Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: My Stepmother is an Alien (1988)

You've heard the story before. A screenwriter comes to Hollywood with a dream. He writes a science-fiction/fantasy film, dripping in magical realism, that functions as a dark allegory about childhood abuse. A studio purchases the script, proceeds to rewrite it, and completely sucks out the soul. What ends up on theater screens is a dumb-ass, aggressively wacky family-comedy starring Dan Aykroyd and Kim Basinger. Selling out art for mass appeal bullshit is just what Hollywood does, right? I'm referring to the backstory behind “My Stepmother is an Alien,” a mostly forgotten motion picture from 1988. Despite these facts, for some reason, I own this movie.

The movie's plot is pretty much encapsulated in its title but I'll expound further anyway. Dr. Steven Mills, a widower with a thirteen year old daughter, is a scientist attempting to establish contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. During a freak lightning storm, he manages to broadcast a radio wave into another galaxy. This ends up disturbing the gravity on an alien world. Those aliens send Celeste, a female agent, to establish contact with Mills and undo the gravitational shift. Celeste looks humans but is grossly misinformed about Earth culture. Her robotic handbag provides her with other worldly powers. Celeste quickly seduces Mills, marrying him after one day, who then teaches her about being human. However, the alien agenda is not as peaceful as it seems.

Given the title and the time it was made, “My Stepmother is an Alien” is pretty much exactly the kind of movie you'd expect. This is a stock-parts fish out of water comedy. Most of the gags are based around Celeste misunderstanding human culture and generally acting weird. Her premiere scene has her barging into a party, eating cigarettes instead of h'dourves, throwing around nonsensical pop culture references, and somersaulting out the door. After marrying Mills, she makes a massive breakfast, including three types of cheeseburgers and a whole ham. She tries to pay for groceries with a thousand dollar bill. You get the idea. Even though this is pretty much a kid's movie, the filmmakers decided to also depict Celeste learning about sex. So she gets a crash course in intercourse by watching a porno. We are then greeted to an extended scene of Kim Basinger writhing around in a barely there nightie. The raunchy stuff is just as corny as the rest of the film's humor but feels very out-of-place, considering the otherwise deeply childish tone.

If you aren't attracted to this movie by the sight of Kim Basinger in lingerie, you're probably here for the goofball sci-fi elements. These scenes provide this broad movie with their broadest moments. Celeste's handbag is a character onto itself, with a robotic eye emerging from it that talks and moves around. Bag, voiced by an extra bitchy Ann Prentiss, has the ability to do just about anything. She levitates the dog onto the roof. Any plot useful objects can be summoned from inside Bag. Naturally, a big conflict in the plot is from Jessie, Mills' daughter, uncovering Celeste is an alien. This climaxes with Celeste floating her onto the ceiling, revealing her alien agenda. Jessie then immediately changes her mind about Celeste after she saves her from a rogue car, phasing her through the vehicle using some subpar special effects. (You can see the crumbs of the screenwriter's original vision here and in these scenes alone.)

“My Stepmother is an Alien” got the green-light presumably because Kim Basinger and Dan Aykroyd were still pretty big names in 1988. Aykroyd presumably signed on because of his real life interest in extraterrestrials. Aykroyd brings a little of his trademark nervous buzz to the part. He's likable and all smiles. However, there's little room in the material for Dan to express himself much. Basinger certainly tries to elevate the material. She's willing to play along with the big, silly gags. However, the part is so thin and underwritten, that Bassinger has no chance to make Celeste seem like a real person. In the bit parts, I couldn't help but notice Tony Jay as one of Celeste's bosses and Harry Shearer doing a pretty good Carl Sagan impersonation over the phone. Also, Jon Lovitz plays Aykroyd's brother, a sex starved nerd. Otherwise known as a Jon Lovitz part. 

Why Do I Own This?: I actually have a concrete answer! When I fished the movie out of a Best Buy cheap bin, I was going through a pretty big “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” phase. The film was the second screen role of Allyson Hannigan, otherwise known as Willow. She plays Jessie and actually gives a decent performance, even if she can't save some of the dialogue she's given. Yet this is not the movie's only “Buffy” connection. The film was also an early role for Seth Green, who would play Hannigan's werewolf boyfriend on “Buffy.” Amusingly, Green plays Hannigan's homecoming date in two whole scenes. It's pretty cute to see this pop culture couple together in an earlier iteration.

At the time of purchase, I was fairly sure I had seen “My Stepmother is an Alien” as a kid. Upon watching it, I realized I hadn't seen it. I'm pretty sure I was confusing it with “Stepmonster.” I don't exactly regret owning the movie. It's not very good but is mildly interesting as a curio for fans of “Buffy” and “Ghostbusters” and, I don't know, “L.A. Confidential.” The creature effects aren't too bad, I guess. It's the only sci-fi movie where Jimmy Durante is an important plot point. This one probably doesn't need to be in my DVD collection but I can't quite bring myself to get rid of it either. Blame my obsessive hoarding. [5/10]

Monday, January 29, 2018

Director Report Card: Neveldine/Taylor (2018)

6. Mom and Dad
Directed by Brian Taylor

Since the desolation of the Neveldine/Taylor partnership, the directors have been doing their own things. Mark Neveldine directed disappointingly lame possession flick “The Vatican Tapes” and produced two odd action footnotes, “Urge” and “Officer Downe.” Brian Taylor has been a little more quiet. He's written, directed, or produced several episodes of magical unicorn/rogue cop series “Happy!” After being filmed last year, his solo feature directorial debut has gotten a semi-wide release this month. “Mom and Dad” reunites the filmmaker with his "Ghost Rider 2" star, Nicolas Cage. And, honestly, it's been a while since a leading man and a director are so perfectly matched to each other.

Brett and Kendall Ryan are the proud parents of two kids. Daughter Carly is growing into a smart-ass teenager, stealing from her mom, doing drugs, and sneaking out to be with her boyfriend. Son Josh is a hyper-energetic ten year old. Despite that, the family lives a comfortable life, Brett's job paying for a maid and allowing Kendall to be a stay-at-home mom. A normal day is interrupted when a strange virus begins to sweep the neighborhood. Something is compelling parents to murder their children. Brett and Kendall soon come under the sway of this strange condition, forcing Carlie and Josh to fight for their lives against their mother and father.

On paper, “Mom and Dad” sounds like a harrowing horror film. The death of children is still one of the big taboos of the horror genre. The idea of parents becoming homicidal towards their own kids, like a reverse “Who Could Kill a Child?,” could be mined for serious horror. Instead, Brian Taylor embraces his gonzo tendencies. “Mom and Dad” is a dark horror/comedy that frequently veers towards the manic and wacky. This is best displayed in a scene where a brand new mother attempts to strangle her newborn baby. What begins as an intense moment soon gravitates towards audacious absurdity, the dangling umbilical cord dragging behind the mother as she approaches the screaming newborn.

The film makes an especially inspired decision. It would've been easy to turn this premise into a zombie movie. To have the parents be mindless murder machines, targeting their kids with a single-minded determination. However, “Mom and Dad” lets its homicidal parents keep their personalities. So Kendall waves at the neighbors while she’s walking around the house to poison her kids. Brent remains obsessed with his old sports car in the garbage. When the grandfather shows up, he pauses in his murderous fury to enthusiastically greet his grandson. That contrast creates a lot of humor and adds so much more personality to the movie.

The best horror movies root their premises in something stronger and richer. “Mom and Dad,” though far from a serious horror film, does indeed have a potent concept at its center. This is a movie about one of the darkest secrets of parenthood: That sometimes parents resent their children. That they give up so much, their youth and their hopes and dreams, to raise their kids instead. Sometimes, maybe then even wish the kids were dead. This is touched upon in several key scenes. The most pivotal one involves Brent and Kendal talking about their regrets in the basement, looking at how their youth is lost and how things have changed so much.

Most people will want to check out “Mom and Dad” because of its star. This is another movie primarily devoted to Nicolas Cage going fucking ballistic. And, oh boy, is it entertaining. In the early scenes, Cage has fun playing an up-tight, suburban dad, dropping hints at his future homicidal rage to come. Once the virus affects him, Cage goes to the insane heights we all know he is capable of. He yells, screams, he rants and raves. At one point, he begins to repeats the brand name of a reciprocating saw over and over again. By the end, he’s running through the house, barking and howling like a dog. He’s set on fire, with Fruit Loops stuck to his face. A much hyped scene has Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing “The Honky Pokey.” Yes, that is absolutely a high-light of the movie.

