Saturday, June 29, 2019

Is Captain Marvel a Problem?

Spoilers for "Captain Marvel" and a few minor ones for "Endgame" ahead.

I completely forgot to write a review for "Captain Marvel" because, honestly, it's a pretty forgettable movie.  It's competently made, delivers a lot of good action moments, and introduces interesting characters like Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening).  Our heroine Carol Danvers, however, isn't one of them.

The MCU has largely been the domain of male heroes for a while now, so the series' first female headliner (no, Wasp doesn't count) should be cause for celebration.  The trouble is that the version of Captain Marvel we're introduced to isn't very compelling. Brie Larson is well cast as Carol Danvers, the former US Air Force pilot turned amnesiac galactic ass-kicker.  However, the character is an infuriating blank for far too long, a mystery to everyone, including herself. We get a lot of flashes of memories of who she was, and other characters filling in details about her life, but very little substantive about her past and relationships.  Just hints. Just echoes.

There's some good character-building bits when she and Nick Fury partner up on Earth.  Danvers proves herself to be resourceful, smart, tenacious, and funny. However, her most prominent trait is uncertainty, and there are weird ellipses all over the place when it comes to her emotional arc.  It's odd that the story makes so much of Carol not having her memories, but it doesn't bother letting us know at the end whether she gets them back or not. Does she finally self-actualize because she remembers who she is, or because she realizes that it doesn't matter?  Dr. Lawson (Bening) was apparently the person she most respected, but we never get a solid answer as to why. As for Maria Rambeau, I've heard theories that she and Danvers might have been a lesbian couple - and they might well have been, as their friendship onscreen is so vaguely defined.  I don't need it spelled out that they were flight school buddies, or whatever the actual backstory is, but there should have been something more concrete.

As she currently exists, Captain Marvel feels like a work in progress, her origin story, her personality, and her motivations all unfinished.  She's never even referred to as "Captain Marvel" at any point, though presumably her name comes from the character Mar-Vell. However, this never made explicit, so the audience is left to fill in more blanks themselves.  I appreciate that Carol Danvers doesn't have a love interest in this movie, but I also think that she could have used one to give her a stronger connection to another character. It's hard to sympathize with her, because she feels so aloof and untethered.  We know who she cares about, but little time is afforded to showing the hows and the whys. She's admirable and impressive, sure, but we don't know her well enough to love her.

I've heard some grumblings about Brie Larson, but Larson's not the problem here.  Captain Marvel's fundamentally poor construction as a character, and the way they chose to introduce her are the culprits.  The "Captain Marvel" movie tells us far too little about who Carol Danvers is and barely gives us a chance to get to know her as a person before she's off to the other end of the galaxy, unreachable.  When she appears in "Endgame," there are even more mysteries. Why hasn't she aged in her decades away from Earth? Did any of her friendships from the previous film survive those intervening years?

Apparently, a  lot was left on the cutting room floor.  The home media release reportedly contains over twenty minutes of deleted scenes, and they might help to shed some light on the mysteries of Captain Marvel before the sequel rolls around in a few years.  The overwhelming financial success of "Captain Marvel" ensures that there will be a sequel, and there's no question that there's an audience for more MCU heroines. There will be at least two more female superhero-led MCU films next year, and there have been rumors of more in the works.  Clearly, Marvel is trying to make up for lost time.

However, the MCU's track record with its female characters has been pretty poor up to this point.  I wasn't happy with how "Endgame" handled Black Widow, and her prequel film feels like incredibly bad timing.  The big girl power moment in the final fight was such obvious pandering - and it wouldn't have if those characters had been treated better from the outset.  I like characters like Scarlet Witch and Peggy Carter, but their stories have been so truncated and used as ancillary material. Arguably, the female Avenger treated best has been Nebula.
And that's why Captain Marvel has been such a disappointment.  This was a big opportunity, and it didn't really pay off. Fortunately, the MCU provides a lot of second chances.  There's still time to do better and to make her a character worth caring about, as well as a hero worth rooting for.  There's still time to get to know Carol Danvers. I just wish it could have happened in the movie that has her name on it.  

Thursday, June 27, 2019

My Top Ten Films of 1977

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.  

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Wonder is the quality that I most closely associate with Steven Spielberg films, and "Close Encounters" has some of the most spellbinding examples ever put on celluloid.  For years, every time I came across a broadcast, I had to watch it through to the end so I could see the mothership arrive at Devil's Tower and witness the amazing first contact scenario play out. No other film has ever done UFOs quite like this, and no other film has used music quite like this, or offered such a vision of the best impulses of humanity - one that feels almost alien today.

