Sunday, November 10, 2019

NOSTALGIA CRITIC'S (finger quotes) "REVIEW" of "PINK FLOYD: THE WALL": REFLECTIONS ON AN EPIC REVIEW FIASCO.




Oh Christ.

(Sigh)

You know, much like many people, I was very much hoping to never talk about Doug Walker and the Nostalgia Critic again. I guess I always suspected that that would be impossible, but-eh, yeah, like many of his critics and other contemporaries, yeah, I’ve come to the same conclusion that we do indeed need to talk about this.

Okay, first background. I’ve written on Nostalgia Critic and Channel Awesome a couple times in the past, even once having one of my commentaries on the site’s downfall published on Age of the Nerd. 

https://www.ageofthenerd.com/2018/04/channel-awesome-pocalypse-some-thoughts-the-latest-news-and-updates-for-channel-awesome/

For those who aren’t familiar, Doug Walker performs as the Nostalgia Critic and does these humorous critical reviews of pop culture’s past. He was essentially the film equivalent of the Angry Video Game Nerd and had-, well technically he still has it, a successful website called Channel Awesome that him and several other internet pop culture critics would post their reviews under the same banner. Unfortunately, for reasons that are way too long to explain right now, that idealized Channel Awesome brand has been heavily tarnished in the last years and basically Channel Awesome is down to Nostalgia Critic and Brad Jones, aka The Cinema Snob, and for very legitimate reasons, him and many of the few people still involved with Channel Awesome behind-the-scenes are very heavily disliked by the majority of the internet review community, especially the majority of their former contributors.

There’s tons of articles and pieces on many of the reasons why this is and documented testimony from several of CA’s former contributors. Somebody even made a feature-length film about it on Youtube...,  You can all seek those pieces out yourselves if you’re not familiar with some of the egregious behaviors and practices that Channel Awesome has done.(Search #ChangeTheChannel, google docs, perhaps check out this movie from Cinematic Venom.)  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcEJJpt3Y5k

I don’t honestly want to get into that anymore, except to say that as somebody who was/is a fan of the Nostalgia Critic, as a reviewer and critic first and second as a comedic character, these revelations have tarnished my thoughts on him and several of the people who continue to work with him or associate with him. That’s not to say that I haven’t seen a few of his reviews and videos since these revelations, but I’ve skipped most of them in recent months...- and well over a year in fact and I don’t follow Channel Awesome on Youtube anymore for updates, so I haven’t kept up with whatever he’s been doing in the last year as closely as I used to. (I think I watched his "Siskel & Ebert" Top Ten List, which I originally found him years ago, when I found his original Siskel & Ebert piece. If he happens to talk about something that really peaks my interest, I might check him out, but that's few and far between these days.)  

So, when I first heard some rather innocuous notes about him doing a bad review of something this time, I kinda just dismissed it at first. Quality-wise I’ve never actually thought his reviews actually varied as wildly as some of his more harshest critics claim, but I was just sorta done with him and didn’t think anything of it. Then, I kept seeing people talking about it, his review of the movie, “Pink Floyd’s The Wall” several people and several people who I wouldn’t normally expect to comment on this at all.

(Sigh)

Maybe it’s just the subject matter, I thought. Angry Pink Floyd fans protesting or something? Still though, there was too many commenting and people I respect too who I would normally think wouldn't be interested enough to care. (When Anthony Fantano of "The Needle Drop" commented, that caught me attention, and I don't even usually watch him, but I do know to pay attention when he comments, and yeah, if he's talking about it; I figure, eh, maybe I need to as well. BTW, I haven't watched any other critical review of the review though, outside of internet comments, I've seen they exist, but I haven't watched.) so, yes, I watched the review, reluctantly. Mostly to say I did, I figured post something snarky on Twitter about it, and then never mention it again. 

Um..., yeah, unfortunately this is bad. Particularly bad. Unusually bad, and yeah, I think even several of his defenders, however many are left have kinda bailed on this one.

(Sigh)

Okay, I've got a lot of thoughts on this, and I'm trying to contextualize all of them. This might come off a bit scattered, this critique, or a review that's already scatterbrained, but I'm gonna to explain how I'm approaching this, 'cause I do come at this from a few different directions, so... 

Let's start with this, I’ve seen the movie before. I’ve listened to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album on a few occasions and I own copies of a couple Pink Floyd album and am very familiar with their music; I can reasonably call myself a major Pink Floyd fan. That said, personally, I kinda do get where he’s trying to come from here, ‘cause I don’t actually love “The Wall” that much.

I think it works best as a stage spectacle, and I do love several of the songs on the album, a few of them like “Comfortably Numb” and “Is There Anybody Out There” are some of my favorite Pink Floyd songs, but I actually can’t stand listening to the whole album. I think there is some filler, even if conceptually it's pretty evocative and interesting, but it’s way too long and without the imagery to coincide with the songs, I don’t think the album improves on repeated listens. I like it fine, it's a good, maybe even a very good album, but I don't think it's as great as many others do. When it comes to Pink Floyd, I’m team “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here”, all the way. As for the movie “The Wall”, eh, I kinda have similar thoughts. While I don’t think it’s an outright bad movie, and I can see how certain people can view it as great, Roger Ebert for instance, makes a really good case for it as an ultimate depiction of what Truffaut would call, "The Agony of making cinema". 

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-pink-floyd-the-wall-1982

Ironically, that's one of my defenses for why I like "To Boldly Flee" much more than Walker's other two anniversary movies...- but, anyway, the point I'm making is that, I think there’s plenty of room for legitimate criticism of it, even in comedic parody reviews to be helmed from it.

All that said,- I don’t have any frickin’ clue what to make of Nostalgia Critic’s review of it. 

It’s just so, bizarre-, it’s not-,there's a lot of levels, and I'm not gonna cover all of it; I'm late to this party, and I'm certain others have already said most of the major criticisms of it by now, even how badly he's misinterpreted the meanings of the lyrics, which-, he might be doing on purpose, I don't know-, but I do have a few things I want to say about this, 'cause as bad as this is, and yes, make no mistake about this review, this is terrible on every level, but..., um...- 
  
Okay, look, I'm just gonna roll a lot of thoughts out there, some of them are contradictory and perhaps hypocritical, which considering Walker, shouldn't be surprising or anything. I mean, first thing is, I’m not against non-traditional criticisms or reviews. I mean, hell, online video critical reviews are already a form of a non-traditional critical analysis to begin with. Not all movie reviews have to follow any stringent form of a cohesive structure. Off the top of my head, I can think of several famous Roger Ebert reviews that broke with the format and structure of a traditional movie review. He even wrote reviews in the form of a song parody too. Look up his review of “Wet Hot American Summer” if you don’t believe me which was done as a parody of Allan Sherman's "Hello, Muddah, Hello Fuddah,", or “Garfield 2: A Tale of Two Kitties” which was done in the form of a fictitious interviews with the animated titular cat, or his great movie review of “Pulp Fiction” which is actually written with the same non-linear narrative structure as the film. I’ve written several reviews that differ wildly from the norm. Hell, I wrote multiple reviews of “The Hunger Games” movies in the form of a pro wrestling promo, because I wanted to insinuate just show how much the franchise appeared to be lifting from the narrative structure, story structure and in some cases, actual famous plot elements from famous pro wrestling storylines.

You do this long enough, you begin to play and toy with the structure of a typical review once in a while. So this isn’t an issue with Nostalgia Critic doing a non-conventional review, Or non-conventional for him for that matter, ‘cause he’s done several musical reviews before and several that focused primarily on sketches as opposed to just giving a straight-away review before and no, I may think some of those personally vary in quality, I never came out of  any of those reviews of his before, and genuinely didn’t know whether or not I was even watching a review. That was always, always clear!

Like I've said, I never came at Nostalgia Critic from the perspective that I wanted to see something funny; I always came at him as a critic, ‘cause that’s what I was seeking out. Him being funny was and still is secondary to me. This however, I mean, he does give a very minor sentence or two of his thoughts on whether he likes it, but even with that, I’m honestly not that sure I know whether or not he even likes the movie! I knew he cared more about the making funny videos part of videomaking, but I never saw it on the screen until now, not in his reviews anyway. Like, I knew he’s trying to make a review in the form of a parody of the film, and maybe he succeeded in that respect, ‘cause “The Wall” as a movie is also a bit of an eccentric and elaborate mess; but the film was also apparently a nightmarish disjointed disaster of a production to make and it feels like a torturous exercise to watch, and that's why it's compelling. For Walker however, this was not a torturous production. This was elaborate, it was expensive to make, he had named collaborators, he had all the tools to make it, and it doesn’t seem or feel like he had any real trouble making it. He even had extra songs and materials, enough to put out an album from Rob Scanlon, but, there’s no real pain or agony; I’d call it Truffaut’s “Joy of Filmmaking” but considering Walker’s past MOs and work, I feel like this is the “Blissful Ignorant Joy of Filmmaking.” 

That said, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to go after him for this,- I mean for this alone, there's other reasons of this being bad to trash him, but I think we’ve all at some point or another had that feeling while creating something. Admit it, we’ve all had a project or two that we all thought was going to be the best thing ever and when/if it ever comes out, everyone else and possibly you at some point, realize just how bad, troubling, disturbing, or all three of those it actually is. I know I’ve had several, abandoned screenplays, movie reviews I wish I could take back; I’m sure if somebody wanted to they can seek out several different blogposts of mine that qualify, many of which I’d probably agree with them on it. I have no idea whether or not Doug Walker has realized the error of his hubris on “The Wall”, (Probably not)  but if he hasn’t yet, perhaps he will soon, because here’s the thing, the question I’m wondering the most is, “Why did he do this?”

You don’t go through all this and not have a reason to, right? I hope not at least, ‘cause if there was no reason for him to make this, then, what did he just do? Did he really just put all this time and energy into a review of something that he really didn’t have anything to say or discuss regarding it? Even the reviews of his I hate the most never had that. 

Or perhaps, it’s, as many have suspected, that Walker just wants to do sketches and skits in his videos more than reviewing movies and other pop culture ephemera and he thought this would be a way to do it?

Okay, I will concede that that’s probably true. From what I can tell, from a content perspective, the biggest criticism made about Nostalgia Critic’s work, in particular his recent work, is that he now includes way too many sketches in his reviews instead of in his earlier work, where, while there would always be funny bits and asides, he would mostly stick to simply reviewing the movie as an over-the-top comedic monologue. So, that’s the big question that separates people on him as a reviewer/content creator, do you like his sketches or not?

(Very long pause, scratches head, sighs).

