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

Friday, February 2, 2018

REVIEWING CLASSICS: "Well, it's 'Groundhog Day'. Again."

Holidays, both national and general, have become synonymous with certain movies, and not just in and of themselves and their respective traditions. Said films or specials have even become traditions year after year. For Halloween, many hold It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) above other fright-fest features often associated with pumpkin-carving and costume-wearing. For Thanksgiving, there's John Hughes' Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (1987), where Steve Martin's impatient Neil Page is forced to share a road trip with John Candy's slobby-but-warm Del Griffith. And don't get me started on the countless Christmas movies that are watched annually, from A Christmas Story (1983) to National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989) and, of course, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Even late director Garry Marshall's last three films were about annual holidays and events.

This year marks twenty five years since the release of the Harold Ramis-directed Bill Murray vehicle, Groundhog Day (1993), a high-concept, philosophical comedy about a cynical weatherman who gets stuck in a small town--and an unexplained time loop--and keeps living the same day over and over and over again.

Travelling to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the Groundhog Day festivities with producing partner Rita (Andie McDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott), weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) just wants to leave town, only to be trapped by a blizzard he failed to predict. (Ironic, right?) Waking up on February 2nd at 6:00 am to Sonny & Cher's "I Got You, Babe," certain things start to take place. An old classmate stops Phil in the street to sell insurance. Phil steps in a giant puddle on the street corner. He visits a diner later in the day where a waiter accidentally drops a tray of dishes, and so on. The next morning, however, Phil gets confused. The same song plays on the radio, as does the same broadcast. The weather looks as it did the day before. He runs into the same classmate and the same puddle. And on it goes. It's as if he's in an episode of "The Twilight Zone". But by Day 3, he becomes really stressed. Furthermore, Rita doesn't believe his predicament, and the local neurologist and psychiatrist don't seem to be much help neither.

Venting his melancholy at a bar with two other patrons, Phil wonders, "What would you do if you were stuck in one place and everyday was the same, and nothing that you did mattered?" The patron's response: "That about sums it up for me." Eventually, Phil figures since he's apparently trapped without a certain tomorrow, he could do anything without any consequences.

By Day 4, he starts acting so cynical and egocentric that he even eats like a glutton. "What makes you so special?" argues Rita, who refuses to believe Phil is acting and living without a care in the world, "Everybody worries about something." She even goes so far as to call Phil's egotism his "defining characteristic." One of his other acts for the time being involves meeting up with various women, including an old high school classmate, whom he tries to take advantage of (clearly not knowing what real love is).

By this point, anyone who hasn't seen this film may think the repetition of the same day, events and circumstances, becomes tiring. The genius of the script by Ramis and Danny Rubin, however, is that while each day is replayed, it's seen slightly different based on Phil's view, even based on what time of the day it is. One of these days (replays, rather), he speaks like he's directing the events unfolding, decides to steal bank money and buys an an expensive car for a movie night (with a new date). Everybody does the same thing, of course, but not Phil. More specifically, the things that change are his influences on the day, for better or worse. (Other movies have used this same formula since this films release, including the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore comedy 50 First Dates (2004), the sci-fi action-thrillers Source Code (2011) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and the recent horror-thriller Happy Death Day (2017), but not to the same level of fresh avail that Murray, Rubin and Ramis reached with it.)

Then, Phil turns to Rita. He asks her what she wants out of life, as if she had one day to do it. She asks him the same thing. He decides he wants to get to know Rita more, what she's looking for, including the "perfect guy." His many opportunities to get to know Rita--and to try and be better--over and over seem to mirror our own fallen or failing nature, and our need to be better people. (It's interesting that the film's trailers seemed to emphasis this romance notion, leading viewers to believe the film was going to be a romantic comedy.) Phil may think he knows Rita, but he really doesn't. (Not yet, at least.)

