This is the next entry in my ongoing 100 Essential Films series. If you missed the first one, you can find the explanation for what I’m doing here. Film number five is the romantic comedy It Happened One Night from 1934. Many hail the picture as the first screwball comedy ever made – although 1933’s Bombshell might have a little something to say about that. Class commentary and romance are the chief preoccupations of both the genre and It Happened One Night. I first saw the movie in college, about 800 years ago, so it’s technically a revisit, but this go-round was almost like seeing it for the first time. In fact, I might have slept through part of it in college; those 8 am classes were a killer… Just like the other films in the series, I borrowed a Blu-ray through intralibrary loan. The disc was produced in 2014 by the Criterion Collection, and although the majority of the film looks sparkling, there are a few shots that show how challenging the 4K restoration must have been.
Viewing entries in
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (OUaTiH) is Tarantino’s re-creation of and loving, yet gleefully revisionist, tribute to this fractious period in Hollywood’s history. Without giving too much away, this film is a spiritual cousin to Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds. That movie incensed more than a few people with its shockingly gory climax that reimagined the end of World War II.
The same will probably be true for OUaTiH. Tarantino puts his unique spin on the bloody, unspeakable events that closed the 1960s. When creating works of art, I have no need for the artist to feel constrained by the facts when representing real events. A big part of art is reimagining the world in new, different, and interesting ways. A possible exception is documentaries, but even those have exceptions to the rule. Mainly, the purpose Tarantino’s divergence from truth serves in OUaTiH, at least for me, was one of catharsis. Just like in Inglourious Basterds, we get to see good triumph over evil, in the bloodiest, most outrageous way possible…
It feels like an incredibly trite observation to make that the story director LuLu Wang is telling in her film The Farewell is universal despite being centered around a Chinese family. It’s one of those go-to descriptors us white people love to pull out when we enjoy a story that doesn’t revolve around people who look like us. As if we have to be the ones to swoop in and proclaim something worthy because we were able to connect with an entire cast of non-whites for 90+ continuous minutes. We’re so used to whiteness being centered in virtually all popular entertainment that it feels like the biggest triumph – something on a UNIVERSAL scale – when that isn’t the case.
The Farewell isn’t universal despite featuring an exclusively Chinese cast. The Farewell is universal because it tells a very moving story that is steeped in the messiness of human emotion and relationships.
I was 15 in 1995 when the first Toy Story was released. That’s a bit older than the target audience for Pixar’s inaugural feature film, but I vividly remember seeing it and being dazzled by both the story and the groundbreaking animation. I’ll be 40 next year. I’ve been wowed by each successive Toy Story installment released over the last quarter century. Both the astonishing leap in digital animation technology and the touching stories involving old pals Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the gang – Toy Story 2 and 3 consistently bring me to tears with every revisit – get better with each new film.
That’s definitely the case with the seemingly impossible jump in animation quality between Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4. The plot, however, isn’t quite up to the level of the earlier films, especially Toy Story 3, probably the strongest of the series. While “cash grab” is too strong a phrase, this is the first entry in the franchise that feels like the artistic vision got a little fuzzy.
There’s a scene toward the end of the comedy Late Night in which Emma Thompson’s character, the hard-driving talk show host Katherine Newbury, climbs multiple flights of stairs in a Brooklyn walk-up in order to have a heart to heart with Molly, her newest writer. Out of nowhere – or perhaps out of the early 2000s – a cheery, vaguely inspirational pop song comes on the soundtrack as Katherine huffs and puffs up those stairs, stopping at one point to take off her shoes in order to aid her ascent. It’s one of a few cliché moments (also included is an obligatory montage, showing hard work resulting in success) that stand out for all the wrong reasons in what is otherwise a smart, funny, and fresh take on both feminism and cultural diversity in the work place.
The laughs are the least effective element in the coming-of-age comedy Booksmart. Don’t misunderstand me: Booksmart is a funny movie. There are several gags and one entire sequence in particular that is downright inspired. But with four different screenwriters – Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman each supplied rewrites and revisions to Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins original script during the preproduction process – the movie feels a little overwritten. The comedy style is too frenetic and never settles down enough to deliver really big laughs.
The other facets of the story all work splendidly.
