame" or "Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker" can be a hypable moment, and a dropping a teaser trailer can be an event on the same level as one of those Apple product launches that Steve Jobs was famous for.  Instead of Steve Jobs, however, Disney went and recruited Stephen Colbert to be their panel emcee, who happily worked up the crowd of convention-goers before bringing all the creative talent on stage to promote the new film. The public may have cooled on the "Star Wars" franchise over the last two years, but Disney certainly isn't treating it that way.

I have to marvel at the lengths Disney and Lucasfilm went to for this event, getting a room full of hardcore nerds together to watch the teaser premiere, flying out all the talent for appearances, and even putting Ian McDiarmid onstage afterwards to shout "Roll it again!" and push the reactions even further.  If you didn't have the $50-60 dollars for a convention ticket, you could watch the whole panel being streamed live if you wanted - I found a recording on Youtube over the weekend. It all paid off for Lucasfilm, though. The internet was buzzing madly about "Star Wars" all Friday afternoon, and there was a ton of speculation about what the title could mean and what we could expect from the new film in December.  

As for the trailer itself, well, personally I find it a little worrying.  The marketing is following the lead of "The Force Awakens," emphasizing the return of familiar faces from the first "Star Wars" trilogy again.  This time around Lando Calrissian and Emperor Palpatine are back. The ruins of the second Death Star show up. A new droid pal for BB-8 shows up.  There' s more heavy breathing. More running. More lightsabers. Frankly, the whole thing feels like it's backtracking what "The Last Jedi" did to break away from formula.  Sure, this is just marketing and Disney is just trying to put out images that are going to invite the most speculation, but it doesn't bode well. Personally, I am going to be very disappointed if Abrams walks back the revelation about Rey's parents in "The Last Jedi."

I'm actually more curious about "The Mandalorian," the Disney Plus series which is being handled by Jon Favreau and will star Pedro Pascal as the title character.  I like that it takes place in the gap between "Return of the Jedi" and "The Force Awakens," and features no familiar characters whatsoever. And speaking of Disney Plus, a similar splashy kickoff event was used to promote the service at Disney's Investor Day event, which happened to take place the day before Celebration.  This was a much more serious affair, however, presented by Disney CEO Bob Iger and attended mainly by Wall Street figures. However, its aim was also to drum up the hype, as Disney Plus will launch in November.
We can look forward to future events like this in the next few months - convention season is just around the corner.  Disney will probably use San Diego Comic-Con and its own D23 Expo in August to make some more big announcements. 2020's two new Marvel movies technically haven't been officially announced yet.  There are also two original PIXAR movies on next year's schedule, one of which we know absolutely nothing about. Now that the FOX merger has been completed, Disney can be a lot less hush-hush about its plans.  Or maybe the new status quo is turning any announcement into a big hypable moment.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The 2019 Summer Movie Wager

It's that time of year again! Following the rules of the Summer Movie Pool, I'm going to predict the top ten domestic box office grossers of the summer. It's not about which movies are the best or the most deserving, but which ones simply bring in the most cold hard cash.   I am notoriously bad at this, but after years of scores in the low 30s, I got 53 points last year, my best yet! Usually the summer movie season starts after May 1st, but there's no way I'm not counting "Avengers: Endgame" as a summer movie, so here we are.

Anything being released until Labor Day is fair game. Here we go.

Avengers: Endgame - There's no question that this is going to be an event.  We've been promised that this is the end of an era for the MCU, bolstered by the fact that we don't know much about Marvel's plans for the series going forward.  It's undoubtedly going to be the last hurrah for at least one major character, and potentially the last time we're going to see several of the characters doing anything meaningful for while.  

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu - As the small wave of anime adaptations starts hitting, there's no denying that "Pokémon" remains the most popular anime franchise that ever invaded American shores.  And I'm betting that this new adaptation is going to do way better than people are expecting. Kids love the franchise. Nostalgic Millennials love the franchise. This could easily end up being the big family film of the summer.

Hobbs and Shaw - There are more "The Fast and the Furious" sequels on their way, but this spinoff should be close enough to the real deal that action fans should be satisfied.  Personally, I view a teamup movie between the Rock and Jason Statham to be a far more appealing prospect anyway. I don't care about the dodgy continuity or the lack of Vin Diesel.  And I can only hope Helen Mirren drops by for another cameo a Shaw's mum.

