Apr 222019
 

david-nivenDavid Niven looked and sounded like the ultimate English gentleman. And he may have been. He was one of the wild young Hollywood boys, along with Errol Flynn, who partied, drank, bedded lots of women, and fought. He was in the military twice, first after college and again when Britain went to war in WWII. Of the second stint he is known to have been part of a behind the lines unit that saw a great deal of action, along with spending time making propaganda films. His rebellious side did not counter his charm, and unlike many of his colleagues, he was known to be easy to work with, professional, and friendly on set.

He was an actor who was better than his filmography. He was in a few disasters, such as the pitiful remake of My Man Godfrey in 1957 and the fascinating train wreck that was Casino Royale in 1967. While he had many lead roles, he was often cast in supporting parts; he’s the unquestioned lead in only two of his best films.

An honorable mention for the wonderful beginning and ending of Wuthering Heights (1939), though it suffers from everything inbetween. Also an honorable mention to the Ernst Lubitsch-directed/Gary Cooper-led romantic comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and the Michael Curtiz-directed/Errol Flynn-led The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936).

David Niven’s top 8:

#8 – The Pink Panther (1963) — The first Pink Panther film, intended as a vehicle for Niven’s jewel thief, ended up creating a franchise around Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau. It’s an uneven film, clearly changed during production, but it’s fun.

#7 – A Matter of Life and Death (1946) —Niven, in the lead, plays a pilot who is put on trial in a spiritual court where he has petitioned to be allowed to return to life. As a whole it’s a mid-level Film Blanc that can’t match the likes of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, but it crushes the competition on cinematography and color. It’s not a great film, but it’s a beautiful one.

#6 – The Guns of Navarone (1961) — A wartime, behind-enemy-lines, action film based on an Alistair MacLean novel. Niven is part of an ensemble, and while he acknowledged he was far too old for the part, he later decided it was one of his better performances.

#5 – Appointment with Venus (1951) — Given the drab title Island Rescue in the US, this is a charming, quirky comedy with thriller aspects. Niven, in one of his few starring roles on this list, is a British soldier sent to a small island during WWII to swipe a cow from the Nazis. Costars Glynis Johns and Kenneth More are as good as Niven.

#4 – The Moon Is Blue (1953) — A romantic comedy of words. Niven, as the the playboy father of William Holden’s ex girlfriend, finds he’s interested in Holden’s new flame. It’s a smart, fun film that gets too conventional in the end. Many consider this to be Niven’s finest performance.

#3 – The Bishop’s Wife (1947) — A Christmas classic. Niven is a bishop who has lost his way and Cary Grant is the angel who comes to help, but also makes things uncomfortable.

#2 – The Dawn Patrol (1938) — One of the finest war pictures, with Niven, Errol Flynn, and Basil Rathbone as WWI pilots in horrible situations, having heroism forced upon them. [Also on the Basil Rathbone list and the Errol Flynn list]

#1 – The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) — A magnificent swashbuckler, easily intertwining romance, humor, and heroics. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., playing one of the great cinematic villains, almost steals the show… almost. Ronald Colman stars as the twin to a king-to-be and Niven is loyal to the king, and thus, the twin. (Full Review) [Also on the Ronald Colman list]

Mar 282019
 

MarilynMonroeFew stars have had such an impact on pop culture, yet there is a strange mixed appraisal of her work. She was mesmerizing on screen, with great comic timing, substantial dramatic chops, unlimited charisma, and a pleasing and memorable singing voice. And, of course, she was breathtakingly beautiful. She was also exceptionally sexy, and neither film critics nor the public at large have ever become comfortable with pure sex appeal. Many denigrated her during her career, discounting her talent and skill. She was never given the accolades she deserved, but while others picked up the Oscars that should have been hers, she is the one that will be remembered.

While critics complain that many of her roles were similar, that’s true of most movie stars. Bogart, Cagney, Davis, Grant, Pacino, and De Niro are all known for taking specific types of roles. What’s important is how well they perform those parts, and Monroe was exquisite. Unfortunately her horrendous childhood caught up with her, leading her into depression, addiction, and death at 36.

First, a few honorable mentions. One goes to the anthology film O. Henry’s Full House (1952) where she has a cameo as a streetwalker. She’s wonderful, as is Charles Laughton who is trying to get arrested as a masher. And another for Ladies of the Chorus (1948), Monroe’s first credited appearance. The film is so-so and occasionally exasperating, but the youthful Monroe is stunning and her songs—sung with a far less breathy voice than she’d adopt later—are charming.

As for dishonorable mentions, I’ll only bring up one: The Misfits. This isn’t a negative comment on her, as she is by far the best thing in the film. Nor is The Misfits the worst film she’d been in, not with the abysmal Let’s Make Love or the sleep-inducing The Prince and the Showgirl hanging about. But everyone knows those are terrible while The Misfits occasionally gets positive reviews for no good reason (My full review).

