15 April 2018

Adventures at the 42nd Cleveland International Film Festival

This is weird, but even as an avid nine-year casual Internet movie blogger I've never had the opportunity to check out a film festival. When I heard that my new city of Cleveland, OH hosted a massive Film Festival at the Tower City Cinema, I was really excited. I ended up seeing three movies in three days (two last night), although the festival actually went on for like two weeks. I found out about it way too late.

I also rarely do this, but I thought I'd wrap up the three movies I saw in three micro-impressions here, since they're not well-seen (yet, hopefully), and for once I'll actually avoid spoilers in my discussion here.

Really not enough bits about alcoholism here
Scotch - A Golden Dream
Dir: Andrew Peat, Taiwan

Peat was there at the screening answering questions, but seemed aloof as to why he was currently living in China making movies about Scotch. He did say he was originally from Cleveland, which really just further confounded things.

Anyway, A Golden Dream was a solid documentary on the scotch industry, particularly focusing on Islay, Scotland. There is some great insight into the both the history and culture of the industry along with background on some specific distilleries. It ends up narrowing in on Jim McEwan, a distiller at Bowmore for years before revitalizing Bruichladdich and leading them into prominence. Well, quasi-prominence. That brand is critically lauded but I'd never heard of them - and I... drink a lot of scotch. I think it's just out of my price range.

While the film has all these really interesting moments it struggled in focus at times. It seemed like it didn't know what it actually wanted to say. McEwan is a good focus, but then it will leave and spend a lot of time with underappreciated roles of women in the industry or glass-making or the proper way to sniff a glass. And again, this is all interesting factoid stuff, and in the case of female scotch makers, fairly important in breaking stereotypes. But instead of using all the female interviews to fuel material for women in industry, why not just hear what they have to say about the creation of scotch? That's still left up to the men, and ultimately all the women are allowed to discuss is their own role both currently and historically.

I was really torn with this. Scotch comes off sometimes as a feature-length advertisement for Islay scotch, Bruichladdich in particular, virtually ignoring Lowland, Speyside, and Highland producers. It still has a lot of insight into the creation process, the level of skill master distillers display on a given day, and how much it means to the Scottish people. On some level it feels like the level of insight you'd get on any distillery tour, but considering I don't plan on flying to Scotland anytime soon, it's nice to have here.

Lord Bullington was also the Red Cloak in Eyes Wide Shut
Dir: Tony Zierra

This documentary was about Leon Vitali, who if you don't know, was an English actor who appeared in just about every movie and television show possible before starring as Lord Bullington in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975). I can tell you're still not with me. After his experience on that film, Vitali became enamored in Kubrick's personality, directorial style, and perfectionist regimen. He ended up foregoing a budding acting career and became sort of Kubrick's personal and professional assistant, dedicating his entire life to behind-the-scenes work and since his death, continuous restoration and media format transition work.

It's a fascinating piece of work, especially as a big Kubrick fan who didn't know anything about this guy. He did everything from casting to coaching actors to editing, color correction, and archiving. What's most striking its Vitali's worth ethic and loyalty to Kubrick, who we all know is kind of nuts, but this film makes clear is totally bonkers. You know, in a good way.

What's most evident, though, is that Vitali was instrumental to much of Kubrick's success and has gone totally unnoticed for the better part of the past forty years. He's still alive and kicking it and has some great stories that fill this film. It'd be a hard documentary to get through if you're not real familiar with Kubrick, or at least his last three films that Vitali helped out with behind the scenes - The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

To some extent I was left wondering why the hell Vitali was required to work so hard, sometimes day and night (he says his longest streak was two 36-hours sessions), when there was only three fucking movies to make in twenty years. Of course, he ended up handling just about all of the VHS and later, DVD releases of Kubrick's earlier work as well, and the insight of working with a maniacal, demanding, eccentric boss is relatable to anyone. I think it's worth some discussion whether or not his effort was ultimately worth it - solely handling almost all production and marketing duties that normally entire studio departments would take on, because he was supposedly the only one who truly understood Kubrick's vision. I don't doubt that that's all true, but c'mon Stan, we'd still buy A Clockwork Orange (1971) on VHS no matter what was on the cover.

Film-wise it's a solid effort, and despite there being some questions left on the table (it's Kubrick, of course there will be), and it not really reaching an intellectual high point like a Kubrick film, this was fun. I wonder if Leon Vitali handles Netflix previews of Kubrick films.

Blood Fest
And the fat kid from Spider-Man!

Dir: Owen Edgerton

Blood Fest is a horror comedy about a young horror fan who attends this horror convention in the woods called Blood Fest, that, to his horror, becomes all too real when the events vendors make the horror come alive. The group of plucky fans must escape through re-created tropes of Romero, Raimi, a Jason-inspired slasher, torture-porn, and uhh...clowns.

There is some good commentary here on tropes and how to navigate a horror film, and it strikes a good balance of comedy and horror, but as I was sitting there all I could think about is films that played with tropes better like The Cabin in the Woods (2012) or horror comedies that were both scarier and funnier like Zombieland (2009). Even something like Scream (1996) nailed the meta-tone while creating its own iconography in way that this film seems to want to do. You get a pathetic feeling as this flick continually name-drops major horror icons like Freddy and Jason while having to settle for knock-offs to actually fight like the fictional Arborist. I can't really sum it up better than this headline.

Alright, having said all that, this is definitely a film that's trying to have fun with itself, and that's something. The most compelling character may be the completely insane and ammoral guy in charge of Blood Fest, who ironically, is played by director, Owen Edgerton. He brings a totally unhinged joy to his performance. Seychelle Gabriel does some good, underrated work as someone who in most other films would be an uninteresting love interest. A love un-interest, if you will, ho ho. She's great here. There's a certain glee to all the mayhem and the crowd definitely loved it. In the moment I was loving it too, but I wanted to see it build to something more significant.

In fact, as I was watching this, I began questioning if horror movies could even be successful as straight horror anymore. Sure, we just had A Quiet Place (2018), and Get Out (2017) make big bucks, but I'd be hesitant to call either of those straight horror with high body counts. Instead I think of The Babysitter (2017), Happy Death Day (2017), The Final Girls (2015), or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010) as movies that I've all loved, but were only really elevated by pointing out tropes. Even WolfCop (2014). Man I've seen a lot of bad horror movies lately. Anyway, maybe we're beyond that point where we can have a straight slasher or monster movie that's actually scary. Or to be honest, at all.

There is more to talk about here. Purge. The Conjuring Cinematic Universe somehow. Anthology films like XX (2017), Holidays (2016), Tales of Halloween (2015), The ABCs of Death (2012), V/H/S (2012). A little movie called IT (2017). The Ritual (2017). There are a lot of good horror flicks out there. Blood Fest tries to be one of them, but ultimately can't find the balance.

I had fun at this festival. Sure all three of these films had problems, but it's really cool to see these before they ever get distribution, if they even do. And although there were issues here, each film was definitely interesting and memorable, which is important. I'd be into supporting any of these on their path to mainstream distribution.

For the record, other films I was interested in seeing but unable to:

The Carter Effect, Sean Menard
Five Fingers for Marseilles, Michael Matthews
Humor Me, Sam Hoffman
Mary Goes Round, Molly McGlynn
RBG, Betsy West, Julie Cohen
Revenge, Coralie Fargeat
Won't You Be My Neighbor, Morgan Neville

So, go watch these. And any other films you see at festivals nearby. It's fun stuff!

13 April 2018

First Impressions: Blockers

As we examine the theater-going crisis in this country right now, where interest has pooled to a few Disney-centric blockbusters and the prospects of just about any mid-range mainstream film is riskier than ever, the reasons why people identify with and flock to any particular film are ever more obscure. As the other great mass media, television continues to diversify and splinter, the distribution and projection costs of movies makes it difficult to be attractive to the most possible viewers.

No wrestling fan will watch this movie
I say all this because Blockers (2018) joins a slew of random-ass movies I've seen in theaters. I think of course back to The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017) last year. I did not even know that Blockers existed before my credit card was hacked and therefore my Netflix account was temporarily rescinded, so I signed up for a free month of Hulu. That shit played a Blockers commercial every single break for every single show. And Hulu has a lot of commercials.

This looked like a really dumb movie. A forgettable comedy that I had no interest in at all. I moved on with my life. A friend of mine wanted to see it, though, and as I suggested, there were some hints that this movie could elevate itself beyond its reductive surface-level problematic elements. So from this slim impulse they got another ticket. On a Monday night. Go figure. All of the marketing elements this movie put forth measured up to absolutely nothing in getting me in the seat - in fact, it was a deterrent. We're in a weird world these days.

