2018 Mid-Year Review

We’ve just reached the halfway mark of 2018, and already box office records have been broken, franchise fatigues shattered, and even gotten some extraordinary movies in the process. There’s no way to know how many of these will stick out as memorable features this time six months from now, but the front half of 2018 has certainly set a high bar for what’s to come later in the year.

So without further ado, let’s count down the best (and worst) of 2018 – so far…

The Worst

5. Insidious: The Last Key – This saga has trended in a logarithmic downward spiral and the latest entry is no real exception. Lynne Ramsey is strong (as always) as a medium battling inner and outer demons alike, but this uneven jump scare-fest abruptly wobbles between supernatural absurdity, real-world domestic abuse, and ambiguously creepy guys. It never makes up its mind around what tone it’s aiming for, so seems to strive for everything while achieving nothing.

4. Fifty Shades Freed – While not offensively bad, this *ahem* climax of another Universal property was a let down after the outrageously silly ride of the previous two Shades. The sex scenes weren’t as giggle-inducing, but the ending scene was surprisingly sweet and met expectations for how to tie this whole thing up.

3. Tomb Raider – More bland than anything else, this wannabe-blockbuster is a waste of gift from God Alicia Vikander, who we see race boxers on a motorcycle (!), solve cryptic puzzles without a sweat (her dad taught her, we’re told), and come face to face with an ancient witch’s curse. Action set pieces transpire before us, but the stakes never quite hammer home and nothing seems to matter. If any good comes of this, Ms. Vikander will be available to stick to the art house fare that made her a star!

2. Truth or Dare – On principle I see every horror movie, especially if it’s set in college, and Truth or Dare is both of those things. It’s a big mess though, filled with questionable decision making by its young heroes and a convoluted plot (and another age-old curse!) that’s both frustrating and 100% what you expect. A good takeaway though is a character referred to as “Day-Drinking Penelope” and a preposterous scene where she’s Dared to do shots and walk on the roof…or she dies!

1. A Quiet Place – I’m more alone than the lead isolated family on this one, but I found this movie endlessly silly and giggle-inducing. I appreciate the inclusive nature of A Quiet Place being told through ASL, but couldn’t keep it together through goofy set pieces like a camera panning over mega-pregnant Emily Blunt scared in a bathtub as tense music plays, or a revelatory moment highlighting John Krasinski’s exposition whiteboard: “What is the weakness?” when it all comes together. Bonus points for every moment a character turns around and “Shh”s another, just in case you forgot you have to be quiet or else an alien brutally kills you. This is a good one to watch in a high chair, while it’s all spoon-fed to you.

The Best

5. Black Panther – Not unlike Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the newest superhero entry in the Marvel-verse fires on all cylinders with its tremendous world-building and wide spectrum of instantly memorable and iconic characters. The fierce lineup of female leads and the terrifically unsettling villain are all so strong, you almost forget about His Panthersty (who’s also great in his own right).

4. Incredibles 2 – The story continues for everyone’s favorite animated super-family, as Elastigirl picks up superhero duties and Mr. Incredible stays home to watch the kids. It’s hard to compare it to the original (one of the great movies of the 21st century), but this one is loaded with more action, feels more timely, and is even more non-stop.

3. Avengers: Infinity War – Even months later, this one still looks like a Thanos-sized behemoth in the distance. This movie arrived with the highest of expectations and shattered even those, delivering a kaleidoscopic joyride across planets and franchises before delivering one final, devastating blow. More Rogue One than Guardians of the Galaxy, this challenging film proves that there’s no such thing as the Marvel formula and (hopefully) cracks open the creative possibilities for Phase Four.

2. Love, Simon – This is certainly the “smallest” movie in my top 5, which in some ways makes it the biggest of all. This is a story that has probably happen, and continue to happen, until we reach a post-orientation society where nervous young adults coming out is a thing of the past. Until then, we have a wonderfully sweet and reassuring story (from a major studio, no less) of one teen doing just that, and how he finds support (or otherwise) from those around him.

1. Annihilation – Alex Garland’s utterly terrifying follow-up to Ex Machina is an unforgivably intense journey to hell and back. A mysterious presence is spreading through the coast of Florida, and a team of scientists venture into this “Shimmer” to collect DNA samples and get out. This classic “adventure gone wrong” tale is inverted like a Möbius strip, as the women face monsters unknown and forces beyond their understanding at play. At the surface it’s a monster movie, but at its twisted core it’s a tale of identity and exchange, and what happens when that transformation unfolds unwillingly.