Her top 8:

#8 – As Young as You Feel (1951) — Monroe has a minor role as a secretary. The film belongs to Monty Woolley, whose character is forced to retire due to his age, so masquerades as the boss’s boss in order to change the company’s rules. The script by Paddy Chayefsky slips in some social commentary, and Woolley’s part of the film is good, though some side business with his family is tiring. Monroe doesn’t have enough time to steal the film, but she controls every frame she’s in.

#7 – The Asphalt Jungle (1950) — John Huston’s second Noir (after The Maltese Falcon) paints a world of disease and hopelessness. Monroe had a small part as the one thing in that world that is worthwhile. Joseph Mankiewicz saw her in this, and cast her in a supporting role in his masterpiece, All About Eve. (My Full Review) [Also on the Best Directors List for John Huston]

#6 – How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) — A constantly amusing comedy of three girls looking for millionaire husbands, it was planned as a showcase firstly for long reigning sex queen Betty Grable (who got top billing), then secondly for Lauren Bacall, and finally for newcomer Monroe, but by the time the film came out, Monroe was the new queen. The other two took being upstaged very well, and both were helpful and kind to the insecure Monroe. [Also on the William Powell list]

#5 – Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) — A tense and effective Noir that gets very little notice now. It was Monroe’s first leading role and showed she could play drama. (My Full Review)

#4 – The Seven Year Itch (1955) — Perhaps the perfect sex comedy (cleaned up for ‘50s morality), it’s a witty farce where a married man, left alone for the summer, fantasizes about the bombshell who moves in upstairs. Monroe agreed to appear in the weak There’s No Business Like Show Business in exchange for getting this part.  [Also the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]

#3 – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) — You can spend days analyzing the subtext of this Jane Russell/Marilyn Monroe musical, which ends with Monroe’s Lorelei Lee giving a defense of gold digging that is impossible to refute. The Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend number has become iconic. [Also on the Great Directors List for Howard Hawks]

#2 – All About Eve (1950) — With the exception of Monroe, this was the best film for everyone connected with it. Bette Davis is at her most Bette Davis-ish, playing the ultimate diva being replaced by the conniving Eve (Anne Baxter), all under the watchful eye of the poisonous theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). Monroe’s in a supporting role, as a young actress in DeWitt’s care. It’s a melodrama and melodrama has never been better.

#1 – Some Like It Hot (1959) — Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon hide out in a women’s jazz band, with Monroe as the singer. Often cited as the greatest comedy of all time, it is certainly a contender, and my pick as the best film of 1959. It’s a buddy, drag, romantic comedy with gangsters and music. What’s not to love?  [Also on the Jack Lemmon List, and on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]

Mar 212019
 
four reels

In the mid-1990s, Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is an amnesiac space soldier of the Kree empire, part of an elite squad lead by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), tasked to fight the shape-changing Skrulls. A mission goes wrong and she is separated from her team, captured by the Skrull Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), and mind-probed. She escapes and ends up on Earth and encounters SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). She sets out, with the help of Fury, to stop whatever plan the Skrulls have for Earth, but discovers that she’d lived on Earth before, and there are multiple mysteries that need to be cleared up.

I didn’t rush to write a review of Captain Marvel as it doesn’t need a recommendation, nor a basic description. It’s a MCU movie, and if Captain Marvel is on your radar, you know what that means. It’s the 21st film in the franchise and all of them are well made, exciting, occasionally funny, often meaningful, adventure romps. MCU films look good, sound good, and move at a decent pace. The mission and the villains matter less than the lead, making all of them almost intimate character films, just ones where things blow up. If you are one of the strange few people who don’t like MCU films (and box office numbers say you’d have to be strange), then you won’t like this one. But if you, like most people, have liked those other 20, then this film is for you. And if somehow you’ve missed them, then go start at Iron Man.

So what can be said about this entry that’s a little different? Well, Captain Marvel is a fun new character for the series, with a great deal more power than the other superheroes, though not close to Superman levels. And Brie Larson does an excellent job of bringing her to life. But that’s to be expected as the specific character might be new, but the MCU is built on fun characters brought to life by excellent performances. New side characters like Talos and Yon-Rogg have enough screentime to make them more than one dimensional cutouts, but little more, and again are given fine performances by solid pros. And again, that’s to be expected. And nope, this isn’t saying “Oh, we’ve seen it all before” because also one of the attributes of a MCU picture is that it is both familiar and fresh.

One newish factor (not new because they’ve done it for short scenes before) is the de-aging technology. 70-year-old Samuel L. Jackson looks easily fifteen years younger and there’s no uncanny valley issues. After a few minutes it’s no longer noticeable—it’s just Jackson playing Nick Fury. It’s perfect. The same is true of Clark Gregg in his much shorter appearance as Agent Coulson; I had to look up current pictures of the actor to see that he looks different now as he seemed natural in the film. That technology allows this film to be buddy cop movie, where a younger, sharp, but less bitter Fury chats with a determined Danvers as equals. It rounds out Fury’s character and adds an extra layer of fun.