Nic Cage going insane in an indie, genre movie is delightful but expected. A nice surprise in “Mom and Dad” is Selma Blair. Blair keeps pace with Cage. She begins as a dotting mom, quickly transferring into full-blown panic mode when the chaos starts. After coming under the influence of the wave, Blair suddenly transforms into a convincing villain. She coldly goes about her homicidal mission. As her offspring prove harder to executed then expected, Blair lets her manic side out more and more. Blair happily seesaws between mouth-foaming madness and a sweet, material side that isn’t even suppressed by her need to kill.

Cage and Blair are clearly the stars of the show. Technically, their kids are actually the protagonists of the film though. Anne Winters plays Carly, the daughter. Winters has some issues to overcome, as the character is unappealing initially. However, as the situation becomes more and more severe, Winters’ will to survive makes the character endearing. As ten year old Josh, Zackary Arthur – who already has quite a few credits, despite his young age – shows some clear abilities, panicking well and making the audience like him. Lance Henriksen puts in a late film appearance. The opening credits spoil this appearance, which otherwise would’ve been a fun surprise. Henriksen is also hamming it in a fun way.

Comparing “The Vatican Tapes” and “Mom and Dad,” you get the impression that the driving visual force behind the “Crank” films was Brian Taylor. “Mom and Dad” continues the frenetic style that characterized those movies. There’s often a frantic, kinetic energy in the film. The action scenes verge on the difficult to follow at times. Near the end, when the kids are wrestling with Mom, it almost becomes too much. however, when it works, this style lends “Mom and Dad” an energy almost as wild its leading performers. Taylor also tags on a retro-style opening credits, bringing a grindhouse feeling to the entire movie, in addition to being a decent work of art on its own.

As a horror/comedy, “Mom and Dad” mostly goes for comedy over scares. However, there’s still one or two moments that actually function as straight-up horror. Carly’s boyfriend takes some pretty severe abuse. There’s a bracing attack with his own father, involving a shattered beer bottle. Later, a wire coat-hanger is weaponinzed a cringe-inducing way. The film’s opening sequence, where a mother calmly parks her mini-van on train tracks before walking away, functions as a chilling short film as its own. The aforementioned scene, involving the newborn, eventually shifts towards crazy humor but does begin with an upsetting set-up.

Even separated from his directorial partner, Brian Taylor still displays some of the same problems. As in “Gamer” and “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” “Mom and Dad” has some pacing problems. For a while, the film has an odd back-and-forth, going from manic, high energy sequences and slower, more character-oriented moments. That leaves the viewer with a bit of whiplash. However, as it goes on, “Mom and Dad” finds its footing as a high-speed, increasingly nutty thriller. The last act gets especially insane, the film adding more characters and getting wilder as the movie clatters towards an intentionally blunt ending.

The score for “Mom and Dad” is credited to an entity called “Mr. Bill.” Matching its retro opening credits, the film’s score has a distinctively eighties feeling to it. It’s heavy on throbbing, anxious synth. Occasionally, the scattered melodies seem to intentionally recall Disasterpiece’s score for “It Follows.” Other times, the soundtrack leans heavily on wailing, heavy metal guitars. The film also features some especially inspired needle drops. Erasure’s “Chains of Love” puts in a hilarious appearance at one point.

Pretty much from the moment it was announced, “Mom and Dad” was more-or-less destined to become a cult favorite. One of the “Crank” guys making a horror movie where Nic Cage goes to maximum Cage-ness? Yeah, there was going to be a devoted following for that. Luckily, “Mom and Dad” is a lot of fun for the most part. Taylor brings some neat gimmicks to the premise, putting his own spin on it. This isn’t worth seeing just because Nic Cage goes completely fucking bug-nuts in it. There are other reasons to watch it, even though that’s still a really good reason to catch it out. [Grade: B]

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2017)

32. Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters
Gojira: Kaij┼ź Wakusei / Godzilla: Monster Planet

I can't tell you how happy it makes me that kaiju movies are officially cool again. After Gareth Edwards' 2014 reboot of “Godzilla” saw box office nearly as big as its titular creature, the floodgate was officially open. King Kong is back. The “Pacific Rim” monsters are back. Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah are coming back. Even the giant animals from “Rampage” are back! To tide over fans until Legendary finally releases their “Godzilla' sequel next year, Toho has started producing movies about their King of the Monsters again.

The last time Godzilla's home studio devoted a new series to their star monsters, the results were not always super inspired. The Millennium Eiga often produced same-old, same-old feelings. For their latest wave of films, the studio has gone in a radically different direction. Hideaki Anno's “Shin Gojira” was as much political satire and art film as it was a giant monster movie. Their next entry into the new “Godzilla” series was something even more expected. “Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters” was the kaiju king's first foray into animation. It got a speedy state-side release too, hitting American Netflix only a few months after its Japanese debut. So... Is it any good?

As the 20th century came to an end, giant monsters emerged all over Earth. The most dangerous of them all, massively powerful and seemingly indestructible, was Godzilla. It was essentially the end of the world. With the assistance of two separate alien race, humanity fled to the stars. Due to faster-than-light travel, twenty years pass on the space ship while thousands of years pass on Earth. With their resources dwindling, humanity decides to return to their home world. They find a planet completely different in its topography, inhabited by strange, dangerous animals. They also find Godzilla, who is still alive and just as unstoppable as ever.

When an animated Godzilla was announced, I thought it was a pretty cool idea. At its best and most unhinged, the “Godzilla” series has always been wildly imaginative. By completely freeing itself from Earth-bound special effects, the franchise could go off in any crazy direction it wanted. “Planet of the Monsters” fulfills this promise, by being the most science-fiction oriented “Godzilla” movie ever made. Most of the film's early scenes take place deep in outer space. One of the main characters is an alien. It sets far in the future. Even a series as consistently wacky as “Godzilla” could never go to places this far out in live action.

Whatever good will “Planet of the Monsters” creates with its sci-fi set-up is quickly squandered. Within its opening minutes, the film bogs the viewer down with exposition. Instead of slowly giving us the information throughout, “Planet of the Monsters” delivers the entire back story in one fifteen minute dump. From there, the movie attempts to create a lore of its own. Much attention is paid to the alien species' religious beliefs. There's much hand-wringing about how space travel affects the elderly. It's all overdone and slightly derivative, quickly alienating even a receptive viewer.

I should say the idea of an animated Godzilla movie is hugely exciting, conceptually. When I first saw the trailer for “Planet of the Monsters,” most of the wind went out of my sails concerning that idea. The thirty-second “Godzilla” movie is not brought to life with the traditional animation still largely favored by Japanese animators. Instead, the film is brought to life with a cell-shaded CGI animation. I do not find this approach aesthetically pleasing. It makes the anime-style character designs look out of place. The environments and creatures frequently look flat. The movement is often choppy. Few of the elements mesh together. The result is off-putting, never allowing the viewer to fully believe in the movie's world.

In the west, anime is still predominately associated with sci-fi and action stories. “Monster Planet” was directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Sheshita. Shizuno has directed a bunch of “Detective Conan” movies but Sheshita specializes in cell-shaded anime like this. Both of them worked on “Knights of Sidonia,” a similar looking series. Both fulfill expectations, as far as sci-fi and action expectations go. The heroes attempt to fight off Godzilla with small, flying vehicles that shoot lasers. This lead to several high-flying, speedy action scenes. The CGI approach probably gave the director's more freedom to create faster paced, wilder action scenes. However, I imagine these scenes would be more appealing in traditional animation.

In fact, the film seems a little too willing to fulfill typical anime expectations. “Godzilla: Monster Planet” leans on many well-known anime troupes. There are giant – though still smaller than Godzilla – robots that are operated by human pilots. There's a heavy focus on mecha designs in general, including spider-like tanks and giant artillery. The expedition to Earth is partially led by a pretty young female character, the kind likely included to appeal to waifu-obessed otakus. The hot-blooded hero makes big, passionate speeches about fairly trivial stuff. It's all stuff I've seen a hundred times before.

