The Academy Awards are Dying From Self-Inflicted Wounds

For the past few months, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been slowly killing its Oscar telecast. It’s been death by a thousand cuts: a host controversy has plagued the entire season; the inclusion of milquetoast crowdpleasers as legitimate contenders also seem particularly egregious in a year where there has been wonderful diversity in storytelling. And then, there was the bizarre choice to not invite last year’s acting winners out to announce the winners in this year’s race.

That nonsensical decision was met with enough pushback that the Academy acquiesced and said “lol kidding, all four actors will be there to announce the winners.” If that mild annoyance drew enough public ire to make the Academy change their mind, perhaps their latest embarrassment won’t last long, because the outrage is now over legitimately baffling and gross decisions.

In order to shorten the program, allegedly, the telecast will not be airing the winner of the following four categories: cinematography, editing, makeup/hairstyling, live-action short. Let’s consider for a moment that the Academy did this to try and shorten the telecast, which is a stupid waste of time that anyone who actually cares about the program and the history of the Oscars have never complained about. They’re chasing a crowd who doesn’t care about their product, but let’s just assume, for this first rant, that this is the real reason these specific four categories were removed from the telecast.

Makeup and hairstyling are crucial to the art of moviemaking, the art that president John Bailey claims to want to celebrate in the telecast, despite removing categories. Not airing the live-action short winner is especially cynical, given the fact that whomever wins in this category may never return to the Oscars the rest of their life. It’s their moment, and now it will be handled during commercial breaks.

Removing cinematography and editing from the telecast, however, is unforgivable. It’s the final pair of nails in the coffin of this year’s show, which has been a complete trash fire for months. When I first read this news, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why removing these two specific categories was so disgusting and idiotic. Then I read this, and it clicked:

This explains it clearly and succinctly, so there’s no reason to explain it further. Cinematography and editing are movies, so clearly this telecast is no longer about celebrating the craft of cinema, it’s about selling advertising and hitting a time window and, oh yeah, it’s about Disney’s control over ABC.

If these four categories seem like a weird collection of categories to take off the air, don’t worry, there is a totally cynical and even more disgusting reason they’re being axed: there’s not one Disney movie nominated in any of these four categories. Disney owns ABC. Again, the dots aren’t that difficult to connect, and those dots put together an ugly picture that is enough for me to turn my back on the entire process.

I first started watching The Oscars closely in the spring of 1991, having just turned ten. Obviously I hadn’t watched Goodfellas, but I had seen and loved Dances With Wolves (and still do) and I wanted to see how it did. From that year on, I was by the television every spring, for good movies or bad, and I stuck with it through thick and thin and four-and-a-half hour unwieldy behemoths with awkward moments and controversy and upsets and excitement. I learned about the history of the movies and the craft of the movies, I can name any Best Picture winner from 1968 to the present, and for years I explained to curious friends the difference between cinematography and art direction. If there is any person in this country who could claim a long-standing love and admiration for everything the Oscars stood for, it was yours truly.

Now that I’ve spent enough time needlessly qualifying myself, let me just say I don’t care to see this disastrous debacle unfold. It’s disheartening. There are plenty of ways to shorten the telecast that don’t involve turning the program into a three-hour Disney advertisement , but why the hell do you have to change it at all? It’s one night, it’s celebrating an entire year of movies and a slate of films that’s expanding faster than cells can duplicate, and it should be a party where all the bits and pieces that put together these beautiful works are universally celebrated. Let it go five hours. Who gives a shit? This feels cynical and tacky and gross, and John Bailey and the Academy should be truly embarrassed today.

Its’ unlikely that they’re embarrassed, however, because they don’t really care in the end. I didn’t really care if Kevin Hart was there – and I’m glad he isn’t because he isn’t funny and we all need to acknowledge this. Having no host seems like the product of a time when just about anyone can be labeled “problematic” enough to cause a stir. It’s an odd feeling to not have a host, but it’s manageable enough to get around with a few surprise appearances during the broadcast.

The nominees themselves, well, they need some work, but there is a logical reason why they would want to include popular box-office hits in the mix. Not inviting last year’s acting winners back felt like a shot in the dark that was quickly reversed, but who knows if this latest, most damning mistake, will get corrected. But now, despite my newfound resistance to being emotionally attached to such frivolous things, this latest news felt honestly, personally, hurtful. It’s an attack on a medium to which I have dedicated years upon years of my life; it’s a firm, uncaring slap in the face.

