Monday, December 17, 2018

The Romanoffs Review

Getting into a good anthology show can be satisfying but also undermine the reason I want to use my time budget on TV instead of movies or other forms of passive entertainment. Television is an opportunity to follow a story as it unfolds over several distinct episodes. Instead, an anthology with little strain of connection can feel like I’m watching a lot of abridged movies without the satisfaction of being able to tally it up towards the list of films I watched (I’m a film nerd like that, don’t judge). In short, even if a series has state-of-the-art storytelling, it’s the connective tissue that makes an anthology feel worthwhile.

“The Romanoffs” tells a series of extremely long vignettes of disparate parties who are related to one another through shared lineage to the famed Romanoff dynasty.  One of the keys to this connectivue tissue is the very en vogue idea of white privilege expanded to look at a sort of aristocratic privilege that intersects with history in a very interesting way as it relates to the Romanoff family.

The Romanovs (Weiner chose to name the substitute the "ff" in place of the "v" to connote phoniness) were gunned down at the end of the Bolshevik revolution in uncertain enough terms that many people (most notably Anastasia) have claimed to be descendants of the royal family. In an interview, Weiner discussed the show as one "about people who used to be great."

He expands a little more:
In a weird way, it used to be completely untraceable and you could brag your way into a kind of status, especially in the United States, where there is no royalty.

There was a guy who ran a restaurant here in Los Angeles called Romanoffs, which was a big Hollywood hangout, and he claimed to be related to the family but was not. There are 200,000 people in Russia alone who have this last name. It’s not like everyone in the family was killed that day, but the number of people who claim to be from this family and the number of people who actually are is a bit disparate. But we all have that when we go looking for our roots, right? The things these stories have in common is that they’re about inheritance and adoption—am I special, am I adopted. 

In one of the episodes the false allure of dynasty is treated literally: Andrew Rannells plays a shifty piano teacher who, in fact, steals the Romanoff story from one of his clients.

The individual stories are pretty unacceptably long (see previous complaint about not wanting to watch full-length movies that don’t count as full-length movies) but they are all uniformly of a very high caliber so far and that’s very hard to pull off. None of them rely on soft comedy (of the kind that creates so much categorization confusion at the Golden Globes). They all hook you very early on with conflict that’s easily readable but elusive enough to elicit curiosity and draws you in through a loose foreshadowing. 

If the episodes start off strong, their undoing is often their ending. It was initially tempting to write that this series is similar to the “Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror” in that the stories rely on twists but there’s quite a range here. The first three episodes play out well along those parameters with sharp turns at the end that shape the meaning of the story and justify the decisions to stick it out to the end. After, that, however, we have an episode with Amanda Peete that feels like the natural conclusion to the story. The Radha Mitchell episode set in Mexico City ends on a bit of a fourth wall break as a number of historical figures march across the plaza like "Chariots of Fire." It seems like in this case, that there was a void where the twist should have gone.  The Andrew Rannells story (one that is often cited as the worst episode of the series), the twist is a moral step backwards and leaves us with a sense of dissonance as it fades to the credits. The last episode I saw (with Kathyn Hahn) didn’t have as much of a twist so much as but a visual cue (the husband making eye contact with the unfortunate baby they rejected for adoption) is a potent image that allows us to foreshadow what’s to come.

As someone who’s seen very little “Mad Men”, I’m struck by the power of the story telling both on the script and in the visual language. The running times are unacceptably long which strained nearly every story but there’s a worthy seed of ambition in nearly every episode. The only outliar on the ambition front is the Amanda Peete episode where a stressed-out single mother mulls over whether or not to reveal her true birth father to her daughter. The episode has a great sense of tense energy for such a mundane set of events, but it seems like the sole outliar in terms of being about something bigger.

One of the great ways to interact with the show is to look for the historic easter eggs. Here are two great guides by Refinery29 and The Week,

Friday, December 14, 2018

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Audrey Hepburn is such a sweet, precious concoction that it's hard to imagine her in a thriler. That is, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to kill her. In "Charade" (a widely available hybrid romcom-thriller that epitomizes the 60s), the villains are so quirky and even cute in a Looney Tunes kind of way that you never really feel like she's in danger.

In contrast, "Wait Until Dark" is a thriller that pushes that line. Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman, Susy, who's husband becomes implicated in a drug-trafficking scheme when a doomed mule passes him a doll with a stash in it. Like a Hithcock film, "Wait Until Dark" comes with its own meaningless McGuffin. A cold-blooded criminal (a young Alan Arkin fresh off his first Oscar nomination) enlists two fellow thugs to weasel the doll out of Suzy.