3 Women - Robert Altman's riff on "Persona" puts Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek together in an unsettling desert town, where they form a strange bond that changes them both drastically.  Full of dreamlike imagery and symbols of the subconscious, this is among the most un-Altman-like of Robert Altman's films. However, it reflects his cinematic versatility and his love of actors.  Duvall and Spacek deliver some of their best performances here, creating a fascinating mystery out of their characters' relationship. Answers are few, but the mysteries remain haunting and unforgettable.  

Star Wars - It's easy to forget that the original "Star Wars" was just a fun space adventure romp for kids, one that happened to feature cooler special effects than most.  Everything looks terribly dated now, but the hijinks during the prison break, and the bickering heroes, and the silly sidekicks are still terribly charming and watchable. There's a twinkle in Alec Guinness's eye and smirk on Harrison Ford's face to remind us to not take all this babble about space wizards too seriously.  And yet, between the John Williams score and the glittering lightsaber sparks, how could you not get carried away?

Annie Hall - The greatness of "Annie Hall" doesn't come from the fourth wall breaking, the psychoanalytical self-awareness, the wonderful wordplay, or even the performance of Diane Keaton as the magnetic Annie.  What sets the film apart is that the relationship feels so true to life. Even if the particulars of the events are clearly made up, and there's all kinds of cinematic trickery in the portrayal of them, the film has an emotional realism that few other cinema romances have ever captured.  Annie and Alvy fall in love and then fall out of love, simply because that's what people do.

Eraserhead - To try and describe David Lynch's "Eraserhead" is an exercise in folly.  To try and interpret it may be even moreso. However, it remains an unusually effective art film that is never trying to be anything but an art film, and is one of the key early works of David Lynch.  His first feature film, made when he was still a student at AFI, is characterized by an absorbing strangeness and sense of overwhelming alienation. Its horrors are both immediate and existential, familiar and yet difficult to parse.  And as with all of Lynch's work, it really is the sound design that ties the whole thing together.

Stroszek - An immigrant comes to America to make a new life for himself.  However, as this is a story told by Werner Herzog, the immigrant is an awkward simpleton played by Bruno S., and America is not a land of opportunity, but rather a path to the hero's eventual spiritual and financial ruin.  There's no malice or judgment to the depiction, however, but rather a dispassionate, occasionally absurdist view of the unfolding tragedy. In other words, Herzog's usual modus operandi. It's fascinating to see such a familiar narrative turned on its head, and presented through a New German Cinema lens.     

House - Somehow "Eraserhead" wasn't the  strangest movie made in 1977. No, that title belongs to the Japanese horror movie "House," about a group of schoolgirls who embark on one of the weirdest, wildest journeys in all of Japanese cinema.  The girls have to contend with an evil house that wants to eat them, full of possessed furniture and fixtures. Outside of a few experimental short films, I can't think of any film that goes to the stylistic extremes that "House" does, with its mixed media monsters and parade of gruesome deaths.  It's part cartoon, part slasher, and all kinds of delightful nonsense.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar - This is a film and novel that has fallen out of fashion over the years because there's a degree of fearmongering and victim-blaming in its depiction of a single woman living independently.   However, Diane Keaton is such an engaging figure, putting the complicated heroine's self-destructive behaviors in a sympathetic light. Screen heroines were rarely allowed to be so openly sexual, so forward, and so interesting - and in many ways they still aren't.  This depiction may be innately problematic, but it still has value and the movie still has the power to devastate.

Providence - One of Alain Resnais' rare English language films puts a bevy of British and American acting luminaries into a metaphysical melodrama about a family of terrible people who loathe each other.  It's never clear which of the film's different versions of the main characters are the real ones, if any of them are real at all. It's the performances that ground all of this existential uncertainty, full of macabre humor, rage and despair.  John Gielgud, playing the puppetmaster and the ultimate source of all this emotional turmoil, surely never had a screen role as suited to his talents as this.

Pumping Iron - They will never be able to make a biopic of Arnold Schwarzenegger that can match up to "Pumping Iron," which focuses on his efforts to train for a bodybuilding contest in the 1970s.  It captures not only the fascinating world of male bodybuilders, but the cutthroat culture that it fosters. Schwarzenegger is the undisputed star of the picture, not only for his swagger and ambition, but for his keen sense of strategy and ultra-competitive, take-no-prisoners nature.  And knowing what we know now about Schwarzenegger makes his early behavior all the more meaningful and sinister.

