Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, January 19, 2020

OSCARS 2020: Bombshell (2019)


Every Oscar season typically features one “ripped-from-the-headlines” nominee. You know, those movies dramatizing events in relative recent history that reflect on Our Culture and How It Is Now. Last year, it was “Vice.” The year before that, it was “The Post.” You get the idea. 2019's model is “Bombshell,” handling such important topics as sexual harassment, institutionalized sexism, and Fake News. And like these movies usually are, the critical reception has been divisive. The film has received some raves but many more responses have seemingly not known entirely how to react. Either way, Awards Season has not ignored “Bombshell.” It has been picking up nods left and right, including three Oscar nominations.

The film traces the downfall of Roger Ailes, the scumbag that is largely responsible for turning Fox News into the loudest voice in the deafening right wing noise machine. The story focuses in on the three women who brought him down, by exposing the atmosphere of blatant sexual menace he created. Gretchen Carlson has been loosing ratings for the network, after adopting a slightly more liberal perspective on her show. After confronting Donald Trump about his sexism, Megyn Kelly becomes the target of heavy criticism from Trump and his fan base. Kayla – a composite character created for the film – is a new hire at Fox News, who is personally targeted by Ailes' harassment. After Carlson is fired, she sues Ailes and brings his abuse into the light. Soon, Kelly and Kayla join the fight.

“Bombshell” is most valuable for the bracing way it depicts the toxic environment at Fox News. Kayla has to hide her bisexuality, while her on-again/off-again girlfriend and co-worker lives a life as a closeted Hilary Clinton fan. They trade rumors about Bill O'Reilly's perverted phone call habit, which is treated as just a matter-of-fact of working at Fox. Ailes is open with his sexism. He insists the female newscaster always have their legs visible and in frame, frequently shouting as much on set. When “Bombshell” zooms in on specific abuse, it's largely effective. The moment where Ailes makes Kayla spin around for him and then pull up her skirt is especially unsettling. A later moment, when she elaborates on Ailes' more extreme abuse, breaking down in the process, is when “Bombshell” comes the closest to touching on something powerful.

However, there's a pretty big problem with “Bombshell.” The film never actually interrogates the ideology of Fox News. The abuse Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, and many other women, suffered at Ailes' hand was terrible. Yet, if you're going to make a movie about them, you should probably acknowledge the stupid shit they've said, the corrosive effect their words have had on American journalism. That the women themselves stood behind some pretty sickening shit. There's a brief depiction of the infamous “White Santa” report but that's about it. Otherwise, Kelly and Carlson are shown to be the best of a bad lot. (Which is, needless to say, debatable.) Trump is depicted in the film but the way Fox News came to act as his personal propaganda department is shown uncritically. Ailes' abuse was a symptom of a larger environment of sexism, racism, and corruption, an undeniable fact that “Bombshell” doesn't seem interested in discussing.

“Bombshell” was directed by Jay Roach, the filmmaker behind such motion pictures as “Meet the Fockers” and the “Austin Powers” trilogy. It's obvious what inspired Roach's leap from broad comedy to political biopics. Former comedy specialist Adam McKay previously reinvented himself as an Oscar-nominated director of socially conscious films. Roach obviously hopes to follow in his footsteps. “Bombshell” wants so badly to be “The Big Short” or “Vice.” It features many of the same fourth wall breaking tricks. The audience hears the character's thoughts. They directly address the viewer. Names, information, titles and images flash on-screen. McKay's hyper-verbal and lightning fast editing is an acquired taste in-and-off itself. Roach's attempt to emulate this style is frequently lifeless, the movie not committing to the breakneck pacing necessary to sell such in-your-face gimmicks. “Bombshell” largely becomes a normal fact-based drama in its second half.

Ultimately, what works best about “Bombshell” is its performances and its make-up. Charlize Theron adopts an odd voice as Megyn Kelly but is otherwise very good, depicting a woman torn between her politics and her personal experience. Margot Robbie is excellent as Kayla, whose dreams of conservative news stardom crumble in the face of workplace realities. Nicole Kidman is equally compelling as Carlson, whose finely crafted veneer of Fox News sensibilities start to crumble as more bullshit is piled on her. John Lithgow plays Ailes as a pathetic old man who is still guileless in how he abuses his powers. Lithgow shows the true banality of evil, as his Ailes so casually does shitty things and remains utterly convinced he's in the right the whole time. Helping sell these performances are uncanny make-up jobs, that transform Theron, Lithgow and other cast members – such as Richard Kind as Ruby Guiliani and Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch – into the perfect facsimiles of the real people.

It's easy to root for Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson, and the fictional Kayla as women striking back against the man that so heinously abused them. It's a lot harder to root for them as contributors to the destruction of American journalistic integrity, as people who helped birthed the era of Alternative Facts. Instead of building this conflict into its structure, “Bombshell” hopes simply telling one side of the story will be enough. (It even ends with a Best Original Song hopeful from Regina Spektor, hailing the women as feminist heroes.) This approach is, obviously, flawed. Despite the best efforts of the admirable cast, it's an issue the movie can't overcome. Subsequently, the viewer is left uncertain how to feel or react, which is rarely a great place for a movie to leave you. [6/10]

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2019)


9. Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood

In the year 2019, Quentin Tarantino was still, somehow, a controversial filmmaker. Of course, the reasons for why have shifted along with our general cultural woes. The violence in his movies is shrug worthy and the use of racial epitaphs is begrudgingly accepted. Instead, the fallout of Harvey Weinstein's #MeToo moment wouldn't leave Tarantino totally unaffected. Mostly, it's was news that his latest movie, “Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood,” was going to grapple with the historical death of Sharon Tate by the infamous Manson Family that caused concern. The film was even originally intended to be released on the 50th anniversary of the killings. There was plenty of worry that the famously acerbic filmmaker might not handle this real life tragedy with the amount of sensitivity it deserves. While these controversies, among others, have continued to follow the film to some degree, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has largely been enthusiastically received by most critics, fans, and filmgoers.

Rick Dalton once had a hit TV show, starring on popular western “Bounty Law.” But now it's 1969 and the only thing he has to look forward to is a revolving door of guest spots on shows starring younger, hotter, more upwardly mobile actors. His ego takes its greatest hit when his agent suggest he star in Italian films, which Rick thinks of as hitting rock bottom. Mostly, Rick spends his days drinking too much, hanging out with his best buddy and former stuntman Cliff, and preparing for the next guest spot... And lusting after the life of glamour and success his new next door neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, experience. Unbeknownst to Rick and Cliff, a sinister family has plans of their own for the Polanski household, history the two men will be wrapped up in.

From the fairy tale-evoking title on down, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a film awash in memories and fantasies. The film takes us inside its protagonists' heads on more than one occasion. We see Cliff's recollection of the events leading up to his wife's death or how a fight with Bruce Lee got him fired from a stunt gig... And these memories clearly favor his side of things, in the way memories tend to. There are flashbacks within flashbacks. When it's mentioned to Rick Dalton that he nearly got the Steve McQueen part in “The Great Escape,” we are treated to a fantasy sequence depicting him in that role, created by seamlessly inserting Leonardo DiCaprio into the classic film. Tarantino then directly draws a line between these mental imaginings with movies – both the ones that actually exist and the ones that were created for this film – by shooting them in a similar style. Because movies reflect our dreams and aspirations too, making “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” the latest in Tarnatino's lines of films about the power of films.

This dream-like, nostalgic approach extends to the way the movie is shot. Tarantino often shoots from a heavenly angle, looking down on his characters in the distance. During a lengthy visit to the Playboy Mansion, we often assume the perspective of an outsider (who just happens to be Steve McQueen) looking in at these young, beautiful people living it up. Rick himself is sometimes that outsider too, admiring the Polanski/Tate household from afar. This is even evident in the voyeuristic moments of Cliff admiring the comely hippy chicks from his car seat. Or the Manson Family spying on people from afar. The visual language of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is that of a memory, something recalled but not actually happening right now. It becomes especially dream-like in the final moments, when Rick finally receives the acceptance he's been longing for and ascends up into Hollywood heaven. What could be more fitting for a nostalgic love letter to a bygone era?

Tarantino comes in close on his performers often, of course. Most importantly, he fills the screen with his actors' faces and bodies (And, of course, their feet. Because “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a film hopelessly defined by its director's fetishes.) when they are in an important act: Watching movies and television. A key sequence involves Sharon Tate going to see herself in the Dean Martin/Matt Helm flick, “The Wrecking Crew.” We see the joy on her face as she experiences the dream of seeing herself up on that big, glowing screen. She watches the audience as much as she watches herself, getting high on the joy she feels from their joy at enjoying her. Later, we see Rick and Cliff enact a smaller screen version of this, as they watch Rick on “The F.B.I.” at home. They ideally chit-chat as they watch, the audience becoming privy to their casual thoughts. If these movies and TV shows are dreams, projected big or small, there's nothing more surreal or fulfilling than watching them come to life.

And, sometimes, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” lets us live that dream too. The film often takes us inside the cinematic world. We see the grindhouse war flick Rick stars in, with its shaky camera work and crash-zooms. The brief glimpses we get at “Bounty Law,” in clean black-and-white with sanitary angles, is a perfect recreation of shows like “The Rifleman” or “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” During his guest role as a villain-of-the-week on a new western, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” adopts its most cinematic feeling. Honestly, the intimate angles, atmospheric lighting, and slowly prowling camera movements seem uncharacteristic for late sixties television.   Clearly, this is how Rick is experiencing this challenging shoot: As an elaborate and intense event.

As much as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a story of fame and the magic of movies, it is also a self-reflective commentary on the modern world. Rick and Cliff are two toxic men struggling with their upcoming obsolescence. Cliff probably killed his ex-wife, the kind of Hollywood gossip you imagine a fanboy like Tarantino lives for. Rick, meanwhile, heaps scorn on hippies. The world is changing and both men can feel it in their bones. They know they'll have no place in the reorganizing universe. This anxiety is mirrored in the story, where the legendary bro-mance Rick and Cliff share is soon coming-to-an-end as well. It's the end of the sixties too, the impending Manson murders representing a national shift-of-perspective too. Ultimately, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a last hurrah for this kind of outdated perspective, giving the tough guys – endearing but screwed-up – one last chance to be heroes before the world changes forever. The future belongs to little Trudi Fraser, with her method acting, not to burned-out dudes like Rick Dalton.