With Suzy's impaired sense of sight, the film is simultaneously a psychological thrill ride while maintaining a light tone as the two parties (Suzy is aided in part by an adolescent neighbor) engage in a battle of wits. The film wrings out a certain dramatic irony to the situation as we are privy to more than Suzy's point of view but she is still the character we are most emotionally attached to.

Adapted from a play by Frederick Knott, director Terrence Young milks the tension through keeping the play almost entirely in her apartment.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and the many types of dark storytelling

Like much of Joel and Ethan Coen's repertoire, the anthology film "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" is masterfully crafted but devoid of a soul. 

The Coens dabble in a lot of tragedy and their joy is in inverting the familiar notion that tragedy has to have a larger point. If the point of tragedy is to absorb a deeper truth about human nature, the Coens often delight in having you learn as little as possible.

Four of the vignettes of the film end in tragedy and each of them are dark in a way that could take away one's enjoyment of the episode as a whole. What I find most interesting is how this is based on differing views of what one views as tragedy.

The vignette "Meal Ticket" has been cited as the darkest. A scruffy entrepeneuer played by Liam Neeson peddles around a limbless orator (Harry Helping) as entertainment and reaps the monetary rewards. As the crowds dwindle, the limbless man is eventually discarded into a river and replaced by a chicken.
This one wasn't as dark because the entertainer didn't have much to live for in the first place. He had no free agency in a very literal sense but in a broader sense, he was treated as nothing more than property. In that sense, he was put out of his misery.

The titular and first vignette, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" , personally negatively resonated the most with me. Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a simpleton of a caricature who roams the West alternatively singing jaunty tunes and brutally murdering people. What was bothersome here is that
 Buster Scruggs is so casually removed from the pain he inflicted on others. It's true that much of his shooting was in self-defense but at least a couple of his kills (like the bartender in the first bar) were not necessary and one was pretty gratuitous (shooting off every finger). Other people might not mind this as much because violence on this level happens in film all the time. Personally, I'm the guy who watches a James Bond movie and thinks, "hmmm, did Bond absolutely need to kill that henchman? What does it say about us as an audience that we don't care?" But I'm not sure if that makes it any easier; it's just more common place.

The vignette "The Gal Who Got Rattled" was the second most tragic to me because Alice (Zoe Kazan) haracter was so close to surviving. What's more, Alice is the most tragic because she doesnt belong in a Western in the sense that the other tragic characters have more forgivable deaths because they signed up for the risk. Alice is in the mold of a Shakespearean tragedy with maximum irony being wringed out: If fate had gone a hundred different ways, she would have still been alive.

Lastly, there's  "Near Agadones." A bank robber (James Franco) is caught and miraculously saved from hanging by a man who has been illegally rustling cattle. He ends up heing put on the gallows twice in one day and the second time he's not so lucky. To keep things from getting completely bleak, the outlaw dies with a smile because he spotted a pretty girl moments before his death and took a moment to relish in her beauty. But that's just a tad of sweet that's up against A LOT of bitter.

The character's fate was dark in a poignant and somewhat disturbing sense. Athough he did sign up for the risk of a torturous ending when he elected to rob a bank, there's the irony of getting hanged for the wrong crime. Still, what's disturbing about his story is that in the Old West (as portrayed here) the methods of execution are harsher than any other code we live by or know of (theft is not punishable by murder anywhere I know of) and this reality is laid bare in extreme detail. Watching Franco's character hang by a thread is somewhat excruciating.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

How Many Tim Burton Films Have You Seen? (Originally Published at The Solute)

Originally Published at The Solute

Overview: I’m a fan of Tim Burton but I can’t unequivocally say I’m a fan of the Gothic art that inspires Burton himself. In other words, if Tim Burton and I were to walk through an art gallery, I’m sure we’d be drawn to different paintings, but I would still want to see the world through Tim Burton’s eyes. Burton’s visual style can best be described as if a city’s architecture were modelled on the interior of a Halloween haunted house with a dash of German Expressionism thrown in.
Burton is one of the most visually distinctive directors of moviedom today. He is apologetically drawn to the same thematic and stylistic territory through roughly thirty years and counting, and his fans have mostly been onboard. Thematically, Burton loves stories of outsiders and estrangement. Negligent or completely absent parents are a common theme. In terms of source material, he’s chosen a comic series about a superhero filling in the hole of his dead parents (Batman), an orphanage for children (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), a girl named Alice who must have some pretty free range parents if they leave her alone to her own devices so much (Alice in Wonderland), and Willy Wonka whose emotionally distant dad (Christopher Lee in one of his best roles) is posited as the source for his loopiness. On top of that, Big Fish is about a man who can’t separate the fact and fiction of his father which is sufficient meta-commentary on the emotional distance between a kid and his father.