The other new item is that this is the first MCU film with a solo female lead. This became a huge issue to small group of very fragile and frightened man-childs who were very upset that this film was somehow “not for us!” Outside of their trolling and outrage—all of which had no effect on the huge box office numbers, but did force the review site Rotten Tomatoes to alter their rules to stop people who haven’t seen a film from lowering its approval score—the gender of Captain Marvel doesn’t have that much to do with anything in the film. I wouldn’t call this a particularly feminist film. It does have a touch of girl power in the childhood flashbacks of Carol always getting up after she’s knocked down. Otherwise, it’s simply a more realist portrait of women’s lives than some are used to seeing on screen. That is, she gets catcalled (because women do), her skills are questioned (as is often the case for women), her emotional state is brought up by others (because that happens all the time), etc. And it’s mentioned that she wasn’t allowed to fly combat missions, because women weren’t allowed to fly combat missions. There’s no preaching about any of this. Apparently, the real world intruding the slightest bit into a fantasy film is too much for some guys.

One can draw some parallels between events in the film and our current immigration policy and attitudes, so there’s certainly some political content if you are looking for it. Of course that’s true of all MCU movies, and this one is in the bottom half with regard to amount of political content, below the much more politically charged Black Panther, Iron Man 1-3, Captain America 2-3, Avengers 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Captain Marvel is exactly what it was advertised to be. It’s joyful, smart, witty, occasionally funny, exciting, neither shallow nor too deep, and a worthy addition to the franchise.

Oh, and it has a cat. The cat’s great. If you like cat’s, this is your film. This is unquestionably the best cat movie ever.

 

(My ranking of all MCU movies)

Mar 172019
 

lubitschLubitsch was one of the most important directors of early Hollywood, but he’s mostly known now for those he inspired, particularly Billy Wilder, who coined the term “The Lubitsch touch” to describe the perfect solution to any cinematic problem. Lubitsch started as a silent director in Germany, then moved to the US where he directed sophisticated comedies. He made the transition to sound easily, creating a string of pre-code comedies and musicals that included a theme that would not be appreciated once the production code came in: a bit of adultery is not only acceptable, but can be advantageous for a relationship. Many of these films starred Maurice Chevalier and/or Jeanette MacDonald, both of whom have larger personalities than their parts could contain, and are, for modern audiences, acquired tastes.

The production code neutered him, resulting in the horrendous Design for Living; the play featured an on-again, off-again threesome and was prime material for Lubitsch, but had to be gutted to make it passed the censors. It took a few year’s for him to gain his footing, but he found a way to adjust to the new rules.

I can’t call Lubitsch one of the greats, not with Hitchcock, Hawks, Wilder, Huston, and Curtiz. Considering two of his top films were written by Billy Wilder, it’s hard not to think that perhaps Wilder had more to do with Lubitsch’s legacy than Lubitsch did. And of his best films, only two are truly great. But those two are great, and any look at golden age directors needs to include him.

An honorable mention for his segment of the anthology film, If I Had a Million (1932). It would be 3rd on his list below, but “The Clerk” lasts only a few minutes, and that is too small a percentage of the film for me to count it. And another honorable mention to The Love Parade, considered to be the first musical—with songs that are part of the story, and not stage performances of the characters. For the first half, it is the best of Lubitsch’s musicals, but it switches tone and loses its fun.

I’ll give one dishonorable mention, because if I didn’t mention The Shop Around the Corner, people would ask. It often pops up in the top 5 for Lubitsch, but it doesn’t deserve it. It is too solemn for a comedy and to silly for a drama. It is never funny, and it often drifts into being maudlin. Jimmy Stewart plays it with sincerity turned up to 13. And the romance is creepy. So lets get to some better films.

#8 – Cluny Brown (1946) — A strange film about the meaning of life, class structure, and politics in general. It is very witty, shot well, acted well, and seems to be on the verge of greatness, but can’t dig in its claws. It’s also annoying, making me want to punch most of the characters multiple times. Perhaps a bit more subtlety. Or more humor. Or…something…

#7 – Heaven Can Wait (1943) — Using a Film blanc frame where a man tells his life’s story to the Devil, this is really a gentle comedy romance with no real fantasy. The humor is light and never causes laughter, but it wasn’t meant to. The word “nice” was invented for this movie.

#6 – The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) — The oddest of Lubitsch’s musicals, it keeps his often cast Chevalier, but replaces MacDonald with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins (neither known as singers). It seems like it will be a pretty traditional rom-com, with true love being interrupted by an interloper, but it doesn’t go the way I expected.

