Sunday, April 15, 2018

REVIEW: "A Quiet Place" Makes More Than Sudden Noise

The high-concept of a horror thriller about a family of four in a post-apocalyptic world, who do all they can to remain silent to avoid a mysterious (and blind) monster, sounded incredibly thrilling (at least according to trailers and an impressive marketing campaign, with the tagline, "If they hear you, they hunt you"). Yet, I (like many) had every reason to be skeptical and wonder if that same effect would carry into and permeate a 90-minute feature film, or was just a pretentious and corny idea. Not to mention the fact that it was produced by Michael Bay's production company Platinum Dunes.

Surprisingly, A Quiet Place exceeds that skepticism and proves not only effective and really scary, but also on-the-edge-of-your-seat, extremely well-made, and quite emotional.

The terrific screenplay by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (with help from director and co-star John Krasinski) includes minimal dialogue and lots of specificity in how to tell a story (in this case, a story about a family) with visuals and sound. Specificity in how the main characters (a family known as the Abbots) treat all their appliances and tools with careful ease and walk around barefoot. Specificity and details on rooms with newspaper clippings, implying events that have led to the current setting. And specificity of each of the family members, from father Lee (Krasinski) to mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Krasinski's real-life wife), son Marcus (Wonder's Noah Jupe), and deaf daughter Regan (Wonderstruck's Millicent Simmons, a real-life deaf actress). And each of the performances are terrific, especially Simmons and the always-incredible Blunt, who, as actresses, evoke fearlessness and vulnerability.

John Krasinski

Some may argue that certain elements in the film recall, say, Alien, the early works of M. Night Shyamalan (Signs, The Village), I Am Legend, Cloverfield, and even The Terminator (Sarah Connor!). But A Quiet Place stands as its own thing, and may, in fact, be the best thing that Bay and his company have ever produced. Now, there are maybe one or two elements of Bay's films that finds its way into the film (or maybe that's the typical Bay cynic talking, not me), but a lack of character investment and development over sound and spectacle isn't one of them. Sound still plays a key role viscerally, including Marco Beltrami's thumping and evocative score.

This is Krasinski's vision, first and foremost, and he pulls it off with sure substance and skill. He has directed two times before (for 2009's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and 2016's The Hollars), but here, he truly breaks mainstream while maintaining creative freedom.

The image of Blunt sitting in a bathtub, pregnant and frightened, is already one of the year's most striking and unforgettable film images, encapsulating what the movie represents: parents fearing for the safety of their children, as well as raising them in (or bringing them into) a scary and dangerous world, or simply going out into it. The screenplay handles these themes, along with guilt and grief over the loss of loved ones, with understanding.

Emily Blunt

To avoid ending on a depressing note here, I should note (without spoiling) that the screenplay is wise to include choices to fight and move on, to stand up to and overcome fear for the sake of personal and familial survival. Now, how often do horror-thrillers go that deep?

REVIEW: "Black Panther"--The Revolution Will Not Be Televised!

Black Panther is not your typical Marvel movie, let alone your typical superhero movie. Some have already called it one of the studio's best films, and one of the best of its kind in general. In fact, it doesn't feel like a superhero movie, perhaps at all.

To get right to the point, Black Panther (based on the 1960s-based comic book series created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) is arguably the first great movie of the year. It's a piece of popcorn entertainment that stands on its own apart from a recent run of cinematic universes some may call "Marvel-itis". (This is something that last year's Wonder Woman got right as well.)

It may be the first comic book-based film with a predominantly black cast (not to mention a talented director in Ryan Coogler, who also made Fruitvale Station and the Rocky spinoff Creed), but it also proves to be a very universal film that expertly balances themes of culture, leadership, geopolitics, and past mistakes coming back to haunt you, while delivering jaw-dropping cinematography (from Rachel Morrison), music (some courtesy Kendrick Lamar), production design (how about those waterfalls?) and visual effects, as well as first-rate action sequences. The South Korean club fight and proceeding car chase (complete with warrior chant music), for one, are a knockout!

"I accept your challenge."