The two least Burtonesque films outside of the ones done as studio favors (Planet of the Apes, Mars Attacks) were rich biographical examinations of artists that inspired the director: Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood and Margaret Keane in Big Eyes. Unlike his Planet of the Apes remake, which no one really thinks of as a necessary installment in Tim Burton’s filmography, these two films epitomize Burton’s vision but in a more personal way.

What makes Burton worth watching isn’t just his visual prowess or his singular vision, but he deserves credit for handling human relationships as well. Whether it’s relationships between people and their found families, romance, mentor-protége relationships or father-son, there’s a certain sugary sweetness that the fantastical nature of his stories can give him leeway to pull off.

A Brief Biography: Tim Burton was born to a murderous barber and a the Queen of Hearts—okay, seriously, Tim Burton was born in Burbank to a father who was a minor league player before settling to work in the parks and recreation department (probably not as fun as the 2009 NBC show) and a mother who owned a cat-themed gift shop (that sounds pretty interesting). Just like many of his characters, he found his suburban life bland, felt disconnected from his father, and was very much a withdrawn loner in school. He did play water polo at Burbank High School, however (anyone know where that places you on the social food chain in Southern California high schools?). Another commonality that he has with the protagonist from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was that from age ten to his high school graduation the left his parents to live with his grandmother.

Burton watched a lot of old-school horror films, B-movies, German expressionist films, and was especially intrigued by Vincent Price. He first gained notice for his artistic talent through winning a local contest by designing an anti-litter poster. After high school, he was accepted on scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts which was dubbed by the LA Times as the “Harvard Business School of animation.” Although the CIA has turned out directors like Sofia Coppola and James Mangold, the vast majority of its alumni are animators and a lot of them (at least at the time Burton graduated) went straight to work for Disney. Despite not having a style that meshed with Disney’s family-friendly vision, Burton took advantage of the job placement and worked at Disney. As one would expect, Burton clashed with colleagues but contributed to a couple of Disney features in the 80s and still impressed them enough with his talent that he got the green light to make “Vincent” with a $60,000 budget. “Vincent” is about a young kid who was obsessed with Vincent Price which, again, is pretty autobiographical. He then made his first live-action short, “Frankenweenie,” which was turned into a 2012 film. Then Paul Ruebens came along and eventually Beetlejuice and Batman and that gave him box office clout.

Throughout his filmography, Burton would be careful to keep an eye on pre-existing intellectual properties so he could justify big budgets because those ornate gothic visions don’t come cheap. Today, Tim Burton lives in Ojai and although he hasn’t spoken with his father since high school (although it’s possible that his father died since I read this), he has a younger brother, Danny, who’s a working artist and supposedly is more avant-garde than Tim. He’s also associated romantically with Helena Bonham Carter who he’s not technically married to (as far as my research shows). He is often recognized in public with his disheveled hair and dark sunglasses.

A couple more interesting bits of trivia: Burton revealed on the Batman DVD commentary that he was “banned” from comic con for his film deviating from the canon. Also, Joel Schumacher who many believe to have ruined what Tim Burton built with Batman is good friends with Burton. For two people with such different styles, who'd have thunk?

How many have I seen: Thanks to a Tim Burton discussion I attended at DC’s Cinema Lounge in which I was forced to up my game, I’m up to 8. It’s also possible that I saw Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure as a kid and don’t remember it. The others are Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and Big Eyes.

My Favorite: There are three films on this list I think are absolutely brilliant, but I’ll stick with the one that’s his most highly praised film (though I’m sure there will always be debate): Ed Wood. The concept  portraying history’s worst film maker as a success story because the man never knew who bad he was – is gold which gives the film a solid headstart. The execution is even better: There’s the scene in which he gets advice from Orson Welles and the decision to stop the film as they’re walking into the premiere (a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). As previously stated, this is a film with less visual showmanship, but the film still has its touches. One thing that’s a little disappointing on a rewatch I had a few years ago: Johnny Depp doesn’t really show as much range here as he usually does and his overeager naivette is a little overly reminiscent of the way he chose to portray Willy Wonka.