#5 – The Merry Widow (1934) — The best, if also the most predicable, of the Lubitsch/Chevalier musicals. MacDonald is the richest person in a small mythical European country and her leaving will destroy the tax base, so the king sends a loveable scoundrel to attempt to woo her back. It’s definitely pre-code as Chevalier spends much of his time in a brothel.

#4 – Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) — Lubitsch begins to get the hang of the new rules of Hollywood with this rom-com about a very rich man who wins a woman without informing her he’s been married seven times before. Colbert is her normal self which fits the picture well while David Niven excels as a submissive friend. Cary Cooper is a questionable choice for the lead, but he pulls it off well enough.

#3 – To Be or Not to Be (1942) — A pair of ham actors (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard) get mixed up with spies and the Nazis. It was castigated at the time for being in the worst taste, but has been reevaluated in recent years (particularly after the Mel Brooks remake) and is often considered a masterpiece. I find its current status to be an overreaction to the original silly one. It was a good film then (and in good taste) and is one now. Not great, but good.

#2 – Trouble in Paradise (1932) — Here’s where the Lubitsch touch is really seen as he takes a film that seems like it would be nothing special and makes it one of the greats. It’s wildly romantic and unlikely, with a gentleman cat burglar, a beautiful pickpocket, and a sublime millionairess. The script is sophisticated fun with love, sex, and robbery crossing paths. It takes serious study to identify all the innuendos. Both stars Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall had never been better, nor would they be as good again, and Miriam Hopkins shines in the supporting role.

#1 – Ninotchka (1939) — Lubitsch directed, Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett wrote, and Greta Garbo starred, and they are all at the top of their game. It’s funny, charming, romantic, and meaningful. Garbo is a communist agent sent to deal with a legal battle involving a White Russian Duchess’s jewels and a Western playboy. It manages to rip apart communism, capitalism, Russia, and the West, while being sympathetic toward all of them. I can’t award it best picture of 1939 (due to The Wizard of Oz), but it is my favorite.

Feb 212019
  February 21, 2019

oscar600” indicates Best of the options given. “oscar600oscar600” indicates actual Best when the best wasn’t nominated.

 

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

oscar600Christian Bale (Vice)

Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

 

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

oscar600 Adam Driver (Blackkklansman)

Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)
Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Sam Rockwell (Vice)

 

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

oscar600 Olivia Colman (The Favourite)

Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)
Glenn Close (The Wife)
Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)
Melissa Mccarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

oscar600oscar600Emma Stone (The Favourite)

 

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

oscar600 Emma Stone (The Favourite)

Amy Adams (Vice)
Marina De Tavira (Roma)
Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

oscar600oscar600Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

(This oddness is because they wrongly classified Emma Stone in a supporting role instead of the lead)

 

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

oscar600Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

Incredibles 2
Isle Of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks The Internet

 

CINEMATOGRAPHY

oscar600Never Look Away

Cold War
The Favourite
Roma
A Star Is Born

oscar600oscar600The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

 

COSTUME DESIGN

oscar600Black Panther

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
The Favourite
Mary Poppins Returns
Mary Queen Of Scots

 

FILM EDITING

oscar600Vice

Blackkklansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book

oscar600oscar600The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

 

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

oscar600Vice

Border
Mary Queen Of Scots

oscar600oscar600Black Panther

 

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)

oscar600Shallow (A Star Is Born)

All The Stars (Black Panther)
I’ll Fight (RBG)
The Place Where Lost Things Go (Mary Poppins Returns)
When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings (The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs)

oscar600oscar600Hollywood Ending (Anna And The Apocalypse)

 

PRODUCTION DESIGN

oscar600Black Panther

The Favourite
First Man
Mary Poppins Returns
Roma

 

VISUAL EFFECTS

oscar600Avengers: Infinity War

Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

 

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

oscar600The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

Blackkklansman
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Star Is Born

oscar600oscar600Death Of Stalin

 

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)

oscar600The Favourite

First Reformed
Green Book
Roma
Vice

 

DIRECTING

oscar600Blackkklansman {Spike Lee}

Cold War {Paweł Pawlikowski}
The Favourite {Yorgos Lanthimos}
Roma {Alfonso Cuarón}
Vice {Adam Mckay}

oscar600oscar600The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs {Ethan & Joel Coen}

 

BEST PICTURE

oscar600Blackkklansman

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

oscar600oscar600Death Of Stalin

 

 

Not included: Sound Mixing/Editing, Live Action/Animated Short Films, Documentaries, Score, and Foreign Film.