Honorable Mention


Monday, June 24, 2019

How To Say Goodbye to Your "Dragon"

We are going to be seeing significant endings in a lot of various media franchises in 2019, including a certain HBO series that heavily involves dragons.  For a while I completely overlooked that the third "How to Train Your Dragon," would be capping off a series of films and television shows that stretches all the way back to 2010.  To date, I still think that first "Dragon" movie is the best thing that Dreamworks Animation has ever done. The third film, titled "The Hidden World," doesn't match that initial high, but I still found it a very satisfying watch.

Hiccup (Jay Baruschel) is now the chief of the viking clan on Berk, and leads a group of dragon riders against the hunters and poachers that would exploit dragons for their own ends.  He and his Night Fury, Toothless, attract the attention of a particularly dangerous character named Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), who uses a female Light Fury to try and distract them. Hiccup starts looking for the Hidden World, the place where dragons are rumored to have originated from, hoping it's somewhere that dragons and humans can finally live together in peace.  

I appreciate how the series has let Hiccup grow up over time.  He's in his twenties now, considering marrying his longtime girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), and being forced to weigh his dream of a dragon utopia against what's really best for his friends.  And then there's Toothless, who gets a cute love interest and is allowed to do a little maturing on his own. Frankly, this probably would have been a better movie if it had just focused on Hiccup and Toothless finding their paths diverging naturally, instead of the whole complicated business with Grimmel and the other dragon hunters targeting Berk.  Grimmel is a decently threatening villain, and provides excuses for big action scenes, but I don't think that this story needed him.

Because what I like the most about "Hidden World" is its willingness to be bittersweet, and its unusual sense of finality.  Sure, Dreamworks could pull a "Toy Story 4" and finagle some way to bring everybody back for another adventure, but this movie provides such a nice emotional endpoint to the series, I can't imagine it was ever intended to be anything but a grand finale.  And watching all our characters get to that ending is worth all the bombastic nonsense of fights and chase scenes and tedious comic relief that feel like they were piled on to the story to keep the younger kids from getting bored. The comic relief this time out is particularly rough, since none of the running jokes with the secondary cast pay off very well.  

On the other hand, "Hidden World" continues to showcase gorgeous animation and art direction, with a special emphasis on its virtual cinematography.  There are several sequences with Toothless interacting with and courting his potential mate that are almost totally silent displays of pure character animation.  And then there are the dragon riding scenes, which are always a highlight, and the fantastical light show of the first discovery of the Hidden World, and a sunset cliffside scene with Hiccup and Toothless that is among the most beautiful things I've ever seen in an animated film.    Along with director and writer Dean DeBlois, the final round of curtain calls should also include the invaluable John Powell for his sweeping score, and the main voice actors, Jay Baruschel and America Ferrera. It's nice that Baruschel finally lets Hiccup sound like a grown-up here, as he's working out how to be one.    

Dreamworks has leaned pretty heavily on "Dragons"  over the past few years as they've weathered some rocky transitions.  "Hidden World" is their first film to be released under the new distribution deal with Universal Pictures, but it feels like the end of an era.  This is going to be the last big Dreamworks movie for a while. We've yet to see whether any of their more recent hits like "Trolls" and "Boss Baby" will be able to sustain multiple films, and there's been talk of rebooting older franchises like "Puss in Boots."     

I'm hoping for the best, though, as Dreamworks has made some remarkable films over the years, and they've clearly got a lot left in the tank.       

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Kids of "Capernaum"

Our first look at Zain El Hajj (Zain Al Rafeea) comes as he is being examined by a doctor, who determines that he is roughly twelve years of age.  We learn that Zain's parents, Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef), cannot provide this information as they have no documents for him or his numerous siblings.  Zain is being examined as part of a judicial action - having recently been convicted of a serious crime and sent to prison, he wants to sue his parents for having birthed him in the first place.  

"Capernaum" is a snapshot of a bleak childhood spent in misery and poverty.  Zain's family is among the poorest of the poor in Beirut's slums. Zain runs errands for the landlord and helps in the petty grifts that his parents pull to keep the family afloat.  Initially, he comes off as overly aggressive and mean, constantly badmouthing adults and throwing away gifts meant for his younger sister Sahar (Cedra Izam). However, his behavior helps to ensure his survival, in an environment where he's constantly under the threat of physical violence and suffers daily neglect.  Everyone steals, cheats, and cons as much as they can get away with, and Zain is no different. However, he also proves to be fiercely loyal, generous, clever, and resourceful. And as his situation goes from bad to worse, he never stops fighting.

