Love, Simon (2018)

Hot on the heels of Lady Bird comes the next great high school movie in Love, Simon. It’s a tenderly told coming(-out)-of-age tale, with timeless themes of acceptance and identity set against the digital landscapes of communication, exploitation, and connection.

Nick Robinson gives a starmaking performance as Simon Spier, a teen just starting to embrace his homosexuality, whose “coming-out” moment is threatened by blackmail. It takes a toll on his friends, his family, and his online pen pal, an anonymous figure “Blue” with whom Simon has forged a deeply personal, however digital, relationship.

He knows Blue attends his school, but that’s about it. He looks for clues and references wherever he goes, and finds the boy of his dreams in different moments of his everyday: a chatty waiter at a waffle house, the quiet piano player for the school musical, a friendly acquaintance. This is translated to film to compelling effect, as Blue’s voice and appearance evolve throughout the movie, resembling the closest match Simon can piece together at that exact time.

It’s not an unfamiliar feeling, as the sole gay kid striving to find connection. It’s hard to discern a friendly smile and personal demeanor into a gay “cue” that another male could be more than just a friend. The excitement of possibility, and anxiety of rejection, from so many potential “suitors” ring very true to the closeted homosexual experience.

Just how acutely and perceptively Love, Simon captures these elements is one of its greatest strengths. In a highlight moment (with stellar acting by Mr. Robinson), Simon confronts the one who “outs” him, denying Simon his own empowerment and agency, to stake out his own identity on his own terms. The complications and nuances of this milestone moment for any young adult are difficult to translate to film, much less in a studio picture for a mainstream audience; but Love, Simon does it to astonishing effect.

But more than capturing the struggles and strife of the gay experience, Love, Simon also finds joy, warmth, and affirmation. After coming out to his family, Simon’s mother (Jennifer Garner) confesses that Simon is “more of [him]self than [he’s] been in years.” The conflict tearing Simon apart is the fear that coming out will change others’ perception of him, as though there were a “before” and “after” to his identity; but he’s been the same Simon all along, and his loved ones know that.

I could have used a movie like Love, Simon ten years ago, and I’m so thankful that we have it now. As our cultural climate is evolving to be one of greater diversity and inclusion, it’s great progress to see a story like this, geared toward the younger audience who needs it most, available on such a large scale. The “It Gets Better” initiative launched in 2010, promising that the troubles young LGBT people face will someday diminish; in 2018, young people are being re-affirmed through stories promising that they can have, and deserve to have, happiness right now in the present.


Oscars Ballot 2018

Whatever’s been happening in the real world, 2017 was honestly a pretty terrific year for film. We’ve had outstanding debuts and career peaks from veteran artists. The tones vary between troubling paranoia and familial reassurance, both (arguably) in response to what’s taking place outside the movie theater.

But most importantly (for Oscar purposes, anyways), we’ve gotten a solid batch of nominees. There is great diversity reflected not only in race and culture, but in tone and genre, for an exciting cross-section representing what cinema has become.


I’d rank the nominees as:

  1. Call Me By Your Name
  2. Lady Bird
  3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  4. Phantom Thread
  5. The Shape of Water
  6. Get Out
  7. The Post
  8. Dunkirk
  9. Darkest Hour

Sticking with nine nominees though, I would drop the bottom three and bring in:

Likely Winner: A lot of the stats seem to lean towards The Shape of Water, particularly given the (alleged) backlash to Three Billboards despite its sweeping most of the heavy-hitter awards. I cautiously call it at The Shape of Water, but even Phantom Thread has been picking up steam lately.

My Pick: My favorite of the live-action films last year was Call Me By Your Name, though one could argue Lady Bird or Three Billboards is truly the “best,” and I wouldn’t dispute that. I would be pleased if any of those three took home the gold.


Likely Winner: Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water.

My Pick: Mr. del Toro’s vision permeates through every aspect of The Shape of Water, and has solidified his craft as a true auteur. Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig as clearly new, exciting voices in film and one hopes the best is yet ahead in their careers. For Guillermo del Toro, this is arguably his career high (it’s my favorite of his films to date), and the time feels right.


Likely Winner: Gary Oldman for being grumpy in makeup in Darkest Hour. 

My Pick: Timothee Chalamet is extraordinary in his breakout Call Me By Your Name, though like Gerwig and Peele, this is hopefully the start of a tremendous career for him. 


Likely Winner: Frances McDormand in Three Billboards

My Pick: Ms. McDormand is truly exceptional in a role worthy of her immense talents. I was also stunned by the explosive performance by Margot Robbie in I, Tonya and, as always, Saoirse Ronan disappears into a fully believable heroine as Lady Bird. This category may be the most “loaded” of any this year, and each of the three would be deserving winners.