The setting is a third-world African nation known as Wakanda, and the story centers on the prince-turned-king, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who succeeds the throne following his father's death (as seen in 2016's Captain America: Civil War). Boseman (who has become synonymous with playing such real-life figures as Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall for the last half-decade) superbly and believably plays T'Challa as a character who is fierce, determined and endearing, while also conflicted, vulnerable, and capable of mercy, compassion, and justice.

The film also includes the most three-dimensional and engrossing adversary in a long while, in Erik Killmonger (a riveting Michael B. Jordan), whose theme music combines hip-hop with orchestral. His misguided view of power, control, leading, and a sense of who and/or what is "lost," sets him on a path of destruction (though not the kind that involves skybeams and blowing up the world, thankfully). His character arc represents what one's mistakes can create, and contrarily the choice to not let those mistakes make us.

Without spoiling anything really, the theme of different actions, choices, and mistakes of two different fathers onto their children is powerfully expressed and and subtly debated. "No man is perfect," assures T'Challa's love interest, Nakia, "You cannot let your father's mistakes define who you are. You get to decide what kind of king you are." Various characters, in fact, question and challenge what should be done with their country's resources (e.g., vibranium): just keep it from the world or share it for sake of poor or struggling communities? The complexities of loyalty and responsibility ("serving" a country versus "saving" it) are equally well-played, as is the theme of turning tragedy into hope by using resources the right way. "In times of crisis," T'Challa tells us, "the wise build bridges, but the foolish build barriers."

Speaking of Wakanda, this is one of the most amazing cinematic places I've been to in a long while (right up there with Gotham City and Thymescira). To see such sequences on an IMAX screen are a rare spectacle. Its mythology and history is thoroughly engrossing, from its African roots to its five tribes and ancient gods to technology to what the "Black Panther" itself and the heart-shaped purple herb represent.

And I can't talk about this place without mentioning the impeccable and phenomenal cast that populates it. Just about every principal player showcases enough depth to get audiences invested. In other words, no characters here are ever dull (well, maybe one) nor are fleeting ingenues. Along with Bosman and Jordan, the incredible talents and contributions of Lupita N'Yongo (as spy Nakia), Angela Bassett (as Wakandan queen Ramonda), Forest Whitaker (as advisor Zuri), Leticia Wright (a breakout scene-stealer as T'Challa's sister, Shuri), Dania Gurira (as army general Okoye), Martin Freeman (as CIA agent Everett Ross, also seen in Civil War), Andy Serkis (as arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron), Daniel Kuluuya (as second-in-command W'Kabi), Winston Duke (as warrior M'Baku), and Sterling K. Brown (as T'Challa's uncle N'Jobu) couldn't be better.

The resulting film is not only a testament to Lee and Kirby for a revolutionary character to begin with, but also to producer (and Marvel Studios CEO) Kevin Feige for entrusting Coogler in making a different kind of movie, now officially a piece of cinema history. In a word, it's awesome!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Oscars 2018 TRIVIAL: Mexico, Other Minorities, and Women Steal the Show--As Does the Power and Magic of Movies

For better or worse, the 90th Academy Awards last Sunday night will go down in history as another milestone ceremony. And many different groups and cultures were represented or referenced in just about every category, every song, and every tribute.

Let's start with the big winner. For the first time in 14 years (specifically since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), the Academy awarded a fantasy film, Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, as the Best Picture of the year. (Some have even argued it's the first ever science-fiction film to win the top prize. I suppose that's fair, but it's arguably a pastiche of both genres, as well as romance.) Del Toro also won the Best Director prize, making him the third Mexican filmmaker this decade to win, after Alfonso Cauron (2013's Gravity) and Alejandro G. Inarritu (2014's Birdman, 2015's The Revenant). The film also won best production design and best original score.

Speaking of Mexico, the acclaimed Pixar feature Coco (a faithful representation of Hispanic culture) won Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song (the loving "Remember Me," written by Frozen lyricists Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez), as well as some Mexican shout outs by presenters Oscar Isaac and Lin-Manuel Miranda, respectfully.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri received kudos for stars Sam Rockwell (who won Best Supporting Actor) and Frances McDormand (who won Best Actress). McDormand went on to acknowledge every single female nominee in the room, and even called for "inclusion riders." Many were also impressed and humored by presenters Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph, whom they've claimed should host next year's ceremony.