But, more than any of that, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is an intentionally shaggy hang-out movie. Long stretches of the film are devoted to just watching Rick and Cliff go about their days. There are long scenes of Cliff driving his car, weaving in and out of traffic. We watch him go about his business in his trailer home, stirring up some mac-n-cheese and feeding his dog. (A delightful dog, a beautiful pitbull named Brandy that is a very good girl indeed.) We see Rick mix up drinks and hang out in his pool. We are privy to their light-hearted conversation as they hang out and drink too much. And, ya know what? It's totally engrossing. Tarantino's movies have always luxuriated in spending time with his characters, always enjoyed their company. Now, he's made a movie largely devoted to just that. And, being a master of dialogue and crafting finely detailed worlds, it's absolutely captivating.

That detail is important. The world of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is just as invented as the samurai movie/comic book playground of “Kill Bill” or the blaxploitation-influenced western universe of “Django Unchained.” Only this time, Tarantino is building an entire world on the pop culture ephemera of the late sixties. The director's specifically chosen soundtrack this time ushers largely from the radios and record players the characters listen to throughout their day. And it's not just music either, as we hear radio spots and advertisements over the airwaves too. Movie posters, real and invented, pepper the background. Magazine covers, commercial artwork, TV episodes and intros, and architectures of movie theaters and fast food restaurants fill the film. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” builds an entire universe around the most forgotten pieces of the past. This creation even extends into the end credits, when we see Rick Dalton cut a promo for Tarantino's fictional Red Apple cigarette brand or hear real radio spots from back in the day over the credits.

It's not just a world of idyll pleasures. There's a quiet sense of tension rumbling under the surface all throughout “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” As soon as the Manson Family is introduced, the audience feels ill at ease. We, as outside observers well aware of history, know exactly what their presence means. The camera work becomes askew as we see them dumpster-diving. Later, this tension boils up to the surface as Cliff visits the infamous Spahn Ranch. In a drawn out sequence, we feel the sense of danger grow and grow as Cliff roams through the isolated area, surrounded by people we know are capable of harming him... Which he proceeds to make more nervous, more agitated. At that point, the tension becomes almost unbearable. The filmmaker knowingly uses our knowledge of history against us, ramping up the tension to create a splintering mini-thriller in the middle of his Hollywood hang-out movie.

Of course, the swerve is coming. Tarantino is, after all, the director that killed Hitler at the end of his World War II epic. We can assume that some twist, some sting in the scorpion's tail, is coming concerning the infamous Manson Family murders. Yet the sheer irrelevant ferocity with which “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” attacks the facts is delightfully startling. In its last third, the film shifts into an act of alternative history, Tex, Sadie, and Katie deciding to target Rick Dalton instead. From there, the film explodes into a hysterical shock comedy, deploying increasingly violent – outrageous, gory, cartoonish – retribution against the real life murderers. The camera spins in frenzied ways, the soundtrack swells, and the audience is encouraged to hoot and cheer as the good guys, who really aren't all that good, rain glorious, holy hellfire down on the historical villains. It's amazing.

Tarantino's frenzied fictional payback on real life killers has a deeper purpose, other than providing a giddily joyful conclusion to his movie. Having Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton pay evil onto evil with the Manson Family isn't just an amusingly childish act of fictionalized wish fulfillment. Tarantino is re-writing history and giving us the better version of reality. When a still tripping balls Cliff recounts events to the police, he mangles Tex Watson's infamous “I am the Devil” line. Thus, in the world of the film, nobody remembers the Manson Family (attempted) murderers. The killers are denied their infamy, their cultural legacy. The power is taken away from them. If movies are dreams, and this movie is a dream too, then we get to experience the happy ending that reality denied us. (This approach is also evident in the way Tarantino gives Manson himself only a minor role, the cult leader appearing in one brief scene. The film is not interested in adding to the pop culture cult of Charles Manson.)

After “Django Unchained,” Leonardo DiCaprio is now an established part of Tarantino's troupe of actors, which he even refers to as “The Gang” in the end credits. (That Leo is a genuine star that can get movies greenlit probably doesn't hurt.) If Calvin Candy was a childish fraud hiding behind a carefully cultivated image of power, Rick Dalton's true persona is not so easily hidden. He shows a clear stutter during every day conversation. He meticulously memorizes his lines in order to cover up the condition while filming. During his daily life, his insecurities are more evident. He's a neurotic mess, drinking way too much and always puffing cigarettes in an attempt to dull the pain he feels every day. This doesn't do much to keep his discomfort with his own imperfections from boiling over, such as in the volatile meltdown in his trailer after forgetting his lines on-set. Dalton spends the whole movie looking for acceptance, for that fleeting feeling of satisfaction. DiCaprio brilliantly inhabits every twitch and squint, sacrificing all his movie star glamour in the part of an almost has-been struggling to maintain his self-imposed dignity.

As electric as DiCaprio is, the film's most impressive performance is from Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth. Cliff is not a good man, his macho bravado and casual attitude towards murder clearly painting him as the worst of what the film's heroes represent. (That Cliff killed his wife and then delivers extreme violence against women in the movie's climax is pretty clearly QT deliberately fucking with our moral compass.) He's also kind of a loser, a tough guy reduced to his more famous friend's errand boy. Despite, or maybe because of that, Brad Pitt is called in to deliver all his charm. And, boy, does he succeed. Looking like a sun-baked god, Pitt works all his movie star charm to create a character you truly want to hang out with. Cliff might be a good ol' boy scumbag but you also bet he's a lot of fun. Pitt's laconic, smooth appeal is directly responsible for that.

The two lead an extraordinary cast, of course. Margot Robbie's lack of dialogue as Sharon Tate was much contested at the time of release, though ultimately a silly issue. Robbie is the film's source of light, playing Tate as an effervescent angel that makes every room she walks into brighter. No wonder several of the film's characters are in varying shades of love with her. Margaret Qualley is enticing in a whole different way as Pussycat, the Masonite that nearly seduces Cliff. A ball of manic, sexual, and ultimately unhinged energy, she is probably the film's best discovery. Al Pacino gets a colorful bit part as the enthusiastic agent attempting to rescue Dalton's career. The film is peppered with icons of the time, with Mike Moh's pitch perfect impersonation of Bruce Lee being the most notable. When not doing that, Tarantino peppers the cast with his favorite performers and cult icons, filling the margins with Kurt Russell, Luke Perry, Zoe Bell, Michael Madsen, James Remar, Martin Kove, Bruce Dern and Danielle Harris. (And, in an oddball in-joke either about the film's themes of a new generation replacing the old or its atmosphere of Hollywood legacy, a number of children of famous performers are present. Rumer Willis, Maya Hawke, and Harley Quinn Smith all have bit parts.)

In other words, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a triumph. It is not Tarantino's most energetic, touching, powerful, or exhilarating film. However, it is surely among the director's most likable. Another love letter to cinema from that great lover of cinema, the film is a richly constructed story full of lovable characters that the audience can't wait to spend more time with. Though it would weather its own controversy – the accuracy of the depiction of Bruce Lee seemed to be the main one, which largely ignored the self-serving fantasy structure of that sequence anyway – I was happy to see Tarantino continue to make his own special brand of art. Yeah, it's self-indulgent. But, whatever. The filmmaker and his characters would certainly never apologize for what they like. I don't intend to either. [Grade: A]

Friday, January 17, 2020

OSCARS 2020: I Lost My Body (2019)


Watching Netflix grow from a humble by-mail rental service to a billion dollar corporation can't help but be somewhat disheartening. Netflix could've been the greatest video store in the world, with a selection far deeper than any physical location could ever match. Instead, it decided to become television instead, focusing on original programming for its streaming division. Yet the affect Netflix has had on the industry is undeniable. Look no further than 2020's Oscars, where Netflix has two Best Picture contenders in the race and another film taking up slots in the acting section. Netflix has even crept its way into the Animated Feature category, where it has two films competing: Holiday cartoon “Klaus” and oddball French co-production “I Lost My Body.” The film previously won the Critics' Week Grand Prize at Cannes, the first animated film to do so.

“I Lost My Body” follows two parallel story lines, the connection between them not being immediately apparent. A disembodied hand springs to life and escapes from a laboratory. It crawls around Paris, having small adventures of its own, seemingly in search of the body it was detached from. Meanwhile, an awkward college student named Naoufel bails out of his job as a pizza delivery boy... But not before having a conversation with a beguiling female customer. Smitten, he tracks the girl down and takes a job as an apprentice with her uncle, a carpenter. All the while, he juggles unnerving memories from his childhood.

The crawling hand is a cinematic troupe with a history onto itself, one I've written a little bit about in the past. It seems the image of a hand, freed of its body and creeping around like a spider, is irresistible to many filmmakers. Yet “I Lost My Body” isn't going for horror. In fact, it frequently asks the audience to relate to the self-motivated limb. The most compelling moments of the film tracks the hand, at ground level, as it navigates the rough Parisian cityscape. It fights off rats in the subway, is trapped under an iced-over stream, nearly gets eaten by a dog, startles a blind man, is attacked by fire ants, and eventually catches a whirling ride on a wind-blown umbrella. It's all fascinating to watch the world from the perspective of something so small and vulnerable. The hand is expressively brought to life, such as when it dons a tin can a hermit crab's shell.

While the creeping hand stuff is pretty cool, the romance at the center of “I Lost My Body's” other story is less compelling. The impetus for Naoufel and Gabrielle's romance is interesting, the two have a philosophical conversation over an intercom. While I relate to the awkwardness he feels, the way he goes about tracking her down is not very effective. He essentially stalks her for a bit and then duplicitously integrates himself into her life. When he reveals this information, he becomes upset that she's angry rather than charmed. He probably should've seen that one coming. Though the film attempts to beef up the protagonist's inner life with various flashbacks to his childhood, it only goes so far in making Naoufel a genuinely interesting character. I do like the way the meaning behind various reoccurring symbols – an astronaut, a mountain goat – are revealed.

As an animated film, “I Lost My Body” seesaws between gorgeous and oddly awkward. The sequences devoted to the hand's adventures are lovingly detailed. The movement of the creeping hand is fluid and its encounters with various animals are vividly rendered. The flight-via-umbrella scene is truly impressive. Yet the animation for the human-centric scenes can be surprisingly jerky at times, the characters moving stiffly. The character designs are also fairly realistic, making the long dialogue scenes not very interesting to look at. The film does make excellent use of color, I'll give it that.