Stop tinkering with a product that has a niche audience, because you’re losing that niche audience and the “mainstream” crowd you’re trying to lure in won’t backfill those spaces. Perhaps terrible ratings will allow a true regime change in the Academy, not this window-dressing diversity quota we got a few years ago. The only thing fans of the Oscars can hope for is that this telecast is not only a disaster but, more importantly, a big money loser for ABC and Disney, so much so that they sell off the rights, or get someone to run the place who appreciates what the Academy Awards stand for.

Play to your fans and you will find the success you so desire, but it feels too late to learn that lesson.

 

Advertisements

WIDOWS is a Rare, Engaging Thriller for Adults

Widows is the rarest of major studio films, a strictly adult-oriented thriller with very little in the way of pomp and circumstance, directed by Steve McQueen with attention to performance over plot. It’s a showcase for an incredible, and incredibly deep, roster of acting greatness. While it may not carry that intensity all the way through to the flat conclusion, the means to which we reach this end are worth the time.

Based on a British miniseries from the mid ’80s, Widows begins with a heist gone horribly awry on the streets of Chicago. The four thieves – led by Liam Neeson’s Harry – are killed in a fiery shootout, and the money they stole disintegrates right along with them. The missing money belongs to a wannabe city councilman Jamal Manning (Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry) and his murderous brother, Jatemme, played by Daniel Kaluuya with brilliant, eerie menace. The Manning’s need the money, and have transferred the debt over to the wives of the dead thieves, namely Veronica, Harry’s widow.

Viola Davis plays Veronica, and flashes every ounce of that recognizable Viola Davis intensity in moments big and small. Veronica has no friends, she owns nothing in the home she shared with Harry, and tragedy has followed her lately. She is shut off from the rest of the world, but she kicks into gear when her life is threatened. This means bringing in two of the other widows to help her steal five million dollars: the aloof Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and the world-weary Linda (Michelle Rodriguez).

The machinations of the heist the women need to plan takes a backseat to some tremendous character building through the meat of the picture. Aside from the situation these women find themselves in, a subplot involving a smarmy politician (and Jamal Manning’s competition) named Jack Mulligan – played by Colin Farrell, who can so easily slip into this role – and his racist father, played by Robert Duvall, expands the breadth of McQueen’s film. While the tension of the necessary heist builds, and Kaluuya’s murderous Jatemme closes in, McQueen takes the time to show us the corruption of city politics. In one extended, unbroken shot, he gives us a glimpse in the disparity between city officials and the constituents for which they claim to work, simply by mounting a camera on the hood of a car.

Despite the sprawl of McQueen’s story – which clearly feels at times like an abbreviated mini series – Widows never loses focus, and the actors are all fully engaged to a point where their dedication to the story is palpable. Viola Davis does her thing, but there are great performances big and small all over the screen.

There are twists and turns along the way, but the ending fizzles when it should pop. That isn’t as detrimental to the overall experience, however, as McQueen crafts an endlessly engaging and compelling story surrounding characters we care about in a film where characters are so often thrown into heist films to move the plot forward. Widows is unique these days as a thriller aimed strictly at adults; for that alone, it should be praised.

 

 

THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK is a Focused Thriller That Demands Your Attention

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek could be compared to Quentin Tarantino’s breakout 1992 hit, Reservoir Dogs. The setup is similar: dangerous men are brought together in the wake of a crime – in this case, a mass shooting at a public event that should remain unnamed – each one suspecting the other of being the guilty party, and nobody willing to give an inch. Beyond basic comparisons, however, director Henry Dunham’s film (which he also wrote) is decidedly its own thing, a daringly minimalist thriller that spends 90 minutes tightening its grip.

There’s no release in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, no catharsis, there is only screw-tightening tension between an impressive collection of character actors, all working with laser focus and never showing us too much. This story is as real as it gets. It respects and challenges the audience’s ability to pay attention and read between the lines, and leaves you in moral knots as it dives into the motivations and potential madness of both Militia and police. Everyone is a suspect and anyone can be guilty, depending on the circumstances.

James Badge Dale is our entry into the story. He’s Gannon, a former cop who serves as a sort of clean storefront to the local Militia to which he belongs. Gannon lives an isolated existence in his motor home, and he’s sitting down to cut into a fresh deer steak when he hears the gunfire. It’s from an automatic weapon, far away, but not far enough. Gannon knows something has happened, and he knows authorities will set their sights on the nearest Militia.