And it wasn't just women or people from Mexico who were acknowledged. Films revolving around communities of African-Americans (Jordan Peele's original screenplay for Get Out was the first to be awarded to an African-American), LGBT individuals (Chile's A Fantastic Woman, about a transgender woman, won Best Foreign Language Film, while James Ivory's adapted screenplay for Call Me By Your Name made him the oldest Oscar winner to date), and real-life figures (Gary Oldman won Best Actor for his superb performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, which also won for its equally superb makeup and hairstyling, while Allison Janney won Best Supporting Actress for her hard-as-nails role as Tonya Harding's abusive mother in I, Tonya).

It's interesting to note that Darkest Hour's two wins mark the first time in six years that a film won in both a makeup and an acting category (the last being The Iron Lady, which won for makeup and Meryl Streep's third gold statue). Retired basketball superstar Kobe Bryant now has his own gold statue to put beside his many NBA trophies, winning Best Animated Short film ("Dear Basketball") along with Disney animation veteran Glen Keane. (Bryant and Oldman, however, have received criticism due to past misconduct allegations that have faced.)

Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins has been nominated a total of 14 times in his 28-plus years in the film industry, and he finally won for his work on the eye-popping and mind-bending sci-fi sequel Blade Runner 2049 (which also won for its visual effects). Dunkirk, meanwhile, collected three is its eight nominations in the technical categories, while Phantom Thread was awarded Best Costume Design (and winner Mark Bridges won a jet ski for having the shortest Oscar speech).

Though Lady Bird didn't win any of its five awards during the evening, writer-director Greta Gerwig's presence was arguably one of the show's highlights. Emma Stone even emphasized Gerwig's importance while presenting the Best Director award ("These four men and Greta Gerwig"). Either way, this was a ceremony that acknowledged dreamers and moviegoers of all backgrounds. It also reminded yours truly of the power and magic of movies.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

REVIEW: "Phantom Thread" Reveals a Haunting Ghost of Hitchcockian Romance

Paul Thomas Anderson has built a filmmaking career out of exceptional yet challenging craft. His resume tackles everything from stories set in his native San Fernando Valley (1999's Magnolia) to early-19th-Century tales of greedy oil drillers (2007's There Will Be Blood), 20th-century religious cult leaders (2012's The Master), and even Adam Sandler in his most poignant and human role at the time (2002's Punch-Drunk Love). His latest, Phantom Thread, reunites him with the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis (who has gone on record to say this is his final on-screen role) as a famous dressmaker, by the name of Reynolds Woodcock, in 1950s London, and more specifically the relationship he develops with his latest muse.

A man of routine and a very specific lifestyle (with help from his sister, Cyril), Reynolds visits the countryside one day and is immediately smitten with Alma, a local waitress who feels the same way. The plot is as simple as that. What follows is a maze of romance that is, at times, beautiful, while other times psychological. In fact, one of the first things the unmarried Reynolds tells Alma about himself is that he is "incurable," and that "marriage would make him deceitful," considering expectations and assumptions of others.

Other themes that flow--or rather, needle their way--into the fabric of this film include fashion, obsession, occupation, desire, voyeurism, betrayal, disconnect, and secrets. Is Reynolds' relationship with Alma a real one, or just a mere professional one? Could the same go for his feelings, considering women come and go in his life, until that changes with Alma? "I feel as if I've been looking for you for a very long time," he tells her, despite being bitter when his routine is interrupted. Did I mention that Anderson has a tendency to, at times, unsettle audiences, such as having characters stare blankly at the camera (like Cyril, played by Leslie Manville). The late Jonathan Demme was known for this as well.  (Remember those moments in The Silence of the Lambs?

Daniel Day-Lewis

Anderson's filmmaking choices here feel very intimate, arthouse, and feel as if they were absolutely made around the film's time period, with All About Eve and Hitchcock films as potential influences. Jonny Greenwood's classical-style score is captivating, and the dressmaking world (courtesy costume designer Mark Bridges) is impeccable, as is the production design (social life, tastes in fashion, status, etc.). The sound design choices are interesting as well, particularly the sounds of food (buttered toast, munched eggs, and mushrooms).