Underrated: I’m going to break my rule and go with a tie. I’m sorry! Because it was released on Christmas day of 2014 by the Weinstein Company, Big Eyes got a fair amount of Oscar hype but its bad box office cooled the movie’s awards season hopes significantly although it got some love at the Golden Globes. Too bad because this is a very unique experience. It’s a can-do story of underdog artists that pulls the wool over our eyes midway through as it morphs into a full-on domestic horror film. Christophe Waltz goes from sly opportunist to the husband from Hell and the culminating courtroom finale is a great female empowerment moment.

Batman Returns is a film I felt somewhat frightened of as a child, but as I’ve grown older and have seen more Burton films, I’ve come to see it as the most quintessentially Burtonesque work and a triumph of the man to be able to meld his style beautifully with a pre-existing story. The 1989 Batman suffers from the same problem that The Dark Knight did (at least in my eyes): The Joker is a villain that lends itself to actor bravado. Batman Returns, in contrast, (and the rest of Nolan’s trilogy) has a much more balanced story that allows the director to be more of the star. The film is fantastical, absurdist and strangely grounded in two origin stories that seem like more than just excuses to get the film from the first to second acts. Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer really own their parts but the exposition for Cat Woman and the slow creep of The Penguin into the scene are both delicious. (The Penguin is first revealed after the prologue, as a deformed hand jutting out of a sewer grate as a newspaper alludes to him in its headline. Later you see his lair and minions before seeing the Penguin in the flesh.) The design of Wayne manor and the playful villainy of the Red Triangle Gang are also highlights. The film ends on a tragic note but with its artistry, it’s a tragedy of epic proportions.

Overrated: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I’ve always found the source material weird and kind of a misguided allegory, and the Gene Wilder version creeped me out as a child, so I might not have been the ideal audience for this. Burton handles the adaptation kind of well and properly highlights the holes the novel doesn’t really explore: Willy Wonka is kind of a cruel and weird person that children might not want to idolize so much just because he has candy. However, the visual scheme didn’t really do it for me. The bright colors looked kindergartenish, the army of identical little people was more aggressive-looking than charming, and I couldn’t tell if the film was trying to make commentary on Michael Jackson (who was kind of hated by the public at the time) and felt the film should have gone one way or another with it.

Blind spots: The three most acclaimed films I haven’t seen are Big Fish, Sweeney Todd, and Beetlejuice. My idea for this entire feature (the blind spots part) came about because a movie theater usher gave me one of those “You haven’t seen ____?! How can you call yourself a movie person without seeing ___” when I told him I didn’t see Beetlejuice. I think I’ll forever proudly define myself as the guy who has never seen Beetlejuice just to piss off my usher friend now. Sweeney Todd – the story of a murderous barber – sounds like the exact opposite of what I’m looking for in a musical. Other than that: I just saw the trailer for Mars Attacks! and that looks really interesting. The film apparently flew under the radar because Independence Day eclipsed it at the box office and gobbled up the “weird alien movie” press that year. Big Fish, I hear is a great great film, and I’m happy agreeing with that assessment without having watched it. I just have a hunch based on what I’ve read. I’d watch it too, but if I have to pick one, I would go with Mars Attacks!

Filmography as Director (20 films)
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
Big Eyes (2014)
Dark Shadows (2012)
Frankenweenie (2012)
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride (2005) (Co-Director)
Big Fish (2003)
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Ed Wood (1994)
Batman Returns (1992)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Batman (1989)
Beetlejuice (1988)
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
“Frankenweenie” (1984)
“Vincent” (1982)

How many David Lean films have you seen?

Originally Published at The Solute

Towards the end of the century, the American Film Institute and the British Film Institute released lists of the top 100 films of the 20th Century. He’s the most honored director on the British Film Institute list with Brief Encounter at #2, Lawrence of Arabia at #3, Great Expectations at #5, Bridge on the River Kwai at #11, Doctor Zhivago at #27, Oliver Twist at #46, and In Which We Serve at #92. Additionally, he has three films on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 epics list with Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai

It’s not surprising that astute British cinemaphiles might have missed some of Lean’s earlier films because to many Americans and casual movie goers, Lean is known for the glorious epics that he made over the latter half of his career. None of the six films he made from 1957 to 1984 clocks in at less than two hours and forty minutes. 