Gannon arrives at a remote lumber yard where a handful of Militia members and potential suspects arrive in short time. The leader of the team is Ford, played with serious authority and flippant sarcasm by the great Chris Mulkey; Brian Geraghty, Patrick Fischler, Robert Aramayo, Gene Jones and Happy Anderson make up the rogue’s gallery, but the less you know about each of these characters going in, the more satisfying the collection of twists and turns will be. Rest assured that each and every participant is emotionally self-contained, dodgy, and absolutely perfect in playing in their appropriate key.

The mass shooting is the catalyst that kicks the film into gear, and as the catastrophe outside intensifies in surprising ways, we are let into the lives of each and every member of the group. All of them live a life of isolation, and the film attempts to try and exhume the demons that can fester inside a person who would find solace in something a paranoia-fueled Militia. Except Dunham’s screenplay does not demonize or mock these characters and their intelligence. They aren’t fools or rednecks, and they each have their reasons for being in this predicament. Dunham is attempting to understand the world these men inhabit with an honest approach to them as human beings, and the result is a film that breaks down any reluctance you may have towards its characters and locks you inside this lumber warehouse right along with them, digging for answers.

This is a dark film, often lit with harsh flashlights, or fluorescents, or a clicking, buzzing security light setup around the lumber yard perimeter, or a patrolmen’s wandering beam. We are given a glimpse inside a what feels like an authentic Militia, where a carefully-manicured arsenal and a warehouse full of survival gear is handled responsibly, that is, until one of the members snaps. These Militia men have radical views, and they prepare and protect their own, and they are isolated, but are the criminals? Typically, they aren’t criminals until they are, and that’s the confounding chasm where this story unfolds.

There are reveals in Sparrow Creek, and a substantial twist that lays everything you’ve just seen out on the table, open for discussion. Here is a film that exists in the greyest of areas, forcing the viewer to pick a side, neither of which are desirable. It’s a slow-burning moral puzzle that feels unsolvable in the end, and it’s the confident arrival of a strong new voice in Henry Dunham.

Resist the Hate: GLASS is a Terrific Dose of M. Night Shyamalan Indulgence

As the early reviews for Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s much-anticipated third piece of his Philly superhero trilogy, began to trickle in, I was hit with a sinking feeling. I believed the reports, and bought into the claim that Shyamalan had gone off the rails again, and that Glass was a failure.

It always seemed like a possibility with this sort of ambitious project. Big ambition has gotten the better of the polarizing filmmaker over the years in some fascinatingly bizarre ways. Shyamalan typically shines when his films keep the focus small like Unbreakable and Split, the previous entries in this story, but Glass is something different. There are expectations to this world that didn’t exist until the final shot of Split last year. It made sense, sadly, that the early narrative around Glass was tepid to poor; Shyamalan had stubbed his toe again.

Fortunately, none of that narrative is true, at least it shouldn’t be true for any devotees of the wild and unwieldy rollercoaster that is the career of M. Night Shyamalan. Glass is big in ideas about people and superheroes and trauma and empathy, with a sumptuous visual palette that carries through every perfectly manicured scene. Every frame here could be pulled from the movie and put on the pages of a comic book.

Glass is also corny as hell, but it’s not ashamed to be. Shyamalan’s grasp on pop culture has always been suspect – his references don’t quite land the way someone like Tarantino’s do – and that’s the same here. But this is a comic book world, bathed in bright solid colors and fully committed to the story at hand, so the hokey dialogue, not to mention the effort Shyamalan puts into tying his cameos from the previous movies together, is all part of the charm. It’s surprising that anyone would expect anything different at this point.

As for the story, well, it’s as basic as the visuals are indulgent, but it allows Shyamalan to throw tremendous amounts of energy into rationalizing his own admiration for comics and his own beliefs about hero mythology through his three leads: James McAvoy, who plays the murderous Horde (a.k.a. 24 separate personalities), Bruce Willis as David Dunn, the hero of Unbreakable, who is now hunted by the law, and Samuel L. Jackson as the brittle, diabolical villain Mr. Glass. These characters are so fully realized, and the performances so endearing, that Shyamalan is able to meta-textually deconstruct comic books, while simultaneously creating a singular comic genre vision, and anyone willing enough to buy in will enjoy the ride.