I’ll be blunt, usually, I'm okay with them. Even up to the part where I stopped watching him; sometimes they made me laugh, occasionally they didn’t, sometimes I’d prefer to skim or skip over them, but generally, I was okay with them and never really saw a big problem with the sketches. Mainly because, and this is important, they were done within the framing of a review. If you didn’t think they were funny, fine; I didn’t think they were always funny either, and when they were on their own and he was left to his own devices like in his other notorious flop, “Demo Reel”, yeah, they can be bad. But, I always took them as simply another part of the review, something to add to or place within the context of whatever he’s talking about. In that context, I usually thought they worked fine. It’s the framing device that to me, makes them work…, usually. He usually had a point to them.

And also, I think his defense of them was actually really strong. In his review of “Christmas with the Kranks” he actually takes on the people who make this criticism of him, as he decides to review that movie without any of the extra stuff that his-then typical reviews had and do a review in the same old-style that he used to do, when he first started out with basically just a camera, a basement wall and some clips. He showed how and why it made no sense to continually keep him locked in the aesthetic and approach to film reviewing he had years ago, when he was just starting out, broke, didn’t have the best equipment or ability to do more than just, talk to the screen, and add some minor effects, and no actors or anything else. I understand that. I don’t write movie reviews the way I did ten years ago, why should he? Honestly, I think the argument that he uses too many sketches is kind of a dumb one, even if the argument is that, “They’re not funny,” that might be true, but they can just easily have a larger point regardless and as a tool for a review, I’ve been okay with that; I’ve never honestly thought that that was something he should be knocked for. If anything, I suspect that the people who criticize them more-or-less are more on side of the Nostalgia Critic then they realize, 'cause what they're essentially saying is that, they want him to do more of the actual, movie reviewing. Cause, that's what he does; he's a critic. He might be a character, but that's also his job! He watches and then he comments, reviews and criticizes what he's watched. That's why I stick with contextalizing him as a critic, and not as a character. 

At least, that was the reason I can give to defend them…, until now anyway. Cause that framing device, is not in this review. At all. This isn’t a review. It’s completely lacking in wit, in commentary, in criticisms even, and any observations and thoughts there are are all hidden under these pretentions. (Like, why is it a clipless review to begin with? It's not like his reviews of movies that are still in theaters, I get why those are clipless, why is this one of a 37-year-old movie that's readily available, clipless? I mean, you can still do the musical parody, just have clips as well.)

I don’t know; I will say that he was at least ambitious. The ambition just makes it worst, but at least he had that, and whatever he wants to say, it seems like he’s saying it with conviction? Perhaps he feels that it all just went right over our heads? Fair enough, the actual movie kinda went over mine.

Actually, no, I don’t think I can even give him that. This was just inexcusable. Walker's biggest problem,- well, he's got a lot of problems as we've now found out, but his biggest problem as a performer has always been that he's wildly misinterpreted his own strengths and he doesn't truly understand what the appeal of him actually is. 

In both a review, and a comedy sketch, you have to have a point of view and it has to be clear, regardless of whatever else you’re doing. Audience may agree or disagree with it, but it has to be pointed; despite how some wish to believe, we aren’t unbias and we can’t review as though we are. Even a neutral perspective is a bias one. Comedy and satire in particular are especially bias if they’re to be any good at all. Which is really why, Nostalgia Critic’s review of “The Wall” doesn’t work. It’s not any of these things. It’s not a critique, a review, a celebration, a piece of admiration, it’s not even fan service as far as I can tell. It’s that rare piece of high-budget, excess gone away from its creator, art that’s truly visionless. He had nothing to say, he had nothing to comment or criticize. He did it because...- I- I don't know, he got the guy from Slipknot to be a video of his and he needed to come up with something for him to do. If anybody's got a better explanation, I'd be happy to hear it. (Actually, no I wouldn't I take that back.) 

And, I can see how it’s easy to use this review as a metaphor for Doug Walker and Channel Awesome as a whole. The ability and means to do whatever they wanted and as well as they could, and yet they still manage to ostracize everyone and turn everybody off because of their single-minded and simple objective, of just being famous for making videos online. Well, maybe that’s appropriate. He made a forty-minute mind-numbing aimless review of a 40-year-old movie, that was based on a 40-year-old live show, that was based on a 40-year-old album, and nobody knows why he did it or what he was trying to say about it, and the few things he tried to say showed that he totally misunderstood and misinterpreted the context of the material. 

(Sigh) 

It's bad, but can I ask all of you to do me a favor anyway: if ever I write any piece or review that's as bad as Nostalgia Critic's "The Wall" review, just let me know. (And I mean, "IN THE FUTURE". As much as I'd appreciate the hits, don't go searching through my catalogue to seek out bad work from me. I know there's bad work there, I don't think this bad, but I'm my worst critic. Trust me, the bad pieces from my past haunt me enough, but, in the future...) Cause, it's not fair to just throw this all onto Walker's supposed lack of talent or awareness, 'cause, first of all he is talented, (which makes this failure worst btw) second, he's always lacked self-awareness, so that itself isn't new, but third and most importantly, it can happen to anyone. The idea that this is specifically limited to him, because it's him, that I'm just not buying. Nobody bats a thousand, no matter how talented we are, for whatever reasons possible, we are all capable of creating bad, maybe not all of us, this bad, but still, pretty bad. 

I mean, I can see it. I can see how this got away from him. An idea starts out somewhere good, and you start thinking more and more of it, and you keep adding to it and shaping it, reworking, re-editing, you even get others on board to help out with it, but you miss something important. You don't realize it, you may think you even have it already, and that you actually have thought it through, but you didn't, or you did, but it's not as much as you thought it was, and you have other things you want to add on top. You then want to bounce off that one idea to get to another idea so you have to sacrifice parts of that first idea, and that's because ideas evolve; you might start off from one point and then, end up at a different point, and that's okay, that idea might be stronger and creativity works that way sometimes...- 

From a creative standpoint, there's nothing wrong with any of this, in theory. Do a review of "Pink Floyd's The Wall"? That's not a bad idea. Do it as a musical parody, again, not a bad idea. Get a rockstar on hand and criticize the movie by parodying scenes from it? Questionable, but it's doable, and it fits the movie he's reviewing. Creating an album of songs for the review? Do it as a parody album to Pink Floyd's "The Wall"? That's getting a bit ambitious, but again, this isn't impossible to do well. Get some animation to go with parts of it? That's not easy, but it's clever and also, not a bad idea at all. Do it as a clipless review? Well, I mean, you could do that, although I'm not entirely sure why you would since it's an old movie that's readily available and not in theaters, but if you have a strong vision and a strong idea...- wait, you do have a strong vision and a strong idea, right? You do have a reason for this idea, you have something to say about the film, right? Other than just, to quote Doug Walker directly, "I liked it fine. A little full of itself, but good music and imagination." I mean, there's nothing wrong with that opinion; it's basically my opinion of "The Wall" too, but I'm not putting all this time, money and energy into saying that. So, was there something more to it then that?

I'm not defending Walker here, I'm just saying that, it's an easier trap to fall into than people might think, and I myself recognize the some of the hallmarks of that creative process failing that seem eerily similar some of my own failed project ideas. So, to me, Nostalgia Critic's review of "The Wall" should be a warning to others; to not only make sure you know what you're doing, but also why you're doing it, and why you're doing it the way you're doing it. It's a failure of the creative process; his specifically, but it's not like he's the only one who could fail this way. I've made this mistake; others way more talented than me have made this mistake. So, I hope if we get anything from this; I hope we get that.

Not that we needed another reason to not be like Doug Walker anymore, but, for a different reason now. 

Sunday, November 3, 2019

MOVIE REVIEWS #162: "US", "GLASS", "FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY", "ANNIHILATION", "GAME NIGHT", "THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST", "THE CAKEMAKER", "OH, LUCY!", "SCIENCE FAIR", "WHAT THEY HAD", "THOR: RAGNAROK", "MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER", "THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARSHA P. JOHNSON", "APOSTASY", and "EARTH: ONE AMAZING DAY"!

Sorry I'm late on the movie reviews. I've been busier and more tired then normal lately, and I'm still catching up on a few things, so there's not too much to actually talk about at the moment. I'll let everyone know when I'll get around to the OYL Awards either on Twitter or Facebook, as well as here.

I guess there's a couple movies of interest that I'm not reviewing yet, one of them is the "Mindhorn" a popular comedy film in the UK about a former huge actor from like a really bad cheesy '80s, action-mystery series, like-a, think like "Magnum P.I." meets "The Six-Million-Dollar Man" but it takes place in one of those old broad British comedy country series like "Keeping Up Appearances" or "Last of the Summer Wine" world. Anyway, it's like thirty years later, his attempts to make it big in Hollywood failed gloriously and now a real crime spree is occurring and the mentally unstable suspect is insisting to talk to the fictional character he used to play. That's not a bad concept, and there's some funny jokes, but I can see why it didn't catch on with American audiences, even cult American audiences like say Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge seems to do, or "Absolutely Fabulous" seems to keep on doing despite that show's sell-by date being like, eh, fifteen years too late over here. I guess the American version of this would be "MacGruber", and I enjoyed that film fine when I watched it, but I've never given it another thought since, and I kinda have the same reaction to "Mindhorn". Also, the secret best version of this plot is the obscure TV pilot, "Lookwell" that starred Adam West as a former Jack Webb-type TV detective who decides to become an actual cop. It's hard to find, but seek that out; it was written by Robert Smigel and Conan O'Brien btw, worth the search.

I guess I saw one or two other things of note; I liked the documentary, "When Two Worlds Collide" about the fight in Peru to protect indiginuous parts of the rainforest being used for oil drilling. "A Family Affair" is a pretty interesting doc about the filmmaker looking into a distant, obscure relative that he has only known about at the fringes of family lore that he hasn't been talked about; it kinda has a Doug Block feeling about it. That said, this has been a bit of a mostly  slow week of movies for me, which sounds like it's good for me but it means, I often don't have much to say positively or negatively much of the time, which is actually harder to write.

Anyway, let's get to the reviews!


US (2019) Director: Jordan Peele

★★★★★



Jordan Peele's, "Us" the most annoying movie for search engines since "It", is his follow-up to "Get Out" which I was utterly fascinated by. "Us", is another rare horror movie that I'm fascinated by. Mostly I'm fascinated by Jordan Peele, who's comedy background has proven to not only give a new, much-needed edge new storytelling dimension to horror, but also his own background as he does what the greatest of writer/directors do, they introduce us to themselves. "Get Out" was great in part because only Jordan Peele could've come up with it. "Us" is great in pretty much the same way, for the same reasons; it's a story that only he I feel was uniquely qualified to come up with.