Once the twist in how the story threads connect is reveal, “I Lost My Body” peters out in a disappointing way. It's ending is seriously abrupt. Netflix pulled together a cast of well-known American actors for its English dub. Alia Shawkat and George Wendt sound kind of bored though, with only Dev Patel really committed to the performance. While it has a cool premise, and is occasionally gorgeously animated, “I Lost My Body” didn't work as well for me as it did for others. I couldn't help but left wondering if whatever GKIDS had lined up for the Oscars this year would've been more interesting, if Netflix hadn't pushed them out of the race. [7/10]

Thursday, January 16, 2020

OSCARS 2020: Marriage Story (2019)


Noah Baumbach is one of those notable filmmakers I’ve heard about for years, that is so prominent he’s even in the Criterion Collection, but I’ve never seen much of what he’s made. I saw “Greenberg” years ago – and kind of hated it because of my noted bias against the entire mumblecore concept – and “De Palma,” which probably isn’t a great example of what he usually makes. Baumbach’s aesthetic, as far as I can tell, is character-driven, semi-indie comedy/dramas that tend to emphasize the drama a lot more than the comedy. It seems Baumbach must’ve signed some sort of deal with Netflix. While “The Meyerowitz Stories” was critically acclaimed, the first film Baumbach made for the streaming giant, “Marriage Story” has been so sweepingly received that it has a shot at the highest film-related honor in the land. What did I, a relative Baumbach newbie, make of this one?

Charlie is a New York director of somewhat artsy-fartsy, frequently critically acclaimed and sometimes successful plays. Nicole is an actress, once an up-and-coming movie star who is now best known as the star of Charlie’s stage shows. The two have been married for many years, with a young son named Henry. Now, however, they have agreed to divorce. After initially promising not to get bogged down in too much legal stuff, the couple end up hiring aggressive lawyers. The stress of their lifestyles on opposing coasts weighs on the situation. Every mistake and lingering pain of their relationship rears its ugly heads as the two navigate their separation.

What most struck me about “Marriage Story” is the way it depicts the uncomfortable minutia of the divorce proceedings. We see Charlie awkwardly audition one set of lawyers before deciding on someone else. He has to drag his son to long, tedious meetings. The dissolving couple re-negotiates their prior agreements, which is often shown as a drawn-out, deeply painful process. Eventually, it gets ugly. “Marriage Story” never backs down from the rising unease and tension in the situation, which inevitably explodes into hideously gross courtroom arguments. (The film depicts an obvious discomfort with the way the personal becomes the public in divorce court.) This is most evident in the much meme’d-on key scene, where Charlie and Nicole have an enormous fight in his new apartment. Divorce is an endlessly difficult procedure in just about every way imaginable and “Marriage Story” is prepared to walk us through that.

Yet “Marriage Story” is not just a film about painful, highly emotional stuff. Baumbach contrasts the heavier stuff with some light, awkward comedy. Early on, Nicole, her eccentric mother, and sister walk through the various steps of how to serve Charlie his papers. A long Halloween sequence, where Charlie attempts to celebrate the holiday with his son his way doesn’t quite go as expected, produces a number of uncomfortable laughs. There’s a real sweetness to “Marriage Story” at times too. The scenes involving Henry are handled with a delicateness that is neither too sentimental nor too dismissive. The movie also concludes on a perfectly poetic note, taking “Marriage Story” out on a cathartic, touching feeling, instead of focusing on bitterness or discomfort.

That the film has attracted so much attention from the Academy is not a surprise, because “Marriage Story” is, first and foremost, an actor’s movie. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver get to show off all the range of their considerable talent. Johansson, in fact, might give a career best performance. She is a bunch of tightly wound nerves throughout much of “Marriage Story,” Nicole clearly trying to keep that simmering resentment under control, to remain as professional as possible in the face of deeply personal conflict. When that anger finally boils over, it is deeply satisfying to see. Driver, meanwhile, clearly invest a huge amount of emotion in his performance. The way he reacts during important moments – the reading of a key letter, an impromptu sing-along session – shows a sense of physical control and understanding of the character that represents everything good about acting. Both are fantastic.

While the lead performances are subtle and nuanced, the supporting cast of “Marriage Story” is loaded with colorful, sometimes even cartoonish performances. Which is sort of a weird choice, considering how even the main story’s most melodramatic moments are fairly naturalistic. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Watching Laura Dern ham it up as Nicole’s increasingly impassioned lawyer is lots of fun. Her big speech about societal expectations for motherhood vs. fatherhood is clearly a gleeful moment, if it’s also obviously the Oscar Clip moment. Wallace Shawn is, naturally, delightful in his brief role as one of Charlie’s actors. Yet Ray Liotta giving a typically macho and blustery performance, or Alan Alda acting like a folksy old man, definitely feels like it jives with the overall reality of the movie.

All things considered though, “Marriage Story” is a very good motion picture. Baumbach’s skills as a visual filmmaker are professional and restrained, even if the framing of the shots and the placement of the camera are clearly meaningful. As a writer, he sometimes loads scenes down with too much cleverness, like the especially on-the-nose symbolism of a significant cut Driver gives himself. People have already happily read into “Marriage Story,” assuming Baumbach drew from his own divorce with Jennifer Jason Lee for inspiration. (He’s currently partnered with fellow 2020 nominee, Greta Gerwig.) Who’s to say? Still, I have a more positive impression of him as a filmmaker now and think this is a pretty good movie too. [7/10]

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Director Report Card: Taika Waititi (2019)


6. Jojo Rabbit

One assumes that Taika Waititi didn't have especially large budgets at his disposal in the early years of his career. Even after gaining a following, you'd think he had to restrained his ideas in order to attract financiers. After hooking his wagon to the Marvel machine, and directing what's regarded as one of the best of the recent glut of superhero flicks, it seems Taika Waititi can get whatever crazy idea he wants into a movie. And the movie he wanted to make was an adaptation of the novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens. In which the director himself would play a boy's imaginary best friend: Adolf Hitler. The Jewish Waititi would get in front of the predictable controversy by declaring “Jojo Rabbit” an “anti-hate satire” from the beginning. Surprisingly, the film would attract rave reviews, picking up multiple award seasons nominations and wins. And now it's up for Best Picture, among other Oscars. That's pretty far from “Eagle Vs. Shark.”

The year is 1944 and Jojo Betzler is a ten year old boy living in western Germany. Even though the war effort is collapsing and the allies are closing in, Jojo is a fervent supporter of the Nazi Party. In fact, he often imagines Adolf Hitler as his best friend. While at Hitler Youth camp, Jojo enthusiastically throws a grenade and ends up badly blasting his own face. Retreating into his own home, he lives with his loving mother – who doesn't understand his enthusiasm for National Socialism – and has few friends. This is when he discovers a secret: Mom is hiding a Jewish girl in the upstairs crawlspace. At first repulsed, Jojo soon becomes fascinated with her. And slowly, his views of the world change.

First and foremost – and this should really go without saying but – “Jojo Rabbit” is mocking Nazi Germany and everything it was built upon. From the beginning, Naziism is presented as loosing ground. The Hitler Youth camps are a pathetic charade, commanding officers showing off to easily impressed children. Said officer himself is a failure, who suffers one pathetic humiliation after another. The Nazis are shown as obsessed with the Jews, who they have demonized in the most cartoonish way. It's a salient point that the only people in the film who seem to take Nazi philosophies very seriously are children, thoroughly indoctrinated and too young, too naive to question the obvious flaws. In fact, the film presents the most sincere Nazis as nothing but bullies. Jojo gains his nickname when he refuses to kill a rabbit, who is then brutally slain by the older kids.

Which brings us to Jojo and his relationship with Hitler. Or rather “Hitler,” a childish imagining of what the dictator might be like. Hitler gives Jojo pep talks, building him up when he's feeling down. He goes on playful adventures with the boy, running through the woods with him. He's everything the kid admires, who eats unicorns and stands up for what he believes in. It's obvious what Waititi's goal is here. He's not just comparing the hero worship Nazis had for Hitler with a boy's childish admiration for his imaginary friend. Jojo is a boy without a father, vulnerable, sad, lonely. Extreme ideologies like Nazisms prey on people just like that, those that need something within them fulfilled.

Yet “Jojo Rabbit” isn't just about making fun of Nazism and everyone that believes in it. It's also a film about the boundlessness of boyhood energy. Jojo is a typical ten year old. He's bursting with life. He plays cute games with his best friend, the portly Yorki. Though having his face scarred puts him down, it doesn't take him out, as the kid remains as peppy as ever. Waititi's visual sense often matches this energy. When he goes racing off to grab the hand grenade, the camera races along with him. Often, where the boy's eyes look are paired with zippy crash-zooms.

Considering the cult movie appeal of his previous films, it might be surprising that Taika Waititi's latest has picked up so many awards and nominations. Truthfully, it's only when compared to the likes of “Boy,” “Eagle vs. Shark,” and “What We Do in the Shadows” that “Jojo Rabbit” seems especially mainstream. This is still a quirky indie comedy. There are surreal touches throughout the film. One extended sequence has Jojo, dressed as a robot, walking around Germany and spreading Nazi pamphlets. Captain Klenzendorf designs a cartoonish battle outfit... Which he later actually wears into combat. The style of eccentric, goofy, and intentionally artificial dialogue found throughout Taika's earlier films remains present here.

Waititi's personal themes are continuing to grow and evolve as well. Throughout his first five features – yes, even in “Thor: Ragnorok” – he touches upon the premise of boys becoming men and man-boys becoming man-men. “Jojo Rabbit” returns to the coming-of-age stylings of “Boy” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Jojo will begin the movie as one person and ends it as another. In a way that especially recalls Waititi's fifth film, he's even put through the emotional wringer and eventually has to fend for himself. This is a film of a boy dealing with loss and love and it transforming him, in a way perhaps more blatant than what Boy or Ricky Baker went through.

That lack of subtly is a flaw of sorts in “Jojo Rabbit.” This is ultimately a film about the transformative power of love. And that romance is something that has rubbed “Jojo Rabbit's” detractors the wrong way. Jojo and Elsa, the Jewish girl up-stairs, begin hating each other, as you'd expect an anti-Semite and and a Jew to. However, the two misfits begin to bond through letters Jojo has forged from Elsa's deployed boyfriend. Personal taste varies but I personally found this courtship adorable. Though their relationship begins with knives drawn, Jojo soon comes to admire Elsa's creativity and Elsa becomes attached to Jojo's capacity for sweetness. By the end, they are making the most adorable advances towards each other. This is a romance characterized by furtive glances and awkward shuffling of feet. It's super cute.