Day-Lewis is as riveting and brilliant as he is, from his character's nuances, his hair style, his quirks, and his tendency to repeat himself; he uses his natural English voice, as a rarity. (A couple sitting behind me at a second screening I attended said he was "perfect for this role.") But it's the stunning Vicki Krieps who guides and develops the emotional core of the film as Alma, as she pursues a real relationship with Reynolds, whom she has grown fond of and concerned over. ("I want to know him in my own way," she tells Cyril.) She is just as compelling, complex, and unpredictable as Day-Lewis, and can amazingly hold her own by going from precocious to vulnerable to betrayed ("Nothing is normal, it's all a game," she argues) to mildly sinister, and back again. The way they dance (or play) between intellect and control is an emotional roller coaster, sometimes an unsettling one, such as when Reynolds expresses his need for Alma "to keep my sour heart from choking me" and other times expressing disdain for how she complicates his routine over time and regrets letting her into his life ("There is an air of quiet death in this house, and I do not like the way it smells.") One character says, contrarily, "A heart that doesn't change is a dead house."

Although not overtly explicit, there is a thorough feeling of quiet spirituality that underlines the film, including secrets that echo such spirituality. Reynolds' memory (and image) of his late mother is the prime factor here, as is some possible superstition of her wedding dress (which finds its way into a particular scene that represents the film's title, as well as a showcase for Day-Lewis). "It's comforting, to think the dead are watching over the living," says Reynolds, "I don't find that spooky at all."

Vicky Krieps

The quiet effect that Alma creates (at least the way Reynolds sees it) is quite stirring, and the way she decides to take control of it becomes very haunting. Let's just say you'll never think of mushrooms the same way again after seeing this, in terms of making somebody ill and vulnerable, so they can settle down and be "strong" again. Haunting, for sure. On their first date earlier in the film, Alma tells Reynolds honestly, "If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose."

Upon first seeing the film (an exceptional yet challenging one), I took Reynolds as a character who is never really satisfied, and who apparently has a tendency to make his muses into ghosts. With Alma, I see her as a character who demands to get through to him, but in the most misguided (and perhaps twisted) way possible. "To be in love with him is a mystery." Indeed.

REVIEW: "The Post" Grips Audiences With a Familiar and Timely Story

It's almost hard to believe that Steven Spielberg's latest film, The Post, was made with such a sense of urgency. But maybe that's a compelling feet regarding the real-life parallels of the pacing and urgency within the film's subject matter. Completed over a period of nine months, including three months of filming (May to July 2017) while editing was completed two weeks later during post-production, the script by first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah (with help from Spotlight writer Josh Singer) serves as an on-the-edge-of-your-seat political thriller that grips audiences from start to finish.

Opening during the Vietnam War in 1966, with dualities between security and defense, optimism and pessimism, reporter Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) makes the daring and controversial move in leaking out a highly-classified and "sensitive" document, which became known as the Pentagon Papers, and exposing what turned out to be a jaw-dropping cover-up on the aforementioned war that spanned four presidencies. John Williams' prologue score underlines the gravity and shock of the situation, and the ultimate decision that leads to the Papers' exposure, which began at the New York Times and, most important, the Washington Post in the early 1970s.

The Post is actually two stories in one. On one hand, there's the central story of the Washington Post's printing of the Papers, guided by editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). On the other hand, it's the story of Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), who became the first female head of a Fortune 500 company after her late-father and late-husband (whom she lost to suicide). It's also about her coming to her own as a leader, not just as a woman, as she contemplates the ultimate and potentially costly decision (complete with potential court hearings and imprisonment) to publish the Papers. Both stories deal with the roles of gender and power, a surprising parallel, perhaps, to, what's been going on in the news and world these days. "The only way to reserve the right to publish is to publish," we're told by a Post representative.

The film has a near-masterclass in direction, acting, photography, and precision. Like All the President's Men (based on the Watergate investigation that the Post covered one year after the Pentagon Papers), we know the outcome of the story, and yet we're still floored and surprised up until the end. (Without spoiling, there's even an homage to the Watergate story.) Spielberg's direction and Williams' heart-pounding score add the right touch. The always dynamic Hanks and Streep lead a first-rate cast that includes Bob Odenkirk (as Post writer Ben Bagdikian), Bruce Greenwood (as former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara), Tracy Letts, David Cross, Bradley Whitford, and Michael Stuhlbarg. And it shouldn't be taken for granted the number of female crew members and actresses who worked on this film as well, including Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee's wife, Tony), Carrie Coon (as Meg Greenfield), Alison Brie (as Graham's daughter, Lally), writer Hannah, and producers Amy Pascal (former Chairman of Columbia Pictures) and Kristie Macosko Krieger (an assistant to Spielberg since the late Nineties). (Click here for a CBS interview with Hannah and Pascal in January.)