The most uncharitable way to describe Terry Gilliam’s work is that it is solipsistic. Almost every film the director has made centers on a hero battling – not always successfully – to maintain his autonomy and individuality in a society obsessed with conformity. Gilliam’s characters rage against the system to protect their romantic, singular view of the world. The most satisfying of his films are those in which Gilliam is able to make us see the world through his protagonists’ eyes. His best films, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 12 Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, unlock the hero’s mind. His misses – The Fisher King, The Brothers Grimm – frustratingly fail to do so. We can see the vivid imagination of the central character, but only from the outside. We’re never allowed all the way in.
Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote belongs in the latter category.
Here’s the third entry in my 100 Essential Films series. If you missed the first one, you can find the explanation for what I’m doing here. Film number three is Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. This is what many consider to be his best film, which means a lot considering Chaplin was a masterpiece machine. Just like the first two films in the series, I borrowed a Blu-ray through intralibrary loan. This edition was produced by Criterion Collection in 2013, and it looks and sounds great.
The movie gods arranged a bit of serendipity this week that had me watching Harmony Korine’s new film The Beach Bum and John Waters’ 1972 gross-out classic Pink Flamingos within hours of each other. Flamingos is one of those films that’s been on my “to see” list for years, and when I discovered a local theater was holding a midnight screening, I made sure to pregame (read: take a nap) for it, so I could check it off the list.
The Beach Bum isn’t anywhere near as (intentionally) disgusting as Flamingos is, but Korine and Waters both have reputations as cinematic enfants terribles. They gleefully push boundaries, if only for their own enjoyment.
I wasn’t a fan of either film, but for completely different reasons.
Here’s the second entry in my 100 Essential Films series. If you missed the first one, you can find the explanation for what I’m doing here. Film number two is The General from 1926. Directed by Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, and starring Keaton in arguably his most iconic role, The General is based on an actual train heist that took place during the Civil War. Just like Intolerance, I borrowed a Blu-ray edition from my local library. The disc is a 2009 edition produced by Kino. Just like with Intolerance, the restoration work here is gorgeous.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is turning 15 this year. On a whim, I picked it up at the library recently along with The Darjeeling Limited. Life Aquatic was a re-watch and Darjeeling was one of Wes Anderson’s films that I was finally getting around to seeing for the first time. Click the link for something new I’m trying; it’s a feature I’m calling Revisited, where I’m going on the record with a movie I’ve seen before but never written about.
We all have that acquaintance, friend, or family member who use their Facebook profile solely to antagonize members of their social circle whom they consider their political enemies. These are almost always people who would never do the same thing in a face to face setting. They like to “start shit,” but from the safety of their phone. These people are a shade different from what are popularly known as internet trolls, because they believe in the opinions they’re expressing, so it’s not 100% about getting under their target’s skin. It’s only 75% about that. Vice, Adam McKay’s inflammatory, obnoxious biopic about Dick Cheney, arguably the most destructive vice president in American history, is the cinematic equivalent of these true-believer assholes.
There’s been plenty of digital ink already spilled about Green Book being a White Savior Film. While I’ll also spill a bit of my own on the topic, there isn’t much I can add. For me – an average white dude who’s seen his fair share of movies – the most glaring fault about the picture, a dramedy dealing with race relations in the Jim Crow era, is the paint-by-numbers feeling of it all. This is a movie that strives to hit every standard beat in the uplifting “inspired by a true story” template. As an exercise in mediocrity that serves up something we’ve all seen dozens of times before, Green Book is an unparalleled success. It’s utterly predicable and is the kind of movie that would have felt fresh had it been made 20 or 30 years ago. Still, for all it’s flaws, Green Book isn’t entirely without its charms. In addition to a superb turn from actor Mahershala Ali, the movie does provide some inspiring moments and a message about race that plenty of people still haven’t absorbed.
Yorgos Lanthimos delivers everything you might expect visually from him in his first period piece. The Greek director’s meticulous attention to detail and exacting standards are brought to bear in The Favourite. It’s a sumptuous, visually arresting examination of power struggles in the early 18th century English royal court. Many of Lanthimos’ thematic preoccupations are present as well: the blackest of comedy that highlights the worst instincts and actions of which humans are capable; how his characters wield power over others; the mingling of the humorous and horrific to shock and disturb his audience.
While the nihilistic aesthetic Lanthimos employed in films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer remains essentially unchanged in The Favourite, the effect becomes numbing here (especially in the final act) where it doesn’t in the earlier films. This is another morality tale like The Lobster and Sacred Deer. In The Favourite, the ultimate moral is: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.