The Lion King - Here's where the cynical side of me is weighing in.  I don't see the appeal of a new "Lion King" adaptation that doesn't appear to be doing anything differently aside form using CGI graphics.  However, the original "Lion King" is by far the most popular animated film of the '90s and families are sure to flock to it. If anything, I'm being too conservative with this pick considering the performance of "The Jungle Book" in 2016.  

Spider-man: Far From Home - It's never wise to bet against Spider-man or the MCU, and everyone's favorite web-slinger is more popular than ever after last year's well-received PS4 game and animated film.  "Spider-man: Homecoming" did well enough for third place in 2017. I'm betting with the stronger competition that the sequel will slip a spot or two. A lot is going to depend on how well the next couple of entries in the list perform.    

Toy Story 4 - "Toy Story" is one of the most beloved animated film franchises ever made, and the crown jewel of PIXAR.  There's sure to be an audience for the further adventures of Sheriff Woody and the gang. On the other hand, did we really need a fourth "Toy Story" movie?  Nine years after the last installment, and all the recent scandal, this feels a little desperate. None of the previews have been much to talk about either.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 - Another Illumination Studios movie.  I didn't think much of the first "Secret Life of Pets," but it made a lot of money so logically the sequel will too.  The question is how much it's going to make with all of the competition for family audiences this year. My guess is that it'll do well enough to justify more sequels, but not as well as the original.  Younger kids will probably be more interested in this than the Disney options.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters - I love a good kaiju brawl, but sadly not everyone does.  Still, I think there's enough inherent spectacle in watching Godzilla face down some of his most famous foes on the big screen that it'll draw some of the crowd that likes disaster movies.  The teaser trailer is bloody gorgeous too, with its peeks at the modern versions of Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidora. I can't be the only one who can't wait for this.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum - This is probably the riskiest pick on the list, because though "John Wick" fans are very vocal, they're fairly limited.  Neither of the previous "John Wick" films made over 100 million domestically. On the other hand, neither of them opened during the summer, the sequel doubled the box office of the original, and we're pretty light on R-rated action counterprogramming.  This one could break through.

Aladdin - This is looking more and more like a trainwreck, but I'm not going to underestimate the power of Disney's marketing machine.  This is one of the only potential blockbusters this year that I'm really curious about, because it's going to deviate from the Disney version in some pretty significant ways - not just replacing Robin Williams with Will Smith.  It also has the advantage of opening several weeks ahead of "The Lion King" and other heavy hitters.

Wild Cards (for extra points if one of them does make it into the top ten)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Men in Black: International

There are a dearth of films for grown-ups in my top ten this year.  I expect that the most likely ones to do well will be Quentin Tarantino's latest, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," and the Elton John biopic "Rocketman," due the recent popularity of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "A Star is Born."  I'm also missing comedies, but I highly doubt that any of the original ones are going to be able to compete this year. I think the two "X-men" films, "Dark Phoenix" and "New Mutants" are also out of luck. On the other hand, the new "Men in Black" may very well be a flop, but I'm guessing that Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson might give it the appearance of being MCU-adjacent enough to draw more interest.   

Thursday, April 11, 2019

"Russian Doll" is Just Right

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) is reliving the night of her 36th birthday over and over, "Groundhog's Day" style.  She can't seem to get very far without dying, often in very sudden and improbable ways, and always restarts in the bathroom of her friend Maxine (Greta Lee), during the birthday party being thrown in Nadia's honor.  Figuring out what's going on any how to get out of the endless loop sends Nadia all over New York City, and forces her to confront some harsh truths about herself. There's Nadia's messy relationship with John (Yul Vasquez), who left his family with her, her unresolved issues with her mother Lenora (Chloë Sevigny) and adopted mother Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), and multiple encounters with a lout named Mike (Jeremy Lowell Bobb), the tightly wound Alan (Charlie Barnett), and a mysterious homeless guy named Horse (Brenda Sexton III).

Welcome to "Russian Doll," a Netflix series from Natasha Lyonne, Amy Pohler, and Leslye Headland.  Now, we've seen plenty of media about time loops, such that they're starting to become their own little genre.  Part of the particular effectiveness of "Russian Doll" is its format. The series runs just eight episodes, each around thirty brisk minutes apiece.  It's very easy to watch the whole thing in one sitting. Then there's the tone, which straddles the line between darkly humorous and wryly melodramatic.  As the title suggests, there are lots and lots of layers to our heroine, and the show is very good about gradually showing us the different sides of her. Natasha Lyonne, who co-created the series and wrote on several of the episodes, has always had a very specific screen presence, and puts it to very good use here.  She gives Nadia a very scruffy, very brash personability that feels a little bit old fashioned and utterly New York in a good way. It's easy to root for her, in spite of her many flaws and foibles.