(l-r) Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks behind the scenes

Katherine Graham was a woman who represented somebody who was in a position that others believed she shouldn't be in, and even initially relied on others for her decisions before making her own. Hannah and Singer's screenplay is smart to include Graham and Bradlee's family lives, as well as the belief in bravery and heroism on display (as Bradlee's wife claims), and the importance of holding others accountable.

Recalling what the company stands for, Graham states their mission was "to serve the nation and to the principles of the free press" (i.e., our First Amendment rights, according to the Constitution). The real-life court decision, which resulted in the Press winning a 6-3 voting, equally mentioned that "the press was to serve the governed, not the governors." Finally, Graham describes the press as "the first rough draft of history." In other words, it's not perfect, but we keep at it. Now that's an urgent message in an urgent film.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

REVIEWING CLASSICS: The Many Hybrids of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"

Animation, in and of itself, is an incredible, painstaking, and inspiring process of bringing two-dimensional (or, by today's standards, three-dimensional) characters and worlds to life. And it certainly has more than a century in sharing the silver screen with live-action, whether in a real-world setting or with real actors/characters.

Disney had achieved this feat with such films as the original "Alice Adventures" in the 1920s, followed by Song of the South (1946), Mary Poppins (1964), and Pete's Dragon (1977), as a few notable examples. And then there's Gene Kelly's ever-popular dance with Jerry the Mouse in the classic MGM short from 1944.

Of course, this hybrid between both mediums has been done so often--especially in this day and age of digital computers and CGI action extravaganzas involving giant robots, superheroes, and goofy minions--that many forget (or may not even know) that there was once a time where cell drawings were the norm, and by sharing the screen with live actors and environments was a rare yet amazing achievement. Especially if it was done right. In other words, by really convincing audiences that both the characters and/or the worlds were occupying the same space, was there the suspension of disbelief. And perhaps the most extraordinary example of this classic hybrid is the 1988 feature film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The film was directed by Robert Zemeckis (1985's Back to the Future) and executive produced by Steven Spielberg (a lifelong fan of animation) through his company, Amblin Entertainment. The animation itself was directed by veteran Richard Williams, who sought out to break several rules associated with combining animation and live-action: moving the camera around as much as possible, having cartoons interact with real objects and people as much as possible, and including lighting and shadows that had never been achieved to such an extreme (more on the latter two later). The resulting film is a hybrid of elements that had never been achieved before. Not just animation and live-action, but also special effects in a period film noir setting, and animation that echoed a classic Disney style (and the film was distributed by the Walt Disney Studio), characterizations that echoed Warner Brothers, and off-the-wall humor that echoed Tex Avery cartoons.

Executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis behind the scenes
Set in Hollywood in 1947, in a world where human beings and cartoons (or, "Toons," as they're called here) co-exist, down-on-his luck private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired by studio mogul R.K. Maroon to investigate some reported funny business between Toontown owner Marvin Acme and femme fetale Jessica Rabbit, wife of Maroon cartoon star, Roger Rabbit. When Acme is discovered murdered, all the evidence points to Roger, who begs the cynical and Toon-hating detective to bring the real evildoer to justice and clear Roger's name.

Between the opening Roger Rabbit-Baby Herman cartoon, (a high mark in visually insane comedy) and Roger in Eddie's apartment, the film takes its time and feels like a different movie. However, that time does allow audiences to get to know some of the important characters and situations about to be unfolded. Roger may be the title star and the driving force here, but it's really the Hoskins' Valiant who's arguably the central character arc, and who guides the emotional journey of the story the most. His character was once a Toon lover, until a traumatic incident cost him a close relative, and his sense of humor. Now, he's an alcoholic and a cynic with complicated relationships, including his estranged girlfriend, a bartender.