Feb 202019
  February 20, 2019

oscar600I have a few days to dwell on the Oscar best picture race in different ways (Lying “True” Stories, What the Oscar Bigwigs Want.) and todays will be: #OscarNotSoWhite.

oscar600The first thing to note is that #OscarNotSoWhite does not involve Asians. You see all those Asian led films being nominated? No? Yeah, no one does. Well, the reasonable explanation is that almost no Asians are leading films, so there are none to choose from… Yeah, that makes it so much worse.

oscar600This is the USA, and Asians continue to be invisible in all racial issues. OK, well, what did we get?

oscar600The powers that be were stung by #OscarSoWhite and as people frowning at them leads to poor viewing numbers, they wanted to do something about it. And we’ve got 3 movies (we’ll get to the 4th in a moment) from that: Green Book, BlacKKKlansman, and Black Panther. Are all these films just around as a reaction to the glaring Whiteness? Well, partly and for today I’m talking about that part. Spike Lee pointed out he’d never gotten a directing nom before, and the reason he did this time, as well as his film being nominated, is purely due to that reaction. The Academy tried to patch things by adding some Black members and that diversity got him a nomination. I’m not going to argue with that line of thinking as I see it either as mostly or the very least, partly the truth of things.

oscar600Then the Academy enlarged the number of nominees, mainly to fit in a few films that were popular but won’t win, but that also left some room for “Black” films.

oscar600So let’s look at those 3, starting with Green Book. This Black-led film… Wait… the director is a White guy? Huh. And he did Dumb and Dumber and Something About Mary? OK. Well, at least it is about racism in the country and the star is a Black man… Wait… The star is Viggo Mortensen (White guy) while the Black man (Mahershala Ali) plays his supporting character. OK. The film is based on a true story of a Black pianist being driven through the South… Wait… The story is based on the accounts of the relatives of the White guy. The Black guys family were not consulted and have said the whole thing is a pack of lies. Well, this isn’t looking good. And what is the theme of this film? It’s that racism has nothing to do with institutions, but is purely a personal thing, and if racists (no matter how extreme) and Blacks can just both compromise and meet in the middle and chat a bit, everything will be fine. Oh God. Yeah, this is your 1980s film on racism. Or it’s the film on racism that your Republican Uncle can accept now. This film has little to do with #OscarSoWhite as this this exactly the type of film out-of-touch White people make and have made for years. It’s embarrassing.

oscar600OK, lets get to the ones that are significant. Black Panther is inspirational for Black children. It is a blockbuster, superhero film for the masses with a Black director and a Black cast… none of whom got any nominations… So… yeah. And outside of being the right film at the right moment in time, it is…nice. It is. Is it, outside of it’s significance for diversity, a good enough film for an Oscar nom? Well, some pretty rotten films have gotten noms, so sure. It’s fine. It’s message is aimed at the masses, or at the children of the masses, so everyone can get it, without, you know, thinking. It’s nice. And everyone knows it is an Oscar Best Picture nom because of #OscarSoWhite and because they really wanted a blockbuster. Is it there because it is really good? I’d say no, both to it being that good and to it being there for being that good, but the second is the important part while the first is just my review.

oscar600Which leads us to BlacKKKlansman. This is a great film with something more interesting to say about racism while still making it understandable to the masses. It’s brilliantly performed and directed, and that director is Spike Frickin’ Lee, who’s been ignored forever. It’s funny, emotional, and meaningful, and according to Lee, it got here because the Academy didn’t want more bad press about racial issues. And according to the odds-makers, it doesn’t have a chance of winning. Lee has a decent one for Best Director purely as an “Ooopsy, we forgot you for 30 years” award, but not the film.

oscar600Black Panther, on the other hand, has a chance. Not a good one, but a chance, mainly because of how Oscar voting works. Getting a 2nd or 3rd place vote on a ballot is nearly as good as 1st, and Black Panther could make a lot of 3rd places. Still, unlikely, but possible. And if it wins, it wil be beating Spike Lee and BlacKKKlansman, and that is just sad. Black Panther doesn’t need this win, but BlacKKKlansman could use it, to push it a bit higher in the public consciousness. Black Panther will always be the first Black-led blockbuster to receive a nomination, but once we have a 2nd and a 3rd, it will be seen less for its cultural moment, and more for its storytelling, and it will fade, while BlacKKKlansman will always be great.

oscar600Of course a far more likely option is that all those elderly White voters who are trying to be with it will pick Green Book. Yeah. So, there’s that.

oscar600Which means it’s time to bring up the current favorite for Best Picture, the non-Black #OscarNotSoWhite film, Roma. And that’s a weird one. There’s lots to talk about with it (as an anti-Blockbuster, we’re ARTISTS statement, as a plug for new technologies, as a crushing rebuke of what the Oscar bigwigs have been trying to do, etc), but that’s for a different post. For this one, I’d say that Roma stands in a different area as it is a Foreign film. It’s not an American film made by Hispanics as we don’t have those. And it isn’t being looked at the same way. It doesn’t seem to be part of any American racial statement (oh, its nomination is a statement, just not a reaction to #OscarSoWhite). It’s part of other conversations.

oscar600So for this year, looking at the three films that are part of this conversation, Green Book is embarrassing, but as long as it doesn’t win, it is only a little embarrassing. It is wonderful that Black Panther was nominated, but it needs not to win. And BlacKKKlansman should win for multiple reasons, but it looks like it won’t.