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How Does Life Weigh? The Underlying Question of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (2018)

For those of you keeping track, I wasn’t a fan of the first Jurassic World. I found it a silly pastiche of CGI garbage, though an oddly charming one in its naïveté.

With the follow-up, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, I was also taken on a somewhat mindless adventure, but can’t shake off some of the underlying questions it raises. Yeah yeah, “life finds a way” alright, but whose lives matter? Do some lives matter more than others?

Fallen Kingdom seems to suggest that yes, some do, but I’m not sure the logic follows a clear through-line. The central conflict (before something “else” goes wrong, anyways) is that Isla Nublar, the site of the now-abandoned Jurassic World, is also host to an active volcano and all the dinosaurs left behind are in danger. Swept up in the movement to protect an endangered species, Claire (theme park operations lead turned environmental activist) advocates to save them. When she’s recruited to return to the island for this cause, she doesn’t hesitate to join in.

So do the lives of artificially cloned dinosaurs matter? Yes.

Now, of the dinosaurs they find on the island, only a handful of species are saved – namely the carnivorous ones, such as the T-Rex and velociraptor, and hauled back to the mainland in massive carriers. Boring herbivores like the brachiosaurus are left behind (in a surprisingly touching scene for this kind of movie). They are abandoned to perish horrifically amidst the lava and flame of an erupting volcano, while T-Rexes and the like can nap on their cruise back to safety.

So do the lives of artificially cloned dinosaurs matter? Well, more if they’re carnivorous and “cool” and I guess action-packed.

But then, back on land at Lockwood Estate, the dino version of De Vil Manor, a lengthy action set piece ensues where the Indoraptor (a man-made hybrid of Indominus Rex and a Velociraptor, because sure) becomes free and roams the estate, terrorizing humans and dinosaurs alike. As artificially cloned animals go, the Indoraptor is basically doomed to fail in its moral space; this hybrid is literally built to be a killing machine, but it’s doing what it does best. Who can blame it!

Anyway, I guess the humans can, because the climax ends with the Indoraptor triumphantly punctured by the skull of a triceratops. So “life finds a way” via a relic of a deceased (but real, organic) dinosaur, mortally wounding a recently-alive but 100% man-made dinosaur.

So do the lives of artificially cloned dinosaurs matter? Not if they are a man-made species.

What’s bothersome about this (and I can’t believe I even care) is that the Indoraptor doesn’t matter in this ethical void, and the its death is somehow a victory. Alright, but how is the Indoraptor’s right to live any different or lesser than that of another man-made organism (if not man-made species) like the cloned “real” dinosaurs? Regardless of origin, they’re all living, breathing things. Wouldn’t an advocate for endangered species (I’m looking at you, Claire) be open to, if not enthusiastic about, protecting an animal that’s literally one of a kind?

What’s your take on this whole thing? Am I as crazy as Claire for caring about these man-made dinos? Let me know your thoughts!

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the savviest Marvel fan.

I’ve seen all the movies, and studied each Wikipedia entry numerous times, but I still have trouble keeping track of it all. Who’s romantically linked to who, what sinister backstory the characters emerge from, and last but not least, what exactly the Infinity Stones are.

Even though my passion outweighs my general understanding of what’s going on, I had one hell of a time at Avengers: Infinity War. Experiencing the latest, and undoubtedly most ambitious, Marvel entry in a packed opening-night crowd was the most fun and energetic time I’ve had at the movies in years. I don’t like the idea of “fan service” (which, to me, means a reference for its own sake) but the Russo brothers deliver spectacular moment after spectacular moment, featuring our favorite characters doing what they do best, but all in service of the plot – Thor brandishing his new-and-improved weapon, Black Panther leading the Wakandan army, Doctor Strange melting our minds, to name a few – constantly infusing the audience with high-voltage doses of adrenaline.

The first 80% or so of the film is an absolute blast. The events of the most recent Marvel films (Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 specifically) seamlessly brought worlds together for this epic collaboration. From where the stories have been heading, it does make sense that the spacey world-building existing in parallel with what’s happening on earth, all merge to defeat the Biggest interdimensional Bad in the MCU: Thanos.

And how Bad he is. Thanos is on a quest to collect the Infinity Stones (tied to unique elements of the universe), load them into his handy glove, and wipe out half of existence. The world’s been in trouble plenty before (at least 18 times prior to this, if I’m counting the movies right!) but Thanos’s end goal, and means to do it, is nothing short of horrifying. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the sequence at the end is as unsettling and dark as anything Marvel, or even Lucasfilm, has ever done.

