Wednesday, December 26, 2018



Director/Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman

While I make no secret of the fact that many of these Canon of Film posts are updated from pieces of writing that I wrote a long time ago, long before I had this blog even, I have to be honest, they're still usually films that I've long thought about and analyzed several times previously, enough that I often find myself pondering them, long after I've seen them, sometimes years between viewings. That said, it's been a long time since I've even thought much about "Fanny and Alexander" at all. Honestly, I don't think I've ever really understood this one. Not that that's a totally uncommon occurance when it comes to Ingmar Bergman. I've loved several of his movies as most cinephiles do; I'd probably list "Persona" as my favorite, which probably ranks as one of his most esoteric and inexplicable films, but yeah, it took me a few viewings . Somehow I always admired "Fanny and Alexander" much more than I outright appreciated it. I've seen it often listed among his greatest films, and it's often ranked among the best films of the last quarter of the 20th Century. I think I always just wrote that off as being that critics felt an obligation to list a Bergman on any greatest list and I guess it's the most obvious pick among his later work. It was supposed to originally be his final film, but he would go on to direct all the way into the 21st Century. 

I had intended to at some point give "Fanny and Alexander" a rewatch, and perhaps finish the extended miniseries version of the feature before adding it to the Canon, but that time hasn't come yet. I'm sure I'll get to it at some point, but this,- what has been, without getting into any details, by far the worst Christmas I've ever had; "Fanny and Alexander" suddenly starting peaking into my mindspace. The exact familial details escape me, but I do remember the broad outline, the beginning the extended family Christmas that introduces us to the whole family. Then, the two titular kids, Fanny and Alexander (Pernilla Allwin and Burtil Guve) have to go live with their stepfather Bishop Edvard (Jan Malmsjo), who married their mother Helene (Gunn Wallgren) and their life becomes distressingly cold and all that good-hearted and loving life that enveloped these kids' early lives is completely removed and replaced with a hard, repressed, cold emptiness that's segregated from the outside world and everything that these kids have known before. After a while though, with the Bishop, getting worse and worse, the rest of the family eventually stage a prison break of sorts to get the family out and return them to normalcy. 

Honestly, I always thought that as a story, it only really seems powerful if you're familiar with Bergman's life, as the story is autobiographical based on his own childhood, and his mother marrying Protestant minister probably inspired most of Bergman's consumate criticism of religion that God that peppered the majority of his films up to this point. That's how I always kinda dismissed this narrative, as almost too personal. 

Is it though? I used to think it was, but after a few relatives have passed and life has struggled on, and more and more me and many members of my family, seem to reflect nostalgically on how much better those older Christmases were. I'm doing it a lot lately, and I'm also thinking about how when the new person gets introduced into the family just how drastically that old life can change and how impacted and sudden the shift can be, especially when you're a kid. 

Something strikingly similar happened to me that happens to Alexander and Fanny in  the film when I was a kid. It didn't last too long at the time, but, again without going into too many details, there was a character who suddenly entered our lives as a family and it wasn't good and later, he was soon out after our family got him out. 

I didn't have a magician family member that helped smuggle me out of anywhere with a trunk, or an eccentric entertainment family. It's strange how the film plays. It's often discussed as having a child's perspective on the world, and it does. There's hallucinations of moving statues and other pieces of magic while the family, as eclectic and eccentric as they are, always seem, overwhelming, not just in numbers but in size. Yet, Bergman's spends a lot of time focusing on them, not just from Alexander's perspective. Part of this, is the contrast of course, but I suspect there's more celebration than recall. Reminiscing instead of remembering. 

In my original review, I tried to compare the movie to "Hamlet", because one of  the family patriarchs Oscar (Siv Ericks) dies of a stroke shortly after fumblings his lines in a performance of Hamlet. Hamlet’s a bad comparison, even though it follows the outline, but in terms of it's tone and narrative it’s more closer to a kid’s story like "Pinocchio" or "The Wizard of Oz." It’s got as much wonder and enchantment as a Disney film… a good Disney film. One that celebrates the magic and fantasy and also embraces the love and quirkiness of family. 

It's got a lot of everything when you really think about it. I can see why he wanted this to be his last film at one point in his life. I'm glad it wasn't; I think he proved to have much more to say about love and life and living, but still, "Fanny and Alexander" gives us the ebbs and flows of life, how our feelings and emotions towards people and events that occurred in our life can change as we grow and evolve, and how we can sometimes recall little details as children just as keenly as we observe life's sudden and unforeseeable changes that can get thrust upon ourselves. He gives us more of himself perhaps in this film than in any other. I think perhaps now, I can appreciate that more than I did once upon a time, or I can at least empathsize and understand why it's a film that's so positively reflected on these days. 

Still not entirely certain this is truly among Bergman's very best, but it interesting how Bergman movies have a way of sneaking on you at different specific times in life. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

WHY "MOM" SHOULD BE CONSIDERED AMONG TV'S BEST SHOWS: How a good show managed to shift it's focus and managed to get better.

“Mom” is one of the best shows on television, and it has been for awhile now.

I'm starting off with that declaration 'cause for as much praise as the show gets, you don't hear about the series talked about in those terms and that's not right. It's one of the biggest hits in syndication right now, it's regularly aired on like nine cable channels and currently occupies the 9:00pm slot on CBS's Thursday night lineup which is pretty easily the biggest lineup on TV at the moment, even with the amazing “Murphy Brown” reboot ending it's purported one-year limited run this week. It gets overlooked 'cause it's on after two unfairly maligned series, “The Big Bang Theory” in it's final year and it's underrated spinoff “Young Sheldon” which I happy to see get some love from the Broadcast Film Critics this week, surprisingly. I usually tend to be quite critical of television critics and still am I might add, but that was nice to see.

However, I want to talk other aspects of the series, 'cause “Mom” is a great show, but it's also had a fairly odd run as well. For one thing, it's proof once again that we should just stop underestimating Chuck Lorre's genius at this point. It's been years since the whole “Two and a Half Men' fiasco and I still think that show lasted way too long and stopped being funny years earlier, but he's still got a strangehold on the television landscape; even getting success on streaming now. “Mom” in particular though, has had a strange shelf-life, although it's not entirely unique material for Lorre. Lorre's been open about much of his alcohol and drug problems in the past and he's certainly created shows about every aspect of it. It's not even the first show he's done that's about women raising a family after using AA to help recover. It wasn't a focus of the series, but it was brought up regularly on “Grace Under Fire” how Brett Butler's character went to AA regularly and how her ex-husband among other friends and relatives were recovering and/or struggling addicts.

It wasn't the focus of “Mom” either,- well, not entirely the original focus. See, I was both late, and early on this series. I had watched the first few episodes when they originally aired and thought it was a good show and an interesting premise, and it had a lot of actors I generally liked in it, but I also stopped watching it regularly. I didn't think it was great originally and decided to forgot it existed except for Emmy season when they'd honor Allison Janney again and again, because, well, she's Allison Janney. Just trust me on this, every award she wins is deserved; I'm honestly surprised she doesn't win more things more often than she does. However, my mother discovered the show at some point and liked it and started watching the series in reruns, but she had a different idea about the series. For one thing, she thought the “Mom” in the title, was Allison Janney's Bonnie character, and I thought it was, partly her, but was more Anna Faris's Christie character instead. It wasn't until the show started streaming on Hulu and I showed my mother the series from the beginning did she see the show I thought she was watching, a sitcom about a struggling single mother of two kids fight struggle to get through the day working a lousy job at a restaurant while dealing with both her own personal demons that she struggles with regularly, including her even more outrageous and self-centered recovering addict mother.

Somehow that dynamic, in it's six seasons so far, completely changed by the time she started watching. For one thing, both the kids had left the series as regulars and the show shifted that focus to Bonnie and  Christie and more to the AA side, and how the series became about a group of recovering addicts becoming friends and helping each other through their issues.

That is- well, first of all, it makes the title of the series make no goddamn sense. I mean, yes, now the focus is on Bonnie,- that's another change, the Lead and Supporting Moms switched placed practically which,- eh, could be a touchy transition in other circumstances and has in the past on other shows, but, what do you expect when you cast Allison Janney; that kind of thing just happens naturally anyway. Still though, the show went from a double-meaning of “Mom” to barely having a singular meaning, and it's-, it's just a terrible name for this show at this point. I'm honestly surprised they haven't tried changing it at this point. I know that's been a hassle and there isn't a great record of success with that, but it's not entirely unprecedented and still it should practically be called “Group” now or something like that. I don't know, just something less generic than “Mom”.

Still though, even though it's not too uncommon for series to shift and change from their original incarnation as they grow and evolve, this is an unusually big shift of focus. A very good one, one that's helped make a good show become a great one, but one of the bigger changes a series has had that I can remember. Literally, from episode one to now there's only two regular characters who remain as regulars, and this wasn't a two-character show. The only other successful series I can think of that changed that drastically and that quickly was “Night Court”, and much of that was out of necessity. Multiple cast members dying, casting changes that evolved, castings that were actually put off until the actor was available, a major EP shift. I'm sure a lot of that happened on “Mom” too, but “Night Court” still pretty much a workplace sitcom that took place at night in a courtroom. “Happy Days” was still mostly about the 1950s nostalgia life for a family after it switched from single-camera to three camera and shifted focus more of a focus to Fonzie, even “Valerie” basically just remained a family sitcom that focused on the kids after Valerie Harper got fired, and it remains forgettable and mediocre it's entire run.