In a way, Lean is one of the most avant-garde directors I have watched because of the sheer length of his films. Although Lean appears to be a traditionalist in terms of narrative, there is something uncompromising about going to a studio and declaring “I’m going to make a film about a relatively obscure World War I general, it will have no women, and it will be three and a half hours long!” I watched Lawrence of Arabia as a high school freshman for a history assignment on Lawrence. I remember thinking “hmmm, shouldn’t this movie have ended by now?” but I certainly thought it was interesting. Perhaps, it was the novelty of seeing a different kind of film that was clearly a product of its period. The next year, our European History teacher decided to show the film in class over several periods and our reaction was, “yes it’s a pretty movie, but seriously, it’s this long?!”

A couple weeks ago, I was visiting my father at his swimming pool when he was conversing with some friends. I was reading a book review on the Russian Revolution from the Sunday newspaper and asked him what the Russian revolution was and his friends started telling me I should watch Doctor Zhivago. I mentioned that although I liked some of David Lean’s films, some of them like Lawrence of Arabia are excruciatingly long and one of them said “yes, but there’s not a wasted minute in it.”

This past week, I watched the first half of Doctor Zhivago (I plan on watching the second) and I have to agree with his assessment. The film isn’t bloated but narratively ambitious in a way that few are. Like his other epics, it’s a film that’s uninterested in telling a simple three-act narrative to get one to a happy ending: Lean is somewhat Altmanesque in weaving a tapestry but in a more linear fashion towards an end goal. It’s a film that meanders but it builds up story and character as it veers away from the main arc. The imagery in David Lean’s films are often striking and not simply in terms of cinematography. Watching Doctor Zhivago, I’m struck by the way Pasha (Tom Courtenay) is framed with his scarred face or of the scene in which Yevgraf (Alec Guiness ) trails the titular character through dark alleyways or the military march in which Pasha loses his gun or the image of Yuri being bombarded by peasants who have cordoned off his own home or…well, you get the point.
Additionally, Lean directed a whole slew of praised films before his epic phase that were largely adaptations of beloved literary works. His first three films he directed solo were adaptations of Noel Coward plays. He followed this by two Charles Dickens novels—Great Expectations and Oliver Twist—that are considered two of the best and most faithful cinematic adaptations of Dickens’ work.  Ironically, some critics would take issue with his later deviation from the source material in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

Brief Biography:
Lean was born in Croydon, England in 1930. He was raised in a Quaker household where he was not allowed to see movies due to his religious upbringing. At Quaker School, Lean was a mediocre student but he displayed a passion for photography though his parents discouraged him from making a career out of it. After working for his father’s accounting firm, he was convinced by a friend to follow his passion to be a cinematographer and worked from Gaumont British Studios in 1927.  He eventually worked his way up a series of jobs to editor before Noel Coward himself invited him to co-direct and eventually direct solo his productions. He was known for being autocratic (closed off to outside input) on sets but not overly difficult on actors. Another Oscar-winning director. Kevin Costner, was inspired by his films in thinking that an epic was ideal.

In addition to directing, he was also the founder of the production company CineGuild with Roland Neame. In addition to 28 Academy Awards being awarded to his films, he was knighted in 1984 and received an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award a year before his death in 1991 at the age of 83. Another interesting distinction: In 1970, he was Hollywood’s all-time top directorial grosser (adding the money made from all his films; a title Spielberg holds today). He did plan an eventual retirement in Tuscany but he was working until the day he died on the unfinished film Nostromo. He asked for his ashes to be buried in the three places he loved most: Tahiti, Tuscany, and India.

Films I’ve Seen:
I’m making my way through my 5th. I’ve seen Summertime, Lawrence of Arabia, Passage to India, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago.

Bridge on the River Kwai – My favorite war film. It’s lush, it’s rich in story, and conveys the senseless tragedy of war with just one scene that has remained etched in my mind. It also has a quartet of indelible characters: William Holden pulls on the charisma as a soldier roped in for one last mission, Geoffrey Horne plays a green-eyed private with a palpable sense of fear and naiveté about killing another person; Alec Guinness is a morally complex man with an ironclad sense of integrity that leads him astray ever so gradually, and Sessue Hayakawa is a worthy sparring partner.