The whole vibe of "Russian Doll" is very specific, full of odd characters and encounters.  Nadia's birthday party is populated by many artsy hedonists, and she's comfortable chatting up everyone from a rabbi's receptionist to a homeless drug dealer.  At one point there's a very sweet encounter that she has with an elderly man, who implores her to stop smoking. Most of the series takes place at night, and has a bit of an "After Hours" surrealism to it as Nadia skulks around looking for answers.  I love the production choices, which has Nadia continually respawn in Maxine's bathroom with its trippy light fixtures, and starts off each new loop with a peppy Harry Nilsson song. A lot of the storytelling comes down to visual elements in the set design and costume choices.   Nadia herself is so visually distinctive, with her huge mane of red curls, her cigarettes and her sunglasses.

The show also has a lot to offer as an existential mystery, letting the characters work out the various rules for how their universe works at a steady, satisfying pace.  Despite the short length, it takes its time to set things up right, and some very big pieces of the puzzle aren't even introduced until about the fourth episode. There's plenty of variation in the loops, so even though the show is repetitive by design, it always feels like it's building to something or pushing the characters toward certain epiphanies.  It helps that there's a lot of ambiguity to certain aspects of the show that are sure to fuel fan theories and interpretations. At the same time, the emotional throughlines are so clear that you hardly have to pay attention to the existential aspects at all to follow along.

Because of the show's success, there have been some rumblings about future seasons of the show, which I hope turn out to be false.  I'm sure a second round of "Russian Doll" would be delightful and I would watch it, but I like where this set of episodes left us, with so much still unexplained and the characters in a hopeful but somewhat precarious place.  It's rare to find a piece of media that is so successful at executing its premise, and giving the audience just enough to chew on without wearing out its welcome. I just want to let the mystery be.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Say Yes to "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

We've had a lot of biopics about youngsters fighting drug addiction and coming to terms with their sexuality this season, some better than others.  They've all generally followed the same pattern of angst and uplift, with a lot of emotional upheaval. Maybe that's why I find "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" so refreshing, a story about two unabashed homosexual alcoholics in New York, who spend the whole movie conning and ripping off everyone they can.

It's New York City in the mid-1980s, and biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has hit a rough patch.  Her latest book isn't selling, she's just been fired from her job, her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) is ignoring her, and her beloved cat is sick.  With an abrasive personality and general distaste for polite company, Lee's only friend is a British grifter named Jack (Richard E. Grant), who she drinks with regularly.  After hocking a prized Katherine Hepburn letter to pay the bills, Lee stumbles upon a lucrative new scheme. She can put her literary talents to work forging letters from famous figures like Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich, and sell them to memorabilia collectors for hefty sums.

There's a lot of Woody Allen in the New York of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" with its distinctive neighborhoods, talk of literary luminaries, and nostalgic score.  However, Lee Israel is a brash misanthrope who is long past caring what people think of her, and very much reflects the writing of Nicole Holofcener, the direction of Marielle Heller, and of course the acting chops of Melissa McCarthy.  And it's impossible to look at Richard E. Grant in this movie and not think that Jack might be Withnail from "Withnail & I..."if he'd moved to New York and embraced being a proper queen. Lee and Jack don't have time to angst and monologue about their situations, and being sympathetic is a luxury they can't afford.  Survival means scrounging for every dollar and taking advantage of every opportunity they can. And they're absolutely delightful doing it.

It's a lot of fun watching Lee being terrible, but the movie works as well as it does because the filmmakers are so good about ensuring that she is also very relatable.  The script rarely gets into specifics, but there are just enough hints and allusions to help paint a picture of complicated circumstances and intriguing connections. Lee seems to live in the detritus of a once far more glamorous life, and has clearly burned a lot of bridges.  Melissa McCarthy's performance is one of her best, deftly deploying Lee's sharp tongue and arsenal of cranky defense mechanisms, but also showing how lost and hurt she often is underneath. Lee is at her happiest when she's being a fangirl, laboring over her letters with real care and affection.  Passages from several of her greatest hits are read aloud, just enough to give the viewer a taste of Lee's talents. Richard E. Grant is also clearly having a ball here as the flamboyant Jack, and he and McCarthy have great chemistry together.