To get to the heart of the actual merits of this film, Blockers was way way funnier than it deserved to be. It was even a pretty good film structurally, although it tended to lose track of which group of people it wanted to be its protagonists at various points. When a film just feels good, though, and delivers the laughs, that's easy to ignore. I should explain what the hell is actually going on here. And SPOILERS forever, which is maybe significant for this film, but the plot is ultimately inconsequential to the jokes and character moments.

The film follows three daughters of three parents who all grew pretty close when the daughters were little, and although that trio has stayed BFF, the parents have drifted apart. Prom is coming up and the daughters start thinking about sexy times. The parents find out, freak out, and try to cock block them. Not all, of course, Ike Barinholtz wants to celebrate his daughter's budding homosexuality, which she is grappling with herself.

Everyone in this movie has their own thing or their own goal, gay Samantha is one of six. There's some really great focus on these High School seniors figuring out what's important to them, developing as individuals, transitioning to adults, and the balance of parental supervision. These are helicopter parents, folks - people who have raised their daughters wholly in the new millennium. The parents learn to let go, learn to find ways to re-connect, and actually learn to trust themselves and their own parenting, along with their daughters to make good choices.

All the actors hit their respective notes really well. Gideon Adlon, daughter of Pamela Adlon, plays the lesbian nerd, whose references to Smaug and Galadriel were on point (even if her girl crush's cape was definitely not Galadriel-esque). She's fairly closeted, scared of what her friends and family may think, so she tries to force herself into a heterosexual relationship, even just to try and see what it's like. It doesn't work out so she hooks up with a hot Asian girl. It's a kind of matter-of-fact homosexuality that came across as real, nuanced, and developed. This is from a movie that features John Cena anally ingesting IPAs.

Ike Barinholtz is her father who is kind of a wacky divorced dad piece of shit, but who also has the most trust and understanding of any of the parents. The opposite end of that spectrum is Leslie Mann, the single mom who doesn't want her daughter, played by Kathryn Newton, to make the same shitty mistakes that she did. A lesser movie would leave it at that, but Blockers progresses that further - questioning Mann's choices as legitimate mistakes, acknowledging that her daughter is making more independent decisions than just following horniness, and is part of a relationship where both partners are nervous about sex rather than just trouble-making teens. The weirdest part is that on the surface, Newton is clearly the hottest of their friends, but still totally best friends with this nerd (even though Adlon is probably secretly the hottest). They actually all represent really different friend groups, which further cements the sex bond they want to have.

I ought to talk about her bf, who somehow has the most open and trusting relationship with his parents, played by the sexually experimentative Gary Cole and Gina Gershon, perhaps a little too open and free. It presents a contrast to more common tropes of clueless parents.

Finally we have John Cena and his daughter, played by Geraldine Viswanathan. I was kind of surprised that this is actually the largest comedic role Cena has ever had. He had bit pieces in Trainwreck (2015) and Sisters (2015) and you could include the Daddy's Home movies. I totally forgot about The Marine (2006), 12 Rounds (2009), and The Wall (2017). It is amazing that such a forgettable action star could be such a natural comic gift. He's not front and center of this film, but the majority of jokes are at his expense, which is perfect. It's clear that he's remarkably comfortable laughing at himself and he exudes extreme confidence on screen.

MORE amazing than that is that they found Viswanathan who matches him. I'm not sure the last time I saw such a determined, strong, independent teenager on screen before. She commands every scene she's in while maintaining a doofy pluckiness that's sublime to witness. I hope she's in for a long healthy comedic career.

Part of this is how the teenage boys are portrayed. They're mostly idiots who don't know what they're doing, which seems to match well with the confident, sexually adventurous women. They all offer proper consent and largely roll with whatever the girls want to do, including at times, declining sexual intercourse. To some extent this may have been irresponsible in not addressing sexual assault or date rape, but that also seems really out of place for the tone of this movie. To be honest with the amount of nerdy idiot friends I had and was in High School I can't say I'd have acted much differently. Part of the core arc of this film is these parents learning that they have raised their daughters to have enough self-esteem to not hang out with or approach the sleezeballs of their grade for intercourse. They're hooking up with people they know will respect them. While the parents freak out at their daughters' precious innocence, the daughters themselves are totally in charge of each of their own situations.

That's an amazing achievement for what should have ostensibly been a brainless teenage sex comedy. There are some ham-fisted moments where this ideology is explicitly laid out, which was probably necessary based on the normal audience attracted to this kind of teen sex movie, but largely it twists its high concept brilliantly.

It's also really funny. That's important. Like I said, there are moments where the film doesn't know who to focus on, and we lose track of the daughters for a while while the idiot parents get into wacky hijincks, but it largely works. Blockers may be in the running for funniest film of the year, except I JUST watched Death of Stalin, so it's got its work cut out for it.

Critters Go Nuts, some Fight the Rock

Another Friday has dawned and it's time to take apart what's hitting your local multiplex. There is a rath of animal flicks dropping today, all of wildly varying genres. The big tentpole of course is Rampage (2018), which is based on a really niche video game that fizzled out like twenty years ago, despite having a more recent release in like...2006. We need to talk more about this, but let's first get some of the more inconsequential releases out of the way.

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero (2018). Say, you like saccharine family-fun features but also want to honor World War I dog veterans? Sgt. Stubby seems to play like the conservative, America-friendly animated flick, one that neglects any kind of real danger or insight in favor of blind jingoism. Yeah, I'm probably reading too much into this. It's probably just a cute little picture, definitely skewing way too young. Fucking Sgt. Stubby. I get annoyed at these pathetic last minute animation attempts to make a quick buck. For some reason they really get under my skin. Like Sherlock Gnomes (2018). It feels like such a futile effort and waste of everyone's time. This is probably an adorable inspirational movie.

Next up we have Borg vs. McEnroe (2018), which feels like it's been stewing for a while, and frankly, I didn't realize was even getting a nationwide release this weekend. It's Shia LaBeouf, which is cool because he's nuts and trying to become a real actor (doing a decent job of it lately), but I don't see how this improves upon 7 Days in Hell (2015). Critical appreciation seems like it's...okay? Maybe not worthy enough to be a real prestige release, but a fair shake at a sports drama. It's decent counter-programming to anything else out right now, and depending on the pathos it delves into, it ought to do...fine. It's kind of a sneaky film that could easily be forgotten forever. Or maybe it lasts. Either way, tennis is sill boring as hell.

Arf arf arf!
With each Wes Anderson movie he becomes more Wes Anderson-esque, and that's definitely true with Isle of Dogs (2018), getting a slight theater bump, but not quite wide release. Good enough. He has his fans and the marketing for this has been solid. Do kids even like this kind of animated film? It's so measured and tepid. Like the exact opposite of any flashy Dreamworks animation. The colors here are so muted, camerawork, and set design so artificial. It wears this artificiality on its sleeve, though, as if to simply say "Let's not let this get in the way of the story."

There's some criticism of Japanese cultural appropriation which I don't really think is valid, but we'll have to see. It looks fun, iconic, weird, and tragic. Basically super Wes Anderson-y. To be honest, Anderson doesn't have a great track record with women characters, either, so I'm kind of curious how that plays out here. It seems like we have at least one prominent female quasi-protagonist. So...that's something? I've already hyped this up and still want to see it. Wes can be brilliant or a hipster doofus, but animation suits his sensibilities far more than he actually indulges. That is, he should really just only direct animated films.

That is pretty cool, though, actually
Alright, back to Rampage. Why the fuck are they making a Rampage movie. The original arcade was a cheeky 80s romp, where you took control of a King Kong analogue (George), a Godzilla analogue (Lizzie), and uh...a giant Wolf, who I always thought looked like a rat (Ralph). You pretty much just smashed up everything. It was a really simple game that was fun as hell. I played the hell out of Rampage: World Tour for the Nintendo 64. The goal is always to eat some toxic waste and turn into the giant evil bat. That's what life is all about. Subsequent games added more monsters, and that's cool, but this was never a really huge game, either in depth of gameplay, story, or popularity.

That didn't stop Hollywood, though. Someone thought this was a good idea. Through the Rock in and blow up some buildings. It's all good. I kind of wish they didn't spoil Ralph and Lizzie appearing in this movie, but what are you going to do. It could be pretty fun if it keeps up the irreverent spirit of the games that were borderline parody / homage to classic Kaiju moments. I don't really see that being a thing here. Director Brad Peyton has done servicable work with Johnson on Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) and San Andreas (2015), but these are movies no one cares about. The screenplay was written by a four-person committee whose biggest name is Carlton Cuse, so there's nothing notable to be said there.

I hope it's good! I always end up so bitchy in these things. The marketing material hasn't been all that grab-worthy, and if there's good character work and a solid bond between The Rock and a giant albino Gorilla, then cool. If not, then it's another Pacific Rim Uprising dumpster movie. Is it weird that I actually know a lot of Rampage video game trivia?