Passage to India – A story about the grandeur of India (circa 1928) and the racial prejudice, conflicts in national loyalty and sexual repression that lurks underneath. For a film that starts out centering around one character—a stuffy British magistrate played by Nigel Havers– almost entirely irrelevant by the end of the story, this is a film that’s extremely fluid and doesn’t feel draining time-wise.

I am ok with leaving this section blank if I don’t think anything’s overrated. I thought Summertime was uneventful and lackluster but I was assuming that film was panned. classified  it as a hit, though, so yes, Summertime. It’s basically Katharine Hepburn having a Connecticut socialite’s version of a spring break experience in Venice with a hot local. The film has its moments and there’s something slightly interesting about just how unapologetic the film is at hewing so closely to the Latin lover archetype with the male lead.

Blind spots:
If Brief Encounter is the #2 all-time film according to the BFI, who am I to doubt them? One of David O Russell’s favorite films (or at least in in 2016) is Hobson’s Choice. Ryan’s Daughter is another epic but one that even the critics felt didn’t justify its long running time, so maybe?

Filmography as Director (17 films)
Summertime (1955)
Madeleine (1950)
Oliver Twist (1948)
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Major Barbara (1941)

Sunday, November 04, 2018

A quick-take Bohemian Rhapsody Film Review

Films that draw on historical subjects can produce an interesting divide in the viewer based on how familiar you are with the subject. A great deal of the "Bohemian Rhapsody" reviews to date have expressed disappointment because it's a paint-by-numbers of all the major points of Mercury's life. 

As someone who grew up in a household where my father listened primarily to classical music and my mom listened to a radio station called "The Sounds of Sinatra", I'm embarrassingly unfamiliar with most music before 1998. My knowledge on Queen boils down to A) songs I recognize by Queen like "Bohemian Rhapdsody", "Killer Queen", "Somebody to Love", and "We Will Rock You" and B) songs that play on commercials or in summer festivals or movie soundtracks that I knew of but didn't know they were specifically Queen like "Under Pressure", "Another one Beats the Dust", and "We are the Champions" (thanks "The Mighty Ducks" for the assist on that one) and little information on the band members. I honestly have no idea how people can keep track of the names of so many band members of groups that came before their time. The point, however, is that your knowledge of Queen is going to affect how you see this film. 

If follow school of film criticism that the film's intent matters, I'd suggest that this film was made for people like me. Reading the interviews with Queen's surviving band members, director Bryan Singer and producer Graham King, this was a passion project because they wanted to educate. Look at Graham King's quote:

But I was also fascinated with the idea that there is so much about Freddie Mercury and Queen—arguably one of the greatest bands in history—that the general public does not know....This is such an important story to tell, and, for me, it was crucial that we not only celebrate their music and achievements, but also give people a better understanding of the band’s history.

At the same time, if you're not going to see the film specifically to rediscover Freddy Mercury from a backstage perspective, this will read kind of like every other rock biography in existence. The protagonist is a man driven by pure id and does whatever he pleases and, for the most part, doesn't care who's in his way. It's the result of having all the right creative instincts and being isolated from reality by handlers who want to feed off of him. The protagonist's ego becomes oversized and he sews his wild oats. He either gains self-control or doesn't (they often dies young) but the audience is encouraged to see his beautiful soul and his contributions over his sins because that audience is biased before the movie stars by an appreciation for the music.
It's not really the fault of the film if it all follows a predictable script: The screenwriter is beholden to the details of the subject's life and Freddy Mercury is what they had to go with.

Some of these entries (Love and Mercy is a good example) manage to transcend the genre even with figures who fall into the same narrative but Bohemian Rhapsody is largely beholden to the genre. As interesting as Mercury was of a person, the story flattens some of the more interesting chapters of his life by not involving his origin as a Parsi immigrant (his family is largely absent beside the opening chapter) or a promising student. His conflict with his surname and legacy and status as an immigrant is never explored.

Similarly, there was a harmony among the members of the group that is overlooked in the film because conflict is juicier. To what degree were they ok with his gay lifestyle? There are erroneous complaints that the film straight-washes Mercury (not true), but it would be interesting if his band mate's reaction was covered. Similarly, the band was held together because "they were a family" but I was told that more than I was showed it.

Part of the problem is screen time: With his marriage to a woman that fell apart because she was upset with him for being bisexual (it seems that there is a misunderstanding over whether bisexual means faithful), his bandmates, his family, his lecherous manager, his exploration of himself some of these chapters get short shrift.