So, I guess the thing that's fascinating to me is, how the hell did “Mom” manage to pull this off? Not only a bunch of characters and actor subtractions and addition but also a giant shift in the series' focus? Well, they did a few things right, but the first thing they did from the beginning is keep the show realistic from the beginning. I know, there's somewhat of a notion nowadays that part of why the traditional three-camera sitcom is out of vogue outside of CBS and a few other places is because they seem less believable; I know where some people get this notion, 'cause multi-cams at their worst can be artificial, but often the most realistic and down-to-Earth sitcoms are multicams and “Mom” is no exception. Lorre worked on “Roseanne”, the guy knows how to create a financially-struggling family led by a single mother who's barely employable and he does it well here. The characters have changed houses and locations over the series, they've had to scheme and finagle to get and keep work. Earlier parts of the series focused on that by showing more of Christie's job as a waitress at an upscale restaurant, where she was having an affair with the maitre d' played by Nate Corddrey and we had French Stewart as an eccentric chef. Both those characters are basically non-existant in the show now, but they're not completely gone from the narrative. Christie worked at the restaurant long after that contrast was a relevant part of her life and a major part of the series and had focused her attention on law school.

She also could only focus her attention on law school after her kids move out. The older teenager getting married and giving up her own child for adoption, which in hindsight is very reminiscent of “Grace Under Fire”, which also includes a similar narrative. The younger kid, well, she gives up her parental rights to him after his father gets married. His father, also originated as a regular character in the beginning of the series, and a stoner burnout who eventually evolved into getting a job and getting married and Christie, eventually realizing that it would be better off for her son if his father and his wife would take care of him.

This is heavy shit really. She's essentially a failed mother on two counts who's living with a failed mother on one count, and that's never going away from the show, it's written into the series and the characters. When you have flawed characters to begin with, you have more leniency to have them make a lot of mistakes and have their life influenced by it. This series started basically as a more pathetic version of “One Day At a Time” and turned into a more solemn version of “The Golden Girls”, and remained as funny as both those shows. And another smart thing was how the show didn't try to make us forget or erase what came beforehand. There's no Chuck Cunningham that walked up the stairs and suddenly Richie only has one sibling. There's real characters, actions and consequences, and they seem to keep coming back throughout the series. All the new characters, other women in their support group, and Bonnie's fiance Adam first showed up and seemed like superfluous new characters that just evolved into becoming a part of the series. It balances a lot for a multi-cam, but it seems to be able to pull it off fairly well.

It's interesting how the series managed to go from a main household and conflict of one family and then became a multiple narrative where several different characters with varying lives and socioeconomic backgrounds and have them seem natural being together as friends close enough to be family. It's actually really interesting.

If I know anybody, well, with a 100% certainty, in Alcoholics Anonymous or NA or GA or any other similar organization, they have never brought it up to me and personally I have never asked and if I did, I don't think they divulge any of that information to me; I don't do any drugs and I can't even remember the last time I had a drink, I do occasionally gamble but even then I don't remember the last time I did that for real money. But, I have to imagine that based on what I do know, which admittedly isn't too much, but I have to believe that friendship groups like these must form in Anonymous meetings like these. I have no idea about the success rate of AA, and “Mom” doesn't completely pretend that it's a perfect system that works for everybody; it barely works for these characters and it often doesn't, but if this is just a creation from Chuck Lorre and Company that these addicts would get together and become friends like these in and out of meetings and constantly helping out, then it's at least a really comfortable thought. A bit troubling admittedly, but comfortable nonetheless. “Mom” provides a positive look at a bunch of addicts, and the makeshift family they can form through AA. I have no idea if this occurs, but it's a nice thought. That said, Chuck Lorre has been upfront about his past addictions several times, including alcoholism and it's seeped into many of his shows, and if he wasn't, it's not like it's an uncommon condition or something new to television. Hell, “Murphy Brown”'s show originally started with the character coming out of rehab, and there's plenty of examples before and after her, but most depictions I think of regarding AA involve characters, well, not mentioning their suffering much or their participation in the group.

We tend to associate alcoholism and AA in particular as a very privately dealt-with disease. I can think of several stories in art and real life where alcoholics are informed of an AA meetings in places they know very well but didn't realize meetings took place there or were populated by people they knew and didn't realize they were in AA. Roger Ebert wrote a famous one about not knowing AA meetings happened in literally down the hall from his office at the Chicago Sun Times. The thing is, AA is an organization that literally counts the days when it's members have last had a drink or have otherwise slipped, and their members sponsor each other and help keep each others' sobriety in check and do what they can to help them get back to sobriety when they do fall off the wagon, or help keep each other out of or help them get out of situations where they may be tempted. It actually makes quite a bit of sense that a makeshift friends groups would form out of this. It also makes sense that people are so addicted like the characters in “Mom” seem to be that they might need their AA friends and sponsors as close by as possible. Their world revolves around staying sober, that's not an easy thing to just push yourself through privately and without the help of others. It's possible sure, might even be preferable to some but, I think most people who seek out groups like AA are looking for others to help them, or to see if others are out there who can.

I have no idea how insightful or not that observation is, in real life, but I think it makes perfect sense as to why “Mom” was able to pull off this drastic shift in the series, and why and how it manages to continually get better over time. It also helps that it showed this transition, most of the shows about a group of random ragtag group of characters coming together don't really do that. Usually they start off after they went through that painful transition into a new condition.

Take the quintessential example of this, “Friends”. Okay, it's not about alcoholics or addicts, but it's about young 20somethings as they transition painfully into independent adults. The only thing is that for most of the characters, we didn't see that painful transition. When we start “Friends”, Joey has transitioned into a struggling hustling young actor enough to get enough regular work to survive in New York, Ross has gotten over a painful divorce and gotten a doctorate at college and is now an entry-level scientist, Monica's has second-child syndrome to get over which led to her having OCD and weight problems but she had transitioned that into entry-level chef/cook career, Chandler went through college as well as being a child of a painful divorce to get an entry-level accounting job, and Phoebe went from living on the streets after her single parent's suicide and hustling to having a freelance masseuse job between other jobs. Only Rachel, walks into the show immediately after having run off from her wedding, is actually beginning a transition into a new normal condition, everybody else is already there. "Mom" decide to begin before the creation of it.

Maybe it's just a naturla evolution of the series, maybe Lorre knew the good parts when he saw it and just went there, maybe it was on purpose to begin with; I doubt the last one, but that makes it pretty unique all things considered. They say that drama means change, but sometimes it can mean comedy too, and it definitely does here. 

And yet, I think to a lot of people, the show is still mostly just, that series Allison Janney happens to be on. Hmm. Think about it, it's one of the darkest, edgiest and funniest comedies from one of television's best creators and producers and it's mostly a footnote in today's television landscape. I mean, it's popular, and mostly has had good ratings, it's a Top 20 hit now, and has been a top rated sitcom forever, but it's-, yeah, this show's six years in, changed itself multiple times over and just hitting it's stride, stands out as unique today and from it's predecessors.... It's not right, this show's way too good to be an also ran. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018


So, as I struggle with life and more importantly, struggle with keeping up with this year's award season while still catching up on last year's movies, I was looking for something to write about, and I came across this observation from Sasha Stone of, who I follow on Facebook.

I really loved The Sopranos. I'm thinking that if made right now it would not have thrived. It was just such a good show, top to bottom. I can't point to a reason why I don't think it would do well today but I feel like it wouldn't, that what does well is aspirational stuff rather than hard truth stuff.

Originally, I was just kinda gonna ignore this comment, although tacitally agree with it, which, yeah, I kinda do basically agree with it. That said, it got me thinking.

You see, I actually have never been that big on "The Sopranos". I respect it as a great show, but, even at the time I never really understood why everybody kept signaling it out as the best. Was it a great show? Yeah, I can't argue it wasn't. Was it groundbreaking and innovative? Umm...- well,- (Scratches head) I'm, honestly not sure it is. 

Influential, definitely, but was it all that different or unique at the time, even? I mean, I might argue that something like "Oz", which came onto the TV landscape a couple years earlier might be somewhat more innovative and groundbreaking, at least for what we think of as the modern premium cable drama series. I'm not the biggest "Oz" guy either, but that show played with first person narration, multiple perspectives, multiple narratives and it was dark and gritty and realistic and had surprise and shocking deaths among other things, as well as a great all-star cast. Problem is, nobody watched it. Well, that's not true, my mother among others was and still is a huge fan, but it didn't break into the national consciousness the way "The Sopranos" did. That might be because it was a prison show and those aren't particularly well-watched or beloved.

(Sigh) Okay, so that wasn't it.... But enough about "Oz"; back to "The Sopranos"...