The film is off and running early, buzzing with a nervous ticking-clock score and showcasing both Willis and McAvoy as their paths eventually diverge. The midsection is where the heavy exposition comes in, and it may lose some casual viewers, but the ominous tones and tense camera work add significant weight to whatever ostensible hypothesizing these characters are working out.

There’s no need for plot details; part of the fun of a Shyamalan film is seeing what sort of weird detours it will take. In fact, the setting is virtually inconsequential as the story progresses, merely a vehicle to combine the trio with a terrific supporting cast including a terrifically chilling Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark back as David’s son, Joseph, and Anya Taylor-Joy returning as Casey, the surviving victim of McAvoy’s spree at the end of Split. Casey’s arc in the story is particularly inspired for a small but crucial performance.

Willis and Jackson are fine in their roles, comfortable and serviceable, but the heavy lifting James McAvoy is doing here is spectacular. Every tick and switch from one person to the next is earned, and he is pulling this off dozens of times through the film. From his show-stopping physicality to his sincere embrace of Shyamalan’s words, McAvoy goes all in and puts on scenery-chewing clinic that belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of over-the-top performances.

The climactic showdown manages to be a commentary on everything Glass has been about up to that point, and yet it may alienate viewers who’ve been conditioned to expect certain things from their superhero movies over the years. There should be no expectation that Shyamalan was going to take the film down an expected path, and the decision to finish the story in this way, on that location, speaks volumes as to the type of specific story Shyamalan wants to tell.

I feel I can say with some certainty that Glass will be reevaluated in the public forum sooner rather than later. This almost always happens with Shyamalan’s films, and while I may not be the best judge of whether or not they’re good for everybody because I am a philistine who loves the Village, I know that this is the director absolutely nailing every one of his intentions with goofy jokes and heady ideas and style and thrills and excitement and suspense.

It’s a relief to see, at least through the fog of my undying support for the guy, that Shyamalan has not flown off the rails the way it’s being described. If you’ve learn to stop worrying and love The Shyamalan, Glass is right up your alley.

Scenes I Love: Percy Serenading Lydia in THE FISHER KING

Of all the wonderfully bizarre and idiosyncratic Terry Gilliam films we’ve gotten over the years, none have been accompanied by as much heart, as much earnestness, and as much expertly calibrated saccharine emotion as his 1991 urban fable, The Fisher King.

The film, written by Richard LaGravenese, was the first time Gilliam, a member of the legendary Monty Python troupe, didn’t direct something based on his own writing. The Fisher King is a grimy melodrama, an adventure, a deep dive into the poisonous fruits of fame, and the LaGravenese touch adds a layer of emotional depth that was never really a major tool in Gilliam’s bag.

Jack (Jeff Bridges) is an arrogant talk radio DJ who is absolutely lost inside his ever-expanding ego. His flippant dismissal – and subsequent stirring up – of a disturbed caller one night motivates said caller to walk into a nightclub with a shotgun and open fire. The tragedy sends Jack into a spiral of self hatred and depression, and into the arms of Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). One night after some heavy drinking, thoughts of suicide, and being mistaken for a homeless person by a gang of kids looking to literally burn away the city’s destitute, a self-proclaimed knight of the streets, Parry (Robin Williams), steps in and saves the day.

The connection between Jack and Parry is apparent early: Parry was an educated member of high society whose wife was murdered that night in the nightclub, and the tragedy fractured his mind. Now, he is a man on a quest to find the holy grail – on the upper west side, no less – while fending off the Red Knight, a manifestation of his trauma and his past life that drives him mad. Jack feels it’s his duty to help.

Not only does Jack help Parry with his seemingly fruitless quest, he also has an idea that will potentially help Parry get his life back in some sense of order. That involves Lydia, a bumbling loner who doesn’t really walk to work every day, so much as she is pushed along sidewalks and through train stations by a wave of indifferent humans who don’t even realize she’s there, like driftwood down a river. Parry realizes she’s there, however, and he is absolutely smitten, in love with every little crazy tick and pratfall. Jack, with the help of Anne, set up a date based on false pretenses involving a phony video rental contest, and a suit with plenty of staples along the hem line.

Lydia is strange, and guarded, but Parry can see through her aggressive exterior. The setup of the date is chaotic and buzzing with nervous energy; the dinner at a Chinese restaurant is awkward and clumsy, and Plummer is doing some marvelous physical work. And then, on a dime, it’s beautiful:

What begins as a terrific bit of improv and physical comedy, Williams’ strength as a comedian, Parry’s rendition of “Lydia” breaks all the energy and emotion of the scene down into one touching moment. The song captures the mood of the table, and for the slightest moment, Parry is normal again.