Although in this case, it doesn't entirely feel that way at first. I mean, the idea of the bad guy being, well, "Us", our ourselves, is not exactly new. In fact, it's probably one of the most overused conceits in horror and sci-fi and a lot of others genres. Then again, many of the threats in "Get Out" were well-worn cliches too, but they weren't in that movie and they aren't here. There's always something else going on in Peele's films, more than that, he always, always, has something to say, something that too many movies in this genre generally don't.

The movie takes place mostly around the Santa Cruz boardwalk. At first, in the '1986 around the time of the "Hands Across America" thing, There, we meet young Adelaide (Madison Curry) who gets lost at the local amusement part for the briefest of moments and wanders into the Hall of Mirrors, where, apparently, she finds a dobbleganger of herself. I know, it's the Hall of Mirrors, but yes, a dobbleganger.

Years later, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) has a family of her own, and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) decides to take the the family to their beach house residence near the same area, along with their friends Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss). She's got kids of her own now, an athletic track star daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and a young son, named Jason (Evan Alex), who's about the same age his mother was when she had the strange encounter. Now that they're back at the same boardwalk and amusement area and beach, strange coincidences begin occurring. Jason, for instance, gets lost for a brief moment just like his mother did, but doesn't seem to be too traumatized, despite an unusual piece of art that he drew. It's around this time when their home, and apparently everybody's home begins to get invaded by mysterious groups of people. All wearing red jumpsuits, almost all of them seeming superstrong and superhuman, all usuing a pair of scissors as a weapon of choice. And, apparently, they all seem to not like rabbits.

The rabbit motif is just as surreal as anything. One of the early shots on the movie is a long take of a brown bunny, that's surrounded by white bunnies. Not the only time the movie reminds me of a Charlie Chaplin reference either, (There's a famous shot in "Modern Times", I believe of a single black sheep amongst a stampede of white ones.) as it seems like one of the, eh, "Us", I guess these dopplegangers are called, seems to have tried ballet at one point, somehow, and is able to use those skills to help fight off attacks, that reminded me of how W.C. Fields used to call Charlie "That goddamn ballet dancer." I don't think Chaplin is the real inspiration though, although it's fascinating to look around and see all of the strange items and signs and unique references in "Us". I haven't investigated it, but I'm sure the internet is full of dozens of theories about "Us", and what everything means. I'm say this, I'm not normally one for decoding movies, even David Lynch movies I think are often better left unanalyzed, but I did seek out stuff for "Get Out", and I'm excited to look up stuff for "Us" as well. The production design of the film, the specific outfits, the signs, even fleeting Bible references are fascinating to me. Why a putter and a crystal as weapons at one point? I think "Get Out" will inevitably have more of a long-lasting impact as it really introduced us to a kind of horror that we hadn't seen before and one that had such a distinctive thing to say about ourselves and the relationship between people in America from and of different classes and race and how they interact with each other. There are some fascinating details here about that, particularly during one frightening and hilarious sequence where the songs "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys and "Fuck Tha Police" by N.W.A. are used as direct contrasts depending on whether a white family or a black family is protecting a house from these invaders.

That's the greatest appeal I can give a current filmmaker, that after their films, I can't wait to look deeper into their work and find out more about it. I felt that with "Get Out" and I feel that with "Us" and well, and I give that credit to Jordan Peele.


GLASS (2019) Director: M. Night Shaymalan

★★1/2

Image result for gLASS film

WHAT IN THE FUCK!?!?!?!?!!?!?!?!?!?!...-

Really, this is where it…-

(Sigh)

Alright, I need to back up. Let’s start at the beginning. In the year 2000, fresh off M. Night Shaymalan’s breakthrough feature “The Sixth Sense,” he made a follow-up movie that I frankly liked a lot better called “Unbreakable”. It wasn’t as a huge a hit in comparison, and it’s marketing kinda played a swerve on us originally; Quentin Tarantino has often said that if that movie was marketed with the tagline, “What if Superman, doesn’t know that he’s Superman,” the movie would’ve been more wildly acclaimed. I have no idea if that’s true, but to me, it’s part of Shaymalan’s trilogy of films along with the aforementioned “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs” that really put him, for awhile, at the forefront of the horror genre.

However, he spent much of the next decade turning into a punchline. Basically, he loved using the twist ending plot device in his films, and eventually it kinda stopped being good when he used it, and by eventually, I mean, “The Village”, and pretty much most everything else he did afterwards. Now, I never thought that diminished his original three's, eh, grrr-eat?, let’s call them, overrated-but-good, underrated-but-not-great and I-get-why-people-don’t-like-it-but-it’s-still-his-best films, but it was clear this Shaymalan style of storytelling, well, let’s just say that the audience had generally evolved past it.

Now, during that same time period, was the rise of our modern, big-budget Hollywood superhero genre that we all have been suffering through ever since, and in that light, “Unbreakable” had periodically become more and more popular among certain kinda of film nerd. If you’re somebody who may have listed “Unbreakable” on a Top Ten List of Best Superhero movies, possibly just to be snarky, you might be apart of this crowd. Admittedly, I probably would’ve been, although I’m not certain I would’ve always thought about “Unbreakable” as a superhero movie, so, maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t; that would’ve depended on the time period and how much time and focus I would’ve decided to give that question, which most of the time would’ve been, not much.

Now, fast forward to a couple years ago and Shaymalan has started to recover and expand his directing voice and interest beyond his more cliched and traditional scope. He had a minor critical and popular hit with a found footage horror movie that wasn’t too bad, and frankly I always thought horror was a strange pigeonholing of genre; he kinda stumbled into that genre being popular for him and stuck with it, but I always got the sense that he probably had more stories to tell in other genres, but never really got the chance. It’s around this time that he releases “Split” a movie that, frankly I hated for being badly cliched and trivial, despite a strong performance by James McAvoy that garnered some award attention. The movie did one nice trick, and that was a post-credits scene that shockingly revealed that “Split” was in fact a sequel to “Unbreakable”, something that was not promoted nor really hinted at until the final scene. I’ve made my stance on how I’m basically just done with stupid post-credit scenes in movies now, especially comic book movies, but I gotta admit, this was ironically the one unique and clever thing in the movie, so I gave it a pass. I wonder how many people went into the film and didn’t get the reference since I’m not entirely sure “Unbreakable” remained as much in the public conscious as other movies from nearly twenty years ago, but I still considered it kinda fascinating that he took a completely different approach to making a sequel and didn’t tip his hand that that’s what we were watching until the end. I still don’t like “Split”, but I did think was very compelling world-building that he was doing, and yeah, if I was him, as I was going to do this, “Unbreakable” is the movie that it makes the most sense to do it with.

So, now we get, “Glass”, the third in this series, and now the first movie that we know is absolutely apart of this, franchise. Let’s review, the titular Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) was arrested and under psychiatric care for a home for the criminally insane by David Dunn (Bruce Willis). Dunn, now known as either, The Green Ghost or The Overseer, has become something of a vigilante as it’s now become clear that while Glass will continue to experience a lifetime of pain from his condition that makes his bones extremely fragile, Dunn, is damn-near invincible as a Philadelphia security expert who protects the city from the scum of the street, using his extra-sensory skillset. We find out here, that he used this most recently to capture, The Horde (McAvoy) a zoo worker who suffers from Disassociative Identity Disorder and has used those several identities to injure, capture and kill, mostly young high school women. Although one girl, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) who was able to ward him off through her power, um, extreme love and empathy…- I’m not exactly sure what her power-, like it’s somewhere between being a teenage Wonder Woman and Fay Wray; I think? Whatever she is, she the diametric opposite of Horde and all his personalities; I’m not going into all of them.

Anyway, all these characters end up at the criminally insane hospital under the care of a Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulsen) who is convinced that believing one is a superhero, is a particular kind of delusion and psychosis and decides to study it using these subjects, all of whom, to one degree believe are superhero, or supervillains, respectively, although that term is never used. Humans with superpowers, I should say, although she strives to convince them that their strengths are just a manifestation of their own desires as well as an accentuated frontal-lobe activity.

Okay, I don’t know where or how one decides to want to study this, but my alarm bells were ringing pretty early that this was suspect, and I wasn’t alone as Glass, begins executing a diabolical escape plan that involves escape to a new skyscraper opening and blowing the building up.

There’s a few reasons this doesn’t completely work, but the main reason is, comic books. Seriously comic books. See, one of the things that makes “Unbreakable” great is that you didn’t know going in that it was essentially a superhero origin story, and despite what Tarantino said, I’d argue that that might’ve been the biggest strength of the movie. Shaymalan’s best skill is that while his stories often deal with the surreal, the fantasy and the supernatural, he clashes them with a stylized, but usually believable depiction of a real modern world. The reason why “Unbreakable” worked wasn’t that Glass’s ridiculous theories about comic books being modern-day depictions of the hidden real amazing experiences of humans turned out to be real, but that two humans in a real world could find out that they are indeed extraordinary. It’s the same logic for why, psychics are probably not real, they do make fascinating subjects for movies, because they’re such a contrast in a modern, realistic world. Think Clint Eastwood’s underrated “Hereafter”. The end of “Glass” however, basically batters us over the head with the opposite, that this isn’t a modern, believable, current world, but instead, a world of superheroes and supervillains that fight each other while both try to control the public in their own way. I honestly, don’t think this would’ve been good, if we weren’t surrounded by superhero movies every week, but it certainly doesn’t work with it. In that sense, I should probably appreciate more aspects of that twist then I should, but this comes off as a cheapening of something that was far more extraordinary to begin with. I could see an argument that this works metaphorically, but I can see an argument for that in most superhero narratives.

“Glass” isn’t a movie that takes the motifs and storytelling devices of comic books to reimagine or reinterpret them in a new or different way like “Unbreakable” did, it’s just a comic book superhero movie, and another one where there’s a bunch of superheroes and supervillains in the same world again. I didn’t like that with any of the “Avengers” movies, and I don’t like it here, but worst than that, I’m disappointed in “Glass”. At least I expected it to some degree that those real comic book movies; they follow comic book logic and rules and that includes their natural storytelling weaknesses as well as their strengths; “Glass” had much more promise to circumvent those weaknesses. Say whatever else you want, there’s a reason why “Unbreakable” as a favorite comic book movie answer was a snarky answer, it was different from everything else in the genre and that’s why it’s held up and remains fondly recalled. Parts of this movie seem to even be going in that direction as you wonder exactly where all this is going, but when you find that you’re just reading another comic book, limited edition or origin story, that disappointment is far worst.
Superheroes are indeed gods in a world full of humans, that’s why they’re so fascinating, but when it’s just superheroes in a superheroes world, then it’s just gods fighting other gods, and there’s nothing good storytelling-wise in that; that’s just watching those who can’t be destroyed, trying to destroy each other.