The parallels between Phil and groundhog "Punxsutawney Phil"s, considering the aforementioned loop, start to come into play as the story goes on. There are the themes of predictions, expectations, and things turning out not as people planned or hoped, no matter how hard we try. Rita is wise enough to see through to Phil and his feeble attempts, which result in slaps in the face. ("Is this what love is for you?") The moral here: love and sex are not the same thing.

Phil eventually sinks into depression, venting angrily at everyone around him, believing there is no way out of his situation. (The slow-motion shot of the alarm clock switching from 5:59 to 6:00 is loud and profound.) "As long as this groundhog sees his shadow, we'll be stuck in winter. And I have to stop him." He tries to end the cycle on his own terms, such as breaking the alarm clock several times, and even tries to kill himself in a dark montage (driving off a cliff with "Punxsutawney Phil" in their only scene together, putting a hot toaster in a bathtub, stepping in front of a bus, and jumping off a building). I have a general view on the theme of suicide, that it is not, nor should it be, funny. In the case of Groundhog Day, there seems to be a real sense of gloom to this montage, especially the latter moment with the building.

Thankfully, the story and movie doesn't end there.

From the next time in the diner, the story takes a different turn, and one for the better. After eventually (and genuinely) convincing Rita, she decides to spend the rest of the (current) day with him, though Phil knows she won't remember anything the next day. From here, Phil really starts to change, and becomes more understanding. He realizes he cannot change the circumstances around him, although he can have an effect on them. He can only (and must first) change himself.

He begins to do unto others, such as buying his colleagues coffee and Danish, taking piano lessons, learning how to ice sculpt, and even helping a homeless (and dying) man.

Illustrating the value of community, Phil, in a way, becomes something of a local town hero. "No matter what happens tomorrow, or the rest of my life," he tells Rita later, "right now I'm happy, because I love you." The late Roger Ebert noted and claimed, regarding the earlier scene between Phil and Rita in the diner (as he tells her, "When you stand in the snow, you look like an angel"), that Phil hasn't learned to love Rita, but that "he has learned to see the angel."

Ramis (who passed away in February 2014) said of the film's moral, "If you change one thing in your own life, everything could change." Well done for a now-revered, classic "holiday" film that handles its respective themes (including subtle spiritual elements) very well, not to mention its balancing of comedy and genuine drama.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

B.e.'s Standout Films of 2017

(WRITER'S NOTE: This post was initially published one day ago, but after some careful reconsideration and reevaluation, elements in the opening section have been changed/modified to ensure the most honest post possible by yours truly.)

2017 was a really challenging and difficult year for so many people, in politics, in Hollywood and elsewhere. Which could explain why so many films and filmmakers created or adapted stories that were angst-ridden cries, or hope-filled virtues that countered them.

The following ten films were selected by yours truly based on some of these aspects, but more specifically for their universal undertones in terms of the way we see everything from pop culture to the media, to racism, to women, and to heroism.

It should also be noted that the following reviews reference film performances and achievements by actors and filmmakers. However, certain actors and filmmakers (including Casey Affleck, James Franco, and Kevin Spacey) have come under fire recently for misconduct allegations, and these reviews, in no way, endorse such private matters.

Also, click on the underlined bold titles (like so) to read my full reviews of said films.

To start, here are a few notable mentions that didn't make my top ten.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi 
Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) follows up J.J. Abrams' successful continuation of George Lucas' space saga with an unexpected bang. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver develop and excel their characters (Rey and Kylo Ren, respectively) with grit and emotional conflict, while veterans Mark Hamill (as a pessimistic and aging Luke Skywalker) and the late Carrie Fisher (whose given a loving tribute in her final on-screen role as Leia) show they are still forces to be reckoned with. Probably the most surprising Star Wars chapter since The Empire Strikes Back, and one of the most original, that takes the series in a new direction.