What are you seeing this weekend?

06 April 2018

Teddy, Cena, Noise-fearing Monsters This Weekend

We've got a unique weekend, folks, with three movies that have decently actually caught some zeitgeist despite not having anything to do with any franchises or explosions. Well, mostly. It really just feels like the lull before the great storm of Infinity War (2018) in a few weeks, and even though Ready Player One (2018) is a decent hit, it's definitely Black Panther (2018) who is THE blockbuster of the year so far. More and more it just feels like we're biding time in between big Disney hits.

But enough about that crap. There are three films of varying values and interests dropping this week, and although I doubt any will hit the big time blockbuster-wise, they ought to all make enough dough to get by in their own niche. Let's start with an adult period drama - Chappadaquick. Or Chappaquiddick (2018). Actually, I think I've been reading it in my mind and calling it Chappadaquick for years.

The movie centers around a really dark and evil story of Teddy Kennedy. There are varying takes and I'm curious to see which one the film centers on, but my understanding is that the Senator got blasted at a party, tried to drive a young woman home, lost control the vehicle, then abandoned it and the girl as it sank into Nantucket Sound. She died. It was decently big news and marred Kennedy for a while, but because it was 1969 and she was a woman, nobody really cared. It's the kind of thing that could really derail someone today. Unless of course, it was our actual current President.

It really sucks that one of the biggest shining light Democratic dynastic families in the 20th-Century were really a crew of disastrously awful people. We've heavily mythologized the Kennedy clan for a century, which is so misguided. I'm a huge Democrat, but I'd like to think I can still tell right from wrong. This is a tough scenario to remember, especially because for some reason Teddy was in office for almost another forty years. How is any of that okay? There's some merit here that I'm curious about, although it's still a difficult subject for liberals to rectify and live with, while if it's not simply a smear campaign, Republicans may not be interested in. I'm actually getting myself more interested as I speak, although I don't necessarily get the impression it'll do anything bold or revolutionary.

Next we have...Chicken Blockers? That is apparently the official title. Or Cockblockers. Or Blockers (2018). I had no idea this movie existed until a month ago when I was forced to get Hulu (long story, folks) and saw adds nonstop. During every fucking commercial break despite paying for it. How is that still a thing. Anyway, it seemed really dumb and even reductive towards young female sexuality, but apparently it may actually be somewhat redemptive? Or even possibly show the viewpoint of a generation struggling to rebel against its strict and helicopter upbringing? I get why the marketing may need to focus on John Cena, Ike Barinholtz, and Leslie Mann being stereotypical goofy parents who don't want their precious daughters having sex, like any movie ever, but I'm way more interested if there's more to it than that. And it's currently at an absurd 83% on Rotten Tomatoes! The critics really like this thing!

We've been starved for a real classic comedy for a while. A long while. 2016 didn't quite have any standouts, unless Deadpool counts. Or, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping, honestly. 2017 maybe you have Girls Trip or The Big Sick, but neither of those are really like, the classics. Could fucking Blockers join them? I think no, but we need something. If this could hit a vein, then yeah, have a great April!

Last we have A Quiet Place (2018), from reknowned horror director, "Jim from The Office." It's amazing how much John Krasinski has done since The Office (even during his run on the show) and how little anyone has cared. Is anyone here a big fan of Leatherheads (2008)? License to Wed (2007)? 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)? His two previous feature directorial efforts are Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009) and The Hollars (2016). Yep. Exactly.

But damn that trailer. Let's just post it here:

It looks fucking sweet. A pretty cool idea with some genuine terror and suspense. If you take anything from Krasinski's efforts above you can kind of see how un-Jim like a lot of his recent work is. I also just watched Detroit (2017) and Krasinksi shows up as the lawyer defending the racist cops with twenty minutes left to go and OWNS it. In a horrible, terrible racist way, but you totally buy in that Jim is this dickish prickish no-nonsense lawyer. It's kind of amazing. The Office's goodwill only keeps rising, honestly, which is also crazy because there's only about three and a half good seasons in there. Even towards the end Jim became pretty assholey. Maybe Krasinski is actually good at playing assholes.

Of course, we should also mention his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, who I'm always struck by how much better her career is. He knows this. Her films are waaay more successful in every possible way. I'm glad they stick together. She's also about to explode with Mary Poppins Returns (2018). I get some Looper (2012) vibes from this role, but Blunt brings such strength as well as a decent variety to everything she does. It's amazing that they've never worked together, and you get the feeling that this is a personal passion-project type film for Krasinski, which will probably make it better.

I'm weirdly excited for all three of these films, and if you read this site at all, you know that never, ever happens. I'll probably be slitting my wrists come Sunday, but for now the vibe is good. See? I'm not just a bridge troll hurling feces at everything. Good films are good films and more importantly, rare films. What's caught your eye this weekend? Drama, comedy, or horror?

04 April 2018

2018 March Badassness CHAMPION!

This was all too easy. What was really wild is how we got here, though. T'Challa, King of Wakanda, the Black Panther himself defeated uhh....Sonic the Hedgehog. What are you people doing.

Here's the final poll, which Black Panther won with 83% of the votes.

And his path to victory:

Round of 64: Defeated (15) Wing Gundam
Round of 32: Defeated (10) Legolas
Sweet Sixteen: Defeated (14) Commander Peter Quincy Taggart
Elite Eight: Defeated (4) Dutch
Final Four: Defeated (3) Mulan
Championship: Defeated (9) Sonic

Peter Taggart and Mulan were wacky fan favourites, Black Panther's victory here is pretty significant. It also helps that he couldn't be hotter off one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. Also of all time. But let's also look at Sonic's path at a 9 seed:

Round of 64: Defeated (8) Lorraine Broughton
Round of 32: Defeated (1) Goku
Sweet Sixteen: Defeated (12) Roland Deschain
Elite Eight: Defeated (6) Deathstroke
Final Four: Defeated (1) King Kong
Championship: Lost to (2) Black Panther

Sonic beat two #1 seeds! But other than that a lot of his opponents were pretty obscure. That Round Two defeat of Goku is UMBC-esque, though.

So, Black Panther as a champion #2 seed joins the ranks of March Badassness Champions. Eventually we'll do 64 of these and have them all fight each other. That would be in the year 2078. Man I hope I'm still alive doing this crap in 2078. Here's your all-time Winner Rundown:

2015: (1) Han Solo
2016: (9) Buffy Summers
2017: (1) Sam Jackson
2018: (2) Black Panther

I kind of do want to point out that only one straight white male has won in four years. Diversity is badass, baby!

As we do look to the future, I've got to say that we scraped the damn barrel pretty hard this year. I have currently amassed 87 more pop culture icons to duke it out, which I'll whittle down to 64 for next year, but it's going to be ROUGH. I can't imagine anyone coming in who has never seen this site before and thinking, "Why is Atom Ant a #3 seed?" That's how it works. If you've got any ideas of who you'd like to see, please...please send them in.

I also think I might move this to Twitter next year. Maybe even dust off the old twitter handle. I have...I have four followers and have not tweeted in seven years. I see no issue with this.

That's all for this year, folks. Start following @NM_Wood, I'll start tweeting some stupid crap

02 April 2018

First Impressions: The Death of Stalin

I am not the biggest Armando Iannucci fan simply in the sense that I just haven't seen that much of his work. It pretty much boils down to Alan Partridge, In the Loop (2009), and VEEP, of which I'm weirdly most into Partridge. Still, the dude has a knack for political satire (clearly), and has made a career out of twisty, rapid-fire jokes, and unabashed vitriol. He brings all this to The Death of Stalin (2018), which becomes one of those films that I watched on a whim, thought might be good, and ended up being one of my favourite flicks of the year so far.

Uh-Oh Spaghetti-Os!
This is interesting subject matter to mine for comedy, but it's not really as dark as it could have been. It ends up being an exercise in madcap ridiculousness, power-mongering, double-crossing, and a carefully executed escalation of stakes until everything pops. It's over the top and amazing. For those not in the know, the film centers around the well, death of Joe Stalin in 1953 and the chaos of the ensuing power struggle among his top aides, members of the politburo, and immediate family. There is no attempt made at delivering Russian accents or even consistent British accents. There is also not even really an attempt at casting actors who resemble the historical characters they're playing. Somehow this gets in the way of nothing and only serves to concentrate the film on the performances, trusting the actors naturally shine.