Was the subject matter unique? I guess it was for television, well, unless you want to count "Wiseguy" but I can't imagine people thinking that it was entirely new. The mafia was by no means unrepresented in pop culture prior to "The Sopranos", there were dozens of examples, prominent examples dating back to the beginnings of the medium of film. Personally, I thought at the time and still do think that "Six Feet Under" was far more innovative and unique at the time. Not only in it's format and structure but also in it's subject matter and approach. That kind of elegaic and subversive look at the traditional American nuclear family was pretty different for the time and quite groundbreaking, influencing film and television for years. Sure, "The Sopranos" was too, but the Sopranos was mostly a look at a mafia family, while compared to say, "Six Feet Under" which came out a year later and was twisted and sardonic. It also with love, lust, sex, romance, getting older, death, Hollywood, homosexuality, intelligence even among other things and family above everything else; I always thought "Six Feet Under" had a lot more to say about a lot more things but I always kinda read "The Sopranos" as mostly on face value. There's definitely more depth and subtlety going on, but narratively, I always saw the series, kinda one-dimensionally. I mean, I guess you can put in the subtext about what is says about Americana and it could be considered it's own subversion of the modern nuclear family, but I don't think it plays any differently from just considering it as a look-in in on a crime family. What was it saying about anything? I'm told it's accurate, I didn't have to be told that, I could pretty much tell that it was, not that I have inside info on the Mafia, but being an Italian from Vegas who's family from New Jersey originally, eh, let's just say nothing in the show particularly shocked me in terms of content. I'm not saying accuracy isn't good, it is, but I never saw "The Sopranos" as a series that was saying anything more than that. Others did, I'm not anything else you can read into the show, actually make the show deeper than it being a portrayal of a mafia family. 

Okay, so if the material isn't new, and the perspective isn't new, than it must be the approach to the material that's innovative and different, the most unique and appealling thing, right? Um...- 

I mean, yeah, I guess so. It certainly a quality show, so it was a great approach to a tried-and-true topic and collection of archetype and it's certainly credited as being the series that has jumpstarted this modern Golden Age of narrative dramas for television. Now personally I've always questioned this notion that television is so much better than before myself, but that's about today's show, looking at "The Sopranos" specifically, have you ever noticed how many episodes of "The Sopranos" are, well, basically just normal, and relatively inconsequential episodes, at least narrative-wise?

Especially for a cable series that generally had less episodes per season as most series at the time and was critical on the narrative arc for the series, there's just as many episodes that you can basically come into cold and not really need much background to follow, especially the early episode. Think about, what's a good example here, how about "College", one of the first episodes of the series that I truly loved. It's the episode where Tony is off looking at colleges with his daughter Meadow and a former mobster-turned-snitch happens to be on tour, and now he has to kill him. Other than that, there's not much else that happens. Carmela invites the priest over for dinner, and she talks with Dr. Melfi on the phone and discovers she's a woman, and those incidents have more everlasting impact on the narrative than either Meadow's college choice or the fact that Tony kills the former mobster. It's one of the most famous episodes of the series and it doesn't actually have much impact on the overall narrative, lots of episodes don't; they usually just outline things mobsters do. "The Sopranos" is way more slice-of-life in it's approach than I think most of it's fans realize, but more importantly, for a series that supposed changed television forever, it's actually more reminiscent of traditional, classic television drama narratives than people realize. 

If anything, that's the secret of "The Sopranos"'s greatness, not the fact that it was this wholly new innovative reimagining of what television could do or be, but the fact that it's really, much more grounded in classic television. David Chase is a great writer, but the reason how he seemed to know how to reinvent the television narrative was because he spent his prior career perfecting the TV drama narrative. His earliest big breaks included writing 20 episodes of "The Rockford Files" and episodes of critically-acclaimed cult series like "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" and "I'll Fly Away". among others. Those were series that also circumvented a lot of television cliches and conventions and did it with an unusual high level of quality; the guy is a protege of Stephen J. Cannell, and this was before Cannell invented the drama series that nearly every drama series since has borrowed from, "Hill Street Blues", another show that was known for combined multi-narrative ensembles with suddenly episodes that seem to have absolutely no baring on anything other narrative that was previously focused on in the series. 

By the way, I don't consider this a flaw in "The Sopranos", if anything I think it's it's greatest strength. We're so busy looking at the minor details of the episodes sometimes, and that's a good thing too, it means that we care enough about the character to look closer and to try to piece together a larger greater narrative with the series, but I think with "The Sopranos" we don't always realize that, you don't really need to to enjoy it. Look at how much is talked about with the series' last episode, and going back and trying to seek out clues and hints and casting and re-castings and trying to figure out what happened when the screen went to black, when the whole point of the show might be that it doesn't matter. It was good, you enjoyed it, what difference does it make whether Tony or anybody else is suddenly killed or not? Chase is a television veteran who knows better than to simply base his show around those intricate moments where you have to continually play close attention to everything, sometimes Paulie and Christopher nearly freeze to death in the woods after stupidly trying to kill a Russian because Paulie and Christ nearly freeze to death in the woods after stupidly trying to kill a Russian. Does the fact that we don't know if the Russian lives or dies afterwards mean anything? How often does whoever's found guilty on this week's "Law & Order", live or dies afterwards ever mean anything? 

This is also why I'm somewhat reluctant to appreciate this batch of drama series we've gotten for the last 20 years or so, since "The Sopranos" because too many of these series learned how to tell the long-form narrative that shows like "The Sopranos" and others mastered but they totally missed that the long-form narrative of the series is secondary to just creating interesting complex characters and putting them in different and fascinating situations that we want to see them in. "The Sopranos" is generally accepted as the forebearer of this era, and I'm okay with that, but too many series that came afterwards completely missed how classic the series was and how the roots of the series wasn't based in reinventing and challenging the conventions of television narratives. Despite a few exceptions like say "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Breaking Bad" among other, they miss how classic the show was, how you can actually walk into the middle of a random episode and for the most part enjoy the show. That's ultimately what makes "The Sopranos" great and keeps it great all these years afterwards. 

But, back to Ms. Stone's observation would "The Sopranos" actually have the opportunity to succeed today, and what does that say about today's television landscape? Honestly, mostly that the television landscape has so drastically changed that, yeah, she's probably right. Part of it is that the drama series evolution that it created has become so evolved and inspired by it that it wouldn't be recognized as great necessarily, but mostly that there's more networks and more series now, and most options to watch,-, "The Sopranos" thrived in an era where quality respected programming on HBO was still a novelty. I remember when those Emmy nominations came out that first year, everybody was shocked that "The Sopranos" showed up everywhere, not because it was a bad show, but mostly nobody thought anybody was watching it and taking it seriously as an award contender. Myself included; I didn't take the show or the network seriously until a couple years later. It also didn't help that it never won Series until years after, losing regularly to "The Practice" and "The West Wing", and like I said, I'm still reluctant to put it on the highest pedestal of the time, because I frankly think there were better, more innovative and important drama series at the time. (Not a lot, almost a handful, 3 or 4 better ones, I'd say) Nobody knew HBO was reinventing the wheel so severely, giving free reign to creators, allowing them to make as much or as little of their show as they want and on the timeline that they want,- "The Sopranos" was the series that first thought, "Eh, let's take a year off or two," they were the ones ttha changed the format expectations for the audience and HBO was the network that showed Netflix, Amazon and all the others how to do it, and only really, recently are we finally getting to the point where the networks have caught up to their strategy. That's why people are making such big deals out of shows like "The Good Place" or "This is Us", having so much freedom to play with the form. Honestly, HBO is the real big reason "The Sopranos" survived, 'cause they chose to allow it to thrive and survive. 

Nowadays, all the drama series and series in general that are supposedly better, they don't always get the option or choice to survive. They're canceled or renewed almost arbitrarily at times. It happens too often for me, I get into a series that I suspect has many more years ahead of it and then suddenly, "Ahh, "One Mississippi" got canceled!"? They're just like every other show now. I have no idea whether HBO would allow them to go on now if the show came out today. They might've ended up, one or two season and a movie for the fans like many series seem like nowadays. They might've broken through; I doubt they'd be the hit that say "Game of Thrones" is, but at the time they were the "Game of Thrones" of it's day, in a far less competitive television landscape but still. Nowadays, a modern-day mafia families did seem unusual; it stood out from all the lawyers, cops and hospital dramas it was competiting against. Now it's up against fantasy, science-fiction, historical fiction, and those are the expectations of the drama series genre these days and not the exceptions. We're in an era where "This is Us" looks out-of-place for being a modern-day family drama and even that show plays with flashbacks more than most drama series, so half the time it's not even a modern-day drama. "The Sopranos" could've easily gotten lost in the shuffle today. 

That doesn't take away from it's greatness today though; it's responsible for creating this landscape. It's had the same impact on the landscape that "Hill Street Blues" had, everything's so influence and derivitive of the series that now at this point, it would seem like a cliche or throwback if that series aired today, and "The Sopranos" more-or-less has the same problem. Both series took the classic television drama formula and found a way to pump it up on steroids for a new generation. The SAG nominations came out yesterday, we've got two shows that take place in the past, one that takes place in an alternate future, one, that modern-day and involves the Mafia, and the Ozarks..., what else, a zombies sci-fi series, several other costume or period dramas, we're definitely in a world where "The Sopranos" would have trouble breaking through the way it did, but who cares now.