War for the Planet of the Apes 
20th Century Fox has been on a role in rebooting the Planet of the Apes franchise this decade. Rise was impressive, what with its emotional investment almost solely from motion-capture performances, while Dawn improved its story and visuals in almost every way. War continues that streak, almost working as a silent post-apocalyptic battle between man (did I mention Woody Harrelson's the bad guy?) and primates. Kudos to Weta Digital, performance maestro Andy Serkis, and director Matt Reeves.

Brian Selznick's award-winning novel (told half in words, half in pictures) is a work for the ages. And while director Todd Haynes' film adaptation falls short of some of the novel's translucency, it's still a remarkable and, or course certainly, wonderful achievement on its own. Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, and newcomer Millicent Simmonds (deaf in real life) shine in roles and stories that jump back between the late Seventies and the late Twenties.

There have been many other incredible onscreen performances this year, including

Gary Oldman as a superb Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour,

James Franco as the enigmatic and highly-eccentric Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist,

a down-to-earth Willem Dafoe and the irresistible Brooklyn Prince in Sean Baker's bittersweet and heartbreaking The Florida Project,

McKenna Grace as a child prodigy in Marc Webb's Gifted,

the always-radiant Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf as a daughter-mother duo in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird,

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in a Hitchcockian romance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread,

and Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslanay and Miranda Richardson in David Gordon Green's Boston Marathon retelling Stronger.

Hey, I'll even throw in Alec Baldwin's hilarious voice over work in DreamWorks Animation's The Boss Baby for equal measure ("Cookies are for closers").

Anyway, onto the main list.

10. The Lego Batman Movie
Arguably the first film of any kind to bridge the gap between the dark and brooding version of DC's famous Caped Crusader and the campy and silly version. Although it falls short of the charm that its predecessor (The Lego Movie) had in playing with toys, Lego Batman still manages to parody and pay homage to the overall mythology. It's hysterical and entertaining, and quite poignant. The first ten minutes alone are some of the funniest material ever written in any film this year. (See how many references you can find.)

9. The Post
A belated entry on this list, but so well-executed to not mention. A true story where audiences know the outcome, but are still on the edge of their seats in a gripping dramatization of the Washington Post's coverage and publishing of the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s. First-rate direction (courtesy Steven Spielberg), acting (screen vets Meryl Streep, as Post Publisher Kay Graham, and Tom Hanks, as Post Editor Ben Bradlee), cinematography (it looks like it was shot in the Seventies), tension, and relevance to current political and ethical morals. A very committed achievement, which also connects to the events of All the President's Men.

8. Baby Driver 
British director Edgar Wright uses all the trademark idiosyncrasies that helped make his Cornetto trilogy of genre comedy hits (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World's End). Here, he pulls out all the stops with an audio-visual music playlist that drives the story of a getaway driver who plots to escape a world of crime--a violent and even shocking one, at that. Teen heartthrob Ansel Elgort is a revelation here, and is backed up by an A-line cast that chews up the scenery. The highlighted sequence: The opening heist set to the Jon Spencer Orchestra's "Bellbottoms".

7. I, Tonya 
A dramatization of the controversial true story of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya is a very profane and tragic "anti-redemption" story, to be sure. But it's also a compelling and engrossing one that mirrors the way people view others in the media and how the media has made certain famous (or infamous) people the way they are. Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and an almost unrecognizable Allison Janney (as Harding, ex-husband Jeff Giloolly, and abusive mother LaVona Golden, respectfully) deliver nail-biting and brutally-honest performances from a script by Steven Rogers that attempts to give Harding's side of the story justice.

6. A Ghost Story
One of the year's most striking images was seeing actor Casey Affleck in a ghost sheet. Director David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Pete's Dragon) manages to take a rather silly image (think It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown) and mold it into a haunting, beautiful and mesmerizing tale of loss, love, and time. Arguably, the most famous scene involves Rooney Mara nearly scarfing down a whole pie (it's actually four minutes of an uncut take that feels long), and shedding tears in the process. Many shots, in fact, are very long and intimate, evoking the notion of making such moments last long as if they were the last, or like they were home movies (hence, the full screen aspect ratio the director chose). Affleck and Mara display varying emotions without much dialogue, while Lowery showcases a less-is-more approach to the unlimited possibilities of filmmaking.