It’s a devastating moment, given what happens later that night when Parry’s psychosis manifests itself as the thunderous Red Knight. Despite the tragedy that follows in the wake of this dinner, it’s the turning point of the picture, where Jack realizes the feelings he has for Anne go beyond self-loathing, and where Parry and Lydia connect on another level.

It allows the end to happen the way it happens, and it’s a scene I absolutely love.

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is The Work of a Busy, Unsettled Mind

The House That Jack Built is a glimpse inside its creator’s busy and troubled brain.

Lars von Trier is arguably the most infamous provocateur in cinema; he’s certainly the most high-profile provocateur, a comically brash personality with an unsettled upbringing, who can somehow secure major talent for all of his whacked out stories of extreme psychosis and depravity. All of his films, in some form or another, are a look inside von Trier’s busy head, where memories of his mother’s deception, manic depression and alcoholism, his fascination with Nazis, and his early days directing hardcore porn all crash into one another and spill out in harsh examinations of tragedy (Antichrist), existentialism (Melancholia), and sex (the Nymphomaniac films).

It should be no surprise to anyone willing to watch The House That Jack Built that it is depraved and deeply disturbing in a few scenes. That’s what you’re getting when you push play on a von Trier joint. But this film is, more than any of his other films, Lars von Trier purging himself of all the shortcomings and failures he sees in his career and, ultimately, his life.

Jack, our nebbish, bottled-up serial killer with some serious OCD, is played by Matt Dillon. Dillon has been out of the spotlight for what feels like more than a decade, so it’s nice to see him in a substantial role he can sink his teeth in. And his knife blade. Dillon is in every scene, and gets the opportunity to play seemingly different characters throughout.

The film is broken up into five “incidents,” which is what Jack calls them when he’s telling his tale to a mysterious older voice in act breaks and tangents, sometimes accompanied with animation. The first incident is the one most have seen in clips, with Uma Thurman, but other victims include the terrific character actress Sioban Fallon Hogan, Danish star Sofie Gråbøl, and Riley Keough. The early scenes are violent, but fleeting and manageable, nothing too intense. But it’s all a setup. If you can make it past the shocking sequence at right about the halfway point, a stomach-churning scene involving a “family” and a hunting rifle, you might be able to hold on and make it through the harrowing second half. No warning here can be strong enough.

Jack gets more brazen and takes more risks as he continues killing and butchering his victims. He smashes in their faces, strangles them, shoots them, hits them with cars… all just to see if he can. He has a freezer where he keeps the bodies, and he treats each incident as a canvas for which he can paint his art. Every murder is photographed and manicured to look like something specific for Jack. This is all von Trier, commenting on his own tumultuous career as a provocateur, and he’s incredulous that it keeps going no matter what he tries.

Over his career, Lars von Trier has kept pushing the limit of what he will try in a film, and he keeps getting away with it. Each of these incidents is von Trier confessing something, like how he’s been cruel to women (which stems from his mother), or how his obsessions have ruined his personal relationships – and his family, as exemplified in the nightmare scene in the middle – and how he’s seemingly gotten away with producing these sorts of movies for three decades.

Time and time again, Jack is able to stammer himself into a woman’s home, to stumble out of suspicion with police, to move frozen bodies in and out of an apartment complex undetected. A fortuitous rain storm washes away a miles-long stream of blood and brain. He keeps getting away with it, so he keeps trying, getting stronger. All the while, Jack’s attempts at building a home are thwarted by his dissatisfaction and crippling OCD. It’s easy to see the metaphors spraying blood all over the screen, or visualized by a house that fails to come together because murderous obsession steals all of Jack’s time.

Like most of von Trier’s films, The House That Jack Built is a little bloated and a little cluttered, and it goes on far too long. It’s a metaphorical journey through hangups most people already knew about the filmmaker, but it’s still interesting to see how the creator sees his own creation and embraces his own psychological issues with a furious ego dump. Lars von Trier seems like the sort of person who will corner you at a party and tell you insane theories about the darkest corners of the human soul, and about Nazis and his mother and porn, beating you senseless with insufferable ramblings until you can fake a phone call or have someone stealthily rescue you from his clutches.