The first scene in Eddie's apartment, for instance, is a great showcase for the writing, directing, and staging of a character's time span from who they were to who they are now (sort of similar to what Zemeckis did with the opening shot of Back to the Future). The storytelling here is wordless yet emotional, and the aforementioned tragic incident is later spoken while two characters are sitting in a movie theater. Hoskins (who passed away in 2014) played Eddie brilliantly, along with how he interacted with initially invisible characters, complete with excellent eye-lining, during production, save for a rabbit-costumed Charles Fleischer (who voiced Roger) on set.

Roger himself is a wacky and zany character, whose purpose, as he claims, "is to make people laugh." (This is, in fact, the reason his wife Jessica fell for him.) Williams has stated Roger is a combination of various cartoon character aspects (such as Goofy's pants and Porky Pig's bow tie), yet stands as his own, especially with his trademark speech impediment ("Ppppppplease.")

Animation director Richard Williams behind the scenes
One could argue that this is the story of a man rediscovering who he used to be, his faith in Toons and in what they represent, by way of solving a murder case (and stop a deadly plan to put an end to the existence of all cartoons). It should be noted that this film was released during the transition from Disney's dark period (which arguably ended in the mid-80s) to its animation rennaisance (late 80s to early 90s hits after hits), and was reportedly responsible, in part, for reviving critics' and audiences' interest in the medium and the craft. Its comedy was a huge asset to that as well. As Roger says in the film, "A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it's the only weapon we have." Roger Rabbit also had the longest closing credits in film history at the time.

I'll reiterate, as many can attest here. The animation with live-action in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is phenomenal and unparalleled, and represented a landmark in motion pictures. All animation (save for three shots of stop-motion effects) was hand-drawn and required not just flat drawings, but also shadow effects, lighting accuracy effects, and optical effects to give each character a three-dimensional look, while retaining a classic mid-20th Century feel.

A great example of these combined effects is the scene where Eddie is trying to saw a pair of handcuffs off him and Roger in the back of a local bar, after accidentally bumping into a lamp. The term "bumping the lamp" was created during the making of Roger Rabbit, and it refers to animators who went above and beyond what was expected in the medium, just to make certain moments feel extra special, even though most viewers probably wouldn't notice them.

And then there are the many unique mechanical devices that mimiced various character actions, whether it was villanous weasels carrying guns, Baby Herman smoking and gesturing with a cigar, or Roger smashing plates onto his head one by one. It's one thing for real actors to pick up animated props (like a boxing-glove hammer), but it's entirely another for cartoons to do the same thing with real objects. No computers were used for any of these effects, and the film is all the richer and idiosyncratic for it. Plus, it makes the film representative of the late-40s setting. The transition between the opening cartoon and the Hollywood set is a case in point, like a PG-version of going into Oz.

Bob Hoskins side-by-side with his animated co-star,
after "bumping the lamp"
Spielberg's most amazing contribution, perhaps, was convincing several animated studios to loan out their cartoon stars for cameo appearances, and for good trivial fun. In fact, this was the first and only time that characters from Disney and Warner Bros have been in the same movie. Remember Donald Duck and Daffy Duck's piano duet in the Ink & Paint Club, or Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny sky-diving together? Or how about Eddie's first walk through the Maroon cartoon studio as he passes "half the cast of Fantasia"?

This is all great news, in terms of keeping the craft and creativity of the animation medium alive. However, when it comes to "family" entertainment in retrospect, this is a film parents of young children ought to think twice about.

Sure, the movie's funny, clever, and imaginative, especially for cinephiles and animation geeks (like I am). And even though film critic Leonard Maltin once wrote that the film's true high mark was "making us believe that Roger and his cartoon colleagues actually exist," don't let Who Framed Roger Rabbit make you believe it's appropriate for children. The film noir atmosphere makes it equally thrilling, bizarre, sometimes unpleasant, and provocatively sexual. Jessica, for one, with her revealing and exaggerated wardrobe and bosom, is unfortunately made a figure of unnecessary objectification. And Baby Herman, to be candid, can be misogynistic.