The performance by Zain Al Rafeea is fantastic, full of simmering resentment and frustration, but also moments of hope and even joy.  The film could easily have come off feeling exploitative of these children and their plight, but it never does because Zain is such a willful personality whose decisions drive so much of the story.  At one point he ends up under the care of an undocumented Ethiopean cleaner named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who has a toddler, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), who she hides the existence of. Zain becomes Yonas's surrogate parent, and its through his efforts to care for the baby that his strength and humanity really come through.  There's such a physical element to their relationship that creates some of the film's most memorable visuals, as the skinny, pale Zain is often seen lugging around a black toddler who is nearly half the size that he is.

There is pointed social critique baked into the film, and it manages to address a wide variety of social ills through Zain's journey.  Nearly all the characters are undocumented, for a variety of reasons. Some are caught in immigration limbo, and others have just fallen through the cracks.  Desperation pushes the adults to put their children in harm's way, sometimes inadvertently. The cultural roots of some of these issues are targeted too. Zain explicitly pins the blame for his woes on his parents, for "having too many children they can't take care of."  When confronted about the poor treatment, they claim that it was the way they were raised too, and they didn't know any better. As horrible as some of their actions are, it's impossible not to be sympathetic.

I found the commentary a little too on the nose, especially in the final act where the sequence of events and final resolution border on fantasy.  However, it's a fantasy that offers some much-needed light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Director Nadine Labaki's previous films have been much more lighthearted, including  "Where Do We Go Now?" a fable-like satire aimed at poking gentle fun at Middle-Eastern religious divides. In "Capernaum," the miseries of her characters are much more harrowing, their situation far truer to life.   Zain El Hajj was a Syrian refugee when he was cast in the film, and Labaki reportedly interviewed hundreds of street children to prepare her script. Scenes were shot in real Beirut slums, jails, and court rooms.

And it was certainly worth all the effort.  "Capernum" doesn't just show us the physical effects of poverty and social dysfunction, but a fair amount of the mental and social toll.  By using a child's perspective, it's able to communicate its criticisms in a very direct fashion, and reframe many of the usual arguments.  Zain's demands of his parents may not be reasonable, but neither are they selfish. And he serves as a good reminder of the responsibility that adults - and the society they built - owe to their offspring,  


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Trailers! Trailers! Mid-Summer 2019 Edition

A slew of trailers for Oscar season hopefuls and other fall releases have been released recently, so I thought I'd get some thoughts down on a few titles I'm looking forward to. All links lead to Trailer Addict or Youtube.

The Goldfinch - I'm torn between wanting to find out as much as I can about the film and going on a restricted information diet so I can enjoy any surprises in store. The announced cast and crew point to a very high level of execution, but the plot remains intriguingly undefined. I know that it's a coming of age story based on a highly lauded, but also much derided novel. Ansel Elgort is starring, which is a plus. John Crowley is directing, which is another. If nothing else, Roger Deakins will make sure it all looks amazing.

In Fabric - It's been too long since the last Peter Strickland film. He makes movies like no one else, and his latest is about a woman played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste and a killer dress. Literally. This looks to be another throwback to Italian giallo, but a pulpier one than anything we've seen from Strickland so far. There are some interesting - and probably accidental - visual parallels to Jordan Peele's "Us," and I can't help wondering if the two films might make for a good double feature.

Doctor Sleep - It's funny. I knew that "Doctor Sleep" was Stephen King's sequel to "The Shining" and I knew that a film adaptation was coming. However, it didn't really occur to me that this meant "Doctor Sleep" would be positioned as a sequel to Kubrick's "The Shining," and be able to borrow and reference its iconic visuals. Director Mike Flanagan appears to be taking full advantage, and based on his recent work on horror adaptations for Netflix, I'm going to be cautiously optimistic about this one.

Ford v. Ferrari - Bale and Damon and a lot of fast cars? Sure, why not. "Rush" was a fantastic film featuring some great performances. I'm not a racing fan, but I enjoy a good onscreen rivalry, and I've come to appreciate sports films as dependably pleasant, low key historical dramas that usually feature colorful characters. I'm actually more interested now, knowing that Bale and Damon aren't playing Ford and Ferrari, and their characters are actually on the same side. James Mangold will be directing this as his follow-up to "Logan."