That doesn’t sound appealing, and The House That Jack Built is, like most of von Trier’s films, not a lot of fun. But it’s a it of morbid fascination to see what sort of insanity he can cook up from picture to picture, and there is no denying the immaculate craftsmanship on display. As long as he wants to keep trying to make these insane movies, and get terrific unfettered performances from greats like Matt Dillon, it’s worth a shot to see if you can push play and make it to the end.

 

My Favorite Films of 2018

I didn’t see as many new movies in 2018 as I have in years past, and I never see as many as I want. That’s what the combo of kids and life does, but the trade off is certainly worth it. For one thing, I saw more animated films this year, and great family flicks like BumbleBee, which was close to making this list. But I still made time to see the films I knew I should at some point, and I saw some greats, some that disappointed, and a couple that were downright bad.

To nobody’s surprise, 2018 had plenty of despair to go around. Creatives love to latch on to the most dramatic headlines and moods in the culture, and shape their stories accordingly. Existential despair, tech addiction, the environment, it was all represented in spades. Some of it worked brilliantly, much of it didn’t. There was also hope to be found, and hope is what lies beneath the tense surface of my favorite movie of the year.

Without further ado…

DW

“Honorable” Mention: Death Wish – Stick with me here… Eli Roth and Bruce Willis’s shameless remake of the Michael Winner/Charles Bronson vigilante joint knows just how shameless it is. This is a hardline conservative’s masturbatory dream come to vivid, blood-soaked life, the story of a liberal softie who, once his wife is murdered and daughter raped by home invaders, decides it’s high time to awaken his inner Republican and becoming a gun-toting avenging angel. It’s all a little amusing, and a little absurd, with its fantasized depiction of gun culture (only the hottest blondes occupy these gun and ammo establishments) and a Chicago as a hellscape only Lou Dobbs could conjure up.

But this Death Wish is also more entertaining, and more visually interesting, than the original film, nostalgia be damned. And it’s great as an antidote to the type of canned, intersectional stories Hollywood has to make these days. It buzzes with a weird energy, and somehow Roth even manages to shoot certain moments – the home invasion for example – with a decent amount of restraint, allowing the audience to fill in the gruesome details for a change. Plus, as an added bonus, Bruce Willis appears to be completely awake the entire time.

mandy-screenshot-3

10. Mandy – Trust me, when I first saw the images of a bloody Nicolas Cage wielding a chainsaw, or flashing an unhinged grin from behind the steering wheel of a car, I had the same thought: this guy will say ‘yes’ to literally any garbage screenplay that lands in his hands. But the buzz accompanying these early images, and the subsequent buzz from the festival circuit, was something… different.

Mandy is anything but Nicolas Cage mailing it in. It’s so much more, something new and original and crazy and tailor made specifically for all the tools The Cage has been sharpening over decades playing larger-than-life loons. That isn’t to say Mandy is some dumb genre dreck; no, Panos Cosmatos’s picture is a lush and vibrant macabre thriller with chainsaw fights and tripped-out phony gurus and demons and all kinds of awesome shit. It’s an explosive phantasmagoria of sound and color that should be respected for going all the way.

you-were-never-really-here.20171026105744

9. You Were Never Really Here – Lynne Ramsay’s mood piece about a troubled Veteran who tracks down missing girls, all the while struggling to keep a grip on his own slipping sanity and the fact he is dissolving into the background of his own life, is not an easy film to digest.The first viewing, for me, was cold and obtuse, too grim to engage with.

The second viewing, however, changed my perspective on the sort of quiet magic tricks Joaquin Phoenix is executing with his character, simply called Joe. It’s an existential enigma of a film with a bleak outlook on PTSD, a story where the emotions seep through slowly, like the breaths of air Joe squeezes out from behind his plastic bags as he struggled to cope with the corruption of his own mind. It is Taxi Driver reshaped with modern anxieties and fears of alienation.

upgrade-movie-sequel

8. Upgrade – Leigh Wannell’s sci-fi actioner is a fabulous throwback to the kinds of adult-oriented genre flicks that were so popular in the early 1990s. This has echoes of Virtuosity, Universal Soldier, or Body Parts among others, but Upgrade has something those films are generally lacking: brains.