I wish every show I love would never go off the air and all the shows I can't stand by canceled yesterday; but in the meantime, let's enjoy the series for what they were and for as long as we got them and hopefully if they're even half as good as "The Sopranos" were, it won't matter that they're not making new episodes now 'cause we'll be able to rewatch, revisit and look deeper at them whenever we want. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018


I've been staring at the computer for a good five or six hours now trying to figure out how to begin this Reviews post. Well, that's not entirely true, I've actually been doing about seven or eight other things, instead. Honestly, I don't have much to say. I'm still behind on everything here and I've been focusing my attention elsewhere. I'm trying to keep up though, I'm finally getting around to catching up on award season. I'm still nowhere near ready to do a Top Ten from last year, and in fact, I only this blog, finally got around to watching a film from 2018. 

I honestly hate that I've had to put so much aside from this site for so long and there isn't an end in sight and now I'm pretty-well behind on most of everything here. I don't know exactly when or if I'll be able to catch up, so it's gonna have to be this way for awhile. Sometime in the future I'll just be running through a notebook's length of thoughts that and ideas that I just haven't been able to get around to here, but that day's not coming anytime soon. 

But, I'm still gonna get to the films if I can and write the reviews when I can. We've got a lot this week so I won't go over everything else I didn't write on, although I will mention that I can't believe I took this long to get to "Flamenco, Flamenco" until now. I really missed out on that one. 

Anyway, let's finally start off 2018, and try to get closer to working our way through 2017 as we all head into a new year!!!!

(Blows party horn limply) 

Let's get reviews, we're starting with "Black Panther". 

BLACK PANTHER (2018) Director: Ryan Coogler


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Okay, I've been hearing about "Black Panther" for awhile, and admittedly there's a lot to unpack here. 

(Long pause)

So-um, I won't give out any names here, but back when I was in Film School, I took a screenwriting class, and we had to read and critique everyone else's script. Spoilers: the one I presented, sucked. (Shrugs) Anyway, there was one kid who a submitted a strange script about a group of divergent people; I think most of them were military but think like a ragtag crew from like, "Armageddon" or "Jurassic Park" or "Alien", something along those lines and they were traveling to this, mysterious, hard-to-get-to,  supposedly undiscovered part of Africa; I don't remember why; I think they thought there were diamonds there, but mostly it was as a conceit so that the character would get to this rare place and find, living breathing, dinosaurs. A time standing still-type narrative, very "Journey to the Center of the Earth", only the cheap Sci-Fi channel version. (Actually, the writer hated that I referred to the script as a Sci-Fi Channel movie idea, but I stand by that observation and in a positive way.) Being a bit of a geography aficienado and snob, this idea, didn't quite work on me, 'cause I do know for certain how implausible this is; even in a fantasy, except there wasn't a clearly-defined fantasy element in this script in particular, it did kinda take place in the modern world... not important- Anyway, I thought about that story when I observed Wakanda. This is by far, the most fantastical aspect yet to the Marvel movie franchise, and I mean that in the best possible light. In fact, this is actually the first time I can understand this notion of how superheroes are these modern-day mythological heroes I keep hearing that we're supposed to consider them as. I'm not overly familiar with African folklore to presume too much here, so I might be missing my inspiration by a bit here, but Wakanda felt like,- well, I'll just say it, if Atlantis was secretly in Africa and somehow nobody knew and it survived all this time, that's what Wakanda seems like.

Honestly, I'm not really much into this idea of recently discovered unknown peoples being found, especially ones with such advanced technology and materials like Unobtainium Verbantium in this film, for the same reasons I didn't agree with it in my old classmate's script, but I'm giving it a pass here, 'cause there's a more powerful and symbolic value to Wakanda; this idea of what Africa could've become if a part of the continent had somehow managed to evolve on their own and be barred/secluded from all the Colonism and other such cursings and tragedies that have befallen the so-called Dark Continent, so-called mostly by White People who've spent centuries ridding it of any/all resources, including people in many cases, that it had. I can absolutely see why this meaning is too important and too powerful to ignore; for that reason alone, it makes "Black Panther", by far the most interesting and probably the best of the Marvel films so far. 

That's the one thing I like most about Ryan Coogler's work so far. Yes, he's an African-American filmmakers who writes about African-Americans, but it's never that simple, or hasn't been anyway. I've been rewatching "Creed", a lot lately, not because of the sequel that I'm actually not looking that forward too, but because it's apparently on every goddamn cable channel all the time now. Anyway, the thing is, that film is more about Adonis Creed, finding his identity. He was born without a father, but raised within the shadow of him, and he was rich and famous and now trying to make a name for himself in a world that's usually populated by those who came from more depressed socioecomic surroundings. There's legacy and complexity in that film, that frankly as much I love the Rocky movies, it doesn't have much to do with any of that sort of thing, not in any real sense. I can't think of too many African-American filmmakers who focus in on these things either. A lot of the great ones have stuff to same, mostly they try to depict the world as they see it or as they grow up, or have seen elsewise, and there's great, great films like that, but Coogler seems more interested in imagining a better world. 

Sure, Marvel imagined it originally, it makes sense that he's the one to bring it to life. In another sense, there's a lot of the same things going on with "Black Panther" as there were in "Creed". A dead father, a legacy, an unknown son who grew up in the shadow of him, but not fully understanding that past. Actually, the more I think about it, the fact that Eric or Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) the one that grew up in the streets of Oakland is the villain and T'Challa, the real Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) stayed in this secret Utopia is the hero, is kinda the most damning criticism of America I'm seen in a mainstream American movie in a long time, especially as a critique of modern American, and the ending in particular about what happens to that Oakland neighborhood...- honestly, it's a powerful statement if nothing else.  As a narrative, it's practically Greek or Shakespearean in nature. Hell, it's practically Disney in nature. I'm sure somebody out there has made a parallel piece comparing "Black Panther" to "The Lion King", and it wouldn't be unjustified. (It'd make a lot more sense than the ones who kept trying to compare "Frozen" to it.)

It's easy to forget that this is a Marvel movie and fits in that Universe they've created somehow. I've given up trying to piece it all together as a narrative; which, as people want to claim this is a groundbreaking thing in storytelling, frankly I think it's more of a detriment to the storytelling than something that brings it together. That said, this is the probably the one film in this franchise that I most want to see a second time. I'm not sure it's the best, "Thor" is tough to beat, another film that took place mainly in a completely separate, mythological world, but I think it has the most to say, and it is the most isolated from the rest of the films. It also would have more value to repeated viewings. I give full credit to Coogler and the filmmakers for this, and I especially want to single out the cast. This is a great ensemble. When you only have to casually mention how great people like Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong'o are, you've achieved greatness. 

Still, the thing I take most out of "Black Panther" is the more interesting subtexts that I find more compelling, not just the overall narrative, but the stuff at the corners of the screen as well. Like what it would mean for an advanced technological peace-persevering African country would mean to the country and what they would bring to the world. What the idea of such a place could mean to others, how their influence would alter or change that world...- those things I find the most fascinating and hope they'll be explored in later films, if they do them. (They'll do them, I know.) 

THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) Director: Guillermo Del Toro


Admittedly, the swarmy side of me mostly wants to start making jokes. There's easy ones too, but I'm sure at this point most everybody has made them. Besides, I don't feel like doing that, although it's naturally gonna be hard since we're talking about a movie where a girl has sex with-, well, essentially a- ph-ph-ph-fiiiiiiiiiii-ish-?- well, technically the character's name is Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), so-eh,- well, I guess most appropriately for a fairy tale, technically, she's having sex with a frog, but fish sounds funnier, and works a lot better when you're aching to make a "Swingin' On a Star" reference. (That is a weird song that we should be making much more fun of than we do.) 

Well, nobody is carrying moonbeans home in a jar, instead we have a young mute cleaning lady, Elisa Esposito (Oscar-Nominee Sally Hawkins). She has scars on her neck that took out her pharynx sometime after she was found as an orphan baby by the canals. She has a mundane life sweeping the floors at some kind of government facility in the early sixties in an apartment building overlooking an old movie theater. She loves watching old movies with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay painter who's struggles to get work in an advertising industry that's quickly moving to photography over ink & paint. One day, there's a new, eh, creature who's brought into the laborator facility by Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon), whose one of those archetype governmental bad guys that Michael Shannon plays so well, they might as well name the type after him at this point. He's got a cattle prod to rebel against attacks and finds a biblical inspiration for his racist and sexist relgious views, like how he compares himself to Samson after conversing wiht Eliza's co-worker and friend Delilah (Oscar-nominee Octavia Spencer). 