Ad Astra - I've been hearing a lot of buzz for this one, reportedly James Gray's passion project, but I wasn't really sold on it. Gray is known for smaller budget fare, and a space adventure thriller didn't seem to be in his wheelhouse at all. However, nothing about "Ad Astra" looks cheap, and we really don't see enough of Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones onscreen these days. I'm hoping that this will be something in the vein of "The Martian" or "Arrival," a hard sci-fi prestige pic that uses the genre trappings to say something more meaningful.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil - Yeah, it looks pretty awful, but I'm going to watch this for the production design and costuming, the way I do with all the recent Disney live-action junk. Maybe we'll get to see Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer face off, and maybe we'll get Maleficent's scary castle and minions this time around. I just can't resist gaudy fairy tale vamping.

Joker - A one-off "Joker" movie starring Joaquin Phoenix, directed by the guy who did the "Hangover" movies? How is this going to work? Well, the trailer reveals that it's a psychological thriller and period piece that looks like a "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy" homage, complete with Robert DeNiro in the role of the talk show host. There are Scorsese easter eggs everywhere. This has shot up to one of my most anticipated films of the year, and the trailer itself is now one of my favorites. That slow reveal of Phoenix's smiling mug is so wonderfully creepy, and I love the use of Chaplin's "Smile."

Terminator: Dark Fate - I never thought of Mackenzie Davis as a potential action star, but this works. She looks fabulous as the new terminator. However, the main event is getting Arnold and Linda Hamilton back onscreen. And though Tim Miller is in the directing chair, James Cameron is producing and contributed to the story. I didn't really expect another entry into the "Terminator" franchise so soon after the ill-considered "Genisys," but I'm game for this one because of its pedigree. It's not like anyone involved is getting any younger.

Onward - I don't like anything about this trailer, not the goofy designs, not the way the concept is being executed, and not the characters being introduced. It looks like something from Dreamworks or Illumination, not PIXAR. Then again, this teaser really isn't showing us much, and I was similarly unimpressed by teasers for "Coco" and "Zootopia," which I ended up loving. We're just going to have to wait and see.


Monday, June 17, 2019

Into the '60s

As part of my continuing Top Ten project, this year I'm deep diving films from the 1960s.  This is going to be an undertaking at least as large as my deep dive of the '70s, so I expect I'll be working through '60s films for the next year or three.  This means that my Top Ten lists are no longer going to be monthly after roughly next June, when I hit the point where I won't have watched the fifty films from a particular year that will make it eligible for a Top Ten list.  I'll keep writing the lists, but expect some delays.

Prior to this, I watched mostly the world cinema classics from the '60s, and far fewer of the popular ones.  There are still a number of big cultural touchstones that I've missed, including titles like "Bye Bye Bird" and "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World."  There are a good number of stars active during this period that are still with us, but very few who are as active in the same way. The only exception is Clint Eastwood, who was busy making his name in spaghetti westerns, and is somehow still a headliner now.  However, it's been fun seeing the early work of famous names like Robert DeNiro, making little New York indies with Brian DePalma, Kurt Russell, who was a youngster in several Disney family pictures, and Goldie Hawn, sharing the screen with Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman in "Cactus Flower."

Interesting actors I've come across, new to me, include Richard Benjamin, Hywel Bennett, Joanne Woodward, Michael Hordern, and Glenda Jackson.  There's really no accounting for who becomes a household name over the years and who doesn't. Popular actors of the day whose names you don't hear much anymore include Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Lee Marvin, Roddy McDowell, Dean Martin, and Robert Ryan.  And I'd forgotten that Elvis Presley had a thriving movie career, once upon a time. The most fun, though, has been seeing character actresses I've only known from playing grandmothers and grand dames, back when they were in their prime: Billie Whitelaw, Estelle Parsons, Cicely Tyson, and Maggie Smith.      

The American film landscape of the '60s is so different from how it is today.  Sure, there were some genre films, but comparatively far more musicals, more romances, and more small-scale, dramatic films.  Spectacles were common, but that usually meant war films or religious epics. Westerns were still everywhere, and a major comedic star of the era was Jerry Lewis.  It was fascinating to find that "Goodbye Columbus," a light romance starring Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw, was a smash hit that outgrossed that year's James Bond movie.  Movie musicals were seriously waning toward the end of the decade, but they also managed to win Best Picture four times in ten years, more than at any other point in history.  
Let's not forget that the '60s were the era of the French New Wave and New Hollywood, when the studios were in upheaval and a young generation of filmmakers were coming to prominence.  Having seen most of the big titles previously, I'm trying to fill in gaps. So far I've seen multiple Claude Chabrol and Jean Luc Godard films. The early work of American directors like Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, and Francis Ford Coppola are on my wishlist.  I'm not far back enough in time that the transition from the studio era is that obvious yet, but I'm getting there. Meanwhile some of the undisputed cinema greats like Kurosawa and Hitchcock were active, and I'm missing a few key titles for both.