Godzilla movies are not well known for having lovable human characters. The on-the-ground subplots are often seen as an unavoidable obstacle to getting to the giant monster stuff. Yet the best kaiju films feature at least mildly interesting heroes. Such as the astronauts and Namikawa in “Monster Zero,” the crack reporter in “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monsters,” or the telepathic Miki from the Heisei series. None of the characters in “Godzilla: Monster Planet” even approach that level. Haruo, the hot-blooded hero, creates constant melodrama in the most boring way. The alien cohort is constantly going on about the space-religion, quickly growing tiresome. The various soldiers and military leaders make no impression. The cast is, simply put, dull.

That's a big problem because there's not nearly enough Godzilla in “Planet of the Monsters.” The film runs under ninety minutes. It takes about a half-an-hour for the humans to get back to Earth. Godzilla makes his first non-flashback appearance a little while after that. That's a lot of time to spend with these boring humans before we get to the good stuff. Luckily, the film's treatment of its star monster is fairly interesting. Godzilla is the biggest he's ever been. He's so large that he resembles a moving mountain more than a living thing. His appearance is craggy, angular, massive, but still recognizable as Godzilla. His movement causes the land to shift around him. His powers are devastating. It's a decent take on the greatest kaiju of all.

“Godzilla: Monster Planet” is not one of the Godzilla movies where he fights another monster. The opening flashback fits in some cameos from other Toho creations. I spotted Orga, Kamacuras, Dagahra, and Dogora, all especially deep cuts. A very odd-looking variation on MechaGodzilla is part of the backstory. The new kaiju addition to the story is a fairly uninspired looking species of dragon-like creatures. Wikizilla tells me they're called Servum and they look more like “Gamera's” arch-enemy, Gyaos, then something befitting the “Godzilla” series. Godzilla, with his newly added build-in force-field and super-effective breath weapon, is clearly the star of the show.

Early into development, it was announced that “Planet of the Monsters” was meant to be the first part of a trilogy. The filmmakers were clearly banking on this. The film essentially ends on a cliffhanger. The climax is a fake-out. The plot is seemingly resolved, in a very big and dramatic way, just for a huge twist to be tossed at us. After that, the movie ends abruptly. We are then given a post-credit scene, which is admittedly sort of neat. Is it enough to get me to come back for two other movies? I'm still not sure.

“Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters” is ultimately a somewhat underwhelming affair. The off-putting animation, weak characters, and halting pacing contribute to a somewhat lackluster presentation. The Japanese box office receipts were only decent but I'm sure the Netflix deal was highly profitable. Polygon Picture and Toho Animations are apparently already working on the sequel, in which that weird MechaGodzilla redesign will get more to do, so I guess that's a done deal. A sequel would have to ditch a lot of things – the lame characters, the weird animation, the dead-weight mythos – to be interesting. It's hard to get my hopes up about that right now. [Grade: C]

OSCARS 2018: Nominations and Predictions

I used to try and be hip and cool when writing about the Oscar nominations. “Oh,” I'd say, “I know the Oscars are bad.” “They're boring, increasingly irrelevant, opposed to public opinion,” all that shit. Well, I'm old enough now that I no longer feel the need to disguise my beliefs with trendy cynicism. I don't just like the Oscars. I fucking love them! I haven't figured out why. Maybe it's the glitz, the glamour, or my love of randomly declaring one movie is better than some other movie. Maybe it's because, at the end of the day, the Academy Awards are still the biggest, brightest film award show in the cinematic universe. Maybe that means something to a movie obsessive like myself.

Perhaps the Oscars are even changing for the better. 2018's list of nominees feature few surprises. What's fascinating is that, in many prior years, some of 2018's front runners probably wouldn't have gotten nominated at all. Times are changing, younger people are entering the Academy, and this is quickly being reflected in the list of nominated films. 2018 gives us, by far, the most woke series of nominees we've ever seen. Let's unpack this, shall we? Film Thoughts' 2018 Oscar Coverage officially begins!


Something else that is fascinating about this year's crop of nominations is that there's very few obvious winners. Unlike previous years, few consensuses appeared from the various award shows leading up to the Oscar nomination announcements.

If you had asked me two months ago who the probable Best Picture winner was, I'd would've said Steven Spielberg's “The Post.” Spielberg is always a good candidate for Best Picture. A film about the important of the press could not be any more relevant in 2018. It's the sort of serious minded, middlebrow, period piece drama that would've been a shoe-in a decade ago. And it still might win. However, Spielberg's latest doesn't have much fire in its hype, with the general consensus being that it's simply good, not great. 

The other fave that I would've singled out a while ago is Christopher Nolan's “Dunkirk.” It's a war movie, always a fave among Academy voters. The film was popular with audiences, which never hurts. The film seems to be as much thrilling genre piece as powerful meditation on the woes of war craft. Nolan's film is still a possible winner, taking home quite a few other awards in the last few weeks. However, it's hype has started to cool.

Glossy period pieces certainly still have their in the Best Picture race. Paul Thomas Anderson's beguiling “Phantom Thread” was better received by the Academy then expected, considering Oscar's somewhat cool reaction to Anderson's work in the past. “Darkest Hour” likely grabbed the ninth slot, probably edging out some other movies.

However, another genre has shown a surprising hold on the Best Picture race. Here in the Year of Our Lord, 2018, two horror movies are nominated for Best Picture. Jordan Peele's “Get Out” combined comedy, body-switching horror troupes, and social relevance to become a hit with critics and audience. Despite belonging to a low genre and being a February release, “Get Out” has fought its way to the highest honor in the film world. A win doesn't seem entirely improbably either. In a year when social awareness is more important than ever, a relevant film like “Get Out” may very well be the clear winner.

Right now, if I had to bet money, I would say Guillermo del Toro's “The Shape of Water” is likely to win Best Picture. A love story riff on “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” filled with quirky elements and surreal touches, would probably not be a Best Picture frontrunner in most years. However, aside from the waves of praise and awards that its gotten, one factor elevates this movie to tis status as likely winner. In my years tracking the Oscars, the Academy has shown an obvious favoritism for movies about the magic of movies. “The Shape of Water” is primarily a love letter to del Toro's cinematic passion, making it seem like the top choice to me.

There are other potential up-sets. “Lady Bird” is one of last year's most beloved films. However, no matter how great it might be, it's probably still seen as too minor and indie to earn the top prize. “Call Me by Your Name” was slotted early on as this year's “Moonlight,” due to its LGBT themes. Despite strong reviews, its hype never reached that level. Some have suggested that “Get Out” and “The Shape of Water's” genre alliances might split the vote, allowing something like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” to win. This could very well happen. It's happened before. However, that film has proven divisive in its own way.

So who knows. It's almost anyone's game. It's going to be a very exciting race. But right now, I'm going to say that the likely 2018 Best Picture is...

“The Shape of Water...” Probably


Best Actor is one of the few categories this year that has an obvious winner. Daniel Kaluuya and Timothee Chalamet's nominations were not guarantees. They aren't the flashiest performances. As I said, neither movie is exactly the typical Oscar bait. However, a win for either seems unlikely. These were star-making performances but the kind performers pick up on the way to other wins.

There are clearly some legacy nominations here. Daniel Day-Lewis is seemingly sticking to his decision to retire following “Phantom Thread.” Considering his status as one of the most highly respected performers alive, his send-off performance was obviously going to get nominated. He might win too, just for old times' sake... But D.D.L. already has three little gold men. I can see Academy voters deciding that's enough.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” received pretty soft reviews and flopped at the box office. But the Academy just loves Denzel so much, they couldn't resist nominating him. Some thought – I'd say wrongly but opinions vary – he should've won for last year's “Fences.” I imagine this nomination was given out more as a mea culpa than anything else. He won't win.

That leaves Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour.” From very early on, Oldman was singled out as the favorite for Best Actor. Oldman is a beloved character actor who has never won before and has only ever been nominated once before. In “Darkhest Hour,” he plays an important historical figure and underwent a heavy make-up job/physical transformation for the part. Some things have changed but this stuff will always be catnip for Academy voters. Oldman seems very likely to win.