What makes this romance even more believable and touching is the young leads. Roman Griffin Davis, in his debut role, impresses as Jojo. He shows an incredible nuance, acting with his face without overdoing it, suggesting the feelings the boy is having with just a raise of an eyebrow or a rabbit-like twitch of his nose. He's hilarious, in his line delivery, but also poignant, when breaking down into tears. He also has excellent chemistry with Thomasin McKenzie, also fantastic in “Leave No Trace,” as Elsa. McKenzie shows a similar grace and determination, knowing when Elsa needs to be a little spit-fire and when she needs to be a quick-thinker with a fighting spirit.

Among the film's supporting cast, Scarlett Johnansson as Jojo's mom has gotten most of the praise. And not without good reason. Johansson plays an idealized movie mom. During an especially touching moment, she role-plays as both Jojo's mom and his father. It's such a sweet sequence and just one example of the lovable power, based in understanding and sympathy, Johansson brings to the role. As Jojo's other parental figures, Waititi himself is naturally hilarious as Hitler, luxuriating in the absurdity of the role of Hitler: Dad Figure. Another stand-out part is Archie Yates, as Yorki, who gets some of the film's funniest roles as the dim-witted but utterly sincere kid.

However, some of the performances in the film are not so balanced. Sam Rockwell, playing another “lovable racist,” maybe goes too broad, too quirky as Captain Klenzsendorf. Rebel Wilson, meanwhile, is definitely too far on the broad and aggressively wacky side. This represents another flaw in “Jojo Rabbit.” During a key sequence, Jojo gets a first-hand look at the war he's been praising up to this point. While most of the actual horrors, the real bloodshed, of combat are kept off-screen, it's clear the boy is unprepared for what he sees. Weirdly, during this serious moment, Waititi exposes his wacky and quirky side again. It's a strange mixture, the film veering towards goofy and serious at the same time. As if it's a little too afraid to actually confront the ugliness the film is about.

In fact, it's fair to say “Jojo Rabbit” might be too cute. The film's haters have lobbed this criticism at it, that it's far too flippant to grapple with such serious topics. What's most frustrating about this is that it didn't have to be this way. There's a moment in “Jojo Rabbit” that is truly intimidating, a fair depiction of the horrors of Nazi Germany. At one point, a team of black-suited officers – led by an unusually intimidating Stephen Merchant – searches Jojo's home. Elsa is nearly captured and it's a sequence of sustained tension, a real suspense reaching out of this cutesy comedy. (It's also a scene that suggest Waititi could make a decent thriller, if he ever wants to.)

How much “Jojo Rabbit” works for you seems dependent on how much you can handle this disconnect. I find myself agreeing, for the most part, that “Jojo Rabbit” maybe is too light-hearted for its chosen subject. It successfully rips down Nazism without interrogating the real horrors of what the regime wrought too much. Yet I was also successfully charmed by its cast, its visual approach, and its soundtrack. Waititi has already ridden the film's success, as his next two projects are lined up and ready to go. Whether the Academy will be able to put aside the movie's issues and embrace its pluses like me remains to be seen. [Grade: B]

Monday, January 13, 2020

OSCARS 2020: Nominations and Predictions



Here's the facts, you guys. Last night, I was so excited about the Oscar nominations being announced today that I could hardly sleep. I actually got up very early in the morning, a rarity for me on my days off, so I could watch the live-stream announcements of the nominations. I've been waiting for this all month, making mental lists over and over again of what might get nominated, what order I'll watch and review things in. It's fair to say it's been occupying a lot of my mental headspace all year.

Of course, I've already seen my Movie Friends express disappointment over what was and wasn't nominated. (And it's only been two hours as I write this, so I fully expect The Discourse to grow more heated in the coming weeks.) Sure, I could complain that good films, and potentially good films I haven't seen yet, were passed over in favor of other things. I'm sure the passionate defenders of “The Farewell,” “Uncut Gems,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” and “Hustlers” are totally right to be annoyed. Yet, speaking strictly for myself, the Oscars themselves get me excited. I can't complained about the snubs because devoting myself totally to working my way through a checklist of recognized films is reward enough for me.

Honestly, the only thing that really irritates me about the Oscars in 2020 is the decision to move the ceremony up several weeks. Instead of the broadcast airing in late February, as is tradition, it is airing on the 9th. With the nominations not being revealed until today, that gives me a lot less time than usual to catch-up. The next twenty-six days are going to be a frenzied race to get through as many of these as possible. As challenging as that'll be, as irritated as I'm certain I'll be by the end, a part of me can't help but be hyped about that too.

So enough chatter. Let's take a look at the nominees and my (no doubt hopelessly inaccurate predictions) for the winners.



BEST PICTURE:

Before we go any further, we must, once again, consider 2020's “Villain Movies.” Taika Watiti's “Jojo Rabbit” is actually a fairly cute motion picture but the movie's weird hands-off approach to its own politics has made it extremely divisive among film fans. I've seen people fucking hating on this movie so much in the last few months. Naturally, some voters love it and it's picked up several high profile wins along the Award Season circuit. However, the hype definitely seems to have turned against “Jojo,” so a Best Picture win strikes me as unlikely.

Yet, as divisive as “Jojo” is, it's clearly not the true Villain of 2020's Oscar season. How do you even explain the cultural and political quagmire that surrounds “Joker?” The DC-Comics-In-Name-Only film became a billion-dollar-grossing success last year, as well as a lightning rod for debate and discussion. It seems to me the movie's attempts at cultural commentary are shallow as can be, while its internal attitudes are undeniably toxic. (It's also the emptiest of homages to Martin Scorsese, in a weird case of a pastiche being paired against the actual originator.) Oscar voters, however, frequently aren't actually smart enough to see through that shit. “Joker” has swept several award shows and seems primed to pick up several statues on the 9th. Will Best Picture be among them? Probably not don't be shocked if some split in the votes lead to a massive upset in the Clown Prince of Crime's favor.

In truth, the Best Picture frontrunners were locked-in weeks ago. There was always a question if Greta Gerwig's “Little Women” or “Ford V. Ferrari” would sneak into the top list. (The former because of the Academy's “Ewww, girls” phobia, the latter because the reviews were good, not great.) Truthfully, both films were also assured spots. Greta Gerwig's “Lady Bird,” after all, secured a spot and “Little Women” is a costume drama, so there's no way Oscar wasn't going to at least love it a little. The dadcore bio-pic charms of “Ford V. Ferrari” was also clearly going to appeal to the voting body.

The other nominations were also easy to predict. “The Irishman” is clearly an epic undertaking, in scope and run time, from one of the most respected filmmakers in the land. It's a re-teaming for Scorsese with some of the most beloved actors of the modern age, returning to the gangster genre that has come define all of their careers. Nothing short of the greatest boondoggle in film history would've prevented this from being a Best Picture front runner. And there's still a chance it might win too.

A similar combination of subject matter, epic approach, and a respected director similarly pushed “1917” to the forefront of the Oscar landscape. (Though Sam Mendes is not quite in the same ballpark as Scorsese, when it comes to long-term critical recognition.) Even though it wasn't actually shot in one-take, the film's visual approach to its thrilling story clearly caught people's attention. Unsurprisingly, “1917” has been picking up awards left and right from other shows and ceremonies. In a more traditional time, it would probably have been an obvious choice for Best Picture.

Yet, these days, it's clear what Oscar voters actually favor. They want something they can relate too. “Marriage Story” is from another respected director, even if Noah Baumbach's cred is more indie than mainstream. It's also about the dissolving marriage of a couple in the entertainment industry. It's kind of funny to think that this is, in fact, a scenario that a lot of Academy voters can relate to. Though the movie's meme-spawning central scenes might not resonate with the Twitter crowd, the rave reviews and its obvious appeal to the Academy made it a lock for a nomination. Again, if this was the nineties, it probably would win Best Picture.

However, it seems to me that Oscar's biggest fetish is – no shock here – movies themselves. Movies about the magic of movies have won the top prize – I'm talking “The Shape of Water,” “Argo,” and “The Artist” – several times in recent years. And it's pretty clear which film is filling that slot this year.  “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” though not without its own controversy, is probably Quentin Tarantino's most beloved feature in years. An unerringly sincere love letter to Hollywood magic, I pegged it early-on as a likely Best Picture winner.

Will this come to past? Possibly but there's a dark horse candidate that has raced to the front recently. Bong Joon-ho's “Parasite,” a dark satire about class inequality, the eternal conflict between the haves and have-nots, is widely recognized as 2019's best film. The critical buzz, and growing number of high-profile wins it has grabbed, is such that many assume "Parasite" may take home Best Picture. And it might. However, we went through this last year when “Roma” seemed like a reasonable pick for Best Picture, only for the dumb-ass Academy to give it to fuckin' “Green Book” instead. So while “Parasite” remains a lock for the newly renamed Best International Film category, I'll still say it has only a 50/50 shot at Best Picture. Because the Academy voting body is not as hip as you actually think. They actually are that afraid of subtitles.

Official Prediction:
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” unless it's “Parasite.”



BEST ACTOR: 

Robert DeNiro is Robert DeNiro, a beloved Hollywood icon that already has two Oscars to his name and a bunch of existing nominations. So I guess the Academy figured he didn't need another. DeNiro, the actual star of “The Irishman,” was not among the film's many nominations announced today. The spot that probably would've gone to Bobby went to Jonathan Pryce for “The Two Popes.” That's some Netflix thing that hasn't generated much discussion but seems well-liked by actual voting bodies. Pryce is an awesome, hard working character actor with a long career and this is his first Oscar nomination, so good for him.

That's not the real controversy in the Best Actor category. Leo DiCaprio and Adam Driver were obviously going to be nominated, for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Marriage Story” respectively. But Leo finally claimed his Oscar a few years back and Driver, though destined to win eventually, isn't there yet. No, once again, it's “Joker” that is generating debate. The intensity of Joaquin Phoenix's lead performance seems to be the one thing people can actually agree about the divisive film. Early on, he was pegged as a favorite to win Best Actor. He's still the favorite to win, even if the increasing eccentricity of his acceptance speeches are rubbing people the wrong way.

Yet there's a potential other choice here. Antonio Banderas is another beloved performer that has somehow never been nominated before. “Pain and Glory” is another movie about the film industry, from respected auteur Pedro Almodovar. Banderas' performance has won him several other awards and the positive buzz is continually growing for him. If the debate over “Joker” continues to split voters, it might work in Banderas' favor.

Official Prediction:
Joaquin Phoenix for “Joker,” unless it's Antonio Banderas for “Pain and Glory.”



BEST ACTRESS:

Though widely beloved, there was this fear that the Academy's weird attitude towards woman directors might prevent “Little Women” from getting more Oscar attention. I'm sure the film's fans are somewhat satisfied there wasn't a total “Little Women” lock-out. Saoirse Ronan, who has quickly become another Oscar favorite, snagged a Best Actress nomination.