This was also one of several 80s films marketed to children and families that included dark, sinister, and even nightmarish elements. (Remember Large Marge from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, or the green creatures from Gremlins?) Here, veteran character actor Christopher "Doc Brown" Lloyd (as Judge Doom, menacing and sinister a character as he can be) revealed a frightening character revelation in the climax that traumatized me as a child, and still does to this day. And although composer Alan Silvestri created an equally unparalleled score, it's a bizarre, wacky, often twisted one, combining film noir and cartoon music. (Zemeckis has had a reputation for dark comedy, to be sure, and went on to executive producer "Tales From the Crypt" for TV.)

One would wonder how the writers and filmmakers got away with, as Eddie calls, "a story of greed, sex, and murder" in a PG-rated film. "It was the 80s," joked Zemeckis at a 2013 Q&A/cast and crew reunion. Michael Eisner (one of the heads of Disney at the time) considered the film "too risque" to be released under the Disney label, that they released it under their more adult-oriented Touchstone Pictures banner. At least the three spin-off Roger Rabbit shorts (1989's Tummy Trouble, 1990's Roller Coaster Rabbit, and 1993's Trail Mix-Up) were less problematic, and the quality of animation, especially at Disney, continued to rapidly grow for kids and adults. Like the wall that breaks between both the real world and the Toon world at the end of the film, there was hope for the medium, for other characters and stories to captivate and humor audiences beyond just pencil drawings. If only they could do that again today like they did then, but for more of a universal audience.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

REVIEWS: The "Wonder" Year or, Ground Control to Major Tom

Wonder Woman wasn't the only film released in 2017 with the world "wonder" in it. And Lego Batman, Ferdinand, and My Little Pony (to name a few) haven't been the only "family" movies released the same year. Furthermore, it's very easy to forget that there's more to "family entertainment" than just cartoons.

Two live-action 2017 films (courtesy directors Todd Haynes and Stephen Chbosky, respectfully) were both based on bestselling novels. They each feature stories of young adults who may not have superpowers (although one does imagine he's a spaceman or a Star Wars character), but they have determination, real human empathy, and a desire to, shall we say, "reach for the stars," which is very rare, even in live-action movies these days. (Or maybe they just don't make enough of them lately.) Did I mention that both films include references to David Bowie's "Space Oddity"?

Oakes Fedley in Wonderstruck
Upon finishing Brian Selznick's amazing, illustrated bestselling novel from 2011, Wonderstruck, I decided not to see any previews or photos from Haynes' big screen adaptation. For one, I wanted to maintain that same sense of amazement, excitement and, of course, wonder, from when I read the book, especially when it got into the climax. Selznick's novel tells the stories of two deaf children--one told in words, set in the late-Seventies; the other, told in pictures, set in the late-Twenties--, their journeys to find something greater than themselves, and how their stories (set half a century apart) intersect unexpectedly.

The former story centers on Gunflint, Minnesota, resident Ben, who lost his mother in a car accident recently and now lives with his aunt and uncle and cousins. Fascinated by astrology (his mother loved Bowie's aforementioned classic track) and curating (he wonders about an Oscar Wilde quote his mother once had framed), he searches through some things in his old house next door one stormy night and stumbles upon a bookmark he believes to be a clue to the father he never knew. While trying to call the number on the bookmark, lightning strikes through the phone and Ben eventually becomes deaf. He soon sets out to New York in search of his father, and perhaps something more.

The latter story centers on New Jersey native, Rose, a deaf girl who has a knack for making paper buildings, and running to the local cinema to see the latest silent film release. She hates her home life, her stern father, and her books on sign language. She dreams of running away to New York and following in the footsteps of a famous actress (a "star," in her own way). She keeps a scrapbook of such newspaper clippings.

Millicent Simmonds in Wonderstruck
Both stories deal with two "curators"--one who collects various things, while the other builds paper cities. Both reach for the stars, like constellations (explaining why they're both drawn to a meteorite in the Museum of Natural History), and they even find new journeys that are just as "electrifying," even when initial dreams can feel lost, as they can be in everyday life. It's also a story of two outcasts who can't communicate other than through written words or body language, and who deal with childhood angst and wanting to belong somewhere. The aforementioned Wilde quote reads, "We are all in the gutter, but only some of us can see the stars."