Gary Oldman for “Darkest Hour”


Best Actress is a less clear-cut category. Meryl Streep got nominated for “The Post,” because of course she did. Oscar really wants Meryl to date him and will never stop nominating her for anything and everything, until she finally settles down with him. That obsessive love is always capable of throwing off voters, giving Streep the win. Hopefully, that won't happen this year.

Margot Robbie in “I, Tonya” would've been a clear winner in past years. It's a flashiest performance as a flashy historical figure, albeit a somewhat irrelevant one. Robbie hasn't earned her dues as a critical performer yet, so a win is unlikely. Saoirse Ronan has earned those dues and probably deserves a win. However, I don't think this is her year. Expect Ronan to pick up a legacy award many years later down the line.

From where I'm sitting, two actresses are the possible winner. The Academy has shown a love for Frances McDormand before. Her fiery performance seems to be the highlight of “Three Billboards.” In a year largely about women standing up against social injustice, McDormand playing a role all about that seems a probable winner.

However, Saly Hawkins in “The Shape of Water” may steal the award from her. She's playing a character with a disability. We know the Academy loves that. The Academy seems to love “The Shape of Water” and that very well may rub off on Hawkins. Right now, I can't pick between the two of them.

Hawkins or McDormand


Christopher Plummer getting nominated for “All the Money in the World” strikes me as amusing. Plummer was inserted into the movie following Kevin Spacey's transformation into persona non grata, thanks to some speedy re-shoots. In other words, Plummer did a few days of last minute work and got an Oscar nomination for it. Because Christopher Plummer is a bad ass.

He probably won't win though. Richard Jenkins getting nominated for “The Shape of Water” was a surprise, since he had the least hype out of the film's main performances.

Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell both got nominated for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” That very well may split the votes, allowing Willem Dafoe a win for “The Florida Project.” Like Oldman, Dafoe is a beloved character actor who has never won an Oscar before. “The Florida Project” was a critically praised film largely snubbed by the Academy, which might work in Dafoe's favor. However, Rockwell seems to have the most hype, picking up a few previous awards during the run-up to Oscar night.

So Rockwell is my choice to win. He does, after all, rock and rock well. And his dad is super sweet. Dafoe might snatch it away from him, so stay tuned.

Sam Rockwell, with DaFoe as a possible dark horse winner


“Phantom Thread” was always going to be one of those movies that got a lot of nominations but probably few wins. However, Lesley Manville – still a relative unknown – getting nominated was a surprise. So was Mary J. Blige, becoming the first person to be nominated in both the acting and music categories. “Mudbound” was really well-liked but largely overlooked by the Academy, so Blige sneaking through is kind of cool, I guess.

Octavia Spencer is quickly becoming an Academy favorite too. She has one win already and earned another nod last year for “Hidden Faces.” That momentum, along with the film's general reception, earned her another nomination for “The Shape of Water.”

However, this race is mostly coming down to two names. Both of whom, it's funny to say, are probably better known for TV sitcoms then film roles. Laurie Metcalf's role in “Lady Bird” has generally been declared delightful. The narrative of Metcalf, a working actress who has been around for years, finding the perfect role in this film and winning an Oscar for it is a powerful one. She is very likely to win.

However, pretty much from the moment people laid eyes on the movie, critics started declaring Allison Janney a likely winner for “I, Tonya.” Unlike a lot of hype bandied about earlier last year, this prediction has seemingly held true. Janney is about as loved as Metcalf too and that goes a long way with Academy voters. However, I think the flashier aspects of “I, Tonya” will nudge Janney into the winner's circle.

Allison Janney for “I, Tonya”


Aside from Picture, Best Director is the hottest race this year. It's by far the most diverse line-up of nominees in this category we've ever seen. A black filmmaker, a Mexican filmmaker, and a woman stand alongside two of the most praised directors of the current generation.

And none of them are quite clear winners. Wins for Greta Gerwig and Paul Thomas Anderson do not seem too likely. An indie comedy like “Lady Bird” isn't the type to usually win Best Director. I also, sadly, foresee Anderson going his entire life without winning a statue.

That leaves three possible winners. Being the current director of the Best Picture front-runner, a win for Guillermo del Toro seems possible. It's overdue too, considering del Toro is awesome and highly imaginative. However, even if “Get Out” doesn't win Best Picture, Jordan Peele might grab the award. This is the year of wokeness and Peele is, by far, the wokest choice.

Lastly, there's Christopher Nolan. Like I said, “Dunkirk” still has a good shot at Best Picture. Despite being an auteur adored by fan boys world over, Nolan has somehow never been nominated for Best Director before. It's possible, regardless of “Dunkirk's” quality, the Academy will think Nolan is owed a statue by now.

So, here we are, three choices for Best Director and honestly any of them might get it.

Probably Peele, maybe del Toro, Nolan as a distant third.

BEST WRITING (Original and Adapted):

Despite being the genre that defines modern studio filmmaking, the Academy is still slightly cold to superhero movies. Look at how “Wonder Woman” was completely snubbed this year and how Marvel movies are never nominated outside the technical categories. So “Logan” grabbing a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay was a nice surprise. It probably won't win it's neat that  the third entry in a spin-off series to a long-running spandex franchise is cool.

We now live in an age where men and sexual predators finally see consequences for their sleazy actions. In the wake of his Golden Globe win, a scandal surrounding James Franco essential sank his Oscar chances. (Also robbing us of the delightful sight of Tommy Wiseau being on-stage at the Oscars) “The Disaster Artist” still earned a nod in this category. I would've declared it the probable winner if it wasn't for Franco sullying the whole project.

However, the Academy fucking loves Aaron Sorkin. His hyper-verbal scripts have won before and he's frequently seen as the Writer's Writer. My gut is telling me that this will likely give “Molly's Game” the win.

The original category is largely filled out by Best Picture nominees. “The Big Sick” is the sole outsider. It's totally possible that “Three Billboards,” “Get Out,” and “The Shape of Water” could grab this statue, depending on how they are received overall in other categories. However, my gut is leaning towards “Lady Bird.” Smaller, more character-focused films like this tend to be the favorite in this category. It's the movie's best shot at an Oscar, I think, and the Academy might go for it. I could be full of shit though.

My gut is telling me “Molly's Game” and “Lady Bird.”


2018 is a year largely free of super egregious bullshit, a lot of people agreeing that most of the nominees actually deserved to be signaled out. Except in the Best Animated Feature category. “The Boss Baby,” a movie so ludicrously shitty that its shittiness practically became a meme, somehow stole a nominee from “The Lego Batman Movie” and “Mary and the Witch's Flower.” I knew the Academy hated anime but, considering “The LEGO Movie” was also snubbed in this category a few years back, I guess we now know Oscar hates Legos too.

Otherwise, the nominees are pretty standard. “The Breadwinner” and “Loving Vincent” were decided as the left-field, indie picks in this category for a while. “Ferdinand's” nomination was kind of unexpected, considering soft reviews and box office. But I certainly prefer it getting in over stuff like “Captain Underpants,” “The Smurfs” or “Cars 3.” Anyway, none if matters because “Coco” is going to win. Pixar usually wins and “Coco” was great. It's victory is secure.

Let's secure are the Best Documentary and Foreign language film categories. As is usually the case, I'm not very familiar with the nominees in either of these categories. I haven't heard of any of the nominated documentaries. If I had to make a blind guess, I'd go with “Last Men in Aleppo,” the sort of politically serious fare that frequently wins this category.

As for Foreign Language film, this is the first time I've heard of most of them as well. “A Fantastic Woman,” “The Insult,” “Loveless,” and “On Body and Soul” all sound like exactly the kind of films to be nominated in this category. Parental strife, autism, personal tragedy, and war are all topics on display. However, “The Square” got a lot of great reviews last year. I'm going to guess it might win. Who knows?


At one point, “Baby Driver” was considered as a possible dark horse candidate in the top tier categories. Everyone loved it, after all. However, considering Wright has always been ignored by the Academy before, I'm just happy the movie scored nominees in Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Mixing. It certainly seems likely to take on one of those, probably Best Editing, though its facing heavy competition in all categories.

Roger Deakins is widely recognized as one of the greatest cinematographers working today. Yet he doesn't have an Oscar, despite multiple nominations. The visually gorgeous “Blade Runner 2049” could very well finally get him that statue. However, “Dunkirk” and “The Shape of Water”  may very well steal it away.