And a win, based solely on the Academy's good will towards Ronan, doesn't seem entirely impossible. In fact, there's little in the way of a clear winner in the Best Actress race this year. Charlize Theron seemed to have sneaked in due to award season inertia, as “Bombshell's” actual merits seem debatable at best. Cynthia Erivo is a wonderful actress and gives a strong performance in “Harriet” but my cynical side makes me think she got nominated strictly to avoid another #OscarsSoWhite controversy. (And I mean barely, as the nominations are still overwhelmingly white this year.) 

That leaves two other possible Best Actress winners. The Academy is obviously a big fan of Scarlett Johannson this year, giving her two nominations in two separate categories. This suggests the voters are favoring her this year and her performance in “Marriage Story” seems to have been lovingly received. Yet there's nothing voters love more than a comeback story. After several years in obscurity, Renee Zellweger returned with “Judy.” Playing a beloved Hollywood figure with a notoriously difficult life is also an easy path to Oscar gold. Those two elements paired together might make Zellweger a winner, even if “Judy” failed to earn much more attention from the Academy.

Official Prediction:
Renee Zellweger for “Judy”



BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: 

While Bobby himself missed the boat, “The Irishman” received a lot of love in the Supporting category. Joe Pesci and Al Pacino grab two of the five slots. This was widely assumed to come to pass. So was a nomination for Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” I mean, an unanimously beloved performer like Hanks playing Fred Rogers, the cultural paragon of wholesomeness and acceptance, was always a lock for a nomination. (And even Anthony Hopkins earning a nod for “The Two Popes” wasn't too shocking, even if the general attitude towards the movie seems less “This is great” and more “What the hell even is this?”)

I don't think any of them are going to win though. If there's no other sure shot at the 2020 Oscars, you can count on Brad Pitt winning Best Supporting Actor for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Pitt already has a Golden Globe, a Critics' Choice Award, and a litany of other statues in his favor for this one. Pitt is one of our few remaining capital-S Movie Stars and he's never won an Oscar before. Cliff Booth is a character that sums up all of Pitt's laid-back charm, casual sexiness, and easy-going macho bravado. This is his year.

Official Prediction:
Brad Pitt for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”



BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

With Jennifer Lopez and Zhao Shuzhen both being left out, Best Supporting Actress ended up being a much less interesting race than expected. Kathy Bates and “Richard Jewell” got nominations seemingly because both her and Clint Eastwood are beloved by voters. Nobody seems especially excited about “Bombshell” or Margot Robbie's performance in it but, well, this is a case of the Academy just shrugging and saying “a bunch of other people are nominating it.” Florence Pugh for “Little Women” was a nice surprise, because Florence Pugh is awesome, but this isn't her year.

So that leaves two choices as the likely winners. If Scarlett Johansson doesn't win Best Actress for “Marriage Story,” her odds of winning for “Jojo Rabbit” go way up. Johansson's lovable performance as the titular boy's mom was a highlight of the film. The Academy is clearly determined to give Johansson some sort of honor this year. It seems she won her spot in the modern pantheon of both culturally and critically beloved actors. (As long as she's not talking about diversity in casting.)

Yet it seems to me that the tide has recently turned to favor Scarlett's “Marriage Story” co-star, Laura Dern. Dern is another long-working character actress that has recently become a beloved figure, because she's both really talented and also seems to genuinely enjoy acting. This is Dern's third Oscar nomination and “Marriage Story” has already won her a ton of other awards. This looks like it'll be the one.

Official Prediction:
Laura Dern for “Marriage Story.”



BEST DIRECTOR:

While Gerwig being left out is a disappointment, Best Director is still among the most exciting races at the Oscars this year. It truly seems like it's almost anybody's game. Martin Scorsese is an icon and “The Irishman” is a statement on practically his entire career, so an Oscar win would be poetic. “1917” is the kind of bravado visual filmmaking that really impresses the voter base, meaning Sam Mendes has a good shot at Best Director too. If “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” ends up being the Best Picture favorite, Quentin Tarantino might finally grab a Best Director Oscar to go with his two Best Original Screenplay statues. Bong Joon Ho seems like the correct artistic pick for Best Director and sometimes that actually does sway the Academy. And then there's Todd Philips and “Joker,” the agents of chaos threatening to piss everyone off with an unexpected win.

Official Prediction:
Not a fucking clue. My gut says Bong-Joon Ho for “Parasite.”



BEST WRITING:

I wondered for a while if “Knives Out,” a critical and audience favorite of 2019, would actually impress the Academy or not. In a year full of hot button choices, a well executed genre picture like “Knives Out” probably was always going to get lost in the shuffle. Still, I'm happy Rian Johnson's murder-mystery inversion managed to score at least one nod, in the Best Original Screenplay category.

I don't know if it'll win though. If Bong-Joon Ho and “Parasite” end up being ignored in the Best Picture and Director race, a win in Best Original Screenplay might by a consolation prize. Tarantino's scripts are always lauded, meaning “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might be a winner here too. The interpersonal drama of “Marriage Story” is also the kind of “writerly” subject that appeals to voters. (“1917” seems like a weird pick in this category though.)

As for Adapted Screenplay, “The Two Popes” continues to be inexplicably beloved. Though it's more an adaptation of "The King of Comedy" than any DC Comic, “Joker” also snagged a nod in this category. If “Little Women” wins nowhere else, this might be the best category most favoring it, while “The Irishman' is clearly an impressive work that might be hard to overlook. The mix of light-hearted quirk, life-changing lessons, and sentimentality “Jojo Rabbit” provides seems like the kind of thing Academy voters would go for. But the writing categories are often the trickiest to predict, if only because so many factors determine these things.

Official Predictions:
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” unless “Parasite,” and “Jojo Rabbit,” unless “Little Women.”



BEST MUSIC:

When it was announced that “I'm Standing With You” from “Breakthrough” was among this year's Best Original Song nominees, it was greeted with a resounding chorus of “Huh?” It wasn't even until I was looking up all the nominees on IMDb that I realized what this movie even was. Yes, congrats to this Jesus movie about the magical healing power of prayer or what the fuck ever for being one of those random-ass movies to somehow score an Oscar nomination. Excuse me for being cynical but I'm assuming this is another “Alone Yet Not Alone” scenario, where the producer buddied up to a bunch of voters. The song starts out kind of pretty, based on Chrissy Metz' vocals, but it looses me as soon as the gospel chorus comes in. The song becomes extremely repetitive after that.

At least “Stand Up” from “Harriet” has the guts to actually stand behind its spiritual influence, even if its lyrics are extremely literal for a movie about the Underground Railroad. The song luckily is not too overproduced, allowing Cynthia Erivo's powerful vocals to largely speak for themselves. That counts for a lot in a category largely ruled by magniloquence.

In fact, there's a reoccurring gospel influence throughout three of the Best Song nominees, as it's also briefly heard in “I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away” from “Toy Story 4.” (The chorus of which is also very repetitive.) I don't think anyone would consider this one among Randy Newman's best or most original numbers. In fact, I was really surprised it scored a nomination at all. It's not a bad song, with a decent amount of bounce and pep, but it also feels a little like Randy phoned this one in. I guess the Academy's all-abiding love of Newman – his charmingly prosaic score for “Marriage Story” was also nominated – was enough to push this one through.

Disney has been pushing “Into the Unknown” as the “Frozen II” awards favorite from the beginning. Which is so weird, as “Show Yourself” and “Lost in the Woods” are obviously the better songs. “Into the Unknown” shows all the weaknesses of the Lopezes as songwriters and tries too hard to recapture the bombast of the first film's “Let It Go.” But “Show Yourself” spoils plot points, I guess, while Disney was obviously going to promote an Idina Menzel number over any of the songs she didn't sing. All of this combines to mean this mediocre song has a really good chance at winning.

However, Elton John stands in the way of Disney's victory. “Rocketman” was locked out of all other categories, even though the Academy adored the same director's “Bohemian Rhapsody” last year. (Even though it was largely considered the better version of the same sort of movie. Best Actor was always a long shot for “Rocketman” but I figured it had a chance at Costume Design or something.) “I'm Going to Love Me Again” is Elton John at his catchiest and most upbeat, an infectious pop ode to self-acceptance. It's obviously the best of a pretty weak lot of nominees. Come on, this has to win Best Original Song.

The Best Score category is a little stronger, as far as choices go. The pack is led by Alexandre Desplat's lively “Little Women” score. The music happily matches the tone and feeling of the film, while utilizing period appropriate instruments and being a strong piece of music in its own right. Thomas Newman's work on “1917” is emotionally resonant, the music delivering the right feeling – whether that be quietly building tension or tranquil beauty – exactly as it is needed. And, as already mentioned, Randy Newman's “Marriage Story” score is nice too.

However, I think one of two choices will win. John Williams' “The Rise of Skywalker” score is at least as good as any of his other “Star Wars” scores. It's also probably going to be his last score and it would be fitting if this iconic composer ended his career with an Oscar. (If he won, it would be his sixth.) Also highly critically acclaimed is Hildur Guonadottir's “Joker” score. It's a grinding, heaving piece of music, a disquieting collection of sounds that is nevertheless melodic in its own way and effectually suits the movie it accompanies, regardless of what you think of that film's message or meaning. It'll probably win.



OTHER FILM CATEGORIES:

Among the most prominent snubs this year is “Frozen II” being ignored in Best Animated Feature. The yearly entry into the Disney Animated Canon almost always gets a Best Animated Feature nomination. A lot of voters don't even like animation and just vote for whatever Disney put out anyway. I'd chalk this up to the Academy being weary of sequels but... “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” and “Toy Story 4” did earn nominations.

With that shock exclusion, quirkier fare has taken up this category. It would seem the gorgeous traditional animation of “Klaus” impressed the Academy's animation department, which is only a surprise because “Klaus” has been largely overlooked this Award Season. It's now undeniable that Netflix is an Oscar juggernaut, as they managed to make an oddity like “I Lost My Body” an actual nominee. (Though that means Netflix stole the Off-Beat Indie Cartoon slot away from GKIDS, who had a ton of wonderful options this year.) Weirdly, even though “Missing Link” is among Laika's weaker efforts, a palette that favors the quality of animation over the quality of story might make it the winner here. (Assuming the voters just don't say “Fuck it” and give it to Pixar.)