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?" avoids poking too much fun at the culture of the memorabilia market, preferring to keep its attentions on Lee and Jack's hijinks.  However, I love the nostalgic depiction of the old bookstores and book sellers, and a bygone New York literary culture where it was possible for Lee Israel to make a living for a time writing biographies of notable women.  Everyone in the movie seems to be in love with the written word. It doesn't matter if you have no idea who Dorothy Parker or Fanny Brice are. It's the excited reactions of the well-cast ensemble that get the point across.

I find myself comparing the film to "I, Tonya," another biopic about a difficult woman with a notable criminal career.  "Forgive Me?" may be a gentler and less flashy film, but it shares the same underlying goal of letting a notorious figure have her say.  And though it feels very strange to call this a feel-good picture, I came out of it happier than I've been with the majority of the prestige pics this season.  There's nothing especially weighty or important or timely about the crimes of Lee Israel in 2019, not really. However, it's a fascinating story, well told, and well worth taking the time to see.      


Sunday, April 7, 2019

"The Umbrella Academy" Underwhelms

What really galls me about "The Umbrella Academy," Netflix's adaptation of the comic book series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá is that I really like the whole premise and some of the characters.  I'm already pretty sure that I'm going to watch the next season. And this is terrible, because I really dislike about half the cast.

"The Umbrella Academy" is a superhero show, and presents a fun subversion of a common superhero gimmick.  Thirty years ago, an eccentric industrialist, Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), adopted seven special children who had all mysteriously been born at the same time, to different mothers around the globe.  These children had special gifts, and were raised and trained by Hargreeves at his "Umbrella Academy" to become superheroes. However, Hargreeves proved to be a terrible father and the grown-up children in the present day are a deeply troubled, dysfunctional bunch.  They reunite when Hargreeves dies, faced with a new challenge to prevent the Apocalypse.

I initially had high hopes for the show after a terrific premiere that slowly introduces viewers to the seven siblings, Number One through Number Seven.  Thankfully, most of them also have normal names. Former leader Luther (Tom Hopper) spent the last four years living in isolation on the moon. Diego (David Castañeda) is a lone wolf vigilante.  Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) parlayed her powers of suggestion into a successful film career. Klaus (Robert Sheehan) is a junkie who will steal anything not nailed down. Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) accidentally time-traveled to the future and got stuck there for decades.  Everything about Ben (Justin H. Min) is a spoiler. Finally, there's Vanya (Ellen Page), a violinist who was ignored and excluded from the team because of her lack of powers.

Like many comic book heroes, these characters are pretty thin.  However, the better performers are able to give even the oldest tropes some new life.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige), a pair of assassins who are this season's primary antagonists.  We've been seeing variations of this bickering pair since "Pulp Fiction," but here they often end up stealing the show, especially the donut-loving Hazel. Among the heroes, my favorite is Five who, because of certain quirks in time-travel, is a man in his fifties currently stuck looking thirteen years old.  Gallagher's precocious, world-weary performance is so much fun. I also like Ellen Page's Vanya as she struggles to come into her own and tentatively starts dating a man named Leonard (John Magaro).

Unfortunately, the weaker members of the cast, coupled with some very pedestrian writing, make other characters absolutely insufferable.  Luther is a bullheaded straight-arrow type with a massive chip on his shoulder. He is only ever a decent human being to his love interest Allison, who is unbearably wooden and can never be bothered to clumsily express more than one emotion at a time.  Klaus, however, is the worst, a whiny, sniveling little ball of never-ending angst who will never in a million years be accused of romanticizing drug addiction. Each of them get sizable character arcs, and some interesting things happen to them, especially Klaus.  The performances are so one-note, and so badly executed, unfortunately, that the bulk of the time they're onscreen feels like a waste.