They do and it's fantastic. Steve Buscemi is Khrushchev somewhere between a good-hearted 90s Buscemi weasel and the dangerous Nucky Boardwalk Empire Buscemi. Jeffrey Tambor is the heir apparent, Malenkov, a spineless loaf. Michael Palin comes out of no where as a strict defender of the Old Guard. Jason Isaacs is a supreme and undaunted Commander of the Red Army. Perhaps the best performance of all, though is Simon Russell Beale as the head of Stalin's secret police tasked with hunting down and executing anyone found on a certain list. He's a deplorable awful man but it's also clear that they all are. They're all just competing for power and approval working under fear that they could be crossed and murdered at any moment.

That's really just the tip of this cast. There are an army of sycophants that all have little moments to shine as well as bitter pianist Olga Kurylenko whose letter to the Chairman might have caused the stroke that led to his death. There is an unending array of little moments from Paddy Considine's put upon concerto director in a whirlwind opening scene to the breathtaking incompetency of Rupert Friend as Stalin's son. Andrea Riseborough plays Stalin's more levelheaded daughter with a series of more subtle jokes as each of the buffoons running the Soviet Union vies for her favor.

To really get into this film is to understand that everything is a joke - in the audience it seemed like people were occasionally leaning into the seriousness of the proceedings, but almost every moment is undercut with some blatant incompetency, ham-fisted obviously selfish act, or otherwise insane premise. The film has gotten flack in much of the former Soviet Union, but to be honest, the parallels to modern American politics are more blatant. Beale's Lavrentiy Beria bears at least a physical resemblance to Dick Cheney for sure, and could easily be transposed into a Steve Bannon-type figure. It's easy to picture Trump as Stalin, with his array of easily disposed, fearful quisling cabinet and staff members all battling for approval and power. Not a single one of them cares about the Russian people, it's instead an adherence to Soviet ideology, the demagogue of Stalin, and most of all, saving their own skin.

As with most funerals, white is the color of choice.
The Death of Stalin weaves this intricate political gamesmanship while remaining really funny. It's definitely in that VEEP mode where no character likes each other and doesn't particularly even try to hide that fact. Everyone is too caught up in his own game to worry much about anyone else until the pot boils over and breaks. There's yelling, dominating, cowering, all fruitless action until Khrushchev emerges as the master tactician. That's hopefully not a spoiler, it's...you know, like actual history. The fun part is watching all the madness unfold and seeing how we get there, and as the epilogue implies, Khrushchev was only good until Leonid Brezhnev usurped him.

It's early in the year and there's a lot more film to go - we haven't even gotten into the Summer Blockbuster season or the Fall Awards season yet (who am I kidding, those seasons suck), but I'm digging this one a lot for now. It's refreshing, vibrant, silly, serious, and contemplative. Go see it.

29 March 2018

Ready Player None

Here are are at the end of March, and one has to think that in a bygone age this might have been a big Summer Spielberg masterpiece. In a bygone age.

I'm not totally on the Spielberg-hating bandwagon, to do so certainly ignores both a lifetime of making some of the greatest blockbusters of all time, hell some of which could even be considered the flat-out greatest films of all time. This is in addition to when he stretches his hand at making an incredible slew of dramas, mostly in the 80s and 90s.

There's no way this wouldn't only ever be used for porn
Where the haters come about, though, is that it actually gets kind of hard to find a true recent Spielberg classic. He has lately toddered between films that on the outside seem like stuffy Awards-bait flicks (The Post [2017], Bridge of Spies [2015], War Horse [2011]) or misguided, misfiring, CGI-heavy blockbusters that are all based on previous material that no one actually wanted to see (Ready Player One [2018], The BFG [2016], The Adventures of Tintin [2011], Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [2008]). And yeah, I've already included Ready Player One in there, because this preview will obviously shit all over it. But I'll try to be constructive?

You may notice two things here. One, at age 71, Spielberg has actually cranked out a flick a year for the past four years and eight out of the past ten. That's like Ridley Scott / Martin Scorsese levels. To be fair, they've both also made eight films in the past decade, but four of Scorsese's were documentaries. Doesn't it feel like they've made more than Spielberg? That's because for all of these New Wave geezers Scott and Scorsese are at the top of their game, and Stevie's just...not.

And two, I left out Lincoln (2012) because that's the exception. It should probably fall into that stuffy Awards-baity category, but that's also because it was pretty damn solid. As I was preparing to write this I had my Spielberg defense in my head as, "He made Lincoln!" that now I'm realizing falls apart because a) that was six years ago and b) that's the only damn certifiably great movie he's made in the past decade.

The backlash began a little bit before Indy 4, though. Parts of War of the Worlds (2005) were so damn good and with a few tweaks in writing that movie could have been great. It's bogged down by poor character decisions and a muffed ending. Robbie (and the City of Boston) really should have died. Still, it's iconic and memorable. I've tried to watch Munich (2005) but for some reason it can never hold my attention. It seems like it should be great. I probably just suck. Before that we have a pretty damn holy trifecta of The Terminal (2004), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and Minority Report (2002), which represent everything Spielberg can do. Light dramedy, Awards-caliber bait, and pretty legit sci-fi.

Now, we can't go back through all of Spielberg's filmography because it speaks for itself, but I wanted to figure out when his last great blockbuster was. The big sci-fi action that he's always been known for. I don't think it can be War of the Worlds because that's not outright considered great, and dammit, it isn't. It's good, not spectacular. Then it's Minority Report. Even that script is kind of muddled and overly convoluted for its own good, but it's still fun, intense, original, and memorable all at the same time. That's a significant achievement he hasn't really achieved since. 16 fucking years ago.

All this affects our anticipation and perception of what the man can do. In his favor is the fact that he has an endless supply of iconic movies to draw from. He could make ten more years of blockbuster flops and JAWS (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Last Crusade (1989), Jurassic Park (1993), and Saving Private Ryan (1998) will still be enough to get people excited. I mean, look at that list. This is why I still can't get on the Spielberg-hating train. What if he DOES have another Raiders in him? Actually as I look at this, I'm kind of awestruck about how much better he does period adventure and monsters over sci-fi and aliens. I mean, sure, E.T. and Close Encounters, but those were hardly traditional invasion narratives. Or even much science in science fiction.

At the same time, though, it does feel like he's out of touch. From comments made by world wizard, Shia LaBeouf to his recent statements that Netflix shouldn't qualify for Oscars, you wonder if the guy has any idea what's actually trending or has become too comfortable being the director who made JAWS for the past forty years. Suddenly it comes together - this guy who once knew how to tap into the beliefs and feelings of so many people doesn't understand us anymore. To be fair, he's 71, that's pretty damn old. Except that Ridley Scott is somehow hip and Martin Scorsese made Wolf of Wall Street (2013) at....guess what? Age fucking 71. They're cool, confident filmmakers. Spielberg in the past ten years reaches, man.

Let's start actually discussing Ready Player One. Man I hate this shit. I really hate this nerd shit. And I will reiterate this. Or the fact that my two longest posts of all time were for The Last Jedi (2017) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). But that fact actually explains my views in itself. I'm a nerd who wants new things to be nerdy about. Ready Player One trades on an obsessive kind of nostalgia, where every line in the book rabidly features an onslaught of references. This article at the Outline finely outlines why that's simply narcissistic writing and reading. It's as if we nerds suddenly realized that a lifetime spent obsessing over pop culture has left us with no skills besides being able to recognize references. So now, we have a book (and movie) where that's what the hero does. We're useful after all!

That's such a lonely, desperate thought. It invalidates creation in favor of regurgitation. It's proper that this film is finally dropping in 2018. It's the saturation point, the threshold of our current culture that can't come up with its own iconography. The bleak limits, if you will. This is where things crash with Spielberg and his own twilight career. For all of even my optimism, perhaps he is done making new, great movies, moments, and characters. The only thing left is for him to re-use everything he made thirty years ago. He found a way to do that through Ready Player One, which trades on his career more than anything. It's a perfect 2018 meta-moment, the director whose previous works inspired the book author (Ernest Cline), gets to direct regurgitation of his own works. It's a hollow, endlessly repeating shell of pop culture, disguised with pretty flashing lights and CGI-clashing Orcs and Iron Giants.

To be fair, none of that is in itself a bad thing. 22 Jump Street (2014) and Deadpool (2016) did great things with meta-culture. Both films ended up falling into what they were trying to parody, and it's kind of depressing that the gravity of studio-mandated story beats is too great for them, but they provided entertaining experiences. It's clear that true nostalgic deconstruction like Last Action Hero (1993), The Cable Guy (1998), or uh...Freddy Got Fingered (2001) really don't work from a money-making perspective. Spielberg also isn't one who is going to raise a truly critical eye against material that so honors his own work. That's his bread and butter you're fucking with there.