Dammit, Shaymalan! Why be like those other movies when you can be so good not being those?!


FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) Director: Stephen Merchant

★★★

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So, I am a pro wrestling fan; I haven't exactly watched it on a regular basis in years, certainly not on the level that I used to watch it growing up during the Monday Night Wars, but I do still keep up with it, through other means though. So, when I heard that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has bought the rights of Saraya "Paige" Knight's (Florence Pugh) life and was going to turn it into a movie, it-, well it didn't exactly surprise me, but it certainly caught my attention. I mean, despite all the megasuccess he's had in Hollywood, The Rock is still pretty synonymous with pro wrestling. He's known for surprise appearances on a somewhat regular basis and has even occasionally wrestled a few times over the recent years, but I would say that, up until now, he hasn't exactly done this. He hasn't tried to bring professional wrestling into the more traditional entertainment world of scripted film and television. He's basically been a wrestler who successfully transitioned into acting, and by any standard, way, way, way more successfully than anybody else who's even tried. But yeah, I can think of a couple sports films he's made, but he's kinda avoided the pro wrestling subject until now.

And while the WWE's name is on this movie, because it's too integral into Paige's story to not include their involvement, I don't think they'd ever be able to get someone like Stephen Merchant, the "Hello Ladies," guy, and the co-creator of "The Office", as well as most other Ricky Gervais's projects to come onboard as the writer/director without The Rock putting his name on it. That's a big name in comedy; I can't imagine the production company most famous for "The Marine" movies would've gotten that kind of name alone.

Still, I'm a little surprised that Paige's story is what inspired him to bring a wrestling story to the big screen, but it does make sense, when you consider his background. Like, a lot of professions, especially athletic professions, pro wrestling is known for having a lot of famous pro wrestling families. It makes perfect sense if you think about it; it's a really taxing profession that requires it's performers to be in excellent physical shape to be able to perform on a regular basis the way they do, all year round. Genetics helps, and especially if you're around that world, which historically was pretty hard for outsiders to get into to begin with, you have a tendency to get into it. So, there quite a few family or pro wrestlers out there. Actually, here's a little known fact about Dwayne Johnson, the reason he's called "The Rock" is because he's a 3rd Generation pro wrestler. His father Rocky Johnson, was an elite tag team wrestler in the '70s and '80s, and his grandfather, on his mother's side is Peter Maivia, who was a major wrestling star in America and Oceania during the '60s and early '70s, so when Dwayne Johnson went into wrestling, he went by the name, Rocky Maivia, which eventually got shortened to The Rock. (Also, That's only the beginning of how much wrestling is in his family; he's actually apart of the extended Anoa'i Family of wrestlers which has a long lineage of wrestlers with origins from American Samoa that goes back from even longer and contines all the way to today-, just trust, The Rock is the weird one in his family because he's the one who became the actor.)

So, Paige's story, definitely must strike a nerve to him. I doubt he followed her early career as closely as he claims in this movie, but her story is interesting in of itself for a few reasons. She's the daughter of two wrestlers and promoters, Ricky Knight and Julie "Sweet Saraya" Knight (Nick Frost and Lena Headey) as they promote their own independent promotion based in Norwich, England. Saraya along with her brothers Zak and Roy (Jack Lowden and James Burrows), all of whom are also wrestlers and dream of being in the WWE. Zak and Saraya eventually get a rare tryout when the WWE is in London and Saraya gets invited to go to NXT Developmental in Florida. (Yes, there's minor leagues in pro wrestling too.)

This is interesting narratively for a couple reason. One, the huge switch in environment for young Saraya, who despite being a veteran for like five or six years, was still a teenager, but geographic the shift is severe. Also, however is the contrast with her and the fellow female trainees she's with. So, the WWE at this time, when it came to women's wrestling, Paige was actually a bit of an outlier at the time, because she was a trained wrestler beforehand, which is common now, but previously, for reasons too complicated to even try explaining, it was actually more common for the WWE to hire, former college athletes, cheerleaders, models even, especially fitness models and then train them from scratch to be wrestlers. Now, there's nothing necessarily wrong with this by the way, people start wrestling in all different ways and at different times of their life, but it did mean that, for a while, women's wrestling, at least at the WWE, wasn't necessarily considered of the highest quality for around this time. Paige is actually credited for being one of the big reasons for this shift into a more serious approach to women's wrestling. (I mean, they were called "Divas" at the time, for no real reason.) That said, they do show them all working hard training under Hutch (Vince Vaughn) the main NXT Trainee.

I'm admittedly a little too knowledgable on the subject, for me to fully enjoy this film, I believe. So, I might be a little harsher on this movie than others are. I mean, most of the time, the WWE is under intense scrutiny for legitimate reasons, but the movie shows two things that I haven't seen done well before. One, it shows just how difficult it is to be a pro wrestler. The pain and times it takes, the willingness to accept certain amounts of severe pain, the energy and toll it takes on the body, not to mention on the WWE level, being away from your family and loved ones for most of your time while you're getting thrown onto thumbtacks or taking a bowling ball to your nether-regions every so often. It also shows just why people would put themselves through so much, all for even just a shot at making it to the big time.

Ironically, Paige is actually a pretty good example of what someone's willing and able to put themselves through to be a pro wrestler in both the movie and in real life. She's actually had a bit of a weird career in general in wrestling and personally, but two years ago, she actually had to retire at age 25, due to a severe neck injury. She's still involved in wrestling heavily in other capacities, and might return in the distant future, although the last notable name who came back from her kind of neck injury, took three years to return to action, and from what I've heard, her neck issues are far worse than his. (She also has scoliolis on top of that, which means it's ridiculously weird and amazing that she could wrestle with that kind of condition to begin with.)

That said, I don't think she regrets any of that; it's her dream, the same way any top athlete has to really put the work in to be talented enough to play their sports at the top level, and possibly be somewhat lucky with the genetic makeup to do it.  For showing that as well as any other piece of film, I think "Fighting With My Family" is worth watching, on top of it being fairly entertaining to begin with. It's a cool movie about some interesting characters and it's pretty funny overall. I might be a little more bias against it, but I suspect the less you know about Paige and wrestling going in, the more you'd appreciate this story about her.


ANNIHILATION (2018) Director: Alex Garland

★★★★1/2


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Looking through Alex Garland’s filmography, including his second feature film as a director, “Annihilation”, there seems to be an interesting pattern with work. He obviously is a sci-fi specialist, but more than that, he likes the narrative device of characters leaving one world in order to enter another where they discover something that is, for lack-of-a-better-word, otherworldly. “Ex Machina” saw a character go off to a hard-to-find house in the mountains where an uber-rich internet billionaire had developed the most human robot that ever existed. “Ex Machina” was a helluva movie that had a lot to say about what it was that made us human and while yes, it used the ever-worn example of artificial intelligence for it’s parable, it was still incredibly well-done, especially for a sci-fi film on a budget.

And I like that narrative; especially for world-building narratives ‘cause it’s great for discovery and mystery, two things that usually make for good sci-fi. “Annihilation” is no exception. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist who’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) a military man who, after a mission being missing on a secret mission, suddenly arrives home, and seriously ill. This leads to Lena being taken to what’s described in the film as “Area A”, an outpost outside a mysterious evergrowing space called “The Shimmer” where her husband was apparently the only survivor of his team that was on a mission to investigate the Shimmer.

What is “The Shimmer”…- I’m reluctant to describe or explain exactly what it is, but apparently, whatever it was it started at a lighthouse nears the Gulf Coast, but it’s continued to expand, and whatever it is inside the Shimmer, seems to be destroying whatever is around it, and it encompasses a greater and greater area every day.

Lena is a former soldier herself and with her husband in critical condition and possibly changed forever she decides to tag along on this latest mission inside the Shimmer. An all-female team led by her recruiter and a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh doing a great Robin Wright). Along with Lena are a few other unusual picks, with differing backgrounds, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson), each of whom found their way here through other mysterious means and are now confronted by the Shimmer, what that means, and how they react to it, we’re not certain. We know who doesn’t survive, since the story is interesting told in flashback, in a way that, because it’s Natalie Portman, I couldn’t help but think about how “Jackie” was structured similarly, but tonally, the movie feels more similar to things like Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” or even Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” as one of those films that seeks to use the tools of science-fiction, as well as biology and chemistry and I guess history too, to explore the limits of humankind and what it actually means to be human, or if we are even human to begin with.

There are some great special effects in this movie; “Ex Machima” won a surprise Oscar for it’s effects and “Annihilation”’s effects are just as effective, even if it’s more traditional then “Ex Machima”’s more subtle use of them. The production design also blew may away at many points in the film, and it’s really well directed. Garland uses some recently shots, particularly some intense close-ups and a nice idea he was with framing involving hands and a glass of water. Garland’s interesting since he started out as a novelist and screenwriter before diving into film. He didn’t originate the story for “Annihilation”; it’s based on a book by Jeff Vander Meer, but the movie has a novelistic quality to it, especially in it’s structure. The movie also periodically switches back to before Lena decides to go on this mission and her life with and without her husband at home. There’s also a lovely way that a certain detail about a character is revealed through dialogue, but not through some really obvious means that would normally make that kind of reveal a major plotpoint in of itself. Movies like these tend to be so much about the world that they’re creating that the character dynamics can get lost or simplified to their most basic need for the script purposes. “Annihilation” succeeds not simply because of the ideas behind it, and how well those ideas are brought to the screen, but in how at the center of it are some really interesting and complex characters and seeing how they react to this unusual new stimuli that challenges their very existence.

“Annihilation” didn’t have to be that nuanced and it still would’ve been pretty good, but with these touches, it makes something that could’ve been a decent B-movie and makes far more intriguing and thought-provoking; it’s probably the best sci-fi film I’ve seen since Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival”. Alex Garland’s proven to be one of the most compelling new filmmakers out there and I’m very interested in his next feature. He’s not only extremely talented at several different aspects of filmmaking, but he clearly has one of the most interesting minds for ideas out there, and I want to see what else he can come up with.