Feb 152019
 
four reels

High schooler Anna (Ella Hunt) is in a dark place after the death of her mother, being dumped by her asshole boyfriend Nick (Ben Wiggins), and attending a school presided over by a near psycho teacher (Paul Kaye). She just wants to escape her small Scottish village. Her ennui is interrupted by the zombie apocalypse. She teams up with other teen survivors, including her best friend and wannabe boyfriend John (Malcolm Cumming), school activist Steph (Sarah Swire), geek photographer Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and her ex to fight their way to the school to rejoin loved ones trapped there after a Christmas talent show, including Anna’s father (Mark Benton) and friend Lisa (Marli Siu). Well, it’s a zombie musical, so things get bloody, and occasionally tuneful along the way.

It’s a Scottish, Christmas, high school musical with zombies. Why didn’t everyone go to see this? It’s funny, dark, gory, and joyous about its genre mashup. It doesn’t try for new ground with those genres because mashing up high school musicals with zombies IS the new ground. Really, what more do you want?

Things start in standard teen-angst-film-style, but that standard introduces us to our quirky ensemble and they’re worth getting to know. Then things shift gears when the zombies arrive with a surprising amount of viscera. We’re not in PG-13 land Toto. Hunt treads through it all with charisma to burn, plus a fine voice, and her supporting cast is nearly as good, with Ben Wiggins and Marli Siu as standouts, but there are no weak links.

The best moments come when the songs move the story along or fill out the characters. Break Away and Hollywood Ending present the characters better than any info dump, and slyly foreshadow what is to come, while Soldier At War is a zombie-killing douche bag anthem. And nothing beats Turning My Life Around, which isn’t as hummable as those other songs, but the context is pure joy to cult film fans (I won’t spoil it; just see it).

No, it’s not perfect. A bit too much time is spent with the wannabe boyfriend, whose troubles wouldn’t be all that interesting in a typical film and are less so with zombies all around. The movie wants our sentiments to be with John at times when it would have been better to dial up the irony. And not all the songs are winners, and when such a number stops the action, as is the case with Human Voice, the lack of inertia is palpable. But when the emotions are real, the blood and humor are flowing, or Anna and Nick are front and center, those problems fade away.

Anna and the Apocalypse is the best film you didn’t see last year. Well, you can still stream it.

Jan 082019
 

cloverfield3I’m a little late for my worst fantasy and science fiction of 2018. Still, a late warning is better than none at all.  I’ve no doubt missed some of the sand, but I’ve done my best to look at every film that had a chance to get onto this list. And I’m not counting ultra-low budget films without a real release. These are films that had studio backing.

Note: If I was expanding this beyond F&SF, Mission Impossible: Fallout and Tomb Raider would take slots below, and MI: Fallout is arguably SF, but as more people than not wouldn’t count either of them, I left them off.

First, a few special awards for films that avoided this list:

Most Disappointing: Deadpool 2 (My Review)
Most Unnecessary: Solo: A Star Wars Story  (My Review)
Greatest Artistic Drop in a Franchise: Incredibles 2

Now to the 10:

 

cloverfield3

#10 – Cloverfield Paradox

Swiping from Event Horizon, 2010, Life, Alien, and many ‘80s SF films, it never decides what story it wants to tell, so fails to tell any. (Full Review)

 

#9 – Truth of Dare 

It’s a patchwork of previous movies. There is not a single moment you won’t predict, even down the order of the deaths. (Full Review)

 

#8 – The Nun

Yet another film in The Conjuring franchise, there’s talent all over this production, but there’s no story. It’s just “some evil stuff happens” till it stops. (Full Review)

 

#7 – Halloween

Maybe it wouldn’t seem like such a sleazy cash-grab if the filmmakers had anything to say or if it hadn’t all been done before in an earlier Halloween film. (Full Review)

 

The+Titan

#6 – The Titan

A sci-fi story about surviving on Titan, except there’s only 20 seconds on Titan. 50% of the film is spent in a pleasant glass house, and the rest at what I assume was a local Spanish YMCA. (Full Review)

 

#5 – Batman Ninja

This is what you show someone if you want them to hate Batman, comics, superheroes, and anime. (Full Review)

 

#4 – Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich

Shouldn’t a Nazi puppet film be fun? The murders are mean spirited, which kills the comedy. The silly moments kill the horror. And everything kills the message. (Full Review)

 

#3 – Slender Man

There’s no scares, no emotional beats, and no clever plot moments—there’s hardly a plot at all. It isn’t even memorable enough to rate as truly awful. (Full Review)