No, as of now, Ready Player One's marketing material feels extremely earnest. Ernest is earnest. It's saying, yes, we too believe that you nerds and your references are special, that this is high art, what you've dedicated your lives to is not something we can make fun of. This is all pretty rough. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I at least KNOW I've wasted a lot of my life re-reading the Silmarillion in like, the Year 2017. I've been prepping the past few weeks for a long bitchy Rogue One (2016) post. I run this whole damn website! Pop culture is everything to me, but I'm honest about it. There is pop culture that people identify with, that creates national trends and social commentary that makes you reconsider life. Then there is pop culture that totally passes people by, and I've always been interested in what causes that. Everyone has a justification for guilty pleasures, and I suppose that's mine, but that's hopefully a little bit deeper than racing DeLoreans around just because they're DeLoreans.

I can't help but be drawn to something like last year's The LEGO Batman Movie (2017), which mashed up a dream team of pop culture references in addition to its deep as hell library of Batman villains. It seems like such a fun idea on paper but it just comes across as unoriginal and forced. Like Tobias' foray into the Fantastic Four. Like, what the hell was that about. I get the irony of mashing up a ton of pop culture references into this post. But clearly me referencing Arrested Development Season 4 isn't my attempt at pandering to a wide audience.

Maybe there will be some kind of commentary there, or nuance, or purposeful meaning behind every reference, or even Ready Player One's existence beyond being recognizable in order to to turn a profit. Maybe Spielberg does still have it and can knock this out of the park. It's at least been a notable release built up for a while and every other film right now is doing really shitty as Black Panther (2018) finally sorta fades.

I don't care when you are, this is and will forever be the
Columbus, OH of past, present, and future.
And to be real honest, all of this could have been fine, but that fucking trailer lost me at "I live here in Columbus, Ohio. In 2045 it's still the fastest growing city on earth." Nothing in that sentence makes any sense. Like, have they been to Ohio? Why would this happen? Did China take a few decades off? Columbus is actually 14th in the US and a toasty 228 worldwide. That took me two minutes to Google. When a trailer just loses you on the first line it's a horrible impression. It's a line so bad it takes you out of the entire experience. It's as if, "Well, they didn't care about getting this right, did they care bout anything else?" And that shitty uncanny valley of the OASIS. This film's getting away with it because it's supposed to be inside a video game, but ugh, just go Matrix with it and have real people be there. It's cartoony and weightless. The actual story looks super simple, and that's not a bad thing at all. You totally get hooked in that hunt. It apparently turns into some kind of revolution movie or something, I don't know, probably just an excuse to have Shrek fight Batman or something. Who would ever do that.

This was a long post, but it's a hard distinction for me personally. How can I have this entire website while hating the underlying concept behind Ready Player One. Can I truly pretend that my interests here are "academic"? I think it ultimately goes back to purpose. Like any proper evaluation, what is this film trying to achieve? The conduit for its message is pop culture references - do they truly support its message? Or do they become the actual message? As in, are we all just references? There we go with the critical commentary again. Are we all just empty shells filled with decades of shark and robot knowledge? I struggle to believe this film points in that direction, though. The references are there to be emblematic of an audience who can no longer see past them. Pandering, not challenging. And for all my endless pop culture references at Norwegian Morning Wood I hope you are challenged. Let's go meta and use this post for an example - is this pop cultural meta-distinction challenging? Or am I full of shit?

Ready Player One drops today.

23 March 2018

This Friday Only! Apocalypse Cancelled!

Today we have what's become a typical weekend. There is a middling yet high profile blockbuster release, a bunch of relatively unknown low profile crap, and it will all lose to Black Panther (2018) anyway. I couldn't believe that Tomb Raider (2018) failed to up-end Wakanda last week. I would have given that flick a better chance than Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), our big-ticket item this weekend. With another week of demand burned off Black Panther...maybe? Although at this point I almost think Tomb Raider and Pac Rim 2 are going after pretty similar mid-ground action demographics here. Before we really sink into that, I should acknowledge that we won't be getting into Midnight Sun (2018), Sherlock Gnomes (2018), or Unsane (2018).

Well, maybe just really quick, because there's weird things about all of these. Check out how weird the fucking Midnight Sun trailer is. Is this a comedy? A Nicholas Sparks-style drama? Like, is it trying to be The Fault in Our Stars (2014)? What is Rob Riggle doing here? This kind of slapdashery is what 2018 Hollywood is all about. And Sherlock Gnomes, holy fuck. This is somehow a sequel to Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), which came out seven whopping years ago. It features...those characters interacting with a Sherlock Holmes thing? With Johnny Depp as the voice of Sherlock Gnomes? Listen, you can't have both Sherlock Gnomes and Gnomes Watson. Like, we need to do better at puns. These kind of throwaway animated features that exist solely to purge adults of their money are some of the worst forms of lazy entertainment. It's so rough.

Unsane is a relatively low release by Steven Soderbergh. This is the one he shot completely on his iPhone, but with a cast of Claire Foy, Jay Pharaoh, and Juno Temple, and some kind of #MeToo gaslighting hook it actually does look interesting and timely. Soderbergh does nothing if not continuously make unconventional films by unconventional means. I'm not super into the iPhone angle, but apparently it's okay. You can never count his work out quality-wise, but this will make little to no splash in our lives.

John Boyega's lifetime best movie and role may end
up being Attack the Block (2011).
For that matter, neither will Pac Rim Uprising. I was and still am a huge fan of the original Pacific
 (2013), which remains one of the better modern original sci-fi blockbusters. That's a less specific group than you might think when you consider Oblivion (2013), Elysium (2013), and After Earth (2013), which are all pretty damn shitty. Pacific Rim does such efficient worldbuilding and wears its coolness on one sleeve with its campiness on the other in equal pride. It's wholly unashamed of how ludicrous it is, and that's a rare thing that has everything to do with Academy Award-Winner Guillermo del Toro's bizarre unflinching monster love.

It's a film that has problems, but gets you on board enough that you hardly stop to think of them. It also grew this underground demented fanbase. There was always a sense that this flick was too weird, too ostentatious, too bold regarding its niche subject matter to be a real hit. And it wasn't. $100 million domestic isn't much, but another $300 million worldwide was enough to justify a sequel, albeit a somewhat bastardized one without any of its leads or director. Something about Ron Perlman showing up legitimized this so much as a del Toro favourite. There's an emptiness in Uprising.

Now, it'd be insane to think "This movie doesn't have Ron Perlman, it sucks" (wait...is that really insane?), but that's just an example. The original seemed to be in an exclusive modern American Kaiju club that we hadn't ever really seen before. Uprising looks like fucking Power Rangers (2017). That didn't turn out well. But why? There's a fine line there. By strict genre terms, Power Rangers are Kaiju films, they have giant monsters and robots and stuff. Why does this look shitty?

If you look at it, I think it comes down to the CGI and effects. Pacific Rim wisely hid itself in rain and night and at the bottom of the sea. It looks really good and obscured while also adding to its mood of darkness highlighted by the neon glow of Hong Kong and an early sunrise from outer space. Uprising pits everything in stark daylight, which not only gives away the effect, but makes us stylistically think of inferior works like Power Rangers. I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Generally, I'm also struck by the weight of everything. The original had everything move really momentously, a little slower by our perception, with control and heaviness befitting giant robots and monsters. It was a little more grounded (maybe a stretch) in its weaponry, proportions, environment effects, and changed world. Uprising looks far too quick and floaty. It gets away from the "guys in suits" aesthetics and into effects, creatures, and robots who look throw together rather than carefully built.

The original is also surprisingly full of real damage and consequences. Even though Raleigh Beckett remarks that Jaeger Pilots were rock stars and never lost, by the time the audience gets into the main story, these blokes are getting their asses kicked. Jaegers hardly ever last longer than a few seconds into a battle, and even when they do, it's with busted limbs and smashed up weapons. There's a real sense of reality here, which again I know is weird to say in this outrageous movie, but it all adds up. People get hurt, they kind of suck, their plans get ruined, they sacrifice and improvise. It's a fun ride. Maybe we'll see that in Uprising, but it moreover looks like it's a cartoon.

Then there's this weird Nega-Gipsy. What the hell is going on there? It might be cool. Alternate reality? I always thought a cool idea for a sequel would be like, aliens coming down and taking over Jaegers so humans re-open the breach and start controlling Kaiju brains. That's not implausible! Jaeger on Jaeger action is something we haven't really seen yet - is this a rogue pilot? Taken over by Kaiju? Aliens?! All three?! I've been disappointed in big blockbuster traitor stories lately. This might not suck.

Pew Pew Pew!!
And I should apologize, I shouldn't just compare this to the original and bitch about it. I do, however, want to articulate why I was really excited in 2013 and totally disillusioned by this new film. As always I should say that I never cheer for a film to be bad. Whether or not a film succeeds, though, depends on if it achieves what it's trying to do. Pacific Rim was trying to be a big modern-day fun beat 'em up monster movie. Uprising may be trying to do the same, but that's actually a hard line to nail. I suspect it shall fail.