The creature, the Amphibius Man is mute and can only communicate in movement and gestures, similar to Eliza, and the two begin to hit it off. First, wiht Eliza sharing her lunch, mostly boiled eggs that she makes while she masturbates in the bath every morning, but soon, they begin to have emotions with each other and even manage to take the creature and hide them in her apartment at one point with the help of Dr. Hofstetter (Michael Stuhlbarg) a scientist/Russian spy who's fighting to preserve the Creature's life as oppose to dissecting it, believing it's the best way to study the creature that was treated as a God in the Amazon and it turns out, might have some healing powers. Although, it also has the power to eat cats and slice off the fingers of it's attackers among other skills. 

I've noticed some comparisons to other films and stories that many critics keep bringing up. Obviously there's some "King Kong" and probably more specifically, "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" references, there's also several references to older movies; the film looks lovingly at Cecil B. DeMille's "Cleopatra" and the stair dance from "The Little Colonel", but I think the story that's actually most apt for comparison, is "The Little Mermaid". Not just the sea creature falling in love with a human, and doing so without a speaking voice. It's how it's a misfit love story where two people who don't feel at home and seem most like freaks in this world fall in love, and search for a place and a world where they could be accepted. I'm still being too simplistic though. Yes, I can point to mythology to make the inter-species narrative be more palatable, but as a symbolic metaphor for anybody who's seemed like an outsider, and just as visual feast for people who love the movies, "The Shape of Water", exceeds beyond expectations. 

This is one of the few films this year that I genuinely want to see again and watch several over times over, just to learn more about it, and find something new to think about with it; it's the first time I've had that feeling with a Guillermo Del Toro film. As somebody who's never been too huge on Del Toro, outside of being impressed by his painterly visuals of course this was one of the few times I felt the visuals weren't just superficial additives to the narrative. One of the biggest criticism I got from when I put out Top Ten Lists on my blogs, was when I left off "Pan's Labyrinth" from my 2006 list. Now, I do think very highly of "Pan's Labyrinth" and that movie is just as much a fairy tale as this one, but the fairy tale aspects of that film were a protectorate of the reality that the young heroine of that film was living in. It was more "The Wizard of Oz"-like than anything else, the faun underworld she visited paralleled the perils of the Spanish-American War reality she was going. Not a negative aspect of the film, but I think it made it harder to fully connect to. "The Shape of Water", will almost definitely be in my Top Ten this year; it doesn't just take the two worlds and more easily combine them, it create better and more deeper metaphoric narrative while it takes these contrasting times and places and simultaneously creates a better, new fantasy world to tell this story in. It's always risky creating a historical piece like piece, but it never once bothered me in "The Shape of Water". There was always something deeper underneath that kept me interested no matter what new avenues or dimensions the film took. 

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017) Director: Ridley Scott


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Well, let's start with the elephant. Ridley Scott had completed shooting "All the Money in the World", when, starting with a reveal from Anthony Rapp, several now-infamous accusations of sexual misconduct and assault came out against Kevin Spacey, who in turn, tried to defuse the situation by himself, coming out. Neither piece of information surprised too many people who were in the know, although admittedly I followed Kevin Spacey on Facebook at the time, and usually got updates from him regularly, so, I had to dislike that. I don't know what's happened to him since, but with filming already complete and a release date that couldn't be changed, everybody else got brought back and 88-year-old Christopher Plummer came in to reshoot all of Spacey's scenes that they could. Plummer would end up getting a surprise Oscar nomination for this last-second performance, and I'm just gonna be blunt here, he's a better choice for the part anyway. 

The only thing left of Spacey's performance, at least to public eyes, is an early trailer, which honestly makes J. Paul Getty look like a grotesque makeup monstrocity. Plummer is closer to Getty's age at the time of his grandson J. Paul III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) kidnapping. I have no idea if it's a better performance but, I can tell you that, while I'm the guy who usually doesn't notice the Uncanny Valley in animation or the plastic baby doll in "American Sniper", I would probably be staring at that horrific makeup job and wondering "What the fuck were they thinking?" So, if nothing else good came out of this, then at least that did. 

As to the film itself, well, as somebody who only casually knew this story of the Gettys kidnapping, I found it intriguing if nothing else. 

So, Getty, is kinda mostly renowned nowadays for, being rich and being a cheap-ass bastard. His oil company, which no joke, he started when he was ten, along with, earned him billions of dollars, not just through the selling of oil, it was also through several loopholes around things like taxes and whatnot. He's lived an interesting life. In fact, it's so interesting, they made a TV series based around it, "Trust".

Anyway, in the early '70s, back when every rich teenager was getting kidnapped, (Yes, that was a thing, look it up.) Getty's grandson was taken by the Ndrangheta, which, eh, testing my old country Mafia history, um, I believe is a Calibrese branch of the,- (Sigh) just look up their history at the Wikipedia page here:

So, the movie details, basically this intriguing bargaining situtation between the gang, represented mostly by Cinquanta (Romain Duris) and the Gettys family. Now, John Paul the third is represented by his mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) who had long ago divorced John Paul Gettys II (Andrew Buchan) after he basically wasted his life away after working for his father, and she came out of it, without money but the rights to their kids, which is what Gettys wants most. Well, that and a lot of paintings and statues and crap; his estate was Xanadu. I don't remember if his house had a nickname like that, but it might as well have. I think the L.A. mayor lives there now. 

Anyway, so there's that intriguing cross-conflict, and then there's Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) who works for Gettys specializing in high-ranking negotiations. He's a bit of a mysterious figure, and his objective is to first, find out if John Paul is really missing and not have this be part of an elaborate scheme within a scheme. It wasn't, although early signs did indicate that it was, and that itself wasn't an unusual practice, and the rich would joke about such a nightmare scenario at times. After that, the objective is to get the ransom down to something that Gettys was willing to pay, which involves finding a way to make him pay it, without giving up everything else. 

It's more straight-forward than I'm making it sound, especially for Ridley Scott, who often has a tendency to add or dwell on unnecessary scenes to the point of annoyance with. I guess in that sense, it's one of my favorite films of his, up there with "Thelma & Louise", "Matchstick Men" and "Black Hawk Down". but it's 3-Dimensional chess and everybody makes pretty solid moves all things considered. To be honest, I completely understand Getty's infamous initial declaration of not spending a dime on saving him. If you give one mouse a cookie, the next one's gonna ask for more cookie. I mean, sure he's a cheap bastard in general, but that's how people become rich, and the movie being told under the shadow of a statement like that, even without the pop history lesson is a fascinating film subject.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017) Director: Dan Gilroy


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"Roman J. Israel, Esq.", let's start with the first thing, terrible title. In fact, this might be the worst-titled film named after a main character I've ever seen or heard of. To be fair, I can't think of a better alternative title, but still....- I mean, I'm sure it's the guy's name in real life, but they couldn't have come up with something better, like, just Roman J. Israel? (Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington) I mean, I've never heard of the guy and this is my introduction to him? I mean, I'm glad he's actually an Esquire, unlike say, Bill S. Preston, but...- (Sigh) 

Actually, you know what; let me look this guy up. (Google search)

(Five minutes later)

He's not a real person. If he is then I can't find it. Oh-kay; I guess there's plenty of examples of that in film too, but-eh, I can't think of it working since "Michael Clayton"; which was Dan Gilroy's brother Tony Gilroy's film. Frankly, I'm not as surprised as much as I'm letting on. "Roman J. Israel, Esq." doesn't feel like a real movie; it feels like one of those moral philosophy questions, that may have started off somewhere thoughtful, but just went off the goddamn rails in classroom discussions. So, Roman is a lawyer, but he's one of those lawyers who writes the briefs for the main guy at his firm, he does all the technical gruntwork. There's some who have analyzed the character's knowledge of the penal system and other assorted ticks to confirm that he's autistic or suffering from Asperger's Syndrome, but I think that's giving a little too much credit. No this starts with somebody saying, "What would be a moral conundrum for a lawyer," and then they would go, "What if he was an activist lawyer?" "One who's now working for a corporate lawfirm?" And then they'd have to explain how did that happen, and figure out what he would do and why he would do it then. 

So, in this world, Roman is this activist lawyer. The behind-the-scenes. the guy that does the real lawyering, at least until his more well-known figurehead of the firm slips into a coma. His lawfirm is taken over by a former student of his partner, George Pierce (Colin Farrell, in an underrated performance) Roman, who, has been doing this for around 45 years and dressing like he's been doing it for fifty-five, accepts a position at George's bigger, more splashy corporate firm, and he begins taking some smaller cases, basically just like his old lawfirm used to, which they used in order to fund their more progressive activist lawsuits. He even prepares a major class action suit that would supposedly forever alter the plea bargaining system. 

Okay, the system for plea bargaining in the law, does indeed need a radical transformation. Maybe there's actual litigation out there like that, or inspired  by that, but mostly this film feels like a sub-par John Grisham adaptation made by the guy who did "The Pursuit of Happyness". It's weird actually that Dan Gilroy is the one behind this. He's by no means perfect, but he's been involved in more than a few good movies. He previously wrote and directed "Nightcrawler" a movie that's actually a great thriller that poses some ethical and moral questions about society. He also helped write "Kong: Skull Island", which I'm reviewing later and spoilers, that's the movie I prefer of his this week; that's a shock to me. Even the crap he's been involved with like "Two for the Money" or Tarsem Singh's "The Fall" or two of my personal cult favorites "Chasers" and "Real Steel", at least those movies all, actually seemed like movies. "Roman J. Israel, Esq." has the pieces of a movie. There's a hastily introduced love interest for instantce, a young minority rights advocate in Maya (Carmen Ejogo), but all she does is, sorta fall in love with him, and she's just a representative of his past more than a real character. 