Likely Winner: Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards

My Pick: Even as the third-billed, Sam Rockwell’s performance as Officer Dixon in Three Billboards is what stuck with me the most. His police officer is a fully realized, wholly believable portrait of a deeply flawed man, struggling to crawl himself out of a pit of his own making.


Likely Winner: All signs seem to point to Allison Janney in I, Tonya (and she’s terrific in it), but I’m partial to…

My Pick: Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird‘s patient, sturdy, and understanding mother. The film would not work were it not for Metcalf’s grounding performance.


Likely Winner: Get Out, a creative social satire that has clearly struck a chord with the zeitgeist.

My Pick: This is another category that’s filled to the brim with talent. Few films hit me as hard as The Big Sick this year, but I would be equally happy with a Lady Bird or Three Billboards win.


Likely Winner: Call Me By Your Name

My Pick: Call Me By Your Name, particularly for adapting a sleepy, murky tale into a vibrant moment of discovery. The Mudbound script is also excellent, particularly for its shifting perspective and poetic interior monologues.

What are your picks for Oscar night? Who should take home the gold? Reply below in the comments!

Three Backsides Over Northern Italy: “Call Me By Your Name” (2017)

This is brilliant.

Alby Seeing You


Timothée Chalamet’s backside will go down in history as one of the greatest actors of his generation.  When Elio meets Oliver for the first time in 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, we see his face but briefly in the mirror.  As they separate from their handshake, Oliver’s reflection obscures Elio.  Thus begins the first of a recurring series of shots throughout the film in which Elio, at his most vulnerable, never shows his face.  Rather, we always find ourselves behind him, not quite catching up cinematically to moments that traditionally would see dramatic close-ups and intense stares.

After that first, crucial meeting, three more moments define his role in Call Me By Your Name.  Each one comes at important plot points within the narrative, giving us Elio willingly vulnerable to the situation at hand.  But, almost paradoxically, it is within these moments that he becomes empowered, stronger. …

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“Coco” Q&A with Adrian Molina & Matthew Aldrich

On Tuesday January 09, I had the opportunity to attend a special screening of Coco, followed by Q&A with co-director/co-screenwriter Adrian Molina and co-screenwriter Matthew Aldrich. This was my fourth time seeing the film and, like all great movies, I find my love for it only growing with each additional viewing.

To paraphrase, some of the insights they shared included:

  • Originally, Coco was going to be more of a “traditional” musical featuring a whole score of songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, but after several rounds of rough screenings it was decided the feel didn’t fit what the team intended. Of the many songs the Lopez duo had written, only “Remember Me” remains.
  • An early concept was that the Rivera family, who has written off music, would be cursed to only sing (never speak) in the afterlife. I’m ok that they dropped this idea!
  • With so much effort put into world-building, it allowed the production crew to more easily adjust the story as needed. If the sets were locked down, a scene could be staged, re-iterated, or cut out, without impacting the place itself.
  • The Land of the Dead represented in the film is that of Santa Cecilia, the home of Miguel and the Rivera family. The marigold bridge from the graveyard is a portal from Santa Cecilia to the Land of the Dead, and the other bridges connect the afterlife to other villages; the idea being, every place in the land of the living has its own corresponding Land of the Dead.
  • In earlier drafts of the script, the overall approach to death was to “move on” and “get over it,” which didn’t feel true to the story they were trying to tell. With additional research and contributions by cultural consultants, the message pivoted to one of remembering, rather than moving on from, the loss of loved ones. This more authentically represents what Día de los Muertos is about: to remember those we’ve lost.


Weekly Round-Up: January 07-13, 2018

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) – I went in pretty blind and was not prepared for this expertly written, emotionally gripping story of a woman’s fight for justice. Writer/director Martin McDonagh fully develops the three lead characters, seemingly everyday people, into near-mythic proportions. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • The Disaster Artist (2017) – Good-hearted tale of friendship and the struggles of Hollywood, as experienced by Tommy Wiseau and the making of his infamous The Room. James Franco is fully committed to his portrayal of Wiseau, and consistently energizes the film even when it (occasionally) loses steam. RECOMMENDED.
  • Coco (2017) – I simply can’t get enough of this movie. One of its many strengths is that every time I watch it, a different theme or moment affects me that I hadn’t noticed in previous viewings. The painful tragedy between Hector and Mama Imelda won this round. Read my original review here, and this one is absolutely REQUIRED.
  • Jabberwocky (1977) – I sometimes struggle with the works of the Monty Python crew, but this oddball fantasy-comedy felt well-grounded and had plenty of dry humor to stay entertaining. It seemed longer than its 100-odd minutes runtime, but I still enjoyed it. RECOMMENDED.
  • I, Tonya (2017) – I know nothing of sports, and even less about ice skating, but this razor-sharp comedy-drama about one of the most infamous rivalries in American athletics is a pure shot of adrenaline, injected by Margot Robie’s killer lead performance. If The Disaster Artist is a commentary on the creative process, I, Tonya is a close-up on the dedication and sacrifices athletes make to get to the top. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • It (2017) – Easily my favorite horror film of 2017, and possibly my favorite since The Witch almost two years back, this scary movie about a demon shape-shifting clown is grounded by excellent performances by its young cast and a top-notch script. REQUIRED.
  • Dunkirk (2017) – Dunkirk had moments of inspired direction of wartime events, but offered little in terms of character development or even creating an emotional arc. The tone of the movie felt the same the entire time, which may have been Nolan’s intent, but didn’t take me on much of a journey. NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you watch last week?