After last year's win for “Suicide Squad,” I've given up on the nominees for Best Make-Up ever being good again. This year's line-up is super weak too. “Darkest Hour” will probably win for transforming Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill. The Visual Effects category is slightly stronger. Both ape-themed films featuring references to “Apocalypse Now” got nominated and I'm hoping “War for the Planet of the Apes” wins it.


Despite doing a just okay job last year, Jimmy Kimmel was invited back to host the Oscars this year. I'm expecting lots of jokes about last year's Best Picture mix-up and probably a few uncomfortable references to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. The ceremony is also going down in March this year, totally fucking up my personal time table.

As has become tradition around here, I'm going to try and watch as many of the nominees as possible before the ceremony. I'll wrap up a month of Oscar reviews by live-blogging the ceremony. You probably knows this already. I'm looking forward to it. Really! Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Director Report Card: Spike Jonze (2013)

4. Her

Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman just can't get away from each other. “Her,” the director's fourth feature, was initially believed to be a Jonze original. He is the only writer officially credited with the screenplay. It's premise – a lonely man falls in love with his computer's operating system – certainly seems in Kaufman's wheelhouse though. Later, we learned that Kaufman did some uncredited rewrites on the movie, which explains that. The film, the director's latest, would be another critically acclaimed hit, out-grossing its budget and winning one Academy Award and being nominated for four others.

It's the near future. Theodore Twombly, who works for a company that writes letters upon request for other people, is currently going through a divorce with his longtime wife. Lonely and unlucky in love, Theodore buys a new, high-tech operating system. The artificial intelligence names itself Samantha and begins to communicate with Theodore. She's smart, funny, and knows everything Theodore is thinking. Theodore quickly falls in love and Samantha shares his feelings. However, having a romantic relationship with an operating system comes with its own problems.

Science fiction is full of far-out depictions of the future. Usually these veer towards the implausible. The exact time period “Her” takes place in is never specified. However, I'd wager it's bound to be one of the more realistic depictions of the future. Things look more or less the same as they do now. It's mostly the hardware that's different. Computers are tiny handheld devices that are primarily voice activated. Even chat rooms are operated by voice. Video games are large holographic programs, the user interacting with them via hand motions. It's a world that extrapolates from currently existing technology, suggesting a future that seems pretty plausible.

One aspect of this future strikes me as especially interesting. In my original review of “Her,” I fixated on what is probably a small background detail. Theodore is not the only one on his damn computer all the time. Nearly every person we see in the background has earbuds on and are looking at a tiny screen. If a critique of digital-assisted narcissism is in the film's DNA, it's easy to extend this theme to the main story. The first thing Samantha does when Theodore turns her on is ask about himself. The OS reflects back his own personality to him. That's why he falls in love with her so quickly, as Theodore is constantly inside his own head. Is Jonze poking at millennial ego-centrism in “Her?” Or is this simply an accurate, if exaggerated, depiction of our screen and social media obsessed world as it exist now?

I'm probably way off, as “Her” is most concerned with more worldly ideas. It's a story about loneliness and love. Theodore's loneliness is reflected in his solitary work environment and empty apartment. Even when he's with Samantha, he's often literally alone, as she's never physically with him. The loneliness brings the two of them together, as Samantha often expresses a sense of isolation too, a computerized voice in a cyberspace void. They compliment one another, Samantha getting Theodore out of his apartment and Theodore giving Samantha a sense of self in the physical world.

Joaquin Phoenix has become well-known for giving intense in auteur projects. “Her” finds him in a far more relaxed form. With a bristly Ned Flanders mustache, a pair of thick glasses, and high-waisted pants, he’s not immediately recognizable. As Theodore, he’s a soft-spoken, withdrawn, shy man. Phoenix makes the hurt the character is obviously suffering from apparent on his face and in his body language. He’s tired and sad at most times but doesn’t most people see it. When Samantha comes into his life, he’s suddenly re-energized. Yet Phoenix doesn’t let the character’s self-centered side go either. Theodore is sweet and hurting but he’s also prickly and prone to selfish fits. It’s a well-rounded, well realized performance.

As the other half of the relationship, present in voice but not body, is Scarlett Johansson as Samantha. Samantha Morton was originally cast in the part but Johansson replaced her in post production. Though I suppose we'll never know how Morton was in the part, it's hard to imagine anyone else bringing Samantha to life besides Johansson. Johansson's smoky voice is distinctive enough to be recognizable but not so much that you loose sight of Samantha as a unique character. Johansson communicates sweetness, when gently flirting with Theodore. Yet Samantha isn't simply a digitized Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She has fears and vulnerabilities all her own. That Johansson pulled all of this off with only her voice finally dismissed the belief that she was only a pretty face.

The focus is primarily on Phoenix and Johansson but “Her” features a strong supporting cast too. One way the film bumps up against wish fulfillment is by giving Theodore a succession of beautiful girlfriends. His ex-wife is Ronney Mara, his platonic best friend is Amy Adams, he nearly sleeps with Portia Doubleday, and he goes out on a hot date with Olivia Wilde. The film fends this off with the strength of its cast. In her little amount of screen time, Wilde projects a raw vulnerability. Doubleday has a similar attribute, though her character has less to do. Adams consistently brings a light presence to her scenes, being charming and sweet. Mara, meanwhile, is powerful and forceful during a key moment, where she calls Theodore on his bullshit.

The idea of a romance between a human and a computer certainly seems tawdry. It's a premise that has been mined for other movies, like cult comedy “Electric Dreams,” and various anthology TV shows. “Her” does, indeed, feature a sex scene between Theodore and Samantha. However, it's far from sleazy. Instead, the scene is approached with genuine eroticism. The first love scene is conveyed primarily through their voices. Eventually, the scene fades to black, forcing the audience to focus solely on their voices. The focus is more on the characters' feelings then how their bodies intertwine. It's an astonishingly well executed sequence.

Ultimately, whatever love or intimacy Theodore and Samantha have isn't enough to save their relationship. Samantha can change and evolve endlessly, while Theodore is limited to one human mind. A startling scene reveals that she is stretching in infinite directions at once, in love with hundreds of A.I.s at the same time, much to Theodore's shock. This is a precursor to probably the kindest depiction of the Singularity in all of fiction. It emerges as metaphor for the limits of a relationship, where one partner is able to grow and the other isn't. It crystallizes Theodore's status as an emotionally immature person. But the film isn't criticizing him cruelly. Because who hasn't been there before?

Spike Jonze's visual design continues to evolve in interesting ways with “Her.” The director smartly utilizes color, making a contrast between Theodore's at-first sterile environments which become more colorful after he meets Samantha. The director also creates a mood where characters are haunted by their memories and past mistakes. The film is often interspersed with Theodore's memories of his marriage, his fantasies, and his latest adventures with Samantha. This is most powerful near the end, where a trip to a snowy cabin takes on new meaning. A sequence where Theodore goes running after his O.S., fearing her gone, also features some “Where the Wild Things Are”-style handheld work.

“Her” also sees Jonze re-teaming with Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. O. contributes a song to the film, “The Moon Song,” a delightfully sweet and whimsically sparse number that managed to charm its way to an Oscar nomination. Most of the score is provided by Owen Pallett and the indie rock band Arcade Fire. In addition to also including a song, a decent number called “Supersymmetry” that plays over the end credits, the band's score is a mix of sparse and rich. Gentler sounds contrasts with softly vibrating instrumentation. Sometimes, a more lyrical melody emerges, usually signaling a more emotional moment for the characters. It's a score that works for the film, though isn't especially listenable on its own.

Jonze claims that “Her” was inspired after an encounter with a real artificial intelligence, though one far less advanced then what appears in the movie. Others have felt free to read into Jonze's personal life, as he created the movie following a high profile divorce from Sofia Copolla and a break-up with Michelle Williams. Whether or not “Her” is based on Jonze's own romantic life is up for debate but the director clearly put a lot of his own feelings and emotions into the movie. Despite its science-fiction premise, it's a beautifully acting and powerful meditation on the strength and weakness of the human (and digital) heart. [Grade: A]

Since “Her,” Spike Jonze has stayed fairly quiet. He's directed a few music videos – for Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire, and Kayne West – but has mostly been working as a producer. He's produced several television series for the fledgling Viceland network. Whether or not he has a new film in development, I don't know. I can imagine the director has something cooking somewhere. I look forward to it, whatever shape that takes, as all four of his features have been pretty fucking great.