The show is still fairly watchable thanks to its brisk pace, good handling of the mystery elements, and the more appealing good characters.  There are a lot of interesting little concepts and side-characters like donut shop proprietor Agnes (Sheila McCarthy), and the Academy's robotic "Mom" (Jordan Claire Robbins).  There are only eight episodes in the first season, so it's not so hard to wait out the duller storylines to see the more exciting ones pay off. However, the duller storylines really grate, and it gets harder and harder to ignore how poor some of the execution is.   I can't help wondering if "Umbrella Academy" is aimed at a younger crowd than I assumed, since the scripting often insists on underlying its themes and concepts, and every twist is telegraphed so far in advance. And then there's the absurdly on-the-nose soundtrack.

It doesn't help that we've already had other shows like "Preacher," "Legion," and a passel of CW and Netflix superhero shows over the last few years that have done similar material so much better.  Showrunner Steve Blackman worked on "Legion" and plenty of other genre shows, so he clearly knows how the mechanics are supposed to work. I'm convinced that there's a much better show here, and the second season has the potential to improve considerably.  So despite my better judgment, I'm willing to give this another shot.

Thank goodness these seasons are so short.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Curious "Crimes of Grindelwald"

I've realized that I like the "Fantastic Beasts" movies more than the original "Harry Potter" series, not because the films are actually any better, but because "Fantastic Beasts" gets to be darker and murkier thematically, with characters that are morally rougher round the edges.  So I heartily recommend "The Crimes of Grindelwald" if you like your genre media all angsty and allegorical with some great production design.

"The Crimes of Grindelwald," the second of the "Fantastic Beasts" films, is rather messily plotted and there are annoying little inconsistencies and contrivances everywhere you look.  And yet, I found myself really enjoying the worldbuilding and the characters, particularly the new additions. Eddie Redmayne returns as the creature collecting wizard Newt Scamander, who is sent by his mentor Dumbledore (Jude Law) to Paris, in order to hunt down the unstable Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) before he can be recruited by the evil, human-hating Grindelwald (Johnny Depp).  This involves getting the original gang from the first movie back together: Tina (Katherine Waterston), Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler). Newt also spends a good deal of time avoiding his older brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and future sister-in-law Leta (Zoe Kravitz), who Newt has feelings for, as they're also on Grindelwald's trail.

This isn't what the movie is actually about, however.  "Crimes" is the installment of the series that reveals that "Fantastic Beasts" is really a "Harry Potter" prequel series about the clash between Dumbledore and Grindelwald.  Newt stays at the forefront of the story, but he's quickly becoming a bit player next to the increasingly powerful Credence, whose investigation into his mysterious parentage takes up a huge chunk of the narrative, and even Queenie, the mind-reader whose frustrations with wizarding world law put her on a dangerous path.  Sure, Newt learns that he has to take sides in the oncoming battle, and patches up a misunderstanding with Tina, but next to Leta exorcising some potent inner demons, and Grindelwald's Hitler-like rise to power, Newt's material is pretty tepid stuff.

I'm not surprised that the audience and critical reaction to "Crimes of Grindelwald" has been cool.  Like so many recent blockbusters, this one suffers for being an obvious connector piece for other installments of its franchise, and rushing through way too much story too fast.  It's hardly a crowd-pleaser, with a gloomier and more serious mood, plus glimpses of an oncoming war and serious childhood traumas. I'm not sure that Rowling die-hards are going to be all that happy with it either.  Even though I'm not remotely a hardcore "Potter" fan, it was difficult to ignore that Rowling essentially walked back a good deal of the ending of the first "Fantastic Beasts" in order to get certain characters where she needed them to be for this movie.  At the same time, I appreciate that the film is so doggedly concerned with advancing its story, that it doesn't bother with a lot of the little bits of "Potter" formula that I've come to expect. Even references and callbacks are fairly short and to the the point.     

A big part of the appeal of "Fantastic Beasts" for me is the production design, full of immaculately costumed characters and storybook locales.  David Yates does a fine job of conjuring gloomy cityscapes with touches of magic here and there. Action sequences and "fantastic beasts" are noticeably fewer this time around, but the ones that remain are still fine spectacle.  The performances are decent all around, but the standouts are the bigger names. Johnny Depp's offscreen antics have been deplorable lately, but he makes a very watchable onscreen megalomaniac. I find Grindelwald far more interesting and entertaining than Voldemort.  Jude Law doesn't have many scenes here, but he's intriguing enough as the younger Dumbledore that I look forward to the future showdown with Depp.