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

The novel Call Me By Your Name is a deliberately paced, murky tread through memory. It condensates events and conversations to fill an eternal moment in the coming-of-age of Elio, a young man falling in love for the first time. Its sensual language and cerebral longing make it an enjoyable read, to be sure, but its tone as a memory, looking back from a future era, mute the people, places, and colors of the world André Aciman paints for us.

The film Call Me By Your Name is anything but. The opening, youthful, exuberant, joyful piano chords of “Hallelujah Junction – 1st Movement” accompanying vibrant photos of rusted classical art snap us awake, into an invigorating contrast between young and old, observing a long-gone past with an audacious burst of life.

Timothée Chalamet is a marvel as Elio, a perfectly realized young man with all the naivete, self-hatred, bullishness, impulsiveness, and passivity of anyone on the brink of adulthood. He spends the summers in Italy with his parents, who host academics to assist with his father’s archaeological work. This fateful year, his family takes in Oliver (Armie Hammer), a sturdy, confident foil to the unpredictable Elio.

Italian summers must be very hot, because the two spend much of the film shirtless and somewhere between lounging around the shaded house and going swimming, a spark between the two grows into an undeniable passion and nearly obsessive romance. Elio and Oliver become inseparable and share profound intimacies. In one touching moment after making love, Oliver asks Elio to “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine,” as their bodies and hearts join together to become one.

The seasons change, and the summer must end. But Elio learns the painful lesson that love is more than being with the person you’ve found, but also growing from and taking on what you’ve learned from them. Elio’s father (played by the excellent character actor Michael Stuhlbarg) urges his son to find meaning and solace in having such a love at all.

In the film’s profoundly moving final shot, the fate of Elio’s future with Oliver is sealed; the camera lingers on the cyclone of emotions swirling on his face, as his parents and household help prepare a Hanukkah feast in the background. The tragic reality of young love, and being forced to sit with that feeling as the world goes on with or without you, is a difficult ending to leave us with, but it’s not so far from real life.

Call Me By Your Name‘s great triumph is this spectacular balance between quieter, solemn moments with the life-affirming joy of young love, bicycling down the cobbled streets of rural Italy. Just as the moods and desires of Elio fluctuate, grow, and mature through the film, the tonal shift from connection to introspection takes us on the very same journey. “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine,” and the two become one.

Coco (2017)

Say that I’m crazy or call me a fool
But last night it seemed that I dreamed about you
When I opened my mouth what came out was a song
And you knew every word and we all sang along.

Coco is perhaps the most culturally focused and specific Pixar film to date. It is set not in Anytown, USA, or a prehistoric wilderness, or a fairytale kingdom. It is within one village, Santa Cecilia, and follows one boy as he learns about his family. If Inside Out is powerful for its universality, Coco is a marvel for its effective specificity about one family, their music, and their legacy.

Our young hero, Miguel Rivera (performed exceptionally by Anthony Gonzalez), is not out to save the world – he’s pursuing his destiny, diving into his family history to understand his past. He’s an aspiring musician from a family that forbids music; his great-great grandfather abandoned his wife and child to pursue music, triggering an instant and long-running resentment by the family towards the art form. In order for Miguel to see his dream through, he must first win over his family in the present, by unlocking his family’s past.

On the eve of Dia de los Muertos, he finds himself accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead, bringing him face-to-face with his ancestors, including his Mama Imelda, the great-great grandmother whose heart was broken by her musician husband. With the help of Hector, a ragged companion Miguel finds along the way, he dives deeper into his family history and learns the truth of what happened so long ago.

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrating the life of those no longer with us, when the living play host to our dearly departed. Favorite foods, family photos, even shots of tequila are displayed on ofrendas (altars) to welcome our loved ones back into our lives. The Rivera ofrenda, like any, is tailored for the ancestors left behind, to connect them to the present and to remind those living today of the family’s past.