The Documentary and “International Feature” categories are harder to parse. If “Parasite” ends up becoming the Best Picture favorite, that might free up the Foreign Film category for another winner. “Les Miserables” – which isn't an adaptation of Victor Hugo's book – and “Pain and Glory” might be the runner-ups turned winner if that happens. (Though I still think “Parasite” is the pretty clear winner here.) This is the first I've heard of “Corpus Christi” but it sounds interesting, which aggravates me that it's one of the few nominees I won't see before the ceremony.

I think, for the first time in Oscar history, a movie has been nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary. “Honeyland” scored that unlikely honor. The Documentary category ended up snubbing “Apollo 11,” cited as an early contender, leaving few obvious choices for a winner. “For Sama” has gotten a lot of attention, so maybe that one? Though “American Factory” and “The Edge of Democracy” are more timely, while “The Cave” seems the most topical of all the choices.



MISC.: 

I fully expect “1917” to sweep the technical categories. Cinematography seems like an easy win for it. (Kudos on the Academy for acknowledging “The Lighthouse” in that category, destined to be one of the weirdest movies to ever be nominated for an Oscar.) It faces stiff competition in Visual Effects, from the likes of “Avengers: Endgame” and “Lion King,” and the Sound categories, from tightly produced features like “Ad Astra” and “Ford V. Ferari.” Weirdly, “1917” didn't get nominated for Best Editing, which seemed like an obvious choice.

Production Design probably will go to some sort of period piece, like “1917” or “The Irishman,” if that didn't seem to play a key role in “Parasite's” success. The colorful costumes of “Jojo Rabbit” seem to make it a likely winner for Costume Design, unless the gowns and period details of “Little Women” are irresistible to voters.

As has too often been the case recently, Best Makeup and Hairstyling is dominated by boring biopics and old age make-ups. “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is the only genre effort to be nominated in this category. Something boring like “Judy” or “Bombshell” will probably win. Though it wouldn't shock me if “Joker” wins since it's main character has face paint on and sometimes Oscar voters truly are that literal.


Since it actually worked out really well last year, the Academy Awards ceremony will go ahead without a host again. I couldn't be happier about that, as it resulted in last year's show being among the best pace and fastest moving I've ever seen. As has since become the tradition for me, I will be live-blogging the ceremony. I feel pretty positive heading into the show this year, which almost certainly means I'll have a miserable time. Regular readers know to expect that I will fill the next few weeks with as many reviews of the nominated films as possible. Lots of fun will be had, hopefully. Stay tuned, dear readers!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2020 Film Preview


I keep waiting for it to happen. Society dictates that, as you get older, as you have a grown-up job and become a responsible adult, you are suppose to lose interest in nerdy bullshit. Yet, here I am, in my thirties and still a massive dork for movies. My taste have evolved. As I get older, I'm finding myself attracted to indie weirdness and low-budget horror trash more than ever. I certainly have less time to devote to my hobby. Yet my basic fascination with those pretty images that flash on the screen, pushed out of a projector at super-speed, narratives told via moving images, has never gone away. Will it someday? I don't know, maybe if I ever have kids.

For now, as my fiery passion for cinema burns ever-bright, let us celebrate. It is a new year and there's quite a lot to look forward to. As has become my tradition, I've assembled a list of my most anticipated movies of the new year. (Plus an even longer list of other stuff I am looking forward to, because I don't know when to quit.) My 2020 list is almost entirely made up of indie horror and similarly low-brow stuff, because I'm no longer interested in lying about the stupid bullshit I like. Let's get started, shall we? Here are...


My Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2020:


1. I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Since the late nineties, Charlie Kaufman has been delivering comically off-beat, emotionally resonant, highly neurotic, and unexpected narratives. Unsurprisingly, “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” remain highly original favorites of film lovers everywhere, including me. Kaufman's creativity, his quirks and obsessions, haven't changed much after he took up directing on his own, his style being very noticeable through his ambitious features “Synedoche, New York” and “Anomalisa.”

And now, one of my favorite writers is taking on my favorite genre. Kaufman is adapting Ian Reid's novel, “I'm Thinking of Ending Things.” The book is described as an emotionally traumatic story of a woman meeting her new boyfriend's family – an everyday situation already wrought with tension – that somehow goes horrifically wrong. In the spirit of remaining surprised, I have managed to avoid discovering any spoilers on what exactly happens specifically. I hope to keep it that way, until I can read the novel. I fully expect Kaufman's adaptation to shift stuff around, that this will not be your standard horror movie. I don't know exactly what to expect at all and that's why I'm excited. (The logline and presence of Toni Collete is making me imagine something along the lines of Ari Aster's films.) After a long post-production, “I'm Thinking of Ending Things” is coming to Netflix at some point this year.



2. Nightmare Alley

While he has roughly a hundred projects in development as a producer, Guillermo del Toro – another one of my favorite working directors – has taken his time choosing his next directorial project following his Oscar winning “The Shape of Water.” Finally, del Toro is making a proper return with “Nightmare Alley.” Described as another one of his dream projects, “Nightmare Alley” is a new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 crime novel. If the title sounds familiar, that's probably because it was previously adapted in 1947, a classic film noir in its own right.

The story concerns crime, betrayal, and violence amid a seedy carnival sideshow. Honestly, Guillermo del Toro directing a modern day noir set in a shitty freak show with a tarot card motif would be enough to crack my top ten. Unsurprisingly, the director has assembled a top-of-the-line cast for his latest feature. Bradley Cooper seems ideally cast as a noir protagonist. Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchette, Roony Mara, Ron Perlman naturally, and – hello again – Toni Collette fill out the supporting cast. The movie hasn't started filming yet so it probably won't see release until 2021 but, whatever, I'm not changing my list now.



3. Last Night in Soho

Being a basic white bitch film-bro, Edgar Wright is also one of my favorite directors around right now. After defining his career with high-energy, cult favorite action/comedies, it sounds like Wright is shifting gears with his seventh feature. (Or eighth, depending on when that Sparks documentary gets released.) Though he's played around with horror in “Shaun of the Dead,” “Grindhouse,” and parts of “The World's End,” “Last Night in Soho” will be Wright trying his hand at a straight-ahead psychological thriller. The project has been described as inspired by Polanski's Apartment Trilogy – always a good source to draw from – with a story that jumps between the modern day and the sixties. Not that you need another reason to be excited but the cast is top-lined by Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie, two of the most promising young actresses in Hollywood right now.



4. The Invisible Man

By now, it should be common knowledge that there's few things I love in this world more than the Universal Monsters. Over the last fifteen years, the studio has made four separate attempts to reboot their classic monsters properties as big budget blockbusters. None of these remakes have been especially successful, from financial or critical perspectives. I've supported all of them, because I love these characters that much, but it was readily apparent that nobody at Universal actually knew what the hell to do with the monsters.

Now, out of the ashes of the Dark Universe, rises another attempt to reboot the Monsters. But this one actually sounds good. It seems like someone at Universal finally realized that these characters belong in horror movies. The studio is now doing exactly what I've been saying they should do for years. That is, creating medium budget horror pictures directed by up-and-coming talent. The studio is teaming with Blumhouse on this new initiative. Say what you will about Jason Blum's company but they've gotten Joe Movie-Goer excited about horror again.

The first in this latest wave of Universal Monster remakes is “The Invisible Man.” That's a smart one to start with as, unlike Frankenstein or Dracula, the public has almost no preconceived notions about this character. Leigh Whannel, hot off the wonderfully entertaining “Upgrade,” is writing and directing. Whannel is the perfect filmmaker to pair with this property. It seems he has an especially modern reinvention of the character. The trailer reveals that this “Invisible Man” is a story about toxic masculinity and gas-lighting, which is a smart way to make this old story relevant to modern viewers. Better yet, the trailer makes the movie look scary with a number of fantastically clever and spooky gags. There's also a shot of someone wrapped up in bandages, hopefully one of many references to the original film. In other words, I'm hyped as fucked. We'll be seeing this “Invisible Man” in February.



5. Rebecca

Here's another remake of a classic film by a buzzy young filmmaker, because that's apparently what I'm into this year. Daphne du Maurier's classic novel, of course, was previously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1944. However, a new “Rebecca” has been floated for years, probably because censorship of the time prevented Hitchcock from properly adapting the book. Ben Wheatley, previously of such cult oddities like “Kill List” and “A Field in England,” will be directing this new version. The main reason I'm excited for 2020's “Rebecca” is because I'm really intrigued to see Wheatley try his hand at a gothic melodrama. Nothing warms my heart more than movies about old buildings full of deep shadows, dark corridors, and psychosexual hang-ups. So, even if Wheatley's last film was the disappointing “Free Fire” and his next film is a fucking “Tomb Raider” sequel, I'm pretty sure his “Rebecca” is going to be in my wheelhouse.



6. Gunpowder Milkshake

Back in 2012, the world was suddenly so crazy for the idea of a female-led ensemble action movie that two rival movies were greenlit. First came an untitled project from Adi Shankar, which was quickly dubbed “the female Expendables.” That was before the actual producers of the “Expendables” franchise announced the punningly entitled “The ExpendaBelles,” which made the exact same promise of puling together established lady ass-kickers. Eight whole years later, neither of these films ever came to fruition, though the Asylum made a low budget knock-off anyway.

Even if Hollywood didn't seem interested in making that female-led ensemble action movie, it's an idea I love. And now it seems someone else has picked up the ball and ran with it. “Gunpowder Milkshake” – an amazing title – has loaded its cast with bad-ass women like Karen Gillian, Lena Headey, Michelle Yeoh, Carlo Gugino, and Angela Bassett. (Paul Giametti is also here, hopefully as a sleazy villain.) The plot concerns a mother/daughter team taking on a male-led crime syndicate, which sounds fun. Navot Papushado, previously of “Big Bad Wolves” and “Rabies,” is the filmmaker behind this one. I have no idea what exactly to expect from this but my brain is already imagine a lot of awesome stuff.



7. Bill and Ted Face the Music

I've been dreaming about a third “Bill and Ted” movie since I was a kid. For years now, I just assumed it was a pipe dream. Keanu Reeves had moved onto bigger things while Alex Winter was more focused on directing. Though brilliant, “Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey” didn't exactly set the box office on fire either. Series creator Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon have been talking up a third adventure for a long time but I figured the likelihood of it ever going before cameras was low.