I'm sorry this short Director Report Card took so long to complete. I have no one but myself to blame. I'll try to do better going forward. Thank you for reading.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Director Report Card: Spike Jonze (2009)

3. Where the Wild Things Are

For a picture book that is exactly ten sentences long, Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” has inspired many adaptations. The book's lively but simple prose and immediately recognizable illustrations have been adapted into a 1974 animated short, a successful series of commercials, a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an opera, and quite a lot of merchandise. A film adaptation was first bandied about in the early eighties, with Disney wanting to make a traditional animation/computer animated feature. This evolved into a fully CGI feature in 2001, which was also abandoned. Instead, Sendak’s book would come to the big screen in live action, directed by Spike Jonze. That is probably not the first person you’d think of to adapt a beloved children’s book. Accordingly, Jonze’s film did poorly at the box office and alienated its audience... Except for the people who loved it.

Max is seven years old. He doesn’t have many friends and is prone to emotional outbursts. His big sister is growing older and more distant from him. His mother loves him dearly but is reeling from a recent divorce, a demanding job, and a search for new romance. Fed up, Max puts on a wolf costume, rants and screams at his mom, before running away from home. He hops on a boat, sails across the ocean, and lands on an island inhabited by monsters. The Wild Things accept the rowdy Max as their king and he quickly becomes one of them. However, this peace only lasts for so long.

In the lead-up to its release, “Where the Wild Things Are” was repeatedly clarified – by its director, writers, and studio – as not really a children’s movie. It’s an intense, melancholy movie and it’s hard to say whether kids, raised on more hyperactive entertainment, would respond to it. Instead, Jonze has called “Where the Wild Things Are” a movie about childhood. And not the perpetually sunny, sanitized version of childhood too often presented. Emotions run high in the film’s world. There is room for happiness, adventure, and glee. There is also room for anger, sadness, and loneliness.

This is most apparent in Max himself. He is not your typical movie kid. He doesn’t always have a snide remark at his disposal. He also isn’t a source of wisdom far beyond his years. Instead, he’s as much a Wild Thing as any of the creatures on the island. He’s incredibly rambunctious, introduced in the first scene wrestling with his dog. He’s a source of constant imagination, as he makes up crazy, funny stories off the top of his head. He’s also ruled by his wildest emotions, impulsive, angry, and self-centered. (This is apparent in the opening credits, where Max’s own name has been scrawled over the production logos.) In many ways, this whimsical fantasy film is one of the more accurate depictions of how kids really act.

In addition to its overly downbeat tone, there’s another reason “Where the Wild Things” probably wouldn’t appeal to kids much. Most children are probably not interested in psychology and narrative symbolism. As in Jonze’s collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, the director is not especially subtle about this. The Wild Things clearly correlate to Max’s family members and his feelings about himself. So does the story. The event that spark Max’s rebellion is his sister’s new friends destroying his winter fort. On the island, Max leads the Wild Things in a mission to build an elaborate fort. This structure also ends up imperiled, by changes in Max’s life that he can’t control.

For more specific examples: Catherine Keener plays Max’s mother in the prologue and epilogue. She also voices Judith, a Wild Thing that is alternatively caring and nurturing but also acts upset and irrational in ways the boy doesn’t understand. There’s Ira, a soft-spoken creature Judith is always hanging around, seemingly representing Max’s absent father. Meanwhile, there’s K.W., another female Wild Thing who Max is very close to. However, she also brings new friends into his secret world – a pair of owls Max literally can’t understand – making the boy fearful that she’s outgrowing him. Like his sister.

Most of the Wild Things represent something about Max himself. The bearded, stripped Wild Thing is named Carol. He is the most like Max. He has fits of intense anger, striking out at those around him, destroying things. He doesn’t understand why he does this. He has dreams of reaching out to people but always ends up hurt. Carol is usually accompanied by Douglas, a bird-like Wild Thing that seems to represent an ideal friend to Max. Douglas is always understanding and compassionate towards Carol, even when he’s hurt. There’s Alexander, a goat-like Wild Thing who is physically smaller than the others. He’s never respected by his friends, who ignore, belittle, and disregard him. This must be how Max feels the world treats him. Lastly, there’s the largely quiet bull, a figure that frightens Max somewhat. He seems representative of a quiet, inner turmoil that Max can’t quite face up to yet.

Translating Sendak’s distinctive illustrations into live action must’ve been a challenge. Jonze’s team manages to put their own spin on the characters while remaining true to their spirit. The Wild Things were brought to life with a combination of large, animatronic suits and computer animation. The result is highly effective. They have the weight of practical effects but the range of digital animation. The Wild Things are odd to look at, maybe even a little scary. They are imposing but still look like the kind of monsters a young child would draw. Yet their faces are expressive. They are fully formed characters, with body languages and quirks all of their own.

The Wild Things would not be as well realized without the cast. James Gandolfini probably seems like an odd choice for a children’s book adaptation. Yet his ability to be deeply vulnerable and animalisitcally intense made him perfect for Carol. Paul Dano is funny, sweet and put-upon as Alexander. Chris Cooper, going in a very different direction than his “Adaptation” character, is the very ideal of calm compassion as Douglas. Keener is alternatively funny and prickly, as Max’s mom and Judith. The film’s greatest find is Max Records, a child performer of boundless energy who was exactly right as this story’s Max.

Jonze’s visual direction is not typical of kid’s movies either. He employs a handheld approach occasionally, getting low and to the ground with his characters. This approach is never shaky or unfocused but instead intimate and immediate. Jonze’s greatest trademark is in the film’s tone. The humor tends to be absurd and cynical. Such as the bleating owls who tell knock-knock jokes, the sudden appearance of a giant dog, or the surreal comments from the Wild Things and Max. Jonze also incorporates some gleefully weird imagery in this thing. Such as Carol tearing off Douglas’ arms and the Wild Thing bleeding sawdust. (He later replaces the arm with a stick.) Or K.W. swallowing Max to keep him safe, the boy dropping into a shaggy and slimy stomach.

By concerning itself with such intense emotions, “Where the Wild Things Are” nearly becomes an exhausting experience. Watching Carol lash out at the people/things that love him is difficult and upsetting. The eventual conclusion leaves the monsters in a less-than-settled place. The final exchange between Max and Carol is an intuitive act of belonging and understanding. As in Sendak’s book – where Max returns to his bedroom, his still warm dinner waiting for him – the cinematic Max returns home, a place where he is loved and accepted. This is the root of the work: People yell and cry sometimes but those that love you forgive all.

It’s not shocking that something like this would leave a lot of people baffled. “Where the Wild Things” are is essentially a 100 million dollar art movie, based on a beloved children’s classic. Audiences that went in expecting typical kid movie shenanigans, fart jokes and covers of pop songs, were surely horrified. (Notably, most complaints like this came from parents, not their children) The soundtrack is not even that routine. Karen O., of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, provides several original songs. They have a quirky, home-made, and utterly sincere feeling to them. The film and musician could not be better matched.

Watching “Where the Wild Things Are” has always been an emotional experience for me. I saw the film in theaters with my mom, a few days before I moved out of my childhood home. She started crying before the opening titles came up and we were both bawling before the film ended. (Mom found the film a bit too prickly and downbeat on that first viewing but has grown to like it more over later viewings.) A movie that makes me cry that much, that really earns those tears, can’t help but get a high rating from me. It’s an astute motion picture, beautifully realized with some powerful things to say about how tumultuous childhood can be. [Grade: A-]

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Director Report Card: Spike Jonze (2002)

2. Adaptation.

Describing anything as the most original something in however many years is a loaded statement. Because, really, who decides such things? Yet “Being John Malkovich” was surely a candidate for most original something in however many years when it came out. That must’ve been a hard act to follow. That successor was an adaptation of “The Orchid Thief,” a non-fiction book Charlie Kaufman had been hired to adapt in 1997. The project mutated into something very different as he wrote it though. It’s hard not to imagine Jonze being attracted to the script, wanting to re-team with his “Being John Malkovich” scribe on a project that pushed into meta territory in a challenging, funny way.