"Fantastic Beasts" has a lot of problems as a series, but its core components are strong.  And I expect those will allow it to bumble along through another movie or two before reaching a satisfactory confusion.  And if we're lucky, there will be some good CGI battles, and Depp and Law will get to ham it up in fancy costumes, and Katherine Waterston will get to make an expression other than worried or determined.  Frankly, that's more than some other fantasy franchises are offering these days.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

My Actual Top Ten Films of 1979

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.  

Really, this time.

Apocalypse Now - Francis Ford Coppola's journey into the heart of darkness of the Vietnam War had a famously disastrous production.  However, the resulting film is easily the most iconic screen depiction of the folly of America's misadventures in Southeast Asia. Even now, mere mention of the Vietnam War tends to conjure visions of napalmed jungles, helicopters flying to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," and the bald visage of a hulking Marlon Brando.  "Apocalypse Now" helped to define an era of American war films and American filmmaking that we're still seeing the influence of to this day.

Real Life - Before reality television really got off the ground, Albert Brooks made a spoof of "An American Family" that was pretty prescient as to where the entertainment industry was going.  In his attempts to capture "real life," Brooks' ambitious documentarian just ends up manufacturing drama left and right. The buildup is gradual, and the laughs are on the gentler side, but there's some fantastic skewering of the media and American social norms.  And as we all know, life under the microscope of constant surveillance has only grown more pervasive and more destructive in the Internet age.

Kramer vs Kramer - Parenthood is not for the faint of heart,  and it's a rare film that really captures the frustrations and the hard-fought rewards of caring for small children.  Though often billed as a legal drama, this is really a character piece, one that is the most effective when it charts the transformation of Dustin Hoffman's character from distant workaholic to loving and involved father.  It's not a pleasant transformation either, full of raw emotions and constant conflict. The notorious offscreen frictions between Hoffman and Meryl Streep are very apparent throughout - to the film's benefit.

Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro - Though Hayao Miyazaki's version of Lupin III has been criticized for straying too far from the source material, there's no question that "The Castle of Cagliostro" is the best piece of Lupin media ever made.  Full of delightful set-pieces and bits of zany comedy, the animated caper film shows the early Miyazaki at his most energetic and creative. However, what makes it so memorable is this underlying sweetness to the adventure and the film's worldview. Lupin and Zenigata may be mortal enemies, but they're on the same side when it counts.    

Stalker - I get a rare feeling of accomplishment after finishing a Andrei Tarkovsky film, because it feels like I've been somewhere tangible and I've experienced something profound, even though I can't put it into words. The trip to the Zone in "Stalker" is one of Tarkovsky's most unforgettable, the best example of his treatment of filmmaking as "sculpting in time."  The astounding cinematography, and the use of sound and color, create an otherworldly place using very few resources. The narrative is so sparse, the film almost feels experimental at times. And yet, the film's mysteries remain deep and compelling.

Nosferatu the Vampyre - Werner Herzog's homage to Murnau's masterpiece is a great film in its own right.  With Isabelle Adjani and Klaus Kinski's performances, a drastically reworked story, and a tiny crew, Herzog is able to summon up an atmosphere of fantastic dread and mystery.  I especially adore Kinski's take on the creature, a menacing but pitiful vampire who is so fundamentally strange. He looks like the Max Shreck original, but Kinski delivers a performance that is entirely his own.  Of the three major "Dracula" adaptations released in 1979, the new "Nosferatu" is by far the most successful.

All That Jazz - The greatest and most personal of Bob Fosse's films is eerily prescient in retrospect.  The main character, Joe Gideon, is a flawed genius with a load of unresolved personal issues and bad habits.  However, his inner world is full of joyous creativity, as illustrated by some of the most exquisitely staged musical numbers of all time.  Roy Scheider gives the performance of his career, singing and dancing and emoting with everything he had. One of my favorite moments in all of cinema is that final fantasy number that sends him off into the unknown with a feat of magnificent spectacle.  

Monty Python's Life of Brian - The Pythons don't exactly spoof the life of Christ here. They were quite careful to be respectful, and keep him mostly offscreen.  However, they have no compunctions about skewering Christianity and religion in general, using the Christ-ish figure of Brian, who is mistaken for the Messiah. Full of naughty irreverence, gleeful absurdity, sly satire, and ending with a cheerful crucifixion song number, "Life of Brian" is nothing if not nervy.  However, it is also such a thoughtful and occasionally even profound film, with a keen intelligence that keeps viewers on their toes.