GAME NIGHT (2018) Directors: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein

★★1/2


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You know, there's a lot of comedies out there that I think many people end up liking way more than they really should. You know, those kind of films where there's just enough scenes that are actually good, funny and memorable and therefore you like the movie for those few jokes, often ignoring many of the issues with the rest of the movie. Like, I wouldn't call these films cult favorites or anything, or even necessarily bad, but because they make you laugh really hard for a brief moment or two, you kinda just jump in all the way on them. I can honestly think of several broad comedies like this. "Caddyshack" for instance is a movie that has some of the funniest scenes ever put on film, but if you actually follow that movie through, the comedy's sporadic and so varied that the tone is too inconsistent to care, and the narrative thread flings wildly and little-to-nothing gets resolved. Also, "Zoolander", I think is like this. I finally got around to watching that one recently, 'cause I skipped it at the time thinking I'd never have to bother with it, but naturally, over a decade and a half later, the few funny sequences of the movie caught on and now it's got a sequel, and yes, it's got a few jokes that are funny and quotable, and one really funny sequence when there's the model walkoff and the David Bowie cameo. That said, actually sitting through the whole movie now, I basically wonder how this whole thing turned into a movie. (Not to pick on Ben Stiller too much either, but I also kinda always thought "Meet the Parents" fit this as well....)

I'm bringing this up, 'cause I have a feeling that "Game Night" is gonna end up becoming one of those movies as well, a movie that can really be funny and beloved for a couple scenes, but kinda dies out after that. And actually, I'm mentioning this phenomenon to warn myself about this because, this movie in particular...-, well, I just say it; I have a fascination with games. I don't have a game night with friends or anything, although considering how competitive I've been known to be, let's say that that's probably for the best, for me, and everyone else that might be involved. I can't say that idea isn't attractive to me, that an ultra-competitive game night can suddenly turn into some really crazy over-the-top ridiculousness, eh, yeah, I can see that happening. I think it's a bit of a cop out to immediately take that idea and spin it towards murder-mystery night game, since that's been literally done-to-death, but I'll let that go.

Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) are a couple who's whole relationship is based around their love of games and competition; they even met at a Trivia night at a bar. Now, they hold a weekly game night every weekend with their friends, Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kyle Bunbury) as well as the dim-bulbed Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and whoever he's dating that week, in this case, it's Sarah (Sharon Horgan) an Irish co-worker of his as he wants to have a ringer for once. Also this time, Max's older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) is back in town. He's an investment banker in Europe, but he's suddenly back in town and Max's frustrated at his inability to defeat him at anything as he stumbles through the night at games he's usually more adept at. 
The next week, Brooks sets up a murder-mystery weekend where it turns out, he really gets kidnapped. It takes a while for everybody to realize that he was really captured, and things get out of hand from there as real life begins to get abandoned and turns into a rescue mission, or does it? 
Like I said, there's a few scenes here with this conceit that I really like, and I chuckled here and there, and there's some strong cameo supporting work from Jesse Plemons, Chelsea Peretti and Michael C. Hall. That said, I'm sure that's enough.

In fact, I think they kinda missed an opportunity here where they really could've gone all out with this premise, there's so many games that people can be ridiculously competitive at, that kind of conflict over as simple as a game to me is much more interesting and funny then perhaps this murder-mystery-turned real retread. Clever premise but I don't think they took it far enough and strayed a little too far from it.


THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (2018)

★★★1/2

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I’m honestly sorta shocked that I haven’t seen a film about this subject before, told in the way that “The Mideducation of Cameron Post” is trying to tell it. I don’t know exactly when these, “de-gay-ification” centers first started popping up, I’m sure it’s longer than whatever time period I would imagine it started, but they’re genuinely evil. To paraphrase the movie “Saved!”, they exist, not to actually help people from being gay, (obviously, since, news flash, that’s not possible) but in order to extreme right-wing religious parents to send their kids to, because they’re gay. “Saved!” is a very underrated teen comedy that was a satire on the teen comedy genre and on private religious high school and the students, faculty and teachers that go, work and send their kids to such a school, and it’s one of the few movies that I can even think of that even talks about this subject. The only movie that I can think of that takes place at one of these places at all was Jamie Babbit’s camp classic, “But, I’m a Cheerleader”, that’s a sharp comedy satire as well and one that keeps making me seek out Babbit’s later work hoping it would be half as interesting, thoughtful and funny as that film was, which is definitely a habit I really need to break btw. (I still get nightmares about, “Itty Bitty Titty Committee”. I swear, that’s not a porno title, and I don’t care how tempting that movie title is, trust me, it’s bad, just stay away.) Now, I’m all in favor of just straight up making fun of places like these; they should be mocked as much as they are admonished and as much as they should be shut down, but that’s the thing, they do exist; they are real people and real people, real kids, have been forced to go there simply because they’re attracted to their own gender and for some reason, their family thinks that because it was declared a sin in a book written well over a 1000 years before anybody know there were two continents on the other side of the world.

So, there really should be some stories out there talking about the experiences of those who go to places like these. Several really, and not just the surreal and the absurd depictions of places like “God’s Promise” as it’s called here. I mean, of course the surreal and absurd are somewhat inevitable, but there should still be more human stories as well. Realistic tales of places like these, growing up in places like these, people have done this, experienced this, and there stories should be told.

That said, this is not gonna be an easy watch. Yup, the imprisonment, institutionalization and brainwashing of these centers are really much more palatable in episodes of “South Park” then they are in teen dramas like this, but this should be watched anyway. So, Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) is caught making out with a girlfriend Coley (Quinn Shepherd) at her school dance, and she’s sent to “God’s Promise” because of this infraction. Frankly, I like that we just skip right to that part, because I don’t think there’s any benefit to seeing the typical scenes involving her parents that lead to the decision, ‘cause what’s important is that she’s there…. Actually, in this case, Cameron doesn’t have parents; apparently they died when she was young and her Guardian sent her here, which is a bit curious in of itself. The Nurse Ratched of this place is Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) as well as her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.) a converted former gay who seems nice, of course, for somebody who takes away a Breeders cassette and forces unironic Christian Rock on everyone as the only acceptable music. (I can go on a rant on twenty minutes on that alone, but I’m gonna be prophesizing enough here, so I’ll spare that one for another time.)

Anyway, the story is predictable and inevitable. Cameron does begins to make friends, and there’s an eclectic bunch although she finds herself mostly relating to the rebels who’ve found a way to sneak out and grow their own pot to smoke in the cellar or in the woods. Jane (Sasha Lane, who is getting typecast a lot as the exotic, beautiful lesbian friend/girlfriend lately. [Shrugs]) is an amputee commune girl who’s mom’s new husband sent her away, in a homelife that feels very “Fanny & Alexander” to me. And there’s Adam (Forest Goodluck) a Native American wickte (Eh, basically-, an old Native American word for-eh,- somebody with both and male and female spirits present in them…? I guess the word I would best use to compare would be androgyne, if you knew your mythology well.) who’s father converted to Catholicism to run for political office and sent him to the camp since he apparently hurts his campaign. There’s other stories that are similar, and eventually, inevitably, one kid does, exactly what you expect, although probably a more gruesome image than you’d imagine. One that actually seems to start making Reverend Rick reconsider some aspects of his work. During one session that he’s having with Chloe, they’re constantly interviewed in group sessions and solo session about their homosexual tendencies and other therapeutic sessions, and Rick eventually gets challenged by Chloe on what’s happened and he admits to not having any real answers for his behavior and he begins crying in her arms.

The movie was written and director by Desiree Akhavan, who's as much an actress as she is a writer/director, but all her directing projects do deal with people struggling with their evolving sexuality and she’s definitely a strong filmmaker and I’m not at all surprised she took on this project, which was based on a novel by Emily Danforth. That said, while there’s a lot that good about “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”, I do think we get robbed a bit with this film. Now I haven’t read the book, but the movie seems sparse. We get certain images of characters, but not necessarily complete characters. They try, for instance, Erin (Emily Skeggs), Cameron’s roommate at God’s Promise gets a little bit of background about her through flashback and through some of her actions and behaviors with Cameron, they share a couple intimate moments of honesty. You also hear a lot about Mark (Owen Campbell) in group therapy. There’s a montage of Cameron going through the rooms and reading everyone’s iceberg, which is a metaphoric picture the camp uses as some way to get to the bottom of everyone’s SST, same-sex tendencies. I guess it’s good shorthand, but ultimately, it feels like we’re missing a lot more of the story than the film’s given. I don’t normally ponder this, but this movie feels like it would’ve been better if it were longer. Chloe Grace Moretz gives a great and daring performance, as do some other standouts, but I do feel like we didn’t get to know the other character as much as we should’ve.

Perhaps that’s okay though. I suspect that the book goes deeper but usually if you try to get to invested in the characters in this type of environment, you often lose track of something, and it’s usually a main focus of a character, and the movie never loses that, and it’s her story anyway, Moretz’s performance, is the one that matters, and arguably it’s the best she’s given yet. The movie that kind fails at this to me is Peter Weir’s overrated “Dead Poets Society”, which, come to think of it, you could argue might’ve actually have been some kind of metaphor for places like God’s Promise as opposed to just a strict New England Prep School, even though, yeah, that movie, even with that kind of conceit would still have issues with it in my eyes, but the main difference with that film and this film was that it was about how a condition, expected, perhaps, “Normal” student body, reacts to a different and unusual stimuli, while “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is the opposite. The student body are the ones who are read as abnormal in this world and it’s a promethean attempt to help them become normal, and of course, something that ridiculous backfires.

I still feel like I’m missing a lot though. Perhaps this is the best version of the novel that could’ve been adapted to a movie, and I guess that, and all the other good technical skill and performances are why I’m recommending it, but I have a sneaky suspicion that this is probably a stronger book than a movie. I might find out for sure later.


THE CAKEMAKER (2018) Director: Ofir Raul Graizer

★★★1/2

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"The Cakemaker" isa slow, methodical feature that honestly took me a couple days to get through. Partly because the Netflix disc jacket I had made it unfortunately more predictable then it probably should've. But it's also really meticulously paced storytelling, that ultimately, I gotta recommend. It's the debut feature film from Israeli director Ofir Raul Graizer and the movie begins in a bakery in Berlin. Ital (Tamir Ben Yehuda) comes into the place which he always visits when he's in town on business. There, we meet Thomas (Tim Kalkhof) the titular cakemaker who bakes and recommends which desserts for him to enjoy here and to bring home to Jerusalem for his family to enjoy.

Tom and Ital begin having a secret affairwh whenever he's in town, however Ital is soon killed in a car accident in back home. Tom, decides to head to Jerusalem himself and seek out his wife Anat (Sarah Adler). Anat owns a kosher cafe as she struggles raising her young son Oren (Roy Miller) as she now deals with being a single mom. She soon ends up hiring Tom at the cafe, where he, at first struggles a bit understand the kosher bylaws. You need to have and keep up a certificate in Israel to be labeled as kosher, and follow very strict procedures, that's not just for restaurants either as he gets a kosher apartment to live in as well. Over time, he begins to get close to both Sarah and Oren, and Sarah in particular begins to have feelings for him, as she embraces him as apart of her inner circle. Of course, he hasn't told her about his relationship with her late husband, although she does begin to suspect something as Sarah investigates her husband a bit.