It isn’t easy getting close to Emily. Even her own husband, Sean, sometimes feels like an outsider in his own marriage. The mercurial Emily is a high-powered public relations director for a premier fashion company, and her take-no-bullshit attitude allows her to tell her own boss to get lost on occasion. You have to be willing to treat powerful people like dirt, she says, because sometimes that’s the only way to get through to them. The only thing that can compete with Emily’s job is her devotion to her son, Nicky.
When Emily allows Stephanie – whose son Miles attends the same elementary school as Nicky – into her orbit, Stephanie feels both elated and intimidated. She runs a somewhat successful mommy vlog where she posts about things like making friendship bracelets. Stephanie doesn’t quite know how to handle Emily’s sophistication and no-nonsense demeanor. One day Emily asks Stephanie to pick up Nicky from school and watch him for a few hours while she deals with a minor emergency. Five days later, Emily has vanished. Determined to find her new friend, Stephanie plays detective and uncovers dark secrets from Emily’s past. What she finds will change her life forever.
If you have, or want to have, children, and you think that there is something wrong with any grown person who isn’t interested in doing the same, then Juliet, Naked is the movie for you. Of course, that’s not a ground breaking or particularly challenging stance for a movie to take. There is an overabundance of movies (and books, and magazine articles, etc., etc.) that reinforces the idea that becoming a parent is the pinnacle of maturity.
Movies about the subject – an overwhelming majority of which are romantic comedies – have thoroughly exhausted one particular “becoming a parent” subgenre. It’s what I’ll call “The Man-child Matures” subgenre. Knocked Up, Nine Months, and About a Boy all focus on emotionally stunted men who grow into responsible adults only when they realize that, yes, becoming a parent is what they really wanted all along. Having parenthood thrust upon them makes them finally grow up.
It’s a well-worn cliché that bad times make for good art. We’re at the front end of some undeniably rotten times, with a commander-in-chief who traffics in white supremacist language and policies, and a large segment of the population who feel more comfortable expressing bigotry because of him. Hate and ignorance are ascendant. It’s the coldest of comfort, but the first great piece of art in response to these bad times (at least as far as movies go) is here. It’s called BlacKkKlansman. It’s incendiary, powerful, hilarious, chilling. Master filmmaker Spike Lee called upon every skill he has as an artist to make this movie pulse in defiance of our current political and existential crisis. He also included his trademark sense of humor and his unique visual style and inventiveness. No other director could have made this movie. BlacKkKlansman is, and could only be, a Spike Lee joint.
The themes and social commentary of Blindspotting are both timely and important, but the movie’s overall effect is one of slightness. That slightness is mostly a function of the way co-screenwriters and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal chose to mix comedy and drama in their examination of gentrification, race relations, and toxic friendships. The result is uneven and too episodic, with comedic interludes that don’t quite fit alongside harrowing depictions of everything from lethal police misconduct to a young child getting his hands on a loaded gun. These moments, though, and many more like them, are incredibly powerful, and Diggs and Casal’s screenplay handle them with care and a great deal of emotional intelligence.
The bright, shining star at the center of Eighth Grade is Elsie Fisher as Kayla. She is a revelation. We all wear different masks in our daily lives depending on with whom we’re interacting, and Fisher shows Kayla changing these masks with expert skill. We see confident Kayla, shy Kayla, anxiety-attack Kayla, exuberant Kayla. Fisher is in almost every shot of the picture, and she carries that weight like an acting veteran, not a 15-year-old newcomer.
Eighth Grade is a perfect example of Roger Ebert’s theory of movies as empathy machines. It’s a way to experience the world – even if for just 90 minutes – through someone else’s eyes. Kayla Day encourages us to extend the best parts of our nature to everyone around us. That’s the first step in making the world a better place.
Hip-hop artist, music producer, teacher, and political activist and agitator Boots Riley has new talents to add to his resume: screenwriter and director. His electric film debut, Sorry to Bother You, announces a fresh and singular new voice in American cinema. The movie uses biting, politically charged satire to comment on a myriad of social justice concerns. Riley skewers issues like race, class, labor rights, toxic capitalism, and selling out with an outlandish and exhilarating premise that gets stranger with every passing minute. I can sum the movie up with one word: bonkers. The last time I used that word to describe a film I wrote about was over three years ago. The inventive science fiction (for lack of a better term) feel and unique sense of humor Riley employs in Sorry to Bother You makes it the first bonkers movie event since Mad Max: Fury Road.