Yet, possibly through the intervention of time travel, a third “Bill and Ted” movie is now forthcoming. Initially, I was skeptical. The premise, of now middle-aged Bill and Ted dealing with their failure to bring about the utopian future promised by the original films, didn't sound like much fun to me. I also disliked the title, as this really needed to be called “Bill and Ted's Radical Odyssey” or something like that. However, as more details have emerged, I can't help but feel the hype growing. The guy who made "Galaxy Quest" is directing. William Sadler is back as the Reaper, which presumably means all the weird shit from “Bogus Journey” – Station! The Good Robot Uses! – will at least be referenced.  Brigette Lundy-Paine is Ted's daughter and Samara Weaving is Bill's daughter, who are adorably named Billie and Thea. Awww, that's wholesome! Two decades of anticipation is a lot for any sequel to live up to but I'm at least willing to roll the dice on this one.



8. Green Knight

As an independent filmmaker, David Lowery has made folksy, low-key, and philosophical features like “Ain't Them Body Saints” and “A Ghost Story.” When working with bigger budgets, he's created slightly more accessible films that undeniably carry a recognizably Lowery-ian aesthetic. And all his movies are connected by a sense of awe at the beauty of the natural world, like if Terrance Malick gave a shit about things like characters or plot.

For his latest, Lowery is teaming with A24 and shifting towards the medieval fantasy genre. “Green Knight” will adapt 14th century chivalric romance “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” As someone fascinated by the Arthurian legend, which has been frequently mishandled by Hollywood, I'm excited to see a filmmaker I really like handle something adjacent to that story. Moreover, I'm intrigued to see how a director like Lowery and a studio like A24 will handle a project that sounds more like a big budget fantasy film. Will this be whimsical or something more akin to mudpunk? Either way, I'm into it. Dev Patel and Alicia Vikander star, presumably as versions of Gawain and Lady Bertilak.



9. Dementer

In 2013, Chad Crawford Kinkle made a cool flick called “Jug Face,” which combined lots of stuff I like – stories about cults, backwoods weirdos, menacing and vague supernatural presence – into a satisfying whole. Low budget, low-key, and generally underseen, I have been a champion of “Jug Face” in the years since it came out. I've also often wondered if Kinkle would ever return to directing.

Well, the wait for Kinkle's next film is almost over. “Dementer” sees Kinkle returning to some familiar elements, as the film also features a backwoods cult of sometime. (Larry Fessenden is also in both movies' casts.) Yet the story primarily revolves around an escapee from said sect caring for an adult woman with Downs Syndrome, who soon becomes imperiled. Kinkle was apparently inspired by his own experience with special needs adults, suggesting this is a highly personal story. All the marketing thus far has been incredibly creepy and the few festival reviews are very positive. Awesome!



10. Becky

In my own writing, I've often touched upon the theme of young people being thrust into traumatic situations and forced to fight back. So I might be predisposed to be interested in “Becky,” described as an action/thriller in which a teenage girl must defend her family from a home invasion by a group of ruthless criminals. Up-and-coming scream queen Lulu Wilson stars as the title character. Kevin James is playing against type as the primary villain, a move that will either be fascinating or disastrous. (The newly ripped Simon Pegg was originally going to play the role, which also would've been pretty cool.) Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, of “Cooties” fame, direct. I have no idea if this will actually be good or not but I'm pretty into it based on the above information alone.


Other Upcoming Films of Note:



Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984

Let's get 2020's slate of superhero flicks out of the way first. DC Comics has recently gotten their shit together, as far as quality of their film adaptations go. “Aquaman” and “Shazam!” were both tons of fun. (And “Joker,” if nothing else, was interesting.) This year, the studio is rolling out two high-profile sequels. “Birds of Prey,” which has been given the amusingly long-winded subtitle of “The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” sees such beloved comic characters like Huntress, Black Canary, Cassandra Cain, and Black Mask finally making their way to the theater screens. The cast is fantastic but I am slightly miffed that the trailer is making this look like a Harley Quinn movie – who has quickly become DC's most overexposed character – that just happens to feature the Birds of Prey. We'll see.

As for “Wonder Woman 1984,” I'm totally into the day-glo art direction we've seen thus far, as well as the Orwellian elements the story seems to be hinting at. I was a little confused by the initial announcement of Steve Trevor's return. But Chris Pine and Gal Gadot's chemistry is great, so I don't blame anyone for wanting more of that. My only real concern is the movie better give us a proper were-cat Cheetah, because Kristen Wiig in a jacket is not going to cut it.

Black Widow and Eternals

Following the proper climax that was “Avengers: Endgame,” and Disney becoming an evil juggernaut that is now swallowing up other studios whole, it's a lot harder for me to get excited for future Marvel superhero projects. I'm afraid I might be suffering from some blockbuster fatigue. I definitely think a “Black Widow” movie is a cool idea. I'm looking forward to seeing ScarJo, Florence Pugh, and Rachel Weisz play off each other. But the first trailer was shockingly free of “whoa!” moments. And I'm already prepared to see another awesome comic villain, Taskmaster this time, reduced to a non-entity on-screen.

Marvel's other 2020 flick, “Eternals,” is slightly more exciting. Much like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the Eternals are a weird cosmic team that the general public, and even most comic nerds, are unfamiliar with. The Marvel movies tend to be at their best the more they embrace far-out ideas and wild imagery, which this will hopefully provide some opportunities for. The cast is pretty cool. I haven't caught up with the other films of director Chloe Zhao, who also has “NomadLand” coming out this year, but supposedly they are excellent.

(As for other Marvel adjacent projects, this year will also bring Sony's “Morbius the Living Vampire” movie – which sounds like a terrible idea but “Venom” came out better than expected so maybe this will too? – and Fox remnant “The New Mutants,” which Disney is promising us will actually be released this time.)



Candyman

With the success of Jordan Peele's “Get Out” and “Us,” horror movies openly in dialogue with societal woes are now hot. This year will see the release of “Antebellum,” a horror movie about slavery starring pop star Janelle Monae; “False Positive,” an A24 thriller about reproductive rights starring another former Comedy Central star; and “Bad Hair,” seemingly a parody of this still-emerging subgenre – it's about a killer weave – from “Dear White People” director Justin Simien.

Easily the most exciting of this wave of Social Horror is a new “Candyman” film, which Peele is producing. Described as a “spiritual sequel” to the original, the new film will revisit the now-gentrified Cabrini Green neighborhood the first film was set in. That's a really cool idea for a “Candyman” reboot, a way to readjust what made the original relevant and exciting. (And a way to leap over the sequels, neither of which served the character the best.) It was initially reported that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II would be playing the hook-handed spectre but now it seems Tony Todd, the icon himself, will be in the movie after all. I'm very intrigued to see how this turns out.

C'mon C'mon

“20th Century Women” was easily my favorite film of 2016, even if I didn't get to see it until 2017. Honestly, it's a rare example of a film resonating with me on such a personal level that I was left speechless. It was so good, that I immediately decided its director, Mike Mills who I had no previously exposure to, was going to get a Director Report Card someday. And maybe “someday” will be this year, as Mills has a new film coming in the following months.  We don't actually know anything about “C'mon C'mon” right now, other than it'll star Joaquin Phoenix and Gaby Hoffman. However, I'm willing to follow Mills into the unknown here.



Color Out of Space

Nicolas Cage's inability to say no to any project that comes his way has led to him starring in a ton of junk... But it's also made him even more of a cult icon than ever before, following fantastically wild projects like “Mandy” and “Mom and Dad.” That trend continues this year. Projects like “Jiu Jitsu” – in which Cage will help fight off aliens with Brazilian jiu jitsu – and Sion Sono's “Prisoners of the Ghostland" – which Cage referred to as the craziest script he's ever read – both sound about right. The most exciting of 2020's Potential Future Cage Classics is “Color Out of Space.” It's an amazing assembly of talent here, as arthouse horror auteur Richard Stanley has come out of exile to adapt one of H.P. Lovecraft's best-known stories. Elijah Wood's production company SpectreVision has promised this will be the first in a series of Lovecraft adaptations, which sure has a lot of potential.

Deep Water

Back in 2018, I did an Adrian Lyne Director Report Card. At the end, I noted that Lyne hasn't completed a film since 2002's “Unfaithful.” This was not for a lack of trying, as Hollywood's master of slick eroticism has been attached to a number of projects over the years, none of which actually ended up before cameras. I assumed “Deep Water,” an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel that was first announced in 2013, would be another one of these unrealized scripts. But the machine of Hollywood turns, as it sometimes does, and now “Deep Water” is currently filming with a November, 2020 release date in place. Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas headline, both of whom seem to be in the right positions in their careers to star in this, a typically Lyne-ian story of sex and murder.



Ghostbusters: Afterlife

As the great Sean O'Neal so keenly observed, the thought of more “Ghostbusters” only generates anxiety in the audience. Considering the default mode for nerd fandom the last decade has been “toxic and highly aggressive,” the thought of another argument-generating reboot only causes me to feel exhausted. (I thought the much-contested previous “Ghostbusters” movie was alright, even if it in no way satisfied the long-desired itch for more adventures in this universe.) Having said that, there are a few reasons to be cautiously optimistic about “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.”

The film seems to be about Egon's grandkids rediscovering their family legacy of ghost bustin', while settling into a Midwestern small town. (Which, when paired with the presence of Finn Wolfhard and the retro aesthetic of the trailer, can't help but bring “Stranger Things” to mind.) Focusing on the next generation of characters, while moving the original cast into largely supporting roles, is probably the smartest way to approach this. While there's nothing about Jason Reitman's previous films to suggest he could handle an effects-heavy project like this, there is a certain satisfying symmetry to seeing the literal son of the original “Ghostbusters” director being handed the reigns. The trailer is nice but is also kind of low on actual jokes. These guys do remember that “Ghostbusters” is suppose to be funny, right? I'm sure, whatever the outcome, fans will scream about it, the general public will be largely indifferent, and I will swallow as much Ecto Cooler – already rumored to return! – as humanly possible.


The French Dispatch

When first announced, “The French Dispatch” – the latest film from Wes Anderson, the master of twee symmetry – sounded like a truly fun idea. The film was said to be a musical set in post-World War II France, about journalists. Considering the prominent role music has always played in Anderson's films, it seemed high-time he finally make a proper musical. However, then it was announced that “The French Dispatch” is not a musical and even the 1940s setting seems uncertain, as now the official logline lists the time period as “20th century,” which could mean anything. While the film could've been more exciting, Anderson's particular breed of bullshit is obviously my style, as I've loved most of his films. And the cast here is typically excellent, with everyone from Griffin Dunne to Henry Winkler appearing, alongside a number of Anderson regulars. (Plus Cecile de France, who I feel like we haven't seen in a while.)