Moreover, this is probably the most rewarding phase of this project for me yet.  There are so many, many films from this era that I had never heard of until I started actively looking for more titles.  There have been a few duds, but plenty of good surprises. Content standards had gradually loosened, and I keep coming across surprisingly modern-minded '60s films that address race relations, feminism, homosexuality, and other topics.  It's pretty tragic how many good films have simply been forgotten over time, and again there's no rhyme or reason why some become classics and some don't.

I'll be looking forward to spotlighting some of these in my future Top Ten lists.  More updates to come.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

"True Detective," Year Three

Moderate spoilers ahead.

I skipped the controversial second season for "True Detective," but was lured back to the third with the promise of Mahershala Ali in the lead role, and co-writers like David Milch being brought aboard to help out series creator Nic Pizolatto.  Though it shares quite a bit in common with the first season, this year of the show isn't quite at the same level. Directors Jeremy Saulnier and Daniel Sackheim are solid, but turn in far less memorable work than Cary Joji Fukunaga. Pizolatto gets a little over-ambitious, juggling three different timelines, but delivers a mostly satisfying story.  The one person I felt was doing something really special, though, was Mahershala Ali.

Ali plays Wayne "Purple" Hays, an Arkansas detective and war veteran who tackles the case of two missing children in the early 1980s.  He's partnered with Roland West (Stephen Dorff), a state investigator, and meets a teacher named Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) during the case.  Ten years later, Wayne and Amelia are married with children, and the case is being reopened due to new information. And twenty-five years after that, in a third timeline, Wayne is retired and being interviewed by a film crew making a documentary about the disappearances.  Wayne also suffers memory problems that worsen with age, and some vital pieces of the story take quite a bit of effort to uncover.

I confess that I wasn't able to keep up with the ins and outs of the mystery from week to week after a few episodes.  Occasionally I had a tough time keeping the events of the first two timelines straight, and wasn't ever particularly invested in learning the truth about what happened to the missing kids.  The performances of Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff kept me coming back though. Ali does well with a very complicated part here, playing Wayne at three different stages of his life, where his relationships to his loved ones are very different.  He's a quieter, more introverted character, and the show is at its best when it's peeling back his layers and showing different facets of his nature by comparing and contrasting different episodes in his life.

Unlike the first season of "True Detective," the multiple timeline approach helps when it comes to exploring Wayne's character, and ultimately this season works far better as a character study than it does as a crime story.  If you're watching this for the crime story, you may come away disappointed. The investigation is central to the whole show, but it's an investigation full of dead ends and red herrings by design. Every time it feels like the detectives are getting anywhere with the case, they're stymied.  And when we finally do get to the resolution, it becomes apparent that the major players in the crime barely appear in the show at all. In addition, there are some frustrating questions left unanswered that really shouldn't be - like what happened to Amelia between the second and third timelines.  

I also found Saulnier's more subdued style disappointing, even though I knew what to expect.  We witness some incidents of violence and an especially ugly interrogation that goes wrong, but nothing like the six-minute tracking shot from the first season is even attempted.  I miss the thick atmosphere and the real sense of place that the Fukunaga gave his "Detective" story. The visuals for this year aren't very evocative and the production is very low key, though impeccably executed.  The old age makeup used on Ali and Dorff is very impressive stuff. No corners were cut, and no expense was spared.

Still, while I found most of the mechanics of the story pretty rote, and the execution pretty pedestrian, the show managed to deliver one of the most satisfying, if bittersweet endings to a televised serial that I've seen in a while.  I'll give credit to Pizolatto that he had a great idea and knew what to do with it. Even more importantly, it really gave Mahershala Ali a chance to shine. I actually like his performance in the last episode better than I like either of the ones he won Oscars for.  After all, he had a full eight hours with Wayne, to really explore his ins and outs.

And ultimately, that was enough to win me over.           