I guess there is this narrative of a man who's identity, beliefs and work ethics are from a different time and he's trying to adjust to today, but honestly it doesn't work at all. For one thing, I can do math, and assuming Roman was some kind of law school savant, he'd still be a Senior Citizen by now, which can work; that Nancy Meyers movie with Robert De Niro, "The Intern" kinda played with that, but here's a guy still stuck in the Revolutionary '60s essentially and now he's coming in to change corporate law? Honestly, it would've been a better, more interesting film if they did this, the complete opposite way. Have a yuppie Gordon Gekko-lawyer type suddenly have to come into the low-paying, low-profile work of modern activist law, which in these days is actually a more growing side of law actually. Roman would actually fit right in nowadays, wouldn't he? 

Eh, maybe not. It's still a different form of activist law than ever before, but it would've seemed like it made sense. The more I think about this movie, the more I hate it and the more baffled I get by it's very existance. I'm not even sure why Denzel was nominated for this; it's not a particularly special performance from him. I understood his nomination for "Flight" a lot more than this, and that movie was a structural mess of a screenplay and film as well, but at least somewhere in that mess there was a compelling story about an eccentric and disturbing character and his struggles with alcholism. There's nothing that compelling in "Roman J. Israel, Esq." 

FERDINAND (2017) Director: Carlos Saldanha


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"Ferdinand" is the story about a bull who loves flowers. I'm guessing having him have a dream of owning a china shop was just too obvious? After ten minutes after I made that joke btw, Ferdinand, was indeed stuck, hiding in a china shop. There's always something obvious when it comes to Blue Sky Studios, isn't there. 

At least, that's the tone and direction of the review I was going to go for regarding "Ferdinand", but then I did a little more research. I don't know how exactly I missed this growing up, but the story of "Ferdinand the Bull" is apparently a children's classic. It actually outsold "Gone with the Wind" during it's heyday, it was popular and heavily controversial for all of the supposed political undercurrents and themes the story had, most of which seem nonsensical when you see them listed. This isn't the first adaptation of the story either, a Disney short film adaptation in the thirties won the Animated Short Subject Academy Award. I went and found that short; I suspect it mostly won that because of it's popularity as a story because it's an otherwise good but unremarkable short. 

That said, I can see how the core tale of a Spanish bull, Ferdinand (Colin H. Murphy as a Young Ferdinand and John Cena as the older Ferdinand) who didn't want to fight with the matadors in the ring, and only wanted to sit down, relax and smell the flowers, would be incredibly powerful for a lot of people. This modern-day fairy tale came out in the thirties and was teaching people to, basically be themselves even when nature and nurture try to dissuade you of that. 

As for this feature film adaptation though, I'm not particularly sure this is a good film. It does expand the story, perhaps a bit too much. For instance, it goes into a lot about how horrible bullfighting as a sport is, basically how it's really just bulls going from one abettoir to another, I think that was a bit unnecessary. I know bullfighting isn't politically correct anymore, but that wasn't necessary. I suppose creating some more staunch enemies and rivals like Valiente (Jack Gore(Young) and Bobby Cannavale (Older)) was an essential addition but then there's this idea of separating him from Moreno's (Raul Esparza) pen of bulls and having him live a happy life, outside of the world of bullfighting. I mean, it's okay, but mostly it's just a situation that sets up, older shenanigans, like the aforementioned scene where he's trying to hide in a china shop. I guess there's the divide between two families aspects of Ferdinand now, but- eh, I don't know. A lot of this was just too light-hearted and jokey to take seriously. The obvious comic relief side characters really take this film down a few notches for me, not that they weren't otherwise essential, but they were just uninteresting. Like David Tennant's blind Scottish bull, why? Or Jared Carmichael playing the dog, Paco, that's Ferdinand's best friend/brother. I think we could've had more from him. I liked Kate McKinnon as the goat who trains the bulls, that's clever, but most of this feels like spreading a movie to feature length when it really is better for a short subject. 

I also think the symbolism of the story is stronger than the actual narrative. That said, while there's essentially nothing awful or horrible about the film, "Ferdinand" managed to make me get so bogged down in the extemporaneous additions, that I completely missed the more important, and powerful message at the core of the fairy tale. I guess Blue Sky gets the blame for that; it's one of their films, and let's be frank here, while I do like one or two of their movies, and I'll give them credit for not completely screwing up "The Peanuts Movie", at their best they're average and at their worst, they're unwatchable. "Ferdinand" is average and in this era of animation that's just not good enough. And with this story and how popular it still is, they could've really found a way to recapture outr imagination with this film, and frankly they just didn't. 

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts


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The narrative of "King Kong" has become incredibly powerful in society as well as film over the years; hell, I just reviewed another movie that basically is a different variation of that story earlier this blogpost and that film won the Best Picture Oscar. As to "Kong: Skull Island",- well, I'm not the biggest expert on Kong, but I'm sure if I search deep enough, I'll find some old sequel or remake who's narrative more closely resembles the story in this one. Seriously, they were making sequels to the original "King Kong" in the same year that the made that film; there's way more than you realize. That said, usually the narrative involves, Kong falling in love with a human woman. "Kong: Skull Island", is intriguing if, for nothing else, for not really having a Fay Wray character. I mean, I guess there is a female character who um...- um, photographs things. This helps get Mason (Brie Larson) beloved by the local Iwi tribes on this Oceanic island that this gang heads to in search for Kong, but-eh.... Yeah, I don't think she's a Fay Wray or a femme fatale-like character at all. 

Take that narrative away and "Kong: Skull Island" is basically just an overblown Hollywood B-movie, but eh, well, "King Kong" invented that genre, so,... "Kong: Skull Island" takes place at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and Bill Randa (John Goodman) manages to get a government grant and military escort to travel to a particular island to, well, he doesn't say it to everybody at first, but to search for Kong. The escort is led by Col Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who is naturally the one left in the dark for what he suspected was more than just a science mission, but he and everybody else, including the British tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) find Kong, living in a walled-up section of the island along with the Natives. 

They also find, by far the most interesting thing in the film, Private Marlow (John C. Reilly) a soldier who's been trapped on the island since World War II. Okay, this is one of those things that's sounds ridiculous, but keep in mind, it's happened. I suspect, Reilly's character is most inspired by Hiroo Onada, a Japanese soldier who was on an obscure Philippine island, believing that the war was still being fought for almost thirty years after it ended. Reilly's character isn't quite that far off, however he was shipwrecked on the island for about thirty years and didn't know whether the war was over or not. He's mostly just happy to see other Americans when they arrive and he becomes a guide to the island, which believe it or not, has a lot worst than Kong. 

That's about all the plot that the movie has, and about all that's necessary. I guess the movie tried to take itself emotionally, but mostly it's an action film. It's not exactly a normal King Kong movie, I mean, they actually leave Kong on the island and the only characters who're interested in doing some bad shit to him, are trying to destroy him and not exploit him. Really, this is basically just a giant monster movie with Kong in the title. (Sigh) I guess that's good enough for me, just don't be expecting anything else and it should work for most others on that basis as well. 

PATTI CAKE$ (2017) Director: Geremy Jasper


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I’ve always had a bit of a struggle trying to fully understand rap music. It’s not my genre and sure jokingly, I’m still the last person claiming that it’s a trend that I’m still waiting to go see away soon like disco, the other non-traditional instrument-based genre that started in New York African-American communities in the early '70s, but I know that’s not happening. "Patti Cake$" has actually made me really evaulate my apprehension and confusion I've always had towards the genre. (It was actually part of the inspiration I had for that blog I did last week on things that I just "didn't get". Link here:)

It doesn’t help that I grew up in the mid-90s and while gangster rap was mainstream and did produce some incredible talent and some of the best and most important music of our time; it also produced an incredible amount of bullshit; not the least of which was the stupidest-ass feud in the history of music that left the two biggest and most talented senselessly killed. There’s other stuff that downright annoyed me at that young, young age about the genre that have just stuck, many of which seem or are downright trivial and I wrote about some of them. I don’t know, there some rappers and rap songs I like, or can admire, and maybe I’m just a rock guy, but- (Sigh) I don’t know; I always this feeling that there was something about the genre that always sounded wrong to me. I couldn’t place it, but I think I know what it is now. Rap music, lyrically has, a lot of filler in it. 

Let me explain. “Patti Cake$”, is a New Jersey version of "8 Mile" and "Hustle & Flow" in mostly good ways, we get young heavyset white female rapper from the suburbs of New Jersey, Patty, aka Killa P (Danielle MacDonald), and we see her life and struggles and she’s talented and she often listens, writes and improvises her rhymes well, and yet a lot of it is just, setting up for insults, or- I don’t know, not really saying much. 