Upgrade ascends genre trappings by being lean and clever and original, a feat in and of itself given the fact the film got a wide release in June, alongside franchises and known quantities. Logan Marshall-Green has typically been (aside from an American Tom Hardy doppelgänger) quiet on the screen, the way he is in Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation. Here, he gets to have a little fun and be a little cocky, all the while maneuvering through a sharp, high-concept, sci-fi potboiler with plenty of action and blood splatter to please genre devotees.

game night

7. Game Night – Jason Bateman has been the bright spot of so many poorly-executed R-rated comedies over the years that it’s nice to see the film elevated around him for a change. Bateman isn’t the main attraction in the brilliantly absurd Daley/Goldstein flick, and that’s refreshing in and of itself. Rachel McAdams gets a chance to show off some terrific comedic chops for a change, and virtually everyone in the group is great in their respective roles. Of course, Jesse Plemons’ Gary is the all star of the film, in a totally bizarro and hilarious performance that deserves a Supporting Actor nomination.

It all works together in sync. What’s so surprising is how well Game Night is shot, and how nice it looks. Cinematographer Barry Peterson uses the great transition sequences where the neighborhood and the cars look like game pieces, and the slickness of the production only bolsters a strong screenplay underneath.

first-reformed-movie-review

6. First Reformed – Let’s be clear, I was never not going to like Paul Schrader’s latest. It was in the stars, and predetermined in the casting of Ethan Hawke, my favorite actor and an underrated master of range and talent. He can do just about anything, so pairing up with Schrader, who’s built an impressive writing and directing career off the back of the loneliness and despair in Travis Bickle’s troubled soul, felt like the perfect matchup of Thespian and Auteur. My art house sensibilities were firing on all cylinders, it was only a matter of how much First Reformed spoke to me.

It is a challenging film, some of the hardest and bleakest psychological ground Schrader has traversed since Taxi Driver. It’s a film I will most certainly revisit every few years, because the emotional impact of the hopelessness Schrader and Hawke so acutely visualize will change as I age. The final sequence of events, the most controversial of the picture for obvious reasons, are moments I will likely never forget, and I hope it’s enough to get Hawke a Best Actor statue.

Star-2

5. A Star is Born – I was drawn to this from the first trailer, and I couldn’t figure out why. On the surface, A Star is Born isn’t the sort of film to which I’m eagerly anticipating. I haven’t seen the previous versions, but something about Bradley Cooper’s vision was inspiring, and Gaga’s voice pulled me in.

The maturity of first-time director Cooper, directing himself in a pretty audacious move, is hard to believe. He handles moments, both big and small, with incredible focus and attention to the story he wants to tell. It’s a marvel to see how he handles the material, and Lady Gaga’s performance is an equally as impressive debut. No matter what you’re typically into, there is something for everyone in A Star is Born, a moment somewhere in the film that will hit you harder than you would expect.

crh1jvuayre86nbsare6

4. Avengers: Infinity War – For the last decade, I’ve enjoyed Marvel films. Every time I watch one, I have a good time, but it wasn’t ever a priority. I’ll see them when I see them, and was caught up in time to sit down for Infinity Warexpecting to have another good time in a comic book film, this time with a substantial villain. It was a good time, but I had not expected, not for a second, to be as shaken as I was in the end.

It wasn’t just “The Snap” that got me. There are moments everywhere. When Thor is speaking to Rocket Raccoon, barely able to hold back tears as he lays out the tragedy of his life all around him, and you feel yourself choking up, that’s when you realize these films have worked on you in ways you hadn’t realized. You have history with Thor, you have an entire formative period of your life with these characters occupying some of that space, and when you cut to the emotional core of this penultimate Greek masterpiece, all the comic book elements melt away and you forget it’s Thor and a talking Raccoon. It’s a marvelous accomplishment, and it happens time and time again over two-and-a-half hours.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT

3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout – There isn’t much to say about FalloutIt rules, we all know it rules, and the evolution of this series is remarkable. Tom Cruise, whatever he might be in real life – whatever “real life” means for this guy – is an entertainer, and he sacrifices his body for our amusement. It has to be respected, and there isn’t much else as thrilling as the anticipation and execution of a Mission: Impossible set piece because of Cruise’s dedication to the stunts. He’s a madman, and if he’s cool with it so am I.

natalieportmanannihilation2018

2. Annihilation – Alex Garland’s captivating sci-fi thriller pulls you deep into its orbit and slowly sinks its teeth in you in terrifying ways. Natalie Portman is as good as she’s been at any movie since Black Swan, and Jennifer Jason Leigh continues her great second act. Much like First Reformed, this is a film that will change and evolve over time, and the universality of its themes almost ensures it will be celebrated five, ten, twenty years down the road as an underrated masterpiece.

a-quiet-place-2-will-have-to-look-very-different-from-the-first-movie

1. A Quiet Place – While it isn’t underrated by any measure, John Krasinski’s directorial debut is a masterpiece. Turns out, 2018 was the breakout year for bearded actors turned first-time directors. Who knew. Krasisnki’s horror film is scary, sure, but where it flourishes is in the exploration of the family at its core.