The theme of memory courses throughout the film as the underlying tragedy, and promise, of Dia de los Muertos. A person’s “second life” in the Land of the Dead goes on only as long as they still have a living descendant who remembers them. This is all the more poignant as Miguel’s great-grandmother and oldest living relative Mama Coco ages and experiences memory loss, putting the memory of her ancestors at risk. But Miguel learns, through a complex yet poetic narrative, that memories of the past can bring a family closer together in the present.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without tiptoeing into spoiler territory, but I can promise that the ending, tying together the concepts of death, memory, and family is a spectacularly moving musical finale. The sorrow and joy of a family’s love is brought together through song for an emotional yet uplifting climax – at first surprising for a film with so much death, but ultimately does embody the warm spirit of Dia de los Muertos.

Not everyone is of Mexican descent, and much of the world has never celebrated Dia de los Muertos (including myself), but the tale woven from a specific cultural holiday, about one unique family, is a universal and unforgettably moving film.

Mamma Roma (1962)

Pasolini takes us to the outskirts of life and challenges our assumptions in the moving and intelligent Mamma Roma. Almost a mix of Nights of Cabiria with Mildred Pierce, this thoughtful tale of a woman who will do anything for her son leaves nothing at face value, and pulses with the confusion and pain of everyday life.

Anna Magnani gives a captivating performance as Mamma Roma, a former prostitute who saves up to move with her son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) to Rome, where she wants to begin a new chapter in life. She renounces her past and takes on operating a vegetable cart in the piazza market, and she encourages Ettore to go to school to mingle with the right sort of neighborhood kids.


Ettore’s path takes a different turn, however. He becomes smitten with Bruna (Silvana Corsini), a young woman already with child. His friends tease that she goes out with “everyone,” but Ettore doesn’t mind, and forges a tender connection with her. Mamma Roma doesn’t approve of the match either, and urges him to forget about her and take on a respectable job as a waiter in Trastevere.

Through all its ups and downs, Mamma Roma is consistently engaging for its rich, authentic portrayal of real, complex characters. Mamma Roma herself is a loud, boisterous prostitute one moment, and an affectionate forward-thinking mother the next. The girl Bruna is frequently attacked for her reputation despite her mostly angelic demeanor; then when Ettore is beaten down and his weakness revealed, she laughs in his face and joins the other boys. Characters ebb and flow and take on different roles throughout the story, rejecting stagnant personalities for more genuine, complicated impulses when facing trying circumstances.

Its deep respect for everyday life is heightened through the fluid religious undertones. Mamma Roma is often portrayed as a Mary figure, dedicating her life to her son and suffering the terrible loss that befalls him. Ettore is the Christ, driven by some innate destiny and is even held strung with his arms open in a prison. Bruna could be the Magdalene, to whom Ettore is drawn despite what society may think of her.

Pasolini’s films are anything but ordinary, and the humanism and authenticity flowing through Mamma Roma elevate what could have been some weepy melodrama into intelligent and thought-provoking art.

Descendants 2 (2017)

The VKs (Villain Kids) are back, wearing more leather than ever in this sequel to the explosive Disney Channel Original Movie Descendants. When we left them, the pack led by Mal (Dove Cameron) was accepted into the preppy Auradon fold with the children of fairy tale heroes and heroines, with the cliffhanger tease that “The story’s not over yet.”

Not over yet indeed, as the film opens with an epic opening number “Ways to Be Wicked,” in which the villain kids have spread their malice and thievery throughout the land, infecting the good with their evil. This (disappointingly) turns out to be a daydream of Mal’s, but sets the tone that something bad may still lie within these kids, and certainly within Mal. Overwhelmed by the pressure to conform and be good, she flees Auradon for her homeland the Isle of the Lost, where the exiled villains and their offspring live.

Mal’s boyfriend Ben and the remaining VKs head to the Isle of the Lost to bring her back, where the real meat and fun of the film kicks off. The first Descendants was a treat to watch evil kids in the world of good, so when it ended with the impression that all was well, I was worried the sequel would lack the original’s bite. I was so wrong; watching the VKs re-enter and re-embrace their homeland brings us one of the more delightful sequences of the whole saga: the groovy “Chillin’ Like a Villain,” where the VKs teach Ben how to act like one of them. Sofia Carson as Evie is particularly charismatic, with noticeably more poise and confidence in this go-around.

Meanwhile, Ursula’s daughter Uma (China Anne McClain, an enjoyable addition to the cast) is gaining power, accompanied by a pirate crew with the likes of Gaston and Captain Hook’s sons. There’s a hysterical rap battle face-off between Uma and Mal, building the rivalry up to a climactic cotillion-gone-wrong as Uma becomes a gargantuan octopus and threatens to sink a ship of teenagers.

I would be disappointed if Descendants 2 were anything but bonkers, and it miraculously meets the expectations set by the original. In fact, the sequel feels more sophisticated through its richer set design, more ambitious choreography, and even better music than its predecessor. It’s not going to join the Criterion Collection anytime soon, but Descendants 2 is a fun, musical treat that the whole family can enjoy.