5. Wonder
R.J. Palacio's bestselling book, about a young boy with a facial disability who goes to a public school for the first time, is brought to cinematic life by director/co-writer Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower). It's also a much-needed story in today's news of hatred and prejudice still going on. The filmmakers also make the bold choice to not just focus on central character Auggie Pullman (Room's Jacob Tremblay), but also on the lives of those he impacts, from his family members to his classmates and teachers. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson (who play Auggie's parents) put aside their star power and are fully-committed to this film, one you owe yourself to see.

4. Logan 
Hugh Jackman ends his eight-film run as the fist-clawed mutant Wolverine on a violent, raw, and gripping note in James Mangold's more-western-drama-than-comic-book-action story. (For the record, this is the most violent film I've seen this year, and I pity parents of X-Men-loving children who allow their tykes to view such carnage.) On the other hand, as far as story goes, Jackman and Patrick Stewart show different sides to their respective characters, portraying Wolverine and Charles Xavier at their most broken, compelling, profane, and human, as they head on a road trip to deliver a girl (with powers similar to Logan's own) to a secret and safe place up north. An unlikely and extremely well-executed deconstruction of the superhero/comic-book genre.

3. Get Out
It seems a little ironic that in such a challenging year, the horror genre has experienced something of a renaissance. With works from M. Night Shamaylan (Split), Stephen King (It) and Darren Aronofsky (mother!) frightening or polarizing audiences, the main kudos goes to Jordan Peele's surprisingly intriguing--and creepy--directorial debut. Centered on the African-American experience, as a young black man (a breakout Daniel Kaluuya) goes with his girlfriend (Allison WIlliams) to visit her family for the weekend, racial paranoia in tow, when things get suspicious and take a turn for the worse. Kuluuya is thoroughly relatable and likable, while most of the supporting cast succeeds in making us cringe. A horror film with actually engaging and provocative social commentary; that's rare, I guess. Just don't say you haven't been warned.

2. Dunkirk
Director Christopher Nolan has tackled everything on the big screen from mind-bending thrillers to comic-book heroes to space wormholes. Three of these movies (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar) have been partially filmed with state-of-the-art IMAX cameras. With Dunkirk, he uses the technology in service to the story (and this is a story that must be seen in the IMAX format), by recreating the jarring, suspenseful, and clock-ticking experience of the 1940 evacuation of nearly 100,000 soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk by way of Winston Churchill's Operation Dynamo. Told boldly and unconventionally from three perspectives (land, sea, and air) and even different time durations (one week, one day, one hour, respectfully). While many have argued that this isn't really a character-driven piece, there are still some brilliant performances on hand, particularly from newcomers Fionn Whitehead and singer Harry Styles as soldiers on land, Cillian Murphy as a traumatized soldier, Mark Rylance as a civilian answering the rescue call, and Tom Hardy as a spitfire pilot. A very visceral and thrilling filmgoing experience.

1. Wonder Woman
Of all the films released this year (and possibly of all superhero films in recent years), this adaptation of the famous DC character from director Patty Jenkins was the most sincere, heroic, and inspiring. Not only is this the highest-grossing female-led action movie of all-time, but it's also (and more specifically) the first DC universe film to right the identity crisis its initial films (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad) had struggled with. Jenkins and star Gal Gadot have helped craft a story and character worth rooting for and believing in, because she fights for and believes in something real: justice, peace, and, above all, love. Gadot embodies everything about the Amazonian warrior, and the film does a great job treating her as such and not as a pinup girl that she has partially been known for over 75 years. If anything, this film challenges the notion of whether the world and people are worth saving, despite their/our shortcomings and failures. As one character says, "It's not about 'deserve.' It's about what you believe. And I believe in love."