 

#2 – A Wrinkle in Time

An ugly After School Special with all the charm ripped away, it’s dull, simplistic, and an insult to children (Full Review)

 

#1 – Ready Player One

It’s a toxic stew of everything that’s wrong with fandom. It’s an obnoxious, sexist, racist rant in favor of nostalgia-fanboy mania, but it was made so poorly that the hate groups didn’t even realize it was for them till after its theatrical run. (Full Review)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 122018
 
3,5 reels

Miles Morales (voice: Shameik Moore) is a regular teen with a number of normal teen-type problems, mostly related to his father (voice: Brian Tyree Henry), until he’s bitten by a radioactive spider. He’s saved by Spider-Man, who soon after dies at the hands of King Pin (voice: Liev Schreiber). King Pin has a plan to bring back his dead family that involves cracking open the universe and will result in the destruction of the world. The first attempt with his dimensional vortex machine zaps spider-people from other universe’s into Miles’s, including a middle-aged Peter Parker (voice: Jake Johnson), Spider-Gwen (voice: Hailee Steifeld), Spider-Man Noir (voice: Nicolas Cage), the anime Peni Parker (voice: Kimiko Glenn) and the cartoony Spider-Ham (voice: John Mulaney). Together they need to defeat King Pin, and return to their own universes.

Into the Spider-Verse is the best looking animated movie in the last decade, but it ranks far higher when considering visual artistry, where I can’t think of any feature-length animated film in the last 40 years that can compete. The backgrounds are beautiful, the animation is exciting and active, merging 2D and 3D, illustration and pop art, into a coherent whole. Into the Spider-Verse then adds to that artistry a clever gimmick of having three of the stranger spider-people, as well as several villains, rendered in their own styles. That kind of creativity is rare, which makes the conventional nature of much of the rest of the film standout.

The basic story is a traditional teen coming of age one: Miles has some trivial disagreements with his father and isn’t fitting into his new school, and is trying to find his way. I’ve seen this kind of thing over and over and over again. It wasn’t all that interesting the first time, and repetition has not helped. Nothing about Miles’s story, outside of the spider-gang, is interesting because it is so familiar. That might not have bothered me so much (a lot of superhero films are filled with familiar beats) if it wasn’t so contrasted by the visual work, or the other segments of the plot. Miles and old Peter together have fine character interaction and are a lot of fun. Adding in Gwen, Spider-Noir, Peni, and Spider-Harm makes it all better. But there isn’t much of that. The ads gave the impression that the whole gang are in a major portion of the film, but half of their material, and most of their best moments, are in the trailers. There’s far more Miles brooding about his father than there is anime robot fighting of Spider-Ham with oversized weapons.

This is a routine (very routine) teen superhero original story, with the fantastic multiverse stuff tossed in, all designed beautifully. It makes for an enjoyable flick, and one of the better Spider-Man movies, that could have been more.

Dec 082018
 
three reels

Evil CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) retrieves three alien goo monsters from a comet, with a forth escaping. Drake plans to merge the creatures with humans in order to colonize space, but it is hard to find a compatible human. Enter obnoxious reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), who’d lost his career and fiancée due to a particularly stupid interview with Drake. He breaks into the lab with the goo, and is infected by one named Venom, and Eddie turns out to be a perfect host. Eddie gains superpowers but with the problem of having to reign in Venom who wants to eat people. Drake wants his creature back and Eddie wants to expose Drake, while Eddie’s ex (Michelle Williams) wants to help.

As far as unnecessary, empty, franchise, action cash-grabs of 2018 go, Venom isn’t bad. It’s better than Mission Impossible: Fallout, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Incredibles 2, The Meg, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, and not too far behind Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. It has the advantage of lowered expectations. Being the trial balloon for Sony’s Spider-Man-free Spider-verse—coming after two failed Spider-Man films and the character going to Marvel—hardly suggests a quality project, but also doesn’t damn it. And like Solo and Fallen Kingdom, it’s stupid and a little childish, but fun. And it doesn’t harm any previous films, so that’s something.

Venom gives us something unusual for a superhero film, a complete loser as our main character. We’ve had flawed (very flawed) protagonists before, but Eddie is an extra level of worthless. He’s dim and makes one horrible decision after another. And he isn’t a protagonist; things happen to him. The film knows all this and never tries to make us sympathetic toward him, which means we also don’t hate him. He’s a pathetic guy and I felt sorry for him. Tom Hardy does a solid job of selling Eddie as a nearly-likable sad sack.