The way that both stories lead to the aforementioned Museum, with an attraction called the "Cabinet of Wonders," is one thing. The same goes for the back-and-forth parallels between both time periods (which can be a tad much at times, like a few too many cliffhangers). But the way these narratives pay tribute to (and respect) the deaf community is remarkable. And it's a credit to Selznick (who also wrote the screenplay, as well as the original novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"), Haynes, composer Carter Burwell, actresses Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, up-and-comer Oakes Fedley (Pete's Dragon), and newcomer Millicent Simmonds (deaf in real life), for their contributions to it.

Although I prefer the book, the film does stand on its own very well. Part period piece and part silent film, Wonderstruck is visual poetry and reminds us of the power of cinema and pictures to tell a story. The overall effect is nothing short of remarkable and, yes, wonderful.

Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in Wonder
Based on the bestselling novel by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is about a young boy with a facial disorder, who goes to a public school for the first time. And as opposed to paying homage to cinema and the deaf community as Wonderstruck did, this story pays tribute to a different community of individuals and social "outcasts," and celebrates the #choosekind movement that everybody and anybody can choose to be a part of, without getting too preachy.

"I know I'm not an ordinary kid," says the titular Auggie Pullman, whose facial scars have been the result of over twenty hospital surgeries since he was born. Said hospital visits have helped Auggie to eat, breath, and try to live as normal a life a possible. And yet, he prefers wearing his space helmet to escape the potential harsh realities that are out in the outside world.

Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson play the parents of Jacob Tremblay's Auggie (who resembles a young Eric Stoltz from Mask). Mom Isabel (who calls Auggie a "wonder") has homeschooled him for so long, that she believes it's time he gets out into the world and experience life on his own, despite doubts from dad Nate. It's clear both parents and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) try to prepare him for school in advance. And though he's invited by the school principle (Mandy Patinkin) to take a tour with current students, it's clear most of the students initially just show up to "play nice." The story that follows tells shows how they really feel, or how they begin to feel, about Auggie. Kids and even adults are, after all, different--and even good--at masking their true feelings. "I can't wait until Halloween," yearns Auggie.

(l-r) Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson,
Izabela Vidovic, and Danielle Rose Russell in Wonder
The film mostly avoids the cliches of similar coming-of-age stories involving certain outcasts, and allows its sentimentality to be understood and earned, not forced. One such element is the likelihood of friendship betrayals, such as when Auggie hears who he thought was his best friend foolishly talk behind his back, potentially because of classmates' peer pressure, or possibly the fear of being hated or embarrassed, or losing a reputation. ("You're not the only one with bad days," Via tells Auggie.) What's even more challenging (and sad) is how adults can be just as insensitive. For other parents, however (Auggie's, in particular), the lesson they have to take to heart is that their children will need to get out into the world, sooner or later, and experience and grow in all the things that come with it. These un-sugarcoated elements get to the heart of people, why they do what they do, or what influences them to change (or not to), to make the choice to be kind over prejudice.

Wonder brilliantly makes the bold choice to show not just Auggie's story, both the stories of those he impacts: his sister Via, who feels neglected by her parents because of Auggie ("My mom and dad and I are all planets orbiting the sun [or, son]"); his new friend Jack Will, who, at first, helped Auggie for his mom's sake but then grew to like him as a friend; and Via's estranged friend Miranda, who considers the Pullmans a second family from her own divorced family. Even the family dog, Daisy, who was there for Auggie after each of his hospital visits, is given a bit of limelight. ("Real friends are hard to find," Auggie says of her.) What's great about Roberts and Wilson's involvement, for one, is you don't even consider their star power. They are their characters.

The advice that Auggie receives throughout the story may sound preachy to some. "If you don't like who you are, just picture who you want to be," says Nate. "You can't blend in when you were born to stand out," says Via, who also informs Auggie that "there's nothing we can do about other people but ourselves." Says Isabel, pointing to her face, "This is the map that shows us where we've been, and [pointing to her heart] this is the map that shows us where we're going." It's a credit to director/co-writer Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and co-writers Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, who handle the material with care by (again) not sugarcoating it, but really grounding it in reality. Teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs)'s class precepts, for instance, speak to all kinds of kids and adults, and not just those with disabilities, which inspires classmate and new friend Summer (Millie Davis). "I want some nice friends for a change," she states. With all the hatred and cynicism currently going on in the world currently, this story and movie is what audiences (especially families) may want and need, too.

Jacob Tremblay in Wonder