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

My Favorite Nicholas Roeg Movie

I'd been considering writing up one of these posts for "Walkabout" as my favorite Peter Weir film, only to realize that the seminal Australian classic wasn't directed by Peter Weir.  In fact, it was made when there really wasn't much of an Australian film industry to speak of, having been shot in the late '60s with an international crew. "Walkabout" is credited as one of the films that sparked the Australian New Wave, however, and cemented the reputation of its British director, Nicholas Roeg.

Roeg came to directing fairly late, having worked as a cinematographer for two decades before making his directing debut in his forties.  However, his work was immediately distinctive and proved highly influential. His narratives are very subjective, and the images sometimes come in a stream-of-consciousness jumble.  An event depicted onscreen is occasionally intercut with shots of a different action to provide context or emphasis on major themes. In "Walkabout," scenes of life in the outback are intercut with scenes of Western civilization, and the actions of certain characters are intercut with flashbacks of flash-forwards.

Another hallmark of Roeg's work is his elliptical storytelling, something that I found aggravating in films like "The Man Who Fell to Earth," but is very fitting for "Walkabout," which is about two children who become lost in the wilderness.  Much of the action is improvisational, and the filmmakers reported that they simply took their cues from the outback as they traversed it. As a result, "Walkabout" contains one of the most fascinating and absorbing depictions of the Australian desert ever put to film.  Far from a wasteland, the outback is teeming with life and beauty, though some of it is alien and difficult to parse. There's also an intensely psychological element, showing the way the children return to a state of nature as they learn to survive.

Roeg was his own cinematographer here, and presents these keenly contrasting views of the wilderness and civilization.  The city where the children come from is full of crowds and noise. Radio chatter creates a constant background din, and there's a certain harshness to objects and interactions.  By contrast, the desert feels dreamlike, where the landscape changes frequently and a watering hole can disappear overnight. Spaces are often empty and vast, but dramatic. Notably, Roeg doesn't depict one world as better or worse than the other.  Images from one are often paralleled with corresponding images from the other, particularly when something violent or disturbing happens. Rather, it's the way that elements of civilization and the wilderness interact that seem to cause the most harm.             

The division between the two worlds is personified by the main aboriginal character, an unnamed boy played by David Gulpilil, who encounters the children and becomes their guide.  They are barely able to communicate with each other, and much of their journey is spent in silence, simply taking in each new location or event as it's encountered. This has tragic consequences, perhaps symbolizing how the industrialized and natural worlds are often incompatible, or the corrupting influence of civilization on indigenous cultures.  No direct commentary or judgment is made, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Because of this, the film still feels unusually timely and is free of the kind of problematic messaging seen in similar films.

"Walkabout" was a difficult feature to see for many years because  of its content. The children, including seventeen year-old Jenny Agutter, have a handful of nude scenes, though these are completely asexual.  The violence is more disturbing, including two suicides, attempted murder, and the hunting and butchering sequences. The rawness of the depictions contributes greatly to the tone of the film, full of unseen dangers both physical and and perhaps spiritual.  Each time the children transition from one world to the other, it is preceded by death and calamity.

Roeg's other films also pushed boundaries, notorious for explicit sexuality and unconventional narratives.  Few of them were particularly successful at the box office, but their reputation has only grown with time. As for "Walkabout," it's left a lasting impression, particularly on Australian cinema.  You can still see echoes of its haunting desert in just about every filmed depiction of the outback to this day - beautiful and foreboding and difficult to forget. 

What I've Seen - Nicholas Roeg

Performance (1970)
Walkabout (1971)
Don't Look Now (1973)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Bad Timing (1980)
Insignificance (1985)
The Witches (1990)


Sunday, June 9, 2019

Fifteen Years, 4177 Movies

I hit an interesting milestone back in January.  I started keeping track of all the movies I watched back in 2004, along with a few basic stats like year and format.  Now it's fifteen years later, and I have a massive amount of useless data to share. Some of the stats are included below for your amusement.

I decided to take the plunge and join Letterboxd, since some of their new data wrangling features caught my attention.  I took the opportunity to go back through my records and rerate some titles as I was inputting them into the site. It turns out that my views on individual movies can change massively in hindsight.  Did I really give Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry" and Peter Berg's "Love Survivor" the same rating when they came out? What could I have been thinking? I let my memory influence some of the adjustments - if I couldn't remember much about a highly rated title, I often docked it half a star.  My recall is admittedly pretty bad past seven or eight years in the past, but there were some fairly recent titles that I had to look up to spark any kind of recognition. What the heck was "Last Days in the Desert"? Or "The Machine"? Why are there so many movies called "The Square"?