The Black Stallion - While the latter parts of the film that take place in civilization are engaging enough, the early scenes of the boy and the horse shipwrecked in the wilderness together are truly sublime.  There's almost no dialogue, but we see their friendship develop onscreen through their interactions, aided by lovely cinematography and music. Surely there has never been another silver screen horse who has displayed so much personality while retaining such a sense of wildness and unknowability.  And there have been precious few films with the same degree of empathy for its animal characters.

The Muppet Movie - Another cornerstone of my movie-loving childhood.  The big screen debut of the Muppets is one of their best outings. It has the best songs, the best jokes, and a heart so big that thinking about the film's ending never fails to make me smile.  It was also quietly a great technical achievement, full of clever special effects that allowed a puppet frog to ride a bicycle, and a bear to drive a Studebaker across America. The film' references and cameos don't play so well anymore, but  the warmth and the spirit of the fuzzy heroes hasn't aged a day.

Monday, April 1, 2019

My Top Ten Films of 1979

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.

Rocky II - Some of the best moments in the "Rocky" series are here.  Rocky and Adrian get married. Rocky Jr. makes his first appearance. And, of course, there's the rematch.  "Rocky II" brings back so many good aspects of "Rocky," but with Sylvester Stallone directing, we get a little bit more.  More people climbing the famous steps. More glory in the fight. More bombast and broad strokes.

1941 - It may have been the boldest move of Steven Spielberg's career to make a slapstick comedy about the start of WWII and set it during the week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  And just look at that amazing cast. Why, the film is so stuffed with luminaries that even Toshiro Mifune ended up in a bit part. The revolutionary special effects and stunt sequences still have a lot of kick to them, and Spielberg packed in plenty.    

Moonraker - I love that Jaws gets the girl.  Sure, it's nice that Bond joins the 200,000 mile high club, but it warms my heart to see the henchman have his day.  "Moonraker" is full of fun little touches like this, full of irreverence and shiny graphics, making it one of the best of the Roger Moore era Bond films.  It really embraces the inherent silliness and campiness of the spy genre, and uses them to add some laughs to the spectacle.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Where would the "Star Trek" franchise be without its first theatrical film?  It's impossible to say, but surely it would have been far different without this splashy, big budget transplant of the television series to cinemas.  The gorgeous special effects were never so well displayed or so heavily leaned on by the narrative, and the characters certainly needed all the shaking up that the big screen treatment afforded them.  

Caligula - One of the most notorious films of its era certainly didn't lack ambition.  The greatest, and to date the only film produced by Penthouse, it features unsimulated sexual scenes, plenty of the old ultraviolence, and so many historical figures behaving badly.  It's still hard to imagine that such a film was actually a commercial success, but the '70s were a different time. Things were possible then that would never happen now.

Lady Oscar - An adaptation of the beloved Japanese manga about a fictional cross-dressing female soldier who looked after Marie Antoinette during her days at Versailles.  Beloved director Jacques Demy helped to make the film feel authentically French, but the real star of the show was Catriona MacCall in the title role. Her Oscar is so utterly unlike the manga or anime versions, it's hard to imagine that they're the same character.  

The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again - Tim Conway and Don Knotts return as everyone's favorite bumbling ne'er-do-wells.  More wild west hijinks ensue, this time without all the fuss of taking care of the orphans. There's nothing like a little family-friendly action comedy to gets your spirits up, and this one embodies all the best qualities of Disney's memorable live action films of this era.  They never let an idea, bad or good, go to waste.

The Villain - 1979 saw the release of the Bugs Bunny/Road Runner movie, but the best Looney Toon of the year was definitely Hal Needham's "The Villain."  It's an old west tale that pits Kirk Douglas against a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a universe full of cartoon logic and sight gags. At one point they literally paint a hole in the side of a mountain, Wile-E Coyote style, and play out the tunnel bit.  Everyone is so committed to it, it's a blast.

Ultraman - The Japanese, masters of efficiency, went and turned five episodes of their popular "Ultraman" series into a feature film.  Ultraman is a giant alien superhero who fights monsters, and became so popular that his shows are still running to this day. The 1979 compilation feature is made up of episodes from the original 1966 show, even though at least five other "Ultraman" series had aired by the time of its release.

Ultraman: Great Monster Decisive Battle - And why make release one compilation feature made up of old episodes of "Ultraman" when you could release two in the same year?