There's a couple reasons I'm recommending this, despite some of the inevitability of the film. The directing for one; Glazier reminds me of someone like Bergman or Ozu who knows the power of the quiet and intense close-up shots. This movie is about two people with secrets to tell each other, who are unable to tell them. The restraint is of course, the great skill of the film, and in turn, the movie's best feature is the acting. Sarah Adler is quickly becoming one of the biggest actresses in Europe and the Middle East, and she gives one of the most fascinating and natural performances I've seen in a while and there's an incredible long closeup of Tim Kalkouf of him going from his typical stoicness to just devastating, uncontrollable emotions and sadness. "The Cakemaker" is all between the lines and made by a striking, daring, quiet director. I'm looking forward to Glazier's next films and for these actors to get even more work then they have so far, especially Kalkouf who's mostly been a TV actor until now; this should be a breakthrough minimalist role on the same level as Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor". "The Cakemaker" is an inevitable and tough watch watch, but that doesn't make it bad one.


OH, LUCY! (2018) Director: Atsuko Hirayanagi

★★★

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I watched "Oh, Lucy!" a few days ago and I've been struggling to figure out exactly what to say about it. It's a comedy based on a short film by the film's writer/director Atsuko Hirayangi and for a Japanese movie, it's got a lot of American names on it, including producers Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. That's a little peculiar, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Hirayangi is from Japan but did attend NYU, and actually just on the basis of her short films, which have received tons of acclaim over the years, she actually got asked to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a fact that seems to be one of her big achievements because I find it in most of the recognitions I find about her. Her wikipedia, her IMDB page, etc. (Shrugs) I mean, there's nothing inherently bad about that, but it does indicate that she is in certain inner circles of Hollywood, which, again not a bad thing, but...- eh....

Okay, "Oh, Lucy!" is an absurdist fish-out-of-water comedy, and it begins in Japan where Setsuko (Shinobu Tarajima) is a lowly office worker. She's a bit quirky, but on her way to work she was an unwilling witness in a suicide as a man jumped in front of her train. I like how this sequence is shot, it's kinda treated almost as though it's a commonplace inconvenience more than anything else.
She then, on the request of her niece, Ayako (Kaho Minami) for some contrived reasons that only kinda make sense later, asks Setsuko to take this weird, personal English language class.  The class is taught by an America, John (Josh Hartnett) and it's a bit of a peculiar class. Although I say "Class" loosely as it's basically Setsuko and one other classmate, Takeshi (Koji Yakusho) another older she Japanese guy who wants to learn American English so that he can understand American movies without subtitles. (Honestly, I think that's part of why I took so much French in high school and college, so I can understand that.) Here, John gives his students a wig, and an Americanized named, Setsuko drew Lucy, which-, I think this is supposed to be played sorta as a joke, but I actually do remember doing the name thing in my French classes. The wigs were optional, but still, John is an ecclectic teacher and his presence in Lucy's life helps to begin inspiring her.

Then, suddenly, he leaves mysteriously and Lucy and her niece, who we find out Josh was dating, fly off to California to find him and his apparent new girlfriend. That's when the comedy moves to her n America and seeing Josh's real life and the pitifulness of it, although that doesn't prevent her from sleeping with him since she's as much in love with him as her niece, which-, yeah, that's totally fucked up. Although, based on the modern Japanese culture, and how much emotions are repressed, I kinda buy into how they can suddenly come out bursting at the wrong times like these.

There's also a couple other interesting American cameos in the film, most notably a funny scene with Megan Mullally on an airplane. I guess this is a clever movie; I normally like films like these where we get the stranger going into a strange land and either coming out of it, better or worst or something, but in this case, I can't help but think about the weird and wonderful David Zellner movie "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" where a Japanese girl mistakes the movie "Fargo" as a factual documented account and travels to North Dakota to find the suitcase with the missing money. This isn't as strange and surreal as that, but I do feel like this isn't different or unique enough some how. The strength of the film is in the quirkiness of the characters, and I wonder if adding this extra layer to them or the culture clash between countries, language and behaviors might be too much for the film. I mean, the movie is weird enough before they make the jump to America; this area of Tokyo that offers these weird classes and how exactly did John get this job...? How did they find a replacement so fast when he left? I guess these questions don't have to be answered, but I feel like this movie is somewhat unexplored. I'm not surprised it started as a short and that they didn't quite stretch it enough for a full feature; it feels like an idea more than a finished product.

I guess I'm recommending it anyway, 'cause I do like the draft I got and the movie shows promise. It's unusual, it's different. I'm curious what else Hirayanagi can come up with, so I guess that's a good sign. And I like that it's a more straight-forward comedy; in different hands this could've turned into, something like "Strozsek" or something,- although I love that movie, yeah, we don't get a lot of cross-culture comedies, and this one's different and cute enough. I can easily see this movie working better for me if they switched the direction and we had, like a Sally Field-type trying to learn Japanese from- oh crap, who's Japan's version of Josh Hartnett, umm..., Tomohisa Yamashita? (Shrugs) I don't know, but that would be my bias and my preference, and therefore I can't knock the film because it went East to West instead of West to East; that's apparently how she came here.


SCIENCE FAIR (2018) Directors: Christina Constantini & Darren Foster

★★★★★



So, um, I was never a big science fair guy, or even a science project guy. I'm fairly intelligent I believe; I do have a MENSA I.Q.; I was in G.A.T.E. for several years. (Do they still have G.A.T.E. in schools?; Gifted and Talented Education? Is that still a thing?) but my intelligence has certain limits and areas of expertise. Like, I'm really good at studying and acquiring knowledge and having really strong recall about subject, and I do have a creative mind, I often take different angles and approaches to certain ideas and see things differently than others do, but I don't really have an inventive or an constructive mind. Science was almost always my weakest subject in school, especially biology. Like, I can memorize where bones are, or the Periodic table, and do some of the math required in chemistry, but yeah, the actual performing of science, as a means to an end.... I can appreciate it and those who do it are really special, but it was never for me. Mostly, I hated "Science Fair" which I forced to participate in twice, and I hated doing science projects; which the class would always vote to do instead of just taking a test, and it always pissed me off? Like,-, c'mon I know this isn't my subject, but I can study for a test; I can't pull a science project out of my ass! I don't even own a display board, I don't even know to do it on! I'm not gonna sit down one day and invent something that makes it easier to diagnose pancreatic cancer; what teenager does that? What kind of teenager thinks of that!?

Actually, somebody did do that. One of the first people we meet in "Science Fair" is Jack Andraka, a then-15-year-old who invented a device that makes it easier to help detect certain cancers, including pancreatic and ovarian. He's just old enough to drink now-, well, he's from Maryland, so old enough to drink anywhere in the country now, but yeah, that's intimidating. In fact, a lot of these kids are intimidating, they are smarter than me and most of us, and more importantly from my perspective, they're smarter than me in a way that I know I'm inherently not smart in. So, yeah, while I was basically at just figuring out why it's important to study the mass of the objects I was testing, or which dish detergent was better at taking out stains, these kids had way better and way more advanced ideas than me.

Also in most cases, the resources to be able to actually pull off some of these ideas and experiments. And I do say, "Most cases". The movie profiles participants from several parts of the country and the world in fact as they work and prepare to go to ISEF, the International Science and Engineering Fair, this year being held in Hollywood. There's one girl who's working on ways to help attack the Zika Virus which has ravaged her part of Brazil. There's a guy who's not a great student, but loves building and reconstructing computers and calculators, he's a fun guy. There's one school that has nine different participants/teams in ISEF this year 'cause of one science professor's motivation and work. One Muslim girl from Brookside, South Dakota who constantly wins for her study of brain condition to continuous negative stimuli however, is so overlooked that her school and schoolmate seem, at best unaware of her accomplishments and they certainly don't promote or advertise them when she wins. They are instead, infatuated with their football team, which is a losing football team I might add, but the team's coach is also her adult overseer for her participation because none of the science teachers in the school were interested in helping her out.

We get all sorts of characters and backgrounds and divides in this movie, and after they're introduced, they all arrive for the competition where they begin the strenuous and tense week with a dance/mixer for everyone. And it is,-, um...-, um...- (Sigh) Okay, I know the Press, especially the DC Press likes to tongue-in-cheekly call the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, the "Nerd Prom", and I'm not big on using that term either, but, yeah, they really should stop using that phrase, this is the Nerd Prom.

Anyway, the movie a documentary is familiar. Basically, it's trying to be Jeffrey Blitz's "Spellbound" the Oscar-nominated documentary that basically did the same thing with competitors in the Scipps National Spelling Bee. Now that's a great movie in of itself, but the structure of that film has been copied ever since for several different movies, most notably, movies like "Wordplay" about the championships at crossword puzzles. That said, this might be the best and most interesting of the bunch,- at least the best one since "Spellbound". Mainly because of the subjects; all this talk about millennials and how they're "lazy" or except thing to be given to them, or whatever stupid cliche that's not remotely true people want to shove onto them, is basically shredded in this movie. That's not to say that there aren't people in this world who fit the stereotype, but I mean, if even I knew and believed I could do some of the stuff these kids are putting out into the world, I'm not sure at their age I would even attempt them. I honestly don't know how much success in the science fair world lead's to success in real life, although I bet it's much more than success at a spelling bee. (I mean, honestly, that's not as important and vital as skill as it seems; trust me, I'm a pretty good speller and I'm telling you, it's not that important.) but yeah, I'm vastly more impressed by the student who figures how to a make a plan be more aerodynamic and mobile while using less fuel.


WHAT THEY HAD (2018) Director: Elizabeth Chomko

★★★1/2

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Blythe Danner’s is one of the most stunningly beautiful actresses out there, even today, well into her 70s. I’m always struck to see her in something, anything really. She’s painfully thin and strikingly tall, just like she’s always been, just like her more famous actress daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow. As far as I can tell, she never had the roles and success that she’s has now until after her daughter’s success.

Okay, she’s obviously been in several movies and roles and even randomly catching one of those older roles, her beauty remains startling. As far as I can tell she rarely had many memorable or breakout roles during that time though. I feel like nowadays, I’ve seen more of her in movies than ever now that she’s basically cornered the market on the old woman parts that are out there. It seems that these days, if I see Blythe Danner in a movie, it’s either in a supporting role as the aging-but-still-beautiful older relative who is sick, dying, or in this case, suffering from Alzheimer’s or Dementia. Either that, or she’s this aged but youthful inside older woman indy role but she still can find romance or companionship. She has that look where she always appears to be hiding some secret about her, like a real-life Mona Lisa. Nobody this old still looks and seems this youthful in Hollywood, and maybe only Isabelle Huppert in the world can pull this off, and even she usually has a limit on her in that Blythe can be her age and still seems like she can play a very young girl. “Her father ran the Berwyn line, she thought that she was a little girl and that she was going home,” expressed at the behest of her son, Nick (Michael Shannon) after she got lost on Christmas night when she left her home in the middle of the latest episode. It’s not that she’s bad at this role, quite the contrary, but it also feels like she’s cornered this archetype now. Perhaps it’s her rare skillset, but I think it has to do with how she’s still the prettiest one in the room and now she’s at an age where that’s not the norm in Hollywood.