On the whole, it's certainly watchable but my immediate reaction is it had more unanswered questions than room to fill.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Capsule Reviews: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Killing Eve, and Ozark

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 4A)-
Some of the most memorable episodes of the show came out in this bite-sized six episode sample: Specifically, the one where Lily turns a tech conference into an orgy and Lily goes toe to toe with her late lover's daughter for her inheritance (I guess Carol Kane is the MVP).

Like Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's other project, 30 Rock, there seems like an unspoken centrifugal force in this universe that wants to keep its four principal characters from finding any sort of permanent comfort. Kimmy switches projects from working at a start up to writing a childrens book and Titus goes from executive producer of The Capist to high school drama teacher to landing an acting gig. Titus as a showbiz personality is more conducive to the gig economy while Jackie and Kimmy are being whiplashed a bit more inorganically to fit the template. Still, knowing what I'm in for at this point leads to easier suspension of disbelief.

The shortened season feels like I just got an appetizer-sized portion than a full meal which is why it might not make my top ten.

Killing Eve-I can understand why this show is a critical darling and I wanted to like it too. It was slick and stylized; it offered an engaging and tight plot; and an even better lead. Sandra Oh's Eve Polastri doesn't have an overriding gimmick (like say, autistic in The Good Doctor, an a-hole in House, or victim in Jessica Jones) but she's pretty intriguing in a lot of subtle ways: As an Asian-American in a man's field, she's a fish out of water in more ways than one; she's outspoken but not in a way that feels inorganic, and she's legitimately uneasy because she is not field-tested.

On the other end of the spectrum is a psychopathic serial assassin who's meant to be a doppelganger. She's an intriguing villain but like Francis Underwood in House of Cards, she does so much bad that you start getting invested in wanting to see her punished. The problem is the show doesn't really treat her like a serial killer. Either that or they have massive strokes of stupidity when trailing her. In one episode, Eve's colleague follows her into a nightclub unarmed without even calling for back up. Later on, they go after her without even carrying any weapons? The last episode I watched featured our heroine twice facing our villain unarmed without defensive measures. Villanelle's colleagues are equally ridiculous around her.

As far as I can tell, the show isn't about catching a killer as it is exploring Eve's relationship with the killer. She was singled out in-universe for her fascination with Villanelle and the show's overtones are a bit Hitchcock/Cronenberg. The scenes with Eve and her colleagues meeting Villanelle face-to-face recall the Seventh Seal without the ghastly imagery: facing death personified. 

However, it sure is awkward when the rest of the show aims for a more gripping form of realism.

Ozark (though Episode 8)-Shows like Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and The Americans have led to a popularization of the notion that great TV is about characters being irrationally ordered to do impossible things from all sides. 

Take Ozark as an example:
A) The cartel holds Marty Byrde responsible for the Snells when its pretty nonsensical to think that Byrde can control a pair of criminals who are often hell-bent to doing the polar opposite of what would be prudent.
B) Wilkes (along with cartel pressure) wants the Byrdes to single-handedly change the voting of the entire Missouri legislature by upending nearly every other player in the state. 
C) Meanwhile one unchecked agent, Petty, is abusing his power in every conceivable way to make life impossible for the Byrdes. Petty's demand of Rachel to get dirt on Marty is pretty impossible to fulfill if Marty's not saying anything
D)  On top of that, there are a number of wildcards like an ex-pastor who suddenly turn murderous, because of course he does. Rather than think strategically, he instead makes a superfluous demand --he wants his son back in less than 24 hours or else Wendy is dead-- which isn't realistic considering the speed of bureaucracy. 

The tension on this show has gone from satisfying to an adrenaline high. At what point, however, does the show's credibility cancel out any gains? The second season is imminently watchable because watching characters maneuver out of tight situations is as hard to turn away from as an explosion or fight scene or juicy romance. But could the show be made better if it wasn't based on contrivances? As sacrilegious as it is to take shots at the above-mentioned shows, I blame the effect of the three shows above for setting such a template and having the flaws in those shows go unexamined.
Another question at stake is the intrigue of the anti-hero which has played out in many shows including the ones listed above. Through several of the episodes, Marty made the flimsy justification (overtly or tacitly) that he was protecting his family but what about the costs to other people's families? How would FBI protection not protect his family? It wasn't until the very end of Breaking Bad that Walter White came to terms with his selfishness. The Americans had a pair of complicit anti-heroes coming to terms with it in opposite ways which remained something that enriched the show greatly in later seasons.