And this is probably all Steven DeKnight's fault. He's a first-time director that somehow landed on this project once Guillermo left and started making Oscar-winners. DeKnight was a showrunner on Daredevil, which I generally hated, but to be fair, that was probably more to do with the show being stretched four or five episodes longer than it should have been. It does seem, however, that this is more a dude coming in and trying to show he can take direction and make a buck on a big budget film rather than a monster-loving maniac putting his dream on the screen. That's a big difference.

In the end, this is probably the most accurate review we're going to get, and it's something that I get at all the time. So much effort, so much energy, and time and talent just to end up in a discount DVD bin at the gas station. I picture like, John Boyega spending hours alone in his trailer trying to hone his character. Or the key grip getting all the camera set-ups just right. Or the editor making sure every punch lands with just enough oomph. They went to school for this stuff. Months of work so that I can flip through it on FX while hungover on a Sunday afternoon in between NFL commercials two years from now. I'm sorry, I meant XFL.

What do you think? I used to call these March attempts at big movies "Halfbusters." You ever feel like Buena Vista is the only studio that's even trying anymore?

16 March 2018

March Badassness 2018 - SWEET 16!!

As real basketball starts up, we're in the Sweet 16 now, folks and this year's tournament is as enticing as ever!

I don't know why I said real basketball. As if this is fake...basketball.

We've had way too many ties. Vote, even if you don't want to.

Your winners will move on to the Elite Eight, to be published next week!

Skull Island Division - battling it out on the Forsaken Island of Monsters!
Overlook Hotel Division - fighting for dominance within the walls of an Endless Haunted Colorado Hotel!
North Pole Division - combat on the top of the world at the Realm of Candy and Magic!
Wakanda Division - put up your dukes in the Hidden Afrofuturist City of Vibranium!

Best Match-ups this round:

King Kong vs. Neil Degrasse Tyson
Mulan vs. Santa Claus
Castor Troy vs. Dutch
Commander Peter Quincy Taggart vs. Black Panther

See your one true God take home the 2018 Sam Jackson Trophy!

Tomb Raider Strides Again!

There's some other weird shit coming out this weekend (is there any greater parable for modern America than a gay teen romance and somehow a Christian song-based movie coming out on the same day?), but really it's all about Tomb Raider (2018). The latest installment stars Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft in the somewhat odd film based on the more recent, slightly more level headed 2013 version of the Tomb Raider video game rather than the 90s boob-a-thon games. Let's preview all this nonsense, starting with...that.

"I'm Katniss!"
One thing that always bothered me with Tomb Raider is how fans seemed to think Lara Croft was an example of strong female video game protagonists, when in reality she's really just boobs. She only exists to placate male gamers and create another fantasy for them under the guise of being a token video game girl. Granted video game heroines are few and far between, but this is more an example of how much more wrong nerds can be when they're trying to do the right thing. The other big classic video game girl is Samus - but she's rendered androgynous enough in the first few games that her femininity is irrelevant [arguable that makes her a strong case for gender equality, but that's another post], and in later games like Other M her femininity is a crippling weakness. I'll give the Prime series points for balance. This is a whole other post. Other than that we have...I dunno...Ms. Pac-Man? More recent games have been a little better, but there's not a lot to call on.

If you're just looking at boobs, then to be honest, 2001 Angelina Jolie was the absolute perfect casting for the original Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). Jolie has done a lot more with herself now (and to be fair, before 2001), but that presence, those boobs, the cheekbones, it all screams pretty video game girl. It reminds me of the super-impractical Zombie fighting wardrobe of Jill Valentine in Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004). I mean, it's real hot and Sienna Guillory got me through puberty, but that doesn't make it right.

I don't think I've seen either of the two first Tomb Raider films all the way through. There were two! Can you believe that? I mostly remember the first one for one of Daniel Craig's first big roles and the second one for one of Gerard Butler's first big roles. Is it bad to remember a female action flick for introducing leading men? Can you call it a strong female action flick when it's really just all about boobs and male gaze, thus attracting interested male eyes anyway? It's hard to look at any film made pre...uh...let's go pre-2017 and think about real girl power.

I never played a Tomb Raider game, either. To be fair, I was pretty captivated by Donkey Kong and really didn't get into non-Nintendo games...ever. I'm still a purist (hence my rabid Metroid knowledge), so Lara never fell under sway of my joystick. See, even that sounds horribly dirty. You wouldn't talk that way about Donkey Kong. Video game (and largely, life) femininity just gets the shaft from male audiences. See, I'm doing it again.

At some point Crystal Dynamics realized that they had a good character on their hands that was plagued by all this shit. In 2013 they rebooted the character and actually made her grounded and more fleshed out, ironically by adding pants. For some reason, I suppose because Hollywood loves shooting itself in the foot, Warner Bros decided to go ahead with another film adaptation. It's weird that even though it's been fifteen years since Angelina Jolie's last outing, I definitely still think of this as Tomb Raider 3: The Search for Curly's Gold (2018).

With all that said, I should add that to be fair, this looks a hell of a lot better than Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life (2003), and yes, all of that was actually the title. Akin to the newer series of games, it feels a lot more gritty, personal, and real, which is totally in line with 2010s filmmaking vs. 2000s filmmaking. And the grittiness isn't really like, grimdark grittiness, but realistic cave-dwelling grit, as opposed to Angelina looking like a fucking goddess while spelunking.

The rest of the cast is fairly unknown, besides Walton Goggins, but I'm not sure how much of a household name Walton Goggins is. We should focus on Vikander, though, who although is amazing, I feel won her Academy Award too early. The Danish Girl (2015) wasn't even the best movie or role she had that year. Ex Machina (2015) should be readily accepted as a new classic, but she's totally underrated in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015). This is still one of my favourite movie scenes ever. Damn she's cool and collected and a hilarious asshole in front of giant man Armie Hammer. But really, picture this, a robot, and a transsexual lover - painter in the same year. That's fucking range, people.

To be honest, her 2016 and 2017 were kind of under the radar without a ton of showy or well-seen roles. You see Jason Bourne (2016) on there, but can anyone remember anything from that movie? Or what Vikander did in it? Same challenge for The Light Between Oceans (2016). Irregardless, Vikander is a supreme talent and deserving of a franchise centered around her. It'd be cool if Tomb Raider could be it. They got two fucking Angelina Jolie boobie movies out of it fifteen years ago, they should be okay now, right. Right?

Well, at this point we ought to talk about the elephant - this is a video game movie. Somehow for some reason no video game movie ever works. Sure, Resident Evil (2001) comes close, and that's definitely a rad movie that turned into a progressively more bonkers series that's damn fun to make fun of, but no where close to blockbuster art. That series also ground into the dust. The only other candidate to bring up is Mortal Kombat (1995). And that's it. That's like, the best of your genre.

Recently Hollywood has tried to adapt really good video games like Assassin's Creed (2016) and Warcraft (2016). Whoops. And to be sure, right now Tomb Raider is actually looking like the Queen of all video game adaptations, at a whopping 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. That's 14% higher than the next film, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010). You know, I actually haven't seen any of these damn movies. They all look so stupid. Maybe it's because I don't play any of these games, but that shouldn't matter, right? I've never sat through a game of Clue, but I love that movie. I never read Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Source material shouldn't matter, but for some reason with video games it does.

That's probably because either the medium is too visually similar to film already or simply because it's not even close to be considered serious art. Critics have clearly never played Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest (1995) for the SNES. Maybe that's why they gave a film like Tomb Raider to a dude like Roar Uthaug, who despite having the greatest name fucking ever, hasn't really done much outside of his native Norway. He crafted The Wave (2015). I mean, COOL, but does he understand American video games? To be fair, he probably does, it's a huge global industry, people.

I don't buy a lot of other reasons, though. There are great movies adapted from television shows, short films, even other movies! There's an argument that playing is so much more immersive that you want to control who's on the screen. That doesn't make any fucking sense at all, why would I want to control Lara Croft anymore than Indiana Jones? Or Hidalgo? Or Brendan Frasier? I've never played the games, but the movies still suck. That's an empty criticism.

In the end, bad movies are bad movies, and that's the mishandled approach. Instead of making a good movie, even in a world where movies are becoming more like video games, directors are boxed in by the trappings of the genre in a bid to appease fans, even though their bank isn't even made on fans. Look, Sam Raimi changed a lot about Peter Parker in Spider-Man (2002) but it still did great because it was a good movie. Studios seem focused on the wrong things.