Because “Adaptation” isn’t really about telling the story of “The Orchid Thief,” a tale of a rogue botanist hunting a rare orchid in Floridan swampland. Instead, it’s about Hollywood screenwriter Charlie Kaufman – fat, balding, greatly lacking confidence and social skills – attempting to adapt Susan Orlean’s book. His struggles with his self-doubt, trying to find a way to tell a story about flowers without betraying the book’s spirit. At the same time, Charlie’s far more confident twin brother Donald also decides to pursue screenwriting. When Donald’s high-concept thriller script receives studio attention, Charlie has a crisis. He decides to collaborate with his brother on adapting Orlean’s story. This also means confronting Susan, who Charlie has fallen in love with.

In concept, “Adaptation” sounds like the most narcissistic, self-indulgent bullshit imaginable. A movie about screenwriting, in which the real screenwriter is the main character? That’s some Guy in M.F.A. nonsense right there. Or, at least, it would’ve been from anyone other than Charlie Kaufman. “Adaptation” is about exactly that, the struggles of turning one person’s work of art into another work of art. Kaufman, however, casts his net even wider. “Adaptation” is also about evolution, of something changing form. Animals changing to survive, a book becoming a movie, people changing. This mostly emerges through the fictional Kaufman’s struggles to do something new, to change how he sees screenwriting and movie making.

You know, maybe I’m giving Kaufman too much credit. “Adaptation” probably wouldn’t have worked without Nicholas Cage either. Years before he became a walking internet meme, Cage was an occasionally great actor. “Adaptation” sees the actor casting aside his action hero theatrics and returning to his twitchier, earlier days. Cage’s Kaufman is a ball of neurosis. “Adaptation’s” first scene showcases Kaufman’s neurotic faults, attempting to build himself up only to tear himself down again. His mind is frantic and unfocused, terrified of appearing badly and barely able to function. Cage successfully directs his trademark manic energy inward, creating an image of Charlie Kaufman as someone practically torn apart by the war in his head.

It might not seem like the kind of performance you’d expect from the star of “Con Air” and “Ghost Rider.” Then again, “Adaptation’s” central gimmick allows Cage to show off too. He also plays Kaufman’s fictional twin brother, Donald. Donald is the inverse of Charlie. Where Charlie is anxious, Donald is overly confident. While Charlie struggles to impress women, Donald easily talks to girls. Charlie is eager to create a new kind of screenplay. Donald takes a screenwriting course and happily learns the standard rubric to Hollywood screenwriting. Despite the characters looking the same, Cage easily makes Donald a distinct character. His body language, spoken words, and personality creates two separate, compelling characters.

“Being John Malkovich – which “Adaptation” partially takes place during the filming of – gently ribbed Hollywood culture. “Adaptation” turns away from the egos of actors and focuses on the triteness of hacky screenwriting. Donald’s hit script is “The Three,” a cop-chases-serial-killer thriller. The script has the bonus of a totally asinine twist, its hero, villain, and damsel all being revealed to be the same person. It’s naturally well received by talent scouts. Yet “The Three” also reflects on “Adaptation.” When Donald is describing a story about one person with multiple personality, it’s during a conversation with his brother. Donald is, of course, totally fictional. Meaning, when writing that scene, Kaufman was having a conversation of sorts with himself. That same conversation features Charlie asking his brother how he’ll pull off the story’s logistic, a question that writer of “Adaptation” also surely asked himself.

If Jonze and Kaufman happily sacrificed John Malkovich’s ego in their last film, “Adaptation” proves it was nothing personal. Kaufman does it to himself here. He writes himself as pathetic, a word he uses to describe himself repeatedly. The fictional Kaufman is fatter and balder than the real deal. The real Kaufman has a wife and daughter. The fictional Kaufman is too afraid to even talk to a woman. “Adaptation” roasts its writer the hardest by repeatedly depicting Charlie’s masturbatory habits. He builds erotic fantasies off the smallest interactions. By the time he’s jerking off to Susan Orlean’s jacket photo, the character seems to be bottoming out. Yet this reflects on the struggles of the creative minds. In order to complete any project, a writer has to fall in love with his story. “Adaptation” literalizes this choice.

“Adaptation” was going to receive a lot of attention, as the highly anticipated follow-up to a well received movie. It was also going to get a lot of attention because it co-stars Meryl Streep, that beloved mainstay of award season. I’ve said some not-so-nice things about Streep before, as I’m constantly baffled and exhausted by the Academy’s undying love for her. Yet I’ll admit she’s really good in “Adaptation.” Early on, a character says Orlean projects sadness. So she does, as Streep hides an inner turmoil behind a smiling face. Streep sacrifices a bit of ego too, as (the fictional) Orlean’s quest to be passionate about something leads her down some less than dignified paths.

Streep, naturally, was nominated for an Oscar for “Adaptation.” So was Nic Cage and Kaufman’s script. Chris Cooper, however, was the films only nominee to win. Cooper plays John Laroche, the titular orchid thief. It’s a flashy part, on the surface. Laroche is repeatedly described as a colorful character, a man with very Floridian dentistry and a ranting personality. Cooper happily hams it up during these sequences, creating a memorably colorful character. Yet the scenes exploring Laroche’s background, especially his loss, realize the power of Cooper’s performance, showing a man capable of great passion and insight despite what he’s been through. The supporting cast also features a great appearance from Brian Cox as notorious screenwriting guru Robert McKee.

I’ve talked a lot about Charlie Kaufman in this review, which is unavoidable given “Adaptation’s” subject. What about the director? Donald Kaufman and Robert McKee both make references to crossing genres, blending different tones of story into one. Spike Jonze’s direction accomplishes this visually. “Adaptation’s” visual design leaps from frantic to still. Long montages, showing the history of life on Earth, contrast with shots of Kaufman sitting at his computer. Kaufman’s erotic fantasies are brightly lit, while his home life is dreary and dark. His frantic creative process is displayed in quickly assembled scenes, cutting back and forth between people and places. Historical sequences, about Darwin and orchid thieves throughout history, are brought to life with accurate details. In other words, Jonze is perfectly on the script’s level.

Like “Being John Malkovich,” describing “Adaptation” as a comedy is tricky. The laughs are often tinged with a deeply melancholy side, while the film veers closer to thriller as it nears its conclusion. Yet “Adaptation” is extremely funny at times. Charlie’s blunt dismissals of Donald’s hacky story antics always lead to a clueless response from the brother. The peak of Donald’s odd hilarity is when he describes a chase scene in “The Three,” a battle between technology and… Horse. Other, small lines become laughers. Such as Laroche’s excitement upon meeting Kaufman at the end or an agent bragging about his sexual conquest for no reason.

The narrative switcharoo “Adaptation” performs in its last act is well known. Early on, Charlie dismisses Donald’s storytelling, with its emphasis on car crashes, drugs, sex, violence, and characters learning important life lessons. He hopes to avoid these things. After asking Donald to collaborate with him on the film’s script – the script of the film you’re watching – “Adaptation” immediately begins to feature these things. Some dismiss this turn as being too clever, the movie becoming the ouroboros it namedropped earlier. And maybe it is a meta bridge too far. But I fucking love it. It rewards the viewer for paying attention earlier in the film, bringing events full circle, and certainly leads to a highly memorable conclusion.

Taking its metaficitonal tight-rope walk all the way, “Adaptation” was not credited simply to Charlie Kaufman. Donald Kaufman is listed as co-writer. The film is dedicated to his memory and concludes with a quote from his script, “The Three.” (Amusingly, Donald’s “The Three” would practically become a real movie, with shoddy pseudo-Christian thriller “Th3ee.”) Jonze and Kaufman’s mastery of tone, along with the phenomenal cast, makes every tricky move “Adaptation” makes land successfully. It’s brilliantly provides insight into the creative process while commenting on screenwriting conventions, all while being consistently hilarious and moving. [Grade: A]

Monday, January 15, 2018

Director Report Card: Spike Jonze (1999)

I first discovered Spike Jonze as a director of music videos. Many music video directors endeavor to create little movies but Jonze truly embraced that. He brought wildly imaginative ideas to the format. Some of them were fairly elaborate, like inserting Weezer into "Happy Days" or making the Beastie Boys the stars of an old cop show. Others were seemingly simple, such as having Sofia Coppela perform a gymnastic routine, an extreme close-up of a man on fire, or - in maybe the greatest music video of all time - Christopher Walken dancing through an empty hotel lobby. Sometimes, the song wasn't even the true attraction of the music video, as in the clip for Daft Punk's "Da Funk," which uses the song as the backing track for a short film about a dog-man trying to find love in the city.