Marty started out this season as a zombie of sorts: He turned his moral barometer off and retained a tunnel vision on his goal imagining his river boat casino would liberate him. The more interesting version of the show has come in the past couple of episodes as he started to veer off his original course with acknoweledgement to the consequences for Wyatt, Julie, and Rachel (the only characters worth caring about when this show is at its least interesting).
I'm on episode 8. Let's see where this show ends up.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Fun Summer Movies are No Longer an Option, Are They?

For all the evidence you need that the days of leaving identity politics out of movie reviews are over, look no further than the critical treatment of two of the most care-free popcorn comedies of the summer over at Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz laments on “Set It Up”, “We never gain a sense of what it means for these two to be in charge of—and yet isolated within—a predominantly white workplace and the film” while “Tag” gets called out by Glenn Kenny as “a lazy, vulgar celebration of White Male American Dumbness.” That the films’ racial politics are prioritized over their aesthetic appeal or even their apolitical contexts shouldn’t surprise any casual consumers of movie reviews lately. 

What was originally intended as a movement for greater inclusivity has made way for a brand of hyper-specific criticism leveled against perceived offenders of progress that has come to dominate entertainment writing. What is desperately needed for consumers and writers in the industry is to consider the effects of having so many critics cluster together on the political spectrum.

In 2007, Ebert himself reviewed the Wes Anderson film “Darjeeling Limited” and praised the film’s “Indian context” noting,“ Anderson and his co-writers Schwartzman and Roman Coppola made a trip through India while they were writing the screenplay. It avoids obvious temptations to exoticism by surprising us.” Anderson’s quirky visual style and life-affirming themes of belonging, however, don’t really register to film critics in 2018 as his potential for creating offense has now been prioritized.

Odie Henderson, writing on the same website writes about his 2018 film:

“Unlike that Roald Dahl adaptation, “Isle of Dogs” does not have a compelling story, and even worse, it has the most egregious examples of its director’s privilege since “The Darjeeling Limited.” .."But as entertaining as it is to look at “Isle of Dogs,” I couldn’t get past Anderson’s usual clumsiness when dealing with minorities. This is a film where a character is literally whitewashed, an act that makes him more agreeable afterwards. “Isle of Dogs” treats this as a sight gag. It plays more like a confession."

Each of these three aforementioned film reviews has a problematic dichotomy that begs for a critical examination of its own.

When Seitz notes in his review on “Set it Up,” that the “film plays differently on characters who are African-American and Chinese-American, and therefore had to fight their way into a corporate workplace that welcomed most white people of a certain social class” he either egregiously assumes that all African-Americans and Chinese-Americans followed the same path of struggle or erroneously posits that every film must represent the quintessential member of the minority they depict on screen. This flies in the face of decades of cultural writing that advocates for putting people of color in leadership positions without portraying it as a big deal.

“Tag”, is a similarly innocent comedy about a group of adult friends who have played the playground game continuously for 30 years. Kenny writes: “No one should be surprised, I think, to learn that the actual group of men on which this movie is based are in fact all white. It’s not so much that I’m under the impression that tag is a game most sensible persons of color might consider corny. It’s more that, well, try to imagine a group of African American men feeling safe enough to play "adult" tag at their places of work or various other public spaces. You get the idea?" Kenny is now calling any film that features white people on screen having fun without overtly commenting on racial relations in the U.S. racially insensitive. By that same logic, is Ed Helms’ character required to comment on the Flint Water crisis or the lack of drinking water in the Third World when he gets thrown into a pool?

Henderson’s review of “Isle of Dogs” first and foremost attempts to posit Wes Anderson as a controversial figure when no such controversy existed. In addition to Roger Ebert’s neutral review on the film’s cultural context, a glance at Rotten Tomatoes shows a general critical consensus that took issue with the film’s redundancy but had no such issue with Wes Anderson’s whiteness. In contrast, Henderson never gives Wes Anderson the wiggle room to safely delve into the territory of the Japanese director he’s trying to pay homage to in the film. His review echoes those accusing Anderson of sloppy cultural appropriation which is part of the newfound trend of narrowly defining cultural appropriation as a red flag signaling malicious intentions despite the fact that many have pointed out cultural appropriation has been a necessary ingredient of cultural development that has rarely discriminated between oppressor or oppressed.

This is just the tip of the ice berg for some essays I'm trying to write at the moment following my publication last year film criticism being overly based on identity politics. I look forward to continuing to publish more.