The irony here is that we've had a few great films that play with the genre without being remotely close to being based on video games. And others that play within genre pretty well. Even watching a movie like Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) I'm plagued with how much of it feels like level progression, down to mini-bosses and final stronghold battles. Video game-style thinking has already invaded our film culture, notably because a progressive succession of challenges, namely through fighting, the most basic conflict, is basic screenwriting. On an even more subtle note, I'm struck by this article on The Last Jedi (2017), which equates mindless tasks to a typical video game routine.

This is aaaallll to say that video game movies don't really have an excuse. I don't think "video game" should even be a genre. Tomb Raider is an action-adventure movie, to be more specific, an archaeology movie. Just like The Mummy (1999) before it. Man the millennium was full of weird campy tomb raiding movies, huh?

There IS this sweet plane jump.
This post has gone on far too long, but with all this said, how does Tomb Raider actually look and what are its cultural and commercial prospects? Well, it seems like a really classic March movie that should be like a Kong: Skull Island (2017) kind of deal - you know...like okay. I keep waiting for Black Panther (2018) to fade, and maybe it does next week with some real competition between this and A Wrinkle in Time's second week? A Wrinkle in Time isn't going crazy and should be beatable. I don't get the feeling this will totally light up the box office (unlike ANOTHER video game spinning jungle adventure movie - Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle [2017]).

If you wanted my honest opinion, I think this is a little too self-revering for its own good. I don't think anyone really cares about Tomb Raider video games anymore and it'd be better off using that as a jumping off point for its own good story. And I don't know, an adventurer trying to find her father, isn't that like...The Last Crusade (1989) in not so many words. Or trade tombs for time dimensions and it's actually just A Wrinkle in Time. The production value looks cool and well shot, but I don't have a yearning desire to catch this in theaters. Maybe on Netflix.

So, what do you think? That was an unexpected 1800+ words and 90 minutes out of my day. Are you amped for Tomb Raider? What do you think of the nature of femininity in video game movies? Are all video game movies doomed? Did Alicia Vikander peak in 2015? Is A Wrinkle in Time dumb for being earnest or is there merit there? Are we all just cynical dicks? Can it get past that awful poster that I didn't even mention once?!

Stay tuned to your pals at Norwegian Morning Wood and all of your questions will be answered!

09 March 2018

March Badassness 2018 ROUND OF 32!!

That's right - you, the people have decided who moves on and who is left behind, beaten, bloody, and forgotten.

There are some good picks here and some massive upsets. Keep voting and we'll update at the end of next week!

Your winners will move on to the Sweet Sixteen.

Skull Island Division - battling it out on the Forsaken Island of Monsters!
Overlook Hotel Division - fighting for dominance within the walls of an Endless Haunted Colorado Hotel!
North Pole Division - combat on the top of the world at the Realm of Candy and Magic!
Wakanda Division - put up your dukes in the Hidden Afrofuturist City of Vibranium!

Best Match-ups this round:

Don Vito Corelone vs. Abraham Lincoln
Goku vs. Sonic
Daredevil vs. Sherlock Holmes
Popeye vs. Mulan
Castor Troy vs. Mega Man
Legolas vs. Black Panther

See your favourites take home the 2018 Han Solo Trophy!

A Wrinkle in Jeans

Yeah, that was my best play on words.

There are quite a few mid-range flicks coming out this weekend that really aren't worth talking about. There's Gringo (2018), which I haven't seen much of but just seems insensitive, Strangers: Prey at Night (2018), which is a horror movie sequel to The Strangers (2008), which came out an impossibly long time ago, and The Hurricane Heist (2018), which is a cool idea, but also kind of insensitive considering the real devastating hurricane damage last year. It's also basically Hard Rain (1998).

Now, The Strangers is actually an underrated horror film, but one that's definitely become lost in the swarm of home invasion thrillers that have become their own genre in the past ten years. Really if we're not getting something very distinctive like The Purge (2013) or You're Next (2013), it's all the same crap. At any rate, I don't think any of these films will be culturally or commercially significant.

Little black kid physics
With that in mind, let's move towards A Wrinkle in Time (2018), which for the record I also don't believe will be commercially or culturally significant. Now, I want to come at this from a few different angles. First, let's talk about the source material and demand for this thing. This film is based of a 1962 book by Madeleine L'Engle, who has written quite a bit of popular and award-winning stories, although I have never ever heard of her or any of them. This is obviously because I don't read, but it's clear that at least 56 years on this book doesn't have the timeless mainstream appeal of a Seuss or Dahl.

And you can say that's for a number of reasons, according to my extensive research, L'Engle herself claims it could have been because of the complex mixture of adult and child themes, a blend of science and Christianity, or the fact that it starred a female protagonist. Some of this has merit, and we should never ignore 60s sexism, but these issues in classical children's literature would also apply to Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland. Sure I suppose those all lean more into fantasy than sci-fi, and the difference is that it's written by a woman, but to me, someone who thinks this movie looks stupid, seems like just generating excuses for a crappy played out story.

There's a fine line there. It's applicable, then, that this film is adapted now in an age where there's so much focus, particularly in cinema in giving women opportunities to direct and star in big budget films. It's such a double-standard sword, though, because if it fails it will fail because it starred women, not because it was a crappy movie. And yeah, for the record, I think this looks like a really shitty movie. I'm not into the gaudy costumes or byzantine storytelling at all.

More than that, though, this has what I'd now like to call the Tarzan / Lone Ranger problem. It reeks of studio desperation to make something happen with an old IP they've been hanging on to. There's an art to making a film look cool and not thirsty. Disney seems to want this to be a thing so bad that it's not that cool. Now, maybe it will appeal to kids, but what parents are reading 1962's A Wrinkle in Time to their whippersnappers before bed? There's no audience for this and Disney is trying to force it to happen.

And I say Lone Ranger problem because we've seen a lot of this. It's just an old brand that it sort of recognizable. This is even worse than the Lone Ranger, though, because people have heard of the Lone Ranger - they just didn't care. Same with The Legend of Tarzan (2016), which came out alongside The BFG (2016) two years ago. That's a good example of a beloved book whose adaptation came out egregiously too late. No one cared and no one saw it. This isn't good. I feel like I can't be the only one with these ideas. I want to somewhat praise Disney for at least avoiding a comic book or Star Wars or live-action Disney Renaissance adaptation for once, but this looks really lame. Maybe that's more the 31-year old dude in me, maybe kids will like it and it'll be great and I'll eat my words.

Don't forget President Oprah!
Except Ava DuVernay sucks. I haven't seen a lot of her documentary work, and maybe that's good, but Selma (2014) is pretty awful. It has this shield of critical bulletproofing because it's about Martin Luther King, Jr and it has a black woman director, which is just a unicorn for major motion pictures, but she's not Ryan Coogler. It took me a long time to come to grips with that. I sat for years after watching Selma and completely couldn't understand why folks loved DuVernay and wanted her to direct a Marvel blockbuster. Selma didn't know what it wanted to be - a gripping behind the scenes biopic or a gritty look at Alabaman racism? Thinking back I can hardly remember any distinctive scenes, and DuVernay's direction is so straight-forward and bland that nothing stood out or popped.

Now, because of DuVernay's involvement and L'Engle's comments on women in sci-fi, A Wrinkle in Time has also bulletproofed itself against real criticism. Because I now totally look like a racist sexist douchebag. And even in defending this position my dude-ness shines clearer. This is actually all a disservice to making films of actual black female merit (like Black Panther [2018], to cite the most obvious recent example. Or Girls Trip [2017], which is brilliant and amazing). It blinds real critical conversation and presents a satisfaction with current black director tokenism instead of asking for more voices.

So, that's a lot to take in and probably more than A Wrinkle in Time deserves. Maybe it will be good. I kind of liked Tomorrowland (2015). What do you think? You watching Hurricane Heist this weekend?

05 March 2018

Oscars 2018 - Hey! Not too bad!

That's right folks, I actually didn't do terrible this year! Although I whiffed on Best Picture (and have now for the fourth year in a row - fml), this was a reasonably easy year to predict. In 2014 I nailed 20/24, but haven't gotten close besides getting 16/24 in 2012. Well, I at least hit that again and bumped up my long term average a bit. Looking back I'm kicking myself for what should have been some obvious picks. I think I could have pushed this up to 18 or so in foresight. Anyway, here's a breakdown of every single category, because you're worth it:

Best Picture

The Shape of Water
Get Out
Lady Bird
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Phantom Thread
The Post
Darkest Hour
Call Me by Your Name

Predicted Winner: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Actual Winner: The Shape of Water


Word is that because of the Academy's voting system, which ranks films rather than gives outright preferences, it's tougher for a divisive film like Three Billboards to win. Towards the end there this sure was divisive. Still, even though there are some weird and frankly, needless racist, homophobic, and uh...anti-midget moments, I still think Three Billboards is a captivating film that's a better constructed and more thematically important than The Shape of Water's fish fuckin.