A lot of it is her talking about herself, which is not unusual for any art form, music especially, especially rap music. Anyway, at some point, we meet her drunk of a mother, Barb, (Bridget Everett) who’s still got somewhat of a decent voice left for karaoke at the bar where Patti works yet, when she’s not other forms of Kim Basinger-in-“8 Mile” incompetent. At an early scene of her singing kareoke, she sings “These Dreams” by Heart. That’s a song I love and am very familiar with, and although she didn’t sing a particularly good version of it in the movie, at least to my ears, but I can see why that song here. It’s a song about regret, dreams that were never acted upon; a good choice for a leitmotif for the character. 

However, it also kinda just struck me; that’s a song where every word is carefully selected and chosen for the song, but there’s a lot fewer lyrics in it than, most rap songs, at least most of the ones I’m familiar with and like. (I know we’re in a moment where beats and drops matter more than lyrics, but let’s just pretend that’s not the case for a moment.) The approach is all different; it’s more about whether the performer has a good rhyme as oppose to what they’re saying and that, well that often means that sometimes they’re not saying much. I mean, I can think of pop and rock songs that have a lot of lyrics as well, but even when they’re a bunch of nonsense, take something like Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” which is just a bunch pretentious rambling-ass lyrics that barely mean anything, it never feels that way and it never seem to dive into the same old ideas over and over again. 

Sometimes, even the best rap music is basically either, "I'm worst off and poorer than you, so I'm the better rapper," or "I'm mure rich and succesful-as-fuck than you, so I'm the better rapper." That's what I was thinking about for much of the movie honestly, some variations on that kind of observation. It's not a negative, any movie that gets me to think and self-analyze like this has to be some kind of good, and "Patti Cake$" certainly is. She's in the former category of the two, especially if you know that area of northern Jersey, which the movie knows particularly well. I said it's a suburb, but it's a suburb of New York City and that whole Bergen County seems more like a small southern county with several small towns that were built like suburbs but don't really have a nearby large city that they're naturally a suburb to. Sure, Manhattan is just a bridge away, but you gotta look around to go find it, as Patti has probably figured out living her life here in this horizon line of nothingness, who needs a house up in Hackinsack?

Anyway, she does what anybody in these movies do, gets herself started through the roughest and humblest of early beginnings, in this case, being apart of a team with an Arab pharmacist friend Jheri, (Siddharth Dhananjay) who's also got some rap inspiration, as well as, a bizarre local punk rock experimental musician just known as Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), who lives in an abandoned cottage in the woods somewhere with enough musical equipment to create a demo. She even drags her aging Grandmother Nana (Cathy Moriarty) along. 

I like the three generations narrative as each one seems all too aware of how each girl is seemingly going down the similar paths. Barb was a rocker chick in her youth who also recorded an album back then, and she stills dreams about recapturing the success and youth that she feels her pregnancy with Patti lost her. Now Patti is trying to find that kind of success as well with a completely different kind of music, one that isn't as Bon Jovi or Bruce Springsteen as the location presents. 

The setting is key to this movie; it's arguably the best character of the movie; first-time Director Geremy Jasper captures this area of New Jersey that's just downtrodden with dive bars lining the streets of once upon a time must've started as a vision for an idyllic New York suburb but now seems like an out-of-place run-down inner city. Patti gets work at dive bars as bartenders and also some sporadic catering work for parties in New York and for some of the richer sections of Jersey. That's about all there is and all there seems to be to do in the town, except maybe go to jail at some point. Honestly, I'm not sure how well the movie would work without getting this unique setting so well; it's documentary-like while the narrative at the foreground could easily be misconstrued as comical in other lights. 

As to the music in "Patti Cake$", I think it's okay, I've had that damn "PB&J" song stuck in my head since the movie came out, it's definitely an earworm, even though I thought more highly of some the other songs in the movie, most of which aren't as memorable however. "Patti Cake$" is an impressive directorial debut and is filled with good performances from some otherwise lesser-known performers. It certainly helps that most of the cast are fairly unknown, outside of Cathy Moriarty and trust me, you wouldn't know that was her if I didn't tell you. It's also an eclectic cast with actors from at least three different continents and have some pretty diverse and interesting background themselves. I'm looking forward to a more assured second feature from Jasper, one that might be a little less formulaic in the future, but this'll do for now.    

NOCTURAMA (2017) Director: Bertrand Bonello


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Bertrand Bonello is one of those directors that snoody film critics like myself, claim they've admire because of how visually artistic they are, but they can't actually recall too many details or movies that the director made. We all have a director or two like that; personally I thought it was Wong Kar-Wai for everybody except myself for years. I haven't gotten around to his other recent film, the biopic on Yves Saint-Laurent, but I did think highly of "House of Pleasures aka House of Tolerance", although, yeah in hindsight, I don't actually recall too much about it other than the fact that it was about an early 20th Century Parisian bordello. That was basically enough for me, 'cause it was basically a slice-of-life period piece, but for "Nocturama", there's more going on. 

At least, there seems to want to be more going on. A.O. Scott observes that ""Nocturama" would be an interesting film about terrorism, if there was no such thing as terrorism," I can't completely disagree with that observation, but eh, I can't outright pan a movie either that's willing to contrast a Melville-like sequence of thrills as a bunch of teenagers who look like they could either be average teenagers getting high behind the 7-11, or be members of the Baader-Meinhof group setting up a multi-tiered Terrorist attack all over Paris, with those same teenagers, stuck alone in a mall, blasting Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair" all over the store. 

It's not a terrible plan on it's surface actually, set the bombs, hide in the store past closing, hang out 'til morning where they'd escape with the crowd. I don't know why they set off all those bombs, or what exactly they're doing it for. Ironically, they complain that they're tired of the society they live in, which makes the choice of a mall particularly ironic as a hiding place. They also, seem to walk around trying on clothes, eating, just interacting with the space, sometimes, a little too literally. There's a particularly strange scene involving one of the more idiotic members of the group as he sexually assaults a mannequin while brandishing a gun, and blasting Blondie's "Call Me". Mostly, I'm just confused why he doesn't try to just get with one of the women in the group. I mean, this could be their last night together; if their plan doesn't work and they're not escaping, or going separate ways to make them harder to find all of them? 

There's some discussion about how they're a combination of kids of disgruntled immigrants and kids of the societal elite who are annoyed at what their parents do to the lower classes, but it does feel more like theory than action. That said, it's still a little too well-made and strange to dismiss completely. I don't know if it has anything to say, maybe other than a commentary on terrorism in the modern world, and a flimsy one of those at that. But whatever it was trying to say, it looked good trying to say it. Bonello is talented, the movie that the first part of the movie reminded me of the most was "Le Samourai", everything was intense and nervous and even though you weren't exactly sure what was happening, you know what was happening and that it was frightening. It didn't do much with it though, but it also chose to go in another direction. Usually I'm not particularly lenient on how some director like to toy us with genre like that, but hey, even I like a few Claude Chabrol films. Not a lot, but a few. Maybe I'll get tired of Bonello's pretentious faux-idealism next film, but it worked well enough on me for now. 

PRINCESS CYD (2017) Director: Stephen Cone


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"Princess Cyd" is my first introduction to the work of the prolific Chicago-based filmmaker Stephen Cone; it might be the first introduction to him for several people who see this film, but after watching it, I'm definitely interested in seeing his previous works. The first film of his that garnered my attention was "Henry Gamble's Birthday Party", a fiilm from a couple years ago that's struggled to find a way onto my Netflix queue ever since. "Princess Cyd" is his biggest mainstream success to date and despite that, it's really difficult to describe this film's greatness.

I'm not alone either, going through several of the other critics' reviews there seems to be a general struggle to fully explain why the movie's so good. Trying to compare it to other films and filmmakers, most of the films that come to mind are European coming-of-age films. Not just because of the subject, but the style of the movie too. It's Ingmar Bergman of course who mastered the idea of filming the face, and Jessie Pinnick's gorgeous face is the most memorable and striking image from this film to me. She is the Cyd in the title, and she's a spirited teenage girl from South Carolina, (Cone's home state I might add) who travels up to Chicago to spend time with her Aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), who she knows a little bit about, and is a well-known famous novelist. The beginning of the movie however, starts with just a black screen a 911 phone call informing us that Cyd's mother was apparently killed. Miranda still lives and thrives in her and her mother's old childhood home. These details are a film in of themselves, but while we discover them, we're often back to Cyd's face. She could easily pass for Bridgette Bardot but more than that, she's got that look, big eyes, round face, no matter what she's doing, she always looks like she's exploring. Observing, trying to get a sense of,- not where she fits in, but how everyone acts and behaves. 

It's strange and somewhat hypocritical of her, 'cause mostly what she wants to do at first is just look around the town and then, like many young girls at summer, just jump into a swimsuit and law out on the grass all day. She tells her aunt how she doesn't really read, something that's somewhat sacriligious in a house of an author, a literary local legend at that, but it's Miranda's non-reaction that's just as interesting. It's like Cyd's trying to test the waters, get reactions, and it's actually fascinating, how little they react around her. I'm sure they've seen other Lolita types walk in and out of their circles over the years; nothing catches them offguard and sure enough, eventually Cyd begins to adapt.