So when Jonze made the transition to feature films, he brought that imagination and surreal humor with him. He's only directed four movies so far but each one has become something of a modern classic, showing the director's obvious unique outlook and raw talent. Half of Jonze's films have been collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who I will be talking about a lot too in the next few days. Despite my completest urges, I am not including Jozne's feature-length skateboard videos, as I have no interest in the sport and no idea where to locate them.

1. Being John Malkovich

I don't know how they did it. Charlie Kaufman was a screenwriter whose only prior credits were a string of failed TV shows. Spike Jonze was highly regarded as a music video director but had never mounted a feature film before. The two came together to create a very strange film, an absurdist comedy about inhabiting the mind of John Malkovich, a well respected character actor that was hardly a box office draw. Not only did they get this bizarre movie made but it went on to become a huge success, making back its budget at the box office and being nominated for three Academy Awards. Nineteen years later, the movie is considered a classic and Kaufman and Jonze are highly regarded filmmakers.

Craig calls himself as a puppeteer but “unemployed” is a more accurate description. His pet shop owner/animal psychologist wife, Lotte, encourages him to find work. He gets a job as a file clerk at an office building, working on the 7½ floor. While attempting to seduce Maxine, a co-worker, he uncovers a small door behind a cabinet. Crawling into the door, Craig suddenly finds himself inhabiting the body of famous actor John Malkovich. A few minutes afterwards, he's spat out in a ditch alongside the New Jersey turnpike, left feeling elated. Craig and Maxine turn this into a business. Things get more complicated from there.

“Being John Malkovich” is, ultimately, a story about taking control. The film begins with one of Craig's puppet, in close-up, performing the Dance of Despair and Disillusionment. Craig is desperate to take control, made obvious by his interest in puppetry. Those skills eventually allows him to take control of Malkovich. He then redirects the actor's entire career towards his dream: Of being the greatest puppeteer in the world. It turns out, another force is conspiring to take control of Malkovich. After traveling inside the actor, Lotte discovers transgender desires. She wants to radically redirect her life. When she falls in love with Maxine, and she is rejected, she becomes violent. Maxine does a lot of underhanded things for fame and fortune. It's after Lotte and Maxine let go of their desire for control, and submit to love, that they find happiness. Craig's desperate need for control, over his own life and everyone else's, is his undoing. He's ultimately left without any control at all.

The film's visual design is also concerned with two aspects of life: Birth and death. Jonze fills the movie with images of doors and tunnels. Doors – the one leading to Malkovich's mind, the elevator doors in the office building – represent an exit from one world into another. The tunnel leading into Malkovich's mind is directly compared to the birth canal. Craig and Lotte's apartment is crowded and dark. Womb-like. So is the room where the secret society has tracked Malkovich's development, which is painted in fleshy reds. The film ends with a pregnancy. “Being John Malkovich” is a movie obsessed with the details of bringing life into the world.

It's also obsessed with how life leaves the world. For all the doors that open in “Being John Malkovich,” they also close. After entering the actor's mind, the door leading to the tunnel closes on its own, with a sense of finality. The first images in the movie are of closed curtains on a stage. Like a curtain call. As in, the end. The cabal responsible for the tunnel into Malkovich's brain have done it all in order to avoid dying, to stay young and live again. All of us are trying to find ways to avoid death, to take control over our lives, tying into the film's ultimate theme of control. 

Wrapped up inside all these heavy themes is a quirky take on celebrity obsession. This is, after all, literally a film about people crawling into a famous person’s body. Oddly, Charlie Kaufman’s script doesn’t really address obsessive fandom very much. The main characters have heard of Malkovich but don’t seem to be big fans of him. Most of the people who pay to crawl inside his head just want to be someone else, not Malkovich specifically. So why did Kaufman pick a moderately well known character actor as the subject of his strange story? Probably because it’s funny. The title, and the premise built around it, is such a specific and absurd notice. It makes for a good joke.

Any jokes about celebrity status are strictly at the expense of Mr. Malkovich himself. Even by agreeing to star in this movie, John Malkovich showed that he had a good sense of humor about himself. Yet the script delights in tearing down his public persona as an intellectual performer. He’s friends with Charlie Sheen and the two talk about being high all the time. He uses his fame to have sex with strange women. He bitches about towels and is constantly assumed to have started in a jewel thief movie. One comedic highlight has a beer can being tossed at his head. Malkovich, the character, is ultimately brutalized by the story, loosing his very soul over and over again. Perhaps there’s some irony in the most famous person in the film’s universe being the one with the least control. Malkovich, the actor, shows zero ego as he totally takes the piss out of himself, playing a slightly manic and tormented (and presumably exaggerated) version of himself.

The movie’s absurdist sense of humor peaks during three phenomenal moments, honestly three of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in any movie. What happens when John Malkovich crawls into his own head? The actor’s ego completely overtakes the world, spilling into a hilarious, surreal nightmare of mirrors within mirrors. Later, we see the opposite of Malkovich’s self-obsessed inner-universe. Maxine and Lotte chase each other through Malkovich’s subculture, the character’s repressed memories playing out in the background. This makes really dark memories – the Primal Scene, humiliated at school, humiliated by lovers, moments of debased self-agony – comedic contrasts to the story’s climax. Lastly, there’s a flashback told from a chimp’s perspective, a moment hilarious strictly because of how unexpected and how oddly sincere it is.

Yet despite being really, really funny, “Being John Malkovich” is ultimately revealed as a deeply sad movie. The characters are deeply human, consumed by flaws and making many mistakes. A sense of melancholy floats over the film as it approaches its ending, human lives falling apart due to selfishness. The film makes sure to root its villain’s motivations in understandable failings. “Being John Malkovich” even becomes a thriller of sorts, guns being fired and characters’ lives being endangered. All of these tonal shifts mix together successfully, Jonze and Kaufman’s film managing to be about many different things all at the same time.

Beyond Malkovich himself, a really talented cast is assembled. John Cusack covers himself in stubble, becoming almost unrecognizable. Craig begins the film as a pathetic anti-hero. He seeks romance with a woman woefully out of his league. He’s a dreamer, hopelessly attempting to be taken seriously in an art form mostly confined to children’s entertainment. Yet, the moment he gets a ounce of power, Craig transforms into a scumbag. He immediately uses the Malkovich door as a way to win over Maxine. Soon, he’s threatening his wife, locking her up, and tormenting her. What he does to Malkovich amounts to psychic rape. He is punished accordingly. Cusack understands this aspect of the character but maintains a certain level of vulnerability.

“Being John Malkovich” was a surprising film upon its release in 1999. Another surprising aspect of the film was Cameron Diaz’ performance. Diaz, at the time and still really, was mostly confined to comedic roles as bubble-headed blondes. As Lotte, she plumes her abilities and gives a fantastic performance. (She also uglies up, playing into a well-known technique for glamorous actresses to get critical attention.) She’s funny in a really sincere way, never laughing at Lotte’s changing desires or understandings. The character eventually becomes the unlikely hero of the movie, despite a short-lived veer towards the homicidal.

One of the film’s most critically acclaimed performances, the only one to receive an Oscar nomination, is one of its most inscrutable. Catherine Keener is hilarious as Maxine, a deeply sardonic woman that can cut anyone down to size with a few words. She has no time for Craig’s bullshit, at least at first. Yet the character’s willingness to go along with his scheme, once he takes over Malkovich, is a harder to read. As is her eventual redemption. I guess that Keener’s performance is still so strong, despite the character getting the rockiest characterization, is a testament to her skills.

What a fantastic surprise that “Being John Malkovich” would become a critical and box office success. A movie this fucking weird, I figured this would’ve been confined to strictly cult status going forward. Instead, the movie was rightly recognized as an innovative masterpiece and became a widely loved classic of sorts. It’s director and screenwriter weren’t dismissed as one-off weirdoes, but instead rightfully received as mad geniuses. In short, it’s a really good movie that I like a lot. Malkovich! [Grade: A]