Best Director

Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk

Predicted Winner: Guillermo del Toro
Actual Winner: Guillermo del Toro


Now I want to see him just make straight goofy monster movies for the rest of his career. Where's that Frankenstein movie? I think long since dead. Mexican directors have won this award four out of the past five years now (including two for Alejandro Inarritu), which is kind of crazy.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

TimothĂ©e Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name

Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Predicted Winner: Gary Oldman

Actual Winner: Gary Oldman


Oldman, Rockwell, del Toro, and even Janney to be honest all seemed to be winning for work that was a step down from their best, but still, this is a great acknowledgment of one of the 90s best character actors. He really should have won for the evil Russian in Air Force One (1997).

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Meryl Streep, The Post

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Predicted Winner: Frances McDormand

Actual Winner: Frances McDormand


We all need more Frances McDormand in our lives.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Predicted Winner: Sam Rockwell

Actual Winner: Sam Rockwell


Great role, great speech, wish he danced, and pumped that the Guy from Galaxy Quest (1999) has an oscar.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound

Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

Predicted Winner: Allison Janney

Actual Winner: Allison Janney


All of the acting categories were pretty much given this year, although this was perhaps the least clear-cut. Allison Janney has been doing underrated steady work for years and this is a great acknowledgment.

Animated Feature Film

The Boss Baby, Tom McGrath and Ramsey Naito

The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey and Anthony Leo
Coco, Lee Unkrich and Darla K. Anderson
Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha
Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Ivan Mactaggart

Predicted Winner: Coco

Actual Winner: Coco


Yep. What more do you want? Coco wins in an impeccably weak year for animation. At least without either LEGO movie.

Documentary Feature

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James, Mark Mitten and Julie Goldman

Faces Places, Agnes Varda, JR and Rosalie Varda
Icarus, Bryan Fogel and Dan Cogan
Last Men in Aleppo, Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed, and Soren Steen Jespersen
Strong Island, Yance Ford and Joslyn Barnes

Predicted Winner: Faces Places

Actual Winner: Icarus


Faces Places was somewhat the popular frontrunner, but I'm not surprised at all considering that everyone was voting for Icarus while watching Olympic Athletes from Russia compete for two weeks. I really thought it might do it, but I went with the greater critical darling. MY B.

Documentary Short Subject

"Edith+Eddie", Laura Checkaway and Thomas Lee Wright

"Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405", Frank Stiefel
"Heroin(e)", Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon
"Knife Skills", Thomas Lennon
"Traffic Stop", Kate Davis and David Heilbroner

Predicted Winner: "Heroin(e)"

Actual Winner: "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405"


Alright, who knows. Timeliness out the window, whatever. That's a very LA doc, so maybe that was the edge in this, the most mystifying of all categories.

Foreign Language Film

A Fantastic Woman, Chili

Loveless, Russia
The Insult, Lebanon
The Square, Sweden
On Body and Soul, Hungary

Predicted Winner: The Square

Actual Winner: A Fantastic Woman


So, do me a favor and go back and re-read what I said about this category. I said it will probably be A Fantastic Woman but I'd DEFINITELY get it wrong no matter what I picked. Do I know my stuff or what. The Square was also really divisive. The simple thing is by my logic of picking A Fantastic Woman as the most well-known critical darling, Faces Places should have won, right? Instead I lost both categories. It's also the most relevant and timely movie, but by that logic, "Heroin(e)" should have won, right? Ugh, fuck these categories.

Adapted Screenplay

Call Me by Your Name, James Ivory

The Disaster Artist, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Logan, Scott Frank and James Mangold and Michael Green, Story by James Mangold
Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin
Mudbound, Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

Predicted Winner: Call Me by Your Name, James Ivory

Actual Winner: Call Me by Your Name, James Ivory


I had no idea just how old and storied James Ivory was, and this is a sweet win for him.

Original Screenplay

The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani

Get Out, Jordan Peele
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, Story by Guillermo del Toro
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh

Predicted Winner: Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig

Actual Winner: Get Out, Jordan Peele


Get Out was definitely winning this as we got closer, and here's one I probably should have gotten. No one seemed really into Lady Bird, although Greta Gerwig love still seemed high at the ceremony. This was Jordan Peele all the way, especially once it was apparent Get Out wasn't pulling the ultimate upset and nabbing Best Picture. Still, there's no precedent for this. You know what, dammit, not only did this ruin this year's predictions but it makes next year's harder. Crap!

Original Song

"Mighty River" from Mudbound, Mary J. Blige, Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson

"Mystery of Love" from Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens
"Remember Me" from Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
"Stand Up for Something" from Marshall, Diane Warren and Lonnie R. Lynn
"This is Me" from The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Predicted Winner: "Remember Me"

Actual Winner: "Remember Me"


This was actually a showdown and I'm glad I got this one right. "This is Me" is fine, but The Greatest Showman is a trash movie, albeit a popular one that did pretty damn well in January. Still, Coco wins it for the feels.

Original Score

Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer

Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood
The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, John Williams
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Carter Burwell

Predicted Winner: The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat

Actual Winnner: The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat


A relatively easy win to call, nothing else really stood out or was in serious Best Picture contention.


Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins

Darkest Hour, Bruno Delbonnel
Dunkirk, Hoyte Van Hoytema
Mudbound, Rachel Morrison
The Shape of Water, Dan Laustsen

Predicted Winner: Roger Deakins
Actual Winner: Roger Deakins


I'm glad I pulled the trigger and didn't call Deakins disappointment again, even though I really thought he'd just lose again. Blade Runner 2049 won more than I thought it might (...two), but it had the nominations to show that people dug it.

Costume Design

Beauty and the Beast
Darkest Hour
Phantom Thread

The Shape of Water
Victoria & Abdul

Predicted Winner: Phantom Thread
Actual Winner: Phantom Thread


Mark Bridges closing the ceremony on a jetski is an awesome sight. This was never in doubt.

Film Editing

Baby Driver
I, Tonya
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Predicted Winner: Dunkirk
Actual Winner: Dunkirk


Some folks were really thinking Baby Driver, but I never understood why. It's obviously deserving, but first of all, no Kevin Spacey movie would win anything this year, and second, it just never felt Oscar-y. Dunkirk was Chris Nolan's first film to really break through in some serious categories and it had to win something. It ended up cleaning up, but more on that later.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Darkest Hour
Victoria & Abdul

Predicted Winner: Darkest Hour
Actual Winner: Darkest Hour


Yep. Let's keep going.

Production Design

Beauty and the Beast
Blade Runner 2049

Darkest Hour
The Shape of Water

Predicted Winner: The Shape of Water
Actual Winner: The Shape of Water


In my predictions I called this the "Weird Period Fantasy Sweet Spot." I'm using that to determine who wins this category from now on.

Animated Short Film

"Dear Basketball"
"Garden Party"
"Negative Space"
"Revolting Rhymes"

Predicted Winner: "Dear Basketball"
Actual Winner: "Dear Basketball"


I love it. Oscar winner Kobe Bryant. That's amazing.

Live Action Short Film

"DeKalb Elementary"
"The Eleven O’Clock"
"My Nephew Emmett"
"The Silent Child"
"Watu Wote/All of Us"

Predicted Winner: "My Nephew Emmett"
Actual Winner: "The Silent Child"


Alright. Popular pundits all said "DeKalb Elementary", but as I predicted, Gold Derby always gets this shit wrong. I mean, so did I, but damn these short categories exist only to mess up perfect predictions.

Sound Editing

Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049

The Shape of Water

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Predicted Winner: The Shape of Water
Actual Winner: Dunkirk


So Dunkirk swept all this shit. That doesn't happen too often! But I should have predicted this would be a year to do it since both  aural categories' nominees were exactly the same. This actually only makes five out of the past eleven years where this has happened, though. So basically....crapshoot.

Sound Mixing

Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
The Shape of Water

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Predicted Winner: Dunkirk
Actual Winner: Dunkirk


Cool, bro.

Visual Effects

Blade Runner 2049
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Kong: Skull Island
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
War for the Planet of the Apes

Predicted Winner: War for the Planet of the Apes

Actual Winner: Blade Runner 2049


Ughhhhh no way! Blade Runner is good, but no Apes film wins this? This was actually one of the bigger upsets of the night, but considering it was the only film nominated here with obvious love from the Academy, this was maybe predictable. Still, I think everyone else wanted some Apes movie to go home with this. This is like how no Transformers movie ever won visual effects. They're good! To be fair, that holo-sex scene was amazing. Actually deserved.

So that's that. Some of these categories were crapshoots, others I think I could have pushed, but that's always hindsight. How did you do?
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