The other narrative is her relationship with Katie (Malic Sauter) a butch barista that's not much older than Cyd herself, and seems to be aimlessly trying to sort through her post-high school life. She currently lives with a couple guys, including an older brother in an apartment and she and Cyd have an instant chemistry. There's talk that Cyd has a boyfriend, and she also almost has a different fling with a guy herself, but she's interested in Katie. 

Cyd also confronts her aunt about her sex life, or lack thereof as well. There are some potential people around who she could be with, including a fellow author who's book she's helping him edit, but Miranda's mostly excited that she can still fit into her teenage swimsuit at all. And to be able to read and share poetry every so often with friends. It's a dynamic that's added to by the eventual history behind that 911 call at the beginning that doesn't ultimately get revealed to us until the right moment at the end, when finally the quiet observer feels comfortable and loved enough in the moment to finally begin peeling off that shield. 

"Princess Cyd" is the kind of movie that you wish was made more often, especially in America and especially this well. It's not quite a love story, it's not really a coming-of-age, it's more a movie about a person just expanding their horizons by what they know and experiencing new things. New people, new aspects of her past and life that they weren't aware of before, new emotions and feelings. I think that's helps too, most of these movies make it seem like it's the "Summer that changed everything" kind of narrative of something or another, this isn't necessarily a summer like that or a coming-of-age story like those it's more like a brief experience of fling and I think that ironically makes it feel more special. It's only one of many experiences that you expect and hope for Cyd to have and discover over the years, and continues to come-of-age. 

INGRID GOES WEST (2017) Director: Matt Spicer


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“Ingrid Goes West” includes a scene where Aubrey Plaza does a striptease while doing a Catwoman impression.I'm only bringing that us because I know some people who are such Aubrey Plaza fans that they will be interested in watching this movie for that fact alone, as for me, as much I adore Plaza as well, um, yeah, that's not enough for me unfortunately. 

I can see why this film would be somewhat interesting for some of the online critics though, especially those Youtube, Instagram and Twitter “influencer” types though, which I guess technically could include me, although in this rare instance I hope it doesn't. That really is a strange name, “Influencer”; I mean, it's not inaccurate, I can easily list a bunch of Youtubers and bloggers who influence me, but,- I don't know, maybe if it was more “inspirers,” I'd be more receptive of it. (Shrugs) Anyway, Ingrid (Plaza) is a lonely young woman who's had difficulty connecting with people over the years, and has apparently spent much of her adulthood caring for a sick mother who has since passed away. She's alienated what friends she used to have, and decides to, go west and seek out a new best friend, someone who seems similar to her, but is having a much more successful life as an online influencer.

I must confess that I'm constantly tempted to call this movie “Ingrid Goes Down” in my head, because of it's similar title to the movie “Igby Goes Down”, the underrated coming-of-age film from about fifteen years ago. The movie's have little else to do with each other, but it could be a good title for the film as well. Ingrid finds a place to live and a landlord, Dan, (O'Shea Jackson) that's suspicious but attracted to her, and she then begins following Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olson) the famous social media influencer she follows and tries to get into her inner circle by going to the same places and even changing her look a bit to look like her, and stealing her dog so that she can meet her when she returns it. Yes, it's very “Single White Female” behavior, if you ever wanted to see that movie exclusively from Jennifer Jason Leigh's character's point of view, this is basically what you might get, only, a com-ed-y?????

I presume that was supposed to be a dark comedy, but honestly I didn't laugh too much. It was just painful; there's only a few ways this film could really go and they went with one of the obvious predictable ones. I suspect this film might've been inspired by real incidents, and it's actually a fairly realistic approach to the material despite some obvious indy-film quirkiness, maybe too realistic. Like, the final confrontation seems like something that would happen in that situation. I don't know, maybe it's because there's so many goddamn influencers out there and it seems every other week some popular Youtuber I've never heard of before does something so stupid that I have to start looking them up and wonder why they were ever popular to begin, and that's on top of all the normal anger, dismissiveness and divisiveness I see some of them get that perhaps I'm kinda just waiting until I hear about Youtube's version of Selena or Rebecca Schaffer to happen.

I don't think so though, there's variations of this material that have worked in comedic senses before. I think what happened is that whoever had the idea for this probably interviewed some real influencers and friends of there's and observed their lives and perhaps even talked to them about real stalker fans and kinda tried to take something was probably more absurd and outlandish in it's original context and then decided to make it realistic. Or tried to picture more what would happen if someone like Ingrid came along to try to bump their way into one of those social media influencer's inner circle. I think it confuses the movie and ergo, confuses me. Maybe that's what they're going for, but that's a tough balance; think about how Jason Reitman's“Young Adult” pulled it off, for one thing, Diablo Cody created a more interesting and complex character at the center to pull us in and then examined her in her most desperate and worst spot, as she was trying to get back together with a now-married high school boyfriend. For Ingrid, this isn't an anomoly, she's just following her pattern of getting to close to people until she loses it completely when she gets shunned. Honestly, it's not even that strange an objective to find yourself trying to make friends with an influencer or two. I'll be blunt here, I was taught in film school classes about how to engage and make friends with people in the industry; you have to, you need work, they might be your co-workers one day and more than that, they can't hire you for anything unless they know who you are and preferably like you enough to tolerate you on a film set or in an office or whatever. This isn't absurd enough to really truly be funny and it isn't so absurd or ridiculous that you're in shock at how unbelievable this Ingrid girl is or what she's doing.

I'm glad she decided to Go West, it's peaceful there and in the open air and the skies are blue..., but I just didn't care.

KARL MARX CITY (2017) Director: Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker


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Erinnerungskultur-The culture of rememberance.

Vergangenheitsbewaltigung-The process of coming to terms with the past. 

"Karl Marx City" begins with those two words and their definitions. I wrote them down, if for no other reason than because I completely missed the boat on schadenfreude becoming the popular word in critique circles, and still only half-remember what that word means when it's brought up, but also because I thought they were useful in general. Especially Vergangenheitsbewaltigung. The U.S. is a country that has always, always, always had a difficult time coming to terms with it's past, if it even allows itself to remember it correctly, but it's not like there isn't competition for that title. Germany for one. 

"Karl Marx City", was the name of city of Chemnitz from 1953-1990, when it was part of the GDR . It wasn't changed for any particular reason related to Karl Marx; it basically has as much to do with him as Columbus, Ohio has to do with Christopher Columbus. The movie is multiple things but it begins with a documentary footage of the town. The city was the home of Director Petra Epperlein and her late father, was possibly a member of the STASI. It's easy to discount this era of Germany, but East Germany under Soviet control was one of the most repressive states the world's ever seen. Everybody was under surveillance all the time, and still to this day, this secret past is still being discovered and explored. 

This is obviously Epperlein & Tucker's most personal film, especially for Epperlein who between actual footage of the town during the GDR days, she interviews other locals, her family, former members of the STASi, and begins to piece together other parts of the history of the area and herself. Epperlein's made a career out of hardnose onsight political documentaries, most notably the Iraq War doc, "Gunnar Palace". I can certainly understand why a closer look at a town that used to be named arbitrary after the author of the Communist Manifesto is more-than relevant today. I think I'd probably prefer to just observe the footage over narratives of the stories than see Petra's personal exploration; I've still got "A Film Unfinished" stuck in my mind from a few years earlier, so that's the standard I hold such archeological cinematic explorations of the past like this, but-eh, it's apart of the narrative that's worth exploring as well. It is apart of the, well, Vergangenheitsbewaltigung of it all. (Shrugs). 

LEGION OF BROTHERS (2017) Director: Greg Barker


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It's hard to remember this now, but the initial surges in the Afghanistan War from America, were actually fairly successful. I mean, we did overthrow Taliban and pushed Al-Qaeda out of the country and whatever else happened afterwards that was a good thing, and it wasn't even that difficult. I mean, basically it was a couple groups of some well-trained, well-executed Special Forces mission and Special Forces. "Legion of Brothers" is a brisk documentary, and nothing particularly special when it comes to military docs, but it does take us back to those earliest days and with the Afghan War's earliest and arguably most effective soldiers. I don't think they ever imagined that, all this time time later and,- well, it's hard to exactly call it a war in the traditional sense, but yeah we still have soldiers there, and it doesn't seem like it's ever going to officially end in an traditional sense, but that's never been the soldiers fault. 

"Legion of Brothers" isn't that interested in diving into the Military-Industrial Complex though; it's mostly a document of those early days by the men who were there, those who are still around and the survivors of those who aren't. It also goes into what's happened to those Special Forces men afterwards as the war continued for them. 

They still get together, they're still a-, well, the title above says it all. I don't think you're there's too many shocking revelations in "Legion of Brothers", but you're gonna find first-hand accounts and you get to hang out with some of the best men our armed services have ever produced. The movie ends with them being honored with a statue. I guess that's the gold watch for accomplishment in the armed forces; you get immortalized, remembered, memorialized, hopefully not all of those at once, and hopefully memorialized comes a lot later. I wish the men in charge of that war were as great as the ones that were first sent out.