And while the first third of the film works well enough, things take off once Eddie and Venom join together. And I’m not referring to the endless CGI battles. Yes those are fine—for ten years ago—although mostly I was left thinking of the old Spawn movie. All the tentacle flopping and guns firing and explosions are emotionally distant and none are exciting, but I’ve seen worse. No, what works is the tone shift. Someone at Sony (probably one of the 5 credited writers, as nothing says quality like 5 writers), worked out this whole thing was ridiculous so grim and gritty wasn’t going to cut it any more than action would, so he stuck in comedy. And the humor works. As a goof-ball buddy film, Venom is pretty amusing. There’s loads of slapstick, bickering, and swapping of who controls the body. As a drama, or as an action pic, stakes are important and things need to matter. As a silly comedy, it’s not a problem that plans make no sense and everything is insignificant.

It would have been nice to have a theme. With main characters including a crusading, journalist and a corporate head who is concerned with how humanity is destroying the Earth, it took real effort to have absolutely no message. But nope, there’s nothing under the hood. You get some uninspired, bloodless, CGI violence and some jokes. That’s it. And it’s enough for a matinée or a home viewing.

 Aliens, Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Nov 262018
 

william-holdenWilliam Holden’s big break came playing a dim young boxer/violinist in Golden Boy, and outside of Barbara Stanwyck, the film is best forgotten. He was as unimpressed by his following string of pretty-boy roles as I am. Everything changed after his return from WWII and Billy Wilder picked him for Sunset Blvd. Time had given his face character and experience had honed his craft. Hard, cynical, broken men became his stock-in-trade and few have done it better. A wild life and excessive alcohol consumption drew those character lines deeper into his face and eventually killed him, but along the way, he became one of the biggest stars of the ‘50s and starred in multiple masterpieces.

An honorable mention for The Towering Inferno, which isn’t a great film, but is fun, and is exactly what it should be.

His best films, starting at #8:

8 – The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) — A well-shot, well-acted action film threaded with an examination of obsession and order—both parts works well, though the whole isn’t the grand statement it would like to be. (It’s also thought of as insulting—for multiple reasons—by the real prisoners who were forced into slave-labor.) Holden plays a POW-escapee who returns to blow up the bridge whose construction is being overseen by a British prisoner played by Alec Guinness, and delivers a great performance (if judged purely on Holden’s performance, this would sit several notches higher). The ending rips apart Guinness’s character for no good reason (in the book, he does not suddenly throw off his insanity and realize his mistake) and that drags the film down substantially, but there’s lot of good here.

7 – The Country Girl (1954) — One of the string of behind-the-scenes-in-theater/movies dramas that popped up in the 1950s (and too often starred Holden—Forever Female being a lesser one while a greater one sits higher on this list). It’s the acting that rules here, mainly that of Grace Kelly who pick up a much deserved best actress Oscar. Bing Crosby is good as a drunken washed-up singer, and Holden is at home as the misogynist director who means well, but this is Kelly’s film as the abused wife. The story doesn’t live up to the performances.

6 – The Wild Bunch (1969) — A pivotal film in the evolution of its genre; it was the beginning of the bloody, nihilistic western. Holden’s real-life hard drinking ways had caught up with him, and he looked his age plus a decade, making him the right star to symbolize the end of an era.

5 – The Moon Is Blue (1953) — A romantic comedy of words. Holden is fine, but his work isn’t what got this on this list. The production code-breaking script has a good deal to do with it (it was thought very edgy for the time), but a bigger factor is co-star David Niven. He has the juicier part as the father of Holden’s ex who takes an interest in his new flame, and he runs with it. It is often said to be Niven’s best performance. As a whole this is a smart, fun film that gets too conventional in the end.

4 – Stalag 17 (1953) — I really don’t know how Wilder pulled this off. No one else could have. It’s a dark prisoner-of-war film where the Nazis are taken quite seriously and yet it bounces into pure comedy, before bouncing back into drama. William Holden, in one of three great films he made with Wilder, plays a selfish, cynical hustler who deals with the Germans… And he’s the hero. He won the Oscar for his performance, and he deserved to. [Also on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]

3 – Sabrina (1954) — Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn), the chauffeur’s daughter, has a crush on David (William Holden), the playboy of the house. When time abroad turns her into a suitable target for his shallow affections, older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) sees trouble and tries to break things up. Hepburn is an obvious choice for a romantic comedy, but Bogart? But it works. [Also on the Great Actors Lists for Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn and on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]

2 – Network (1976) — Has any film said more about our times? Dark as a Noir, yet funny, Network is a satire, though author Paddy Chayefsky claims it isn’t because it is reality. Holden puts in a great performance as the last of a dying breed of media men, but was beaten to the Oscar by co-star Peter Finch who yelled, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” The astonishing thing about Holden’s career is that this magnificent film doesn’t end up at #1

1 – Sunset Blvd. (1950)Sunset Blvd. takes on the film world, which it loves and loathes simultaneously, showing how it uses up people. It’s a dark twisted comedy that sees life through a funhouse mirror. It has amazing performances and Wilder’s most interesting cinematography; it is one of the great Noirs. [Also on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]

 

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