Godzilla vs. Kong

I don't know why “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” was so divisively received. I get why the movie underperformed at the box office. (The last one was already divisive, the general public doesn't give a shit about King Ghidorah the way we true souls do, and WB/Legendary genuinely waited too long to get the sequel out.) But how could a movie that loaded with kaiju action, made with that much obvious love for the series and its lore, disappoint fans? I loved it, and so did a lot of other people, but I've also seen a lot of hate lobbed its way. I don't know, man.

Nevertheless, nerd bitching and underwhelming box office aside, the franchise marches on. “Godzilla Vs. Kong” sees Legendary's portly nuclear dino facing off against the giant-sized gorilla, last seen in the also excellent “Kong: Skull Island.” Indie horror fave Adam Wingard makes his big budget debut here. This was probably my most anticipated blockbuster of the year until the recent announcement of a release date shift and extensive reshoots, almost definitely the result of “King of the Monsters'” mediocre grosses. I'm really afraid this'll get fucked up in retooling. I know it has its detractors but I've really enjoyed every film in Legendary's Monster-Verse. Hopefully, the purity of this monster-fighting fest is not deluded by the time it reaches theater screens later in the year.


The Georgetown Project and Unhinged

The previously mentioned Nic Cage model of casting, in which a formerly high profile star actually increases his pedigree by starring in trashy low budget projects, is now being tried by other performers. Look at what Russell Crowe has coming up in 2020. Following “True History of the Kelly Gang,” the latest grimy historical film from Justin Kurzel, Crowe is lending his talent to “Unhinged” and “The Georgetown Project.” In the former, Crowe stars as a road-raging nutjob terrorizing a single mom after she cuts him off in traffic. That's a solid premise for a horror/thriller and should make good use of Crowe's talent for blustery rage. The latter project, meanwhile, is the directional debut of M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, the writing team behind “The Final Girls.” It concerns a washed-up actor loosing his grip on reality while filming a horror movie. How meta.



Halloween Kills

I found 2019's “Halloween” to be a reasonably enjoyable experience, even if I wish it experimented a little more, instead of just reminding people of what they liked about the “Halloween” series already. I really enjoyed its bad-ass survivalist take on Laurie Strode and look forward to seeing her again. Still, it's cool that Michael Myers is making a full-blown comeback, especially since Jason remains trapped in litigation and Freddy is currently searching for the right pitch. What's most exciting about “Halloween Kills,” the first of two sequels David Gordon Green is filming, is how deep into the “Halloween” lore the sequel is digging. It seems just about every minor character from the first film you could think of – Sherrif Bracket, Tommy Doyle, Lindsey Wallace, Marion Chambers, fuckin' Lonnie – will be returning here. Hopefully, the film will build on that and not just use them to pad out the body count.

Jolt

Here's an up-coming action/comedy with an exceptionally bizarre premise. In “Jolt,” Kate Beckinsale stars as a bouncer who randomly kills people(!) and is only kept in check by the shock vest she wears(?), who heads out on a quest of vengeance after her boyfriend is murdered. I enjoy watching Kate Beckinsale be a bad-ass and this already sounds more interesting than those poopy “Underworld” movies. Tanya Wexler, previously of “Hysteria,” directs. I have no idea what to expect from this, or which end of the action/comedy spectrum it will focus on, but that logline is weird enough to catch my eye.



King Knight

There were a few years between Richard Bates Jr.'s excellent and criminally underseen “Trash Fire” and last year's enjoyably glib and depraved “Tone-Deaf,” but the director isn't slowing down with his next project. He already has “King Knight” lined up for 2020. The filmmaker seems to be shifting gears slightly with this one, as it doesn't appear to be a horror film of any sort. Instead, “King Knight” has been described as a “Pagan comedy” about the leader of a modern-day coven confronting his preppy past. Matthew Gray Gubler stars, who previously starred in Bates' last attempt at a straight-ahead comedy, “Suburban Gothic,” which is easily the director's worst film. So we'll see how this one turns out. The typically excellent supporting cast includes cult faves like Ray Wise, Barbara Crampton, Andy Milonakis, and Bates' muse, AnnaLynne McCord.

The Nest

2019 seems to be the year of the long-awaited follow-ups to buzzy debuts. In addition to the previously mentioned “Dementer,” 2020 will also see Brandon “Antiviral and also David's son” Cronenberg, Benh “Beasts of the Southern Wild” Zeitlin, and Sean “Martha Marcy May Marlene” Durkin releasing their second features. Durkin's “The Nest” is one I'm really curious about. The mysterious plot description says the film is bout an entrepreneur and his family moving into an English country house, which causes their life to take a “twisted turn.” That sounds like a horror movie, a genre that would certainly utilize the sense of unease Durkin created in his first film. Yet “The Nest” is listed as a drama, so I'm not sure what to expect. Either way, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was excellent and we'll presumably have more information about this soon enough.



Malignant

“Halloween” is not the only horror franchise returning this year. In fact, horror sequels are looking to be big business in 2020. We have “A Quiet Place: Part II” to look forward too as well as a fifth “Purge” movie, which is promising to be the last entry in that series. (Which is a bummer, as the “Purge” movies were just starting to get good.) The creations of James Wan are especially crowding up the slate. Chris Rock is pulling a Jordan Peele/David Gordon Green by writing/producing a new “Saw” movie. After several spin-offs, “The Conjuring 3” is arriving with a supremely silly subtitle. Though you'd think Wan would have better things to do, after making two billion-dollar grossing blockbusters, he's back in the director's chair for “Insidious 5.”

But none of that is the most interesting thing Wan is attached to in 2020. I initially assumed, from single spooky word title, that “Malignant” would be another generic demon/ghost movie of some sort. Many others assumed Wan would be adapting his own comic book “Malignant Man,” a parasitic superhero story of some sort. Instead, “Malignant” is apparently a giallo. And if anyone could bring that cult-favorite subgenre to the megaplex masses, it's a proven hit maker like Wan. I've always admired Wan's horror films more than I liked them but this one might finally win me over.

Next Goal Wins

Having made a highly popular Marvel movie and a likely Oscar winner, Taika Watiti has gone mad with power and next plans to foist a soccer movie on the world. In all seriousness, I'm sure Watiti will put his own quirky spin on the worn-out underdog sports team story here, even if it'll force me to try and give a shit about some fucking ball game or whatever.



No Time to Die

I adore the James Bond franchise but I have my doubts about “No Time to Die,” likely to be Daniel Craig's final outing as the super-spy. The once strictly episodic franchise has been showing a newfound fascination with continuity over its last few entries. Much like “Spectre” – which I genuinely liked! – directly followed-up “Skyfall,” this will directly follow-up “Spectre.” What bothers me is how “No Time to Die” looks like it's leaning into the least interesting elements of the previous film, by revealing yet another secret mastermind behind its previous secret mastermind and, once again, commenting on how antiquated Bond is in the modern world. Just once, I want a new Bond movie where he simply gets an assignment from M to go kill whoever the new bad guy is. Can we just let Bond be the sexist, alcoholic, imperialistic asshole he is without constantly pointing out how the world has no use for men like him anymore?

Onward and Soul

At least Disney's various animation departments are moving away from sequels in 2020. Pixar has two original I.P.s arriving this year. “Onward's” irrelevant take on fantasy troupes could either be strangely touching and funny or it could be the derivative story the sub-Dreamworks trailers have suggested it is. “Soul,” the second Pixar offering this year, looks more promising at the very least. Since Pete Doctor is directing and it's a story about the afterlife, I'm prepared to cry. But the human character designs in the trailer are kind of freaking me out.



Raya and the Last Dragon

No, I'm not done talking about Disney, who has quickly become the happiest evil empire on Earth, just yet. I'll admit, any time the Mouse Factory tries to adapt an old fairy tale or introduce a new princess to the world, I get really excited. “Raya and the Last Dragon” sees the animation studio producing an Asian-influenced story about a young girl in a fantasy world attempting to hunt down, and presumably bond with, an adorably fluffy dragon. Yeah, that sounds a lot like “How to Train Your Dragon” but I trust Disney and its million-dollar marketing team to put a new spin on things. The production artwork we've seen so far is gorgeous and you just know they are going to sell a ton of plushes of that cute dragon.

Scoob!

You know what most excites me about “Scoob!,” the latest attempt to retrofit those meddling kids and their dog too into a movie? It's not how coherent Scooby's speech is in the trailer, nor the hip and modern redesigns of the characters. It's not the spooky Halloween scenes also seen in the trailer, though I liked those a lot. No, it's this: IMDb promises that Blue Falcon, Dyno-Mutt, and Captain Caveman are all in the movie. Oh shit, are they actually trying to set up a Hanna-Barbera Cinematic Universe? That's a terrible idea and I'm far, far too excited for it. I can't wait for the post-credit stinger where Jabberjaw appears to tell Scooby about the Laff-a-Lympics Initiative. (I'm only kidding a little bit about my excitement.)



Sonic the Hedgehog

I've already talked extensively about both my love of the widely-abused “Sonic the Hedgehog” franchise and my lack of enthusiasm for the feature film adaptation. After extensive fan outcry, the movie was pushed back several months to give Sonic a less soul-rending design. And, yes, the new, Tyson Hesse designed movie Sonic looks great. Yet, in all the excitement fans have generated since the release of that second trailer, surprisingly few people have noticed that the movie still has the same shitty premise with many of the same sort of juvenile, unimpressive jokes. I still don't want to see Sonic playing second fiddle to some live action asshole. I still don't want to see a “Sonic” movie largely set on our boring planet. While Jim Carrey looks like he's having a good time as Robotnik, I'm still concerned about how far this version of the character will stray from the one we know and love. So, as a life-long “Sonic” fan who is very use to being hurt by the thing he cherishes, I remain highly skeptical. (Yes, my girlfriend has already resigned herself to the fact that this is going to be our Valentine's Day date. She loves me very much.)

Witch Hunt

Head Count” was a cool, indie horror movie not many people saw last year. Director Elle Callahan has her second feature coming this year and it sounds pretty neat. “Witch Hunt” crosses modern day anxieties with a literal witch hunt, as an American woman seeks to protect two actual Mexican witches seeking asylum from American authorities. Sounds both relevant and interesting! “Head Count” had an effectively quiet tension to it and I hope to see more of that here.


Other stuff I'm interested in that I don't feel like writing about:

Antlers, Army of the Dead, Bad Education, Bennedetta, Coming 2 America, The Devil All the Time, First Cow, Fonzo, Gretel and Hansel, Macbeth, Mank, The Night House, The Old Guard, Pieces of a Woman, Random Acts of Violence, Run Hide Fight, Saint Maud, Snatchers, Swallow, Tenet, The Witches, The Wretched, Yes, God, Yes, and Zombi Child.