A Quiet Place knocked me sideways in its emotionally overwhelming story of parents struggling to keep their lives together in the middle of such unimaginable chaos, and a tragedy that shapes the course of their life forever. This is a story about monsters murdering us at the slightest sound, and the creature creation is great, but this is more a story about the responsibilities within the family unit. Each member has a role, and some are more personally tenuous than others, but it’s all motivated by the basest of needs: survival. This is yet another film I will revisit for years and years, and will absolutely change as my children get older. I love it, every part of it, especially this…

Cheers to 2019.

 

 

Why LETHAL WEAPON, Not DIE HARD, is The Definitive Christmas Action Movie

The debate has been raging for what seems like an eternity: is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not? This year, on the film’s 30th anniversary, the argument has intensified, going on longer and louder and, frankly, the endless litigation has grown tiresome. Besides, Die Hard isn’t the definitive Christmas action movie of the ’80s anyway; that label should belong to its game-changing brethren from 1987, Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon.

Of course, yours truly loves every ounce of Die Hard on a deeply personal level – enough to write an entire book about its director. Christmas movie or not, it’s a perfect film, and it doesn’t really matter what side of the argument you may fall, as long as you acknowledge its perfection, we can hang out.

But why is Lethal Weapon never mentioned in the same breath as Die Hard when the Christmas movie debate rears its head at the end of every year? This is a Shane Black screenplay after all, and Black regularly sets his films during the holidays (see: The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and The Nice Guys for more examples). The opposing lives and situations of its two heroes, Riggs and Murtaugh, is a more succinct examination of the warmth, and the cold loneliness, that Christmas can bring.

Martin Riggs is a broken man who’s lost his wife in a tragedy. He is alone, and losing grip of his sanity a little more with each day that passes. Christmas clearly makes things worse for our hero to the point where he bites down on the business end of a Baretta in a harrowing early scene. And let’s not forget about the man standing on the ledge of the building (Michael Shaner), clearly distraught over the season. It’s a feeling so many people must endure every December, the sting of loss.

The death of Victoria Riggs in Black’s story represents the loneliness and isolation so many feel during Christmas, and as Martin lashes out to find a human connection, he finds one in the wholesome embrace of a loving family unit. Roger Murtaugh has everything. He has a loving wife and three adoring children, and his home – the multi-use facility on the Warner back lot – is an idyllic setting for a family Christmas (in fact, Murtaugh’s house also serves as the Griswold’s abode in Christmas Vacation). The lights are hung, the tree is trimmed, and all seems well, until Riggs hurtles headlong into his life, and an investigation into heroin dealing Vietnam vets upends everything in his perfect world.

The dichotomy of the Riggs and Murtaugh pairing shows us the lightness, and the dark, of the “silly season.” It taps into the emotional swings from person to person, and eventually Riggs finds he has a new family in the Murtaugh’s. He’s found healing and happiness in a true message of love and the importance of family, the Christmas Spirit surrounded on all sides by breathtaking action.

Christmas colors the margins of Lethal Weapon just as much as in Die Hard. It kicks off with Bobby Helms singing “Jingle Bell Rock,” and any TV set in the picture is showing some manner of Christmas programming. We first meet Riggs on the job at a Christmas tree farm, busting some coke dealers; the final showdown between Riggs and the psychotic Mr. Joshua (the great Gary Busey) is backlit by the Murtaugh’s holiday decorations. That is, until an unmanned patrol car slams into the front of the house and demolishes the tree.

The characters in Lethal Weapon regularly reference Christmas, and the season is always in the background somewhere. The same thing goes for Die Hard, true, and for my money it’s a Christmas movie as well. But Lethal Weapon has a certain universality to the themes Black is tackling in his story, and it goes beyond action spectacle and confronts the wild swings of emotion and the importance of family during the holidays.

It is, for my money, the ’80s Christmas action movie we should all embrace. But if you don’t, hey, as long as you recognize it’s greatness, we can still hang.