I'll eventually input the rest of the movies I've watched prior to 2004 to get my lifetime stats - I'm estimating about two thousand additional titles - but I wanted to get a snapshot of the data for this fifteen year period recorded first.  

Movies watched: 4177
Hours: 7,682
Directors: 2,058
Countries: 96

Movies from the USA - 2620
Movies from the UK - 697
Movies from France - 620
Movies from Germany - 318
Movies from Italy - 227
Movies from Japan - 191
Movies from Canada - 141
Movies from Sweden - 77
Movies from Spain - 77
Movies from Belgium - 68
Movies from Australia - 68
Movies from China - 58
Movies from Denmark - 50
Movies from Russia - 45
Movies from Mexico - 36
Movies from Czech Republic - 35
Movies from Brazil - 28

Movies in English - 3334
Movies in French - 676
Movies in German - 343
Movies in Spanish - 324
Movies in Italian - 276
Movies in Japanese - 223
Movies in Russian - 174
Movies in Chinese - 110
Movies in Arabic - 73

Movies watched in class - 3
Movies watched on a bus - 2
Movies watched on a boat - 11
Movies watched on a plane - 20
Movies watched on VHS - 26
Movies watched in theaters - 160
Movies watched at anime conventions - 3
Movies made before 1920 -20
Movies made in the 1920s - 83
Movies made in the 1930s - 138
Movies made in the 1940s - 151
Movies made in the 1950s - 245
Movies made in the 1960s - 296
Movies made in the 1970s - 466
Movies made in the 1980s - 370
Movies made in the 1990s - 263
Movies made in the 2000s - 740
Movies made in the 2010s - 1410

Movies rated 5 stars - 66
Movies rated 4.5 stars - 210
Movies rated 4 stars - 813
Movies rated 3.5 stars - 1240
Movies rated 3 stars - 1149
Movies rated 2.5 stars - 472
Movies rated 2 stars - 183
Movies rated 1.5 stars - 27
Movies rated 1 star - 14
Movies rated zero or .5 stars - 3

Most watched directors:

Woody Allen - 26 movies                                   
Alfred Hitchcock - 23                                   
Ingmar Bergman - 19                                   
Werner Herzog - 19                                   
Fritz Lang - 18                                   
Martin Scorsese - 18                                   
David Cronenberg - 17                                   
Jean-Luc Godard - 17                                   
Akira Kurosawa - 15                                   
François Truffaut - 15

Highest rated directors:

Joshua Oppenheimer - 4.8/5
Michael Apted - 4.7
Lee Chang-dong - 4.6
Costa-Gavras - 4.5
Jan Troell - 4.3                                       
Stanley Kubrick - 4.2
James Ivory - 4.2
Ang Lee - 4.2
Fernando Meirelles - 4.2
Robert Benton - 4.2
Fred C. Newmeyer - 4.2
Sam Taylor 4.2
René Clément - 4.2
Satyajit Ray - 4.2
Akira Kurosawa - 4.2
Béla Tarr 4.2
Arthur Penn - 4.2
Peter Watkins - 4.2
Laurence Olivier - 4.2
Elia Kazan - 4.1
Most watched actors:

Johnny Depp - 36 movies                               
Willem Dafoe - 36                           
Michael Caine - 34                               
Samuel L. Jackson - 34                       
Robert De Niro - 29   
Meryl Streep - 29   
Matt Damon - 28                               
Bill Hader - 28
Philip Seymour Hoffman - 27                               
Max von Sydow - 27

Most watched writers:

Woody Allen - 26 movies                                   
Ian Fleming - 21                                   
Billy Wilder - 18                                   
Ingmar Bergman - 18                                   
Akira Kurosawa - 17

Highest rated writers:

Michael Herr - 4.8                                   
Calder Willingham - 4.7                                   
Lee Chang-dong - 4.6                                   
Paddy Chayefsky - 4.5                                   
Adolfo Franci - 4.5
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - 4.5                                   
Walter Reisch - 4.5                                   
Vittorio De Sica - 4.5                                   
Budd Schulberg - 4.5                                   
Kazuo Ishiguro - 4.5

Animated films - 240
Documentaries - 277
Horror - 304
Sci-Fi - 390
Westerns - 93

Finally, the least popular title I've watched is apparently "Master Q: Incredible Pet Detective," a Chinese animated film from 2003 that was screened at an anime convention I attended many moons ago.  A grand total of seven people have logged it on Letterboxd, including yours truly. It's also available on Youtube, but I do not recommend it.