The film’s climax is as bleak as the beginning of the film is delightful, but the story certainly feels far from over. It’s too soon for one to have inspired the other, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Luke Skywalker’s words in Star Wars: The Last Jedi: “This is not going to go the way you think.” An endless string of critics and pundits have labeled the “Marvel formula,” and Avengers: Infinity War is a giant, Thanos-sized middle finger to any presupposed template these movies are meant to follow.

I’m used to walking away from Marvel movies fully energized and pumped up for more, while this left me dejected and almost mournful; though that’s not a bad thing. The exit corridors echoed with quiet murmurs of what comes next, what can be done, and what the future may hold. Love it or hate it, this is an ending that has audiences talking, thinking, theorizing, about what this all means for characters and worlds we’ve known for 10+ years. Nothing is sacred, everything is up for grabs, and the possibilities are infinite.

The Gospel According to Film

Has any story been adapted to film more than the tale of Christ?

This past weekend (among countless others), I took a journey through faith depicted on film. Some regular entries could be The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, two Charleton Heston epics that always air on TV this time of year, but I chose landed on three others: The Last Temptation of Christ (for its annual Good Friday viewing in my living room), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (which I had never seen but long wanted to), and Jesus Christ Superstar (a musical I’d seen a couple times, but was very familiar with the music).

Perhaps it was watching three tellings of the same story within a 36-hour time span, or a deep-rooted familiarity with the Passion from my Catholic upbringing, but seeing these very different takes on the life of Christ within a short period became a richer experience than the sum of its parts. Watching any of the films in isolation would have been viewing it on its own merits (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but assessing them more as complements to one another made each movie all the more unique, defined, and artistic.

The Last Temptation of Christ, as explicitly stated in its introduction, is a “fictional” exploration of Christ’s battle between “the spirit and the flesh.” The conflict within Jesus as both man and god is, frankly, the point of the film, and this thesis drives the depiction of Christ even as a character. He goes on an emotional arc throughout the entire film: first in torment, troubled by his internal pain; determination to understand His purpose; a loving, enlightened figure inspiring and healing those around Him; then a defeated, dejected shell; and finally, the courageous, benevolent Son of God who sacrifices Himself for the world. Christ is a fully realized, human character, and His emotional journey and experience as a man makes His ultimate sacrifice all the more heartbreaking and powerful.

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The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

The depiction of Christ in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, however, embarks on less of a journey; in Pasolini’s film, Christ is confident, eloquent, though arguably cold, direct, and lacks the loving warmth we often see in Renaissance-era artwork or other film adaptations. The viewer’s relationship to Him is almost impersonal, with milestone moments such as Christ’s arrest and trial shot from a distance, from the perspective of a member of the crowd witnessing. This sense of detachment is washed away by the movie’s conclusion however, through the powerful depiction of the Resurrection. The cold tone permeating most of the film is foiled by a glorious chorus of song, believers rejoicing to spread the word of God, as Christ is heard in voice-over dialogue: “Behold, I am with you always, unto the end of the world.” Whether the voice is for His followers or to us directly, the disconnect is breached as He makes a promise to always be there.

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The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

The sense of glory from Christ does not quite shine through in Jesus Christ Superstar, the grooviest tale of the Passion ever committed to film. This depiction of Jesus is sad, frustrated, and troubled throughout, and no moments of miracles or God-given glory ever transpire. The life and spirit of the film come from, well, everywhere else: the excellent portrayal of Judas by Carl Anderson, going jumpsuit to jumpsuit as he fears for Christ, betrays Him, and even chastises Him. While Jesus is, of course, the center of the action, most of the songs and story are seen from the perspective of those around Him. Mary Magdalene is also portrayed terrifically, by Yvonne Elliman, effortlessly gliding between sensuality and an almost-motherly love toward Him. Jesus does not go on the emotional arc or display the vitality that the other characters do, and this may well be the point of the piece: the tale of Christ, told by the perspectives of those around Him.

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Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

These films are absolutely not to be taken as Gospel and are not documentaries (though how cool would it be if Jesus Christ Superstar were!), but experiencing three very different interpretations of this globally-known tale was a fascinating, enlightening journey through all the perspectives and artistic decisions that shape and contribute to our modern understanding of Christ.

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.

BEST PICTURE

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.



BEST DIRECTOR

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.



BEST ACTOR

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. 


BEST ACTRESS

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.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

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.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

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.


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

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.


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

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

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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.

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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?