That’s by no means to say, it’s a negative. There’s several movies out there about dealing with Alzheimer’s or Dementia; I think the best of them is “Still Alice” from Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, which earned Julianne Moore her long overdue Oscar, but there’s several other really strong ones. I think the movie that’s most comparable to Elizabeth Chomko’s “What They Had” is probably Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her” which starred Julie Christie as the stricken old woman who could easily past for painfully thin and younger but it mostly was about her husband’s struggle to go on living with her constantly forgetting who he was, especially after she moved into the nursing home. After Ruth’s (Danner) most recent episode, her son calls up his younger sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) to fly across country and help convince their father Bert (Robert Forster) to put her in a home. He’s set up a spot on hold that would normally take a year to get, and Bert can get a nearby apartment to be close to her, but Bert’s having none of it.

Bridget’s got her own troubles. She’s a professional chef in a boring marriage to Eddie (Josh Lucas), and she’s struggling with her college-age daughter (Taissa Farmiga) who’s unhappy with college and confrontational about her future and everything else, especially with her mother. She never went to college, so is insistent on her taking the opportunity, meanwhile Bridget just seems to despise it. Nick owns a bar which her father has never been to, and constantly calls him a bartender, instead of a bar owner. Bridget is also just reluctant to send her mother into a home, but not because she because she believes she doesn’t belong there, but because she’s trying to find compromise and appease Dad, and not simply do what her brother insists. (There’s a reason that she’s the one that needs to be there though, but I’ll leave that confrontation out.)

There’s a lot of good well-written dialogue scenes here, performed by some amazing actors. In one sense, this could be one of those movies that’s almost like a play; it’s not quite that insular, but these bits of dialogue that spill out revelations without ever really seeing that scene where one person confesses they’re wrong and gives in, that’s really special. Each character has their own point of view and perspective and they all feel like they’re doing the right thing by their actions. Things may matter more than some characters to others and all the while, they’re all dealing with a beloved family member they love, who’s quickly slipping away. Everybody’s really strong here. Danner of course is great, Forster gives one of his most memorable performances in years, Michael Shannon in particular I think is really good here; one of his very best roles. This is kind of an unusual role for him to, even at his best, he’s usually playing quiet or crazy villain characters of the like, here, it’s almost like, he’s playing a Philip Seymour Hoffman role, especially like “The Savages” PSH. Swank is great too, this is one of those movies where, the movie itself on paper, is kinda eh, but the acting, really takes it a notch above what you’d expect.

Actually now that I mentioned it, “The Savages” is a pretty good comparison film here as well, especially with a good, brother/sister dynamic as the center of the film. Sibling dynamics in films are so much rarer then you think, and it’s always nice to see a good story about that kind of relationship and the travails that entails, especially adult sibling relationships, and they really should make more of them, ‘cause they’re usually pretty good. “What They Had” is another good one, a lot of good reasons to check this one out.


THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) Director: Taika Waititi

★★★★


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Of all the Marvel movie series, “Thor” has been the most curious and fascinating to me. The first movie was a wonderful Shakespearean-like Greek epic mixed with a fascinating fish out of water narrative; it easily ranks as one of the very best Marvel movies, only possibly dwarfed by “Black Panther”. The second movie, “Thor: The Lost World”, was one Marvel’s worst films. A forgettable slog of a movie where it turned out, “Really, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the God of Mischief and Death was the traitor?! No shit!” in the least surprising thing ever. The fact that Loki was still around, and the way he was still around has confused me greatly over the years, but apparently he’s a well-liked and beloved character, and ever since he was the main villain in both “Thor” where it made sense and the “The Avengers”, where it didn’t. ([Eye rolls] Fine, for the most part, it didn’t!) I mean, I don’t mind him hanging around in some capacity, but mostly he’s just there because he can’t seem to ever be killed, being a God and all.

This time around, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is dying, and placed himself in self-imposed exile on Earth, and while Loki seems to have done a decent job running things in his absence on Asgard, the other Realms appear to have been forming a rebellion. When they find Odin, thanks to the help of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) they then get introduced to their forgotten older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett) the Goddess of Death and the most powerful of Odin’s kids, who’s conveniently been forgotten and written out of the history of Asgard until now, kept out because of her ambition to take over the universe, and enslave everybody. She’s basically a mythological variant on Thanos, and Cate Blanchett is just having a lot of fun hamming up this role.

She destroys Thor’s hammer and sends Loki and Thor out into the far reaches of the Universe where Thor is kidnapped by a former Valkyrie soldier-turned-drunkard named- um, well, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, because she is just in everything now.) and she takes Thor to some distant planet,- where the hell are we?  Um, some distant alien planet, run by somebody called The Grandmaster (Jeff Gold- oh god, what-the-hell is this movie doing now?)

(Hand on forehead, shaking head, and laughing)

Okay, this ‘Thor” film is leaning more into the comedic aspects of the series, which is in great contrast admittedly to the drowning in stupid and insipid family kingship melodrama of “The Dark World”. Actually, I’m enjoying this absurdism quite a bit.

So where was I? Right, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, who I actually consider way underrated as an actor despite him trying to accentuate the more his ham-like tendencies lately.) runs a “Contest of Champions” where monsters are kidnapped from across the lands and forced to fight for everyone’s enjoyment on this planet that he seems to own. It’s kinda like that weird episode of “Star Trek: Voyager” where Seven of Nine had to fight The Rock? (Yeah, that happened, go look it up one day, it’s amazing!) Anyway, Thor agrees to take on his great, undefeated champion in order to be granted a way out back to save Asgard. The Champion, turns out to be…-

Alright, I’m not gonna spoil this one, but you remember how, in “Captain America: Civil War” all the superheroes kept fighting and battling each other for like 45 minutes and it was a fucking stupid and totally awful waste of time in a stupid waste of a movie, and I mentioned how this is why superheroes shouldn’t be in other superhero’s movies and that them fighting is always terrible! Well, I’m gonna eat those words, because, yes, there is a superhero vs. superhero battle here, but this time, it’s awesome! It was set up to where it actually made sense for why these two superhuman good guys would be battling each other and why they would battle each other in this circumstance and have it be a logical, understandable and sensible part of a greater, larger story. The big reason I utterly hate it in most every other film, especially in “Civil War” was because they had no actual reason to fight each; it was an illogical waste of time and special effects to begin with and of course, by the end of the movie, it showed how truly stupid the whole idea was when it doesn’t matter at the end, or in the next movie or two whether they fought or didn’t because something greater force was on hand where they had to team up, which is the only reason to have superheroes together in a universe to begin with, to team them up, so… it was just pointless fan service, for the most insipid and idiotic of fans. But here, this is not only setup well as a surprise, it’s established that it’s a world, place, location and setting in which it would make sense and both character have a legitimate reason, motivation and circumstance to battle each other in this exact, specific moment. It even advances the plot forward. This one sequence in “Thor: Ragnarok” basically reveals just how bad “Captain America: Civil War” actually was.

The film was directed by Taiki Waititi the New Zealand director behind the cult comedy classic "What We Do In the Shadows" among other films. I've actually not that been on most of his previous work; I was the one who didn't love "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" for instance, but he definitely knows his comedy and he knows how to use it here; he even takes a funny CGI role as Korg, one of the other captured gladiators who battle for the entertainment masses. . I still prefer the original “Thor” in comparison, but “Thor: Ragnarok” really takes what’s been built up and uses those elements well to lead to a satisfying conclusion to this trilogy. I do ultimately enjoy a world of the Gods story when done well, and while I prefer Kenneth Branagh’s more Shakespearean turn, I also like seeing the Gods taken down a notch by trying to mess and pal around with the foibles of human, or other aliens in this case. “Thor” is still the strangest and most inconsistent of the Marvel movies, franchises, but at least it’s once again intriguing in a positive way with “Ragnarok”.


MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER (2017) Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

★★★★1/2

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Hiromasa Yonebayashi is probably the director who is the most likely to take over Hayao Miyazaki’s throne. He was a longtime animator of his and his first two movies, “The Secret World of Arrietty”, and “When Marnie Was There” are amazing stories of young people dealing with the complex relationship of the supernatural, growing up and their relationship with literal and society nature. And they’re all just amazingly beautiful to look at. They’re all also quite deeper and more observant and thoughtful then on first notice.

This one probably has the most obvious Miyazaki influences of them all. Characters seem just as strange and distinctive as the characters in “Spirited Away”, it involves a lost little girl who’s away from her family who discovers a magical world, and discovery about self. It’s also about a young witch and has a lot of flying it; it’s abundantly clear who Yonebayashi was trained under. Mary is the young girl who’s stay with her Great Aunt Charlotte while her parents finish the rest of their move. She went ahead originally for school, but she soon befriends Peter, another young kid she plays with in the forest. She also befriends some animals, a couple of cats who are a couple. She then finds the titular flower, and it creates a new friend, her broomstick, which sends her off to Flanagan, a rogue warlock/inventor who specializes in magical objects. The flower also gives her powers which grabs the attention of Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee, two of the hierarchy at a witch’s school that Mary begins attending. They don’t realize that it’s the flower that’s giving her an unusually great powers, especially for a young witch.

On the surface, this magical world is enthralling, full of some wonderful, magical characters. It’s very reminiscent of Chihiro looking through the bathhouse in “Spirited Away”, only much more inviting; the way that you imagine a witch’s school to be both, visually and intellectually stimulating. It’s when her cat friends, and eventually Peter get kidnapped and taken into the secret dark bowels of the school does she begin to realize that something is wrong, especially after she reveals her secret about the flower having given her the powers.

I’m only scratching the surface here, there’s a lot our heroine has to both fight through and find out about herself, her friends, and herself. In that sense, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is perhaps a little too traditional a film narratively; I certainly found “When Marnie Was Here” the most emotionally gripping and awe-inspiring as a story, but it makes up for it in the world that’s created and the animation. It’s actually one of those rare movies about a character who has magical powers and witchcraft and she’s in conflict with herself about whether or not to use such powers. Not that she would abuse them, but seeing them abused by others, most likely gives her pause to continue. This movie made me emotional about the potential death of a Broom, which was just as much a character as Mary was. Animation lately feels like it’s mostly used to sell something as it’s most cynical or to talk down or just entertain kids more than trying to tell a more involved story lately, and that includes a lot of films I liked a lot. “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” however is much more inspiring and has more emotional power than most of the movies I’ve seen lately, most of which have a sequel number in their title. If there’s one animator who’s films I’m most looking forward to right now, it’s probably Yonebayashi. If he keeps this up, that word, “Animator” will turn into “Filmmaker” in that last sentence.


THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARSHA P. JOHNSON (2017) Director: David France

★★★

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"The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson" is the first feature from David France since he made the dcumentary "How to Survive a Plague," which documents the AIDS epidemic, crisis, the ACT UP movement, and basically can act as the premiere historical records on those subjects. It's one of the great movies of this century so far, and I suspect that it might've been too much to hope that his next film would equal that level of accomplishment, few films could.

That said, this film has garnered quite a bit of acclaim, and controversy as well, as he's been accused of appropriating the works of others, including Reina Gossett's filmmaking historians work without crediting her. I'm not entirely surprised at such a revelation since France's main skill seems to be accumulating and editing footage together, but that's not my big issue with the film. Marsha P. Johnson's work and importance needs to be known and the movie does a good job of both going over the importance of her life. It then also does the job of trying to get answers into her mysterious death.
In 1992, Marsha P. Johnson, originally born Malcolm Michele, Jr., who found dead after having apparently drowned floating in the Hudson. Her death was rules a suicide, but many/most of her friends and acquaintances found the death suspicious, and one witness claimed that there was a hole in her head when she found.

Johnson was a trans rights activist who was literally there at the beginning of the gay rights movement, having been a critical leader of the Stonewall Riots. She then joined the Gay Liberation Front and along with her best friend Sylvia Rivera, founded STAR, the Street Transvestive Action Revolutionaries, where they worked to get Trans who, like Marsha, worked periodically in the sex industry, off the streets. Basically the groups or houses that the show "Pose" has, are basically at-that-time modern versions of what "STAR" was.

The movie actually focuses a lot on Rivera, several old interviews and footage of her, who arguably actually had more to do with the rise of Trans rights; she was at the forefront of Trans rights, just fighting for recognition from others in the gay community. (LGBT, didn't become LGBT overnight.) These aspects are good and then there's the narrative of the film, where we see our protagonist Victoria Cruz of the anti-violence act as she looks into investigating Marsha's death. There's alwas suspicion of foul play as she was always under threat working as a sex worker; she was known as the Mayor of Christopher Street, which was the West Village bureau known for being the LGBT center of the town, and where the gay clubs were operated by the Mafia at that time.

This story is paralleled by another modern crime story, the death Islan Nettles, who was beaten to death by James Dixon, who beat him up after he had began hitting on him, before he realized that she was trans. The movie occasionally cuts to the progress on Dixon's trial and the political and social outrages that that entails. It's an interesting parallel to Marsha's life and death, at least that's what is supposed to be gotten from me. I think the movie was trying to do too much in this instance, and that's kind of my issue.

It's got enough threads to make a few movies, and while I get the poetic nature of putting these stories together, I think you lose some of the focus, and I start waiting around to learn more about one thread or another. There were a lot of threads in "How to Survive a Plague", but that about documenting several differing historical actions and placing them in their place in the history books, storytelling through the historical documentation, not documenting to tell the story. Again, I might be more frustrated because I had such high expectations from France, but I didn't need this film to equal "How to Survive a Plague", and more importantly, the movie does it's job. It investigates and documents an important figure in the LGBT movement puts her and Sylvia Rivera in their proper historical context, and also helps look into Johnson's mysterious death and try to get to the bottom of what happened to her. That last part, she gets a little closer, but there is a lot of mysterious doors slammed for Victoria, and the Police refusing to talk seems particularly suspicious.

I think it's more important movie than a great one, but I can't knock it too much for that. Marsha P. Johnson started at Stonewall and was involved in the beginning of ACT UP, she stretches the major figures of the movement in her time, and also she posed for Andy Warhol among being friends with several other major New York figures. It's actually quite a shame that her death might overshadow her work.


APOSTASY (2017) Director: Daniel Kokotajlo

★★★★


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Every once in a while, usually at a bus stop around town, I see a copy of The Watchtower stuck in the advertising board behind me or lying on the ground having been stomped on wet shoes previously. There’s a lot about Jehovah’s Witnesses that I’ll frankly admit that I don’t understand. It’s not my religion, it never will be, and frankly most of what I have heard about it, is not good. From what I can tell, they’re essentially a mostly Catholic cult or subcult that has some very strange and conflicting views on God and the afterlife, as well as several other beliefs that alone would seem petty or arbitrary but together seem more like a cult than a belief system, and from what I can tell, actually has quite a similar governing structure and abuse system as Scientology does.

In fact, much of what I have heard about Jehovah’s Witness in recent years has come from special reports on abuses and abusers inside the hierarchy of the church, including one that Leah Remini did on a special episode of her show “Scientology and the Aftermath”, that she made after getting several requests from viewers who claimed that the cases she documented on scientology were very similar to those who had decided to leave the Jehovah’s Witness. In fact, the phrase, “I used to be a Jehovah’s Witness…”, is one I’ve heard quite often, thankfully, much more often then I’ve heard their infamous knock on the front door.

The big content with Jehovah’s Witness that the center of “Apostasy”, actually it’s one that they ironically share with Scientology, and that’s a weird rejection of certain medicines and medical techniques, most notably, they’re against blood transfusions.

That comes up in “Apostasy” the debut feature by former Jehovah’s Witness member Daniel Kokojailo, and it’s clear that he’s observed this intimate world quite closely and tells the story of a mother, Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) and her two daughters Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and Alex (Molly Wright) and the world of being a Jehovah’s Witness that they live. The teachings of Jehovah are known as “The Truth”, although he often seems to give contrasting and contradictory truths, each of them must be obeyed rigorously, particularly under the threat of excommunication, or disfellowship to use their lingo. This makes sense, from what I gather, according to Jehovah, only a certain literal amount of his followers even go to Heaven, after Armageddon of course, which is occurring very soon.

Anyway, there’s two major incidents with Ivana’s daughters. Luisa gets pregnant from a non-believer and she is soon excommunicating for traversing too much outside the faith. Excommunication means that only limited contact with excommunicating members is allowed, and now her status in the church is under question while Luisa’s pregnancy continues. Alex has suffered from degernative illnesses for years and while she’s devoted in the church, she suddenly passes away, which also challenges Ivanna and Luisa’s beliefs.

Ivanna’s performance has been compared to Emily Watson’s performance in Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves”, which I don’t know if I go that far, that performance and character is extreme, but Finneran’s character is a very believable portrayal of brainwashed devotion, all the way to the final scenes when she does something that could’ve potentially been incredibly stupid because she believes it’s the only thing she can do to protect her family in the afterlife. I think that aspect of Jehovah’s Witness beliefs is probably the most disturbing that I’ve noticed among the few members who’ve insisted on trying to preach to me; more than any other religious sect I can think of, Jehovah’s Witness are the most singularly obsessed with their the afterlife and the end of days, even moreso than most of the fire & brimstone evangelical people I know; they generally seem to get that it’s a performance a la, Jonathan Edwards era preaching, but Jehovah’s Witnesses, that’s all they’ve ever talk or think about to me. Sure, it’s their job, but yeah, on average, they’re the most extreme I’ve noticed, so yeah, this is movie is believable to me.

That said, this is still a nuanced and observant betrayal inside a world that many people don’t see. It’s not as judgmental as you’d expect; if anything, I’m probably more judgmental in this review then the movie is, which is frustrating to me, as I would prefer something more informative and investigative, but this is probably more interesting. It’s taken me a bit to fully grasp “Apostasy”, but it’s one of the most insightful looks inside a fringe religious group I’ve seen in recent years that wasn’t a documentary. It’s compassionate film about people who are caught in a life that they may or may not one day get out of, either on their own, through forces within the church, or, perhaps through the end of the world, but hopefully before that happens.


EARTH: ONE AMAZING DAY (2017) Directors: Richard Dale, Lixin Fan and Pete Webber

★★★

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Huh. (Shrugs)

So, I borrowed that "Planet Earth" docuseries on DVD awhile ago; it had all that acclaim and all those Emmy awards, that series still gets those in whatever their current form is now. I get it; I get why it's acclaimed and why they're popular and why people watch it, and the photography is amazing. That said,- I think I'm beginning to come to terms with the idea that I just don't like nature documentaries. I just-, I just don't. In the right context, I guess I do, and-, and actually that's not entirely true, "Sweetgrass" is a nature doc I like. I've always been a fan of "The Living Desert", arguably the best of Disney's old time docs. I like National Geographic stuff, but there's definitely a certain type of nature doc that just gets under my skin. "Earth: One Amazing Day", eh, well, it's not the worst by any means, neither is "Planet Earth" for that matter, but at a certain point, when you've seen these docs done a certain way so often, you kinda just get immune to a lot of them.
I would've like something like this a lot more when I was a kid and was still learning about the world and really desired to learn more about it. I watched a lot of Discovery and TLC before it just became another shitty reality channel. The nature stuff, I guess was never my favorite of their programming; I think I'm the one person who has never understood the appeal of "Shark Week" for instance,- like, I get watching one good documentary about sharks every so often, like maybe in a real IMAX theater or a planetarium screening where it can truly be enjoyable and enthralling, but a week of that?!

Why!?

I guess that's kinda what I think of "Earth: One Amazing Day," it's like a really good IMAX documentary. It actually has a bit of a good conceit though, the idea that the movie follows the life of the species on Earth over an entire day, following the sun as the daylight spreads across the globs. That's an interesting thread, and to be fair, the movie does get a lot of great shots. I like the hummingbird footage in particular; I know just had powerful a camera you need to had to actually record footage of a hummingbird, 'cause they move way too fast and they're so small you can confuse them for a dragonfly. That and the bees. There are some other shots I love, like some of the canyon shots as well. It's all pretty normal, but done well. Like I said, if I had seen this in a more proper context, on a giant screen, where I can be engulf by the scenes, I think I would've gotten a little more enjoyment out of it. I think seeing so much of these shows also destroys me a bit. Although, sometimes, even when I've seen it a bunch of times before, it can be inspiring.

I'll say this, the movie was narrated by Robert Redford, and he was good. (I'm also told that Jackie Chan was a narrator to this; I didn't recognize him; I'm assuming he might've been a narrator for some of the foreign releases, possibly.) And, I enjoyed enough of it to recommend it. If you like these movies, then you'll like this one. I just wish there was something more special about it.