Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, February 28, 2019

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Mannequin (1987)

In my previous “Why Do I Own This?” entry, I discussed “Date with an an Angel” and accurately described it as a rip-off of “Splash.” While I connected those films with humanity's long history of wanting to fuck fantastical creatures, the magical girlfriend genre is a long-running as well. The idea of some loser having his life turned around by an extraordinary female – a fundamentally sexist premise that lives on in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – is a a concept that dates back to at least “Bewitched.” For whatever reason, it was an especially popular premise in the eighties. Aside from the aforementioned films, you also had “Weird Science,” “Xanadu,” another former WDIOT entry “My Stepmother is an Alien,” and even animated series like “Video Girl Ai.” Released the same year as “Angel” was “Mannequin,” which brought things full circle by updating the story of Pygmalion, perhaps the original magical girlfriend story, for the eighties. Despite being among 1987's worst reviewed film, “Mannequin” achieved a certain level of box office popularity. I also, for some unknown reason, own the DVD.

Jonathan is a young man with artistic endeavors. However, his obvious talent is not enough to keep him employed, Jonathan cycling through a series of odd jobs. Among these is painting and assembling mannequins in a factory, Jonathan becoming especially fond of one mannequin. After he saves an old lady who is the owner of a failing department super-store, Prince & Company, Jonathan is reunited with the mannequin... Who is actually a resurrected Egyptian princess named Emmy. Anyway, the two fall in love and inspires Jonathan to put together fantastic displays in the store window, bringing up business. This is bad news for Illustra, Prince & Company's rival that was conspiring to buy the store.

Even by the standards of gimmicky, high-concept romantic-comedies, “Mannequin” is egregiously stupid. Just look at Emmy's back story, which is hastily explained during the opening scene. Her wish not to marry a dung farmer was answered by the gods seemingly by sending her soul all throughout history. How this led to her being in a mannequin body, who can only interact with Jonathan when no one else is looking, is never explained. It's pretty evident that writer/director Michael Gottlieb thought up the concept first and then tagged on that cheesy opening scene to provide the vaguest of explanations. If this was the film's only bizarre leap of logic, that would be one thing. Yet “Mannequin” also asks us to believe that a spiffy display window would be enough to boost an entire store, which is otherwise depicted as always empty, from failing to successful within a few weeks.

Supposedly, Gottlieb was inspired to write “Mannequin” after he thought he saw a mannequin in a shop window move. Instead of writing the obvious horror movie about that premise, he instead decided to create a film cynically devoted to exploiting the teen girl market. This is why the non-intimidatingly boyish Andrew McCarthy stars as Jonathan, while Kim Cattral plays a centuries-old princess/mannequin as a teenage girl. Neither performer is bad and both commit fully to the material. It's just that “Mannequin's” script is so dumb that no actor could emerge from it and make a good impression on the viewer. The film's strictly mercenary roots are evident in other ways. A good twenty percent of the run time are montages, devoted to Jonathan and Emmy dressing up and goofing around the oddly empty mall. Despite its century-spanning timeline, the film's scope is utterly restrained to this stationary location. (Presumably because stereotypical teen girls like shopping?) 

When not devoting screen time to its male protagonist having lots of implied sexy sex with his mannequin girlfriend, “Mannequin” indulges in some truly pedestrian slapstick. The film's physical comedy gags are large and broad. Jonathan is swept up onto a giant swinging sign, his bottom shocked repeatedly by a sparking cable. An attempted date with his ex-girlfriend ends with Jonathan using a waiter's toupee to put out a fire. A car vs. motorcycle chase concludes with the large vehicle jumping a ramp and being stuck between an alleyway. While these moments are aggressively wacky, they all feel utterly lifeless. There's no chaotic energy injected into these gags, resulting in the comedy seemingly hopelessly toothless and limp.

About the only thing “Mannequin” has going for it is a bizarre collection of supporting characters. The film's group of sidekicks and antagonists are all exaggerated cartoon characters. Such as James Spader as Richards, an underhanded and weaselly corporate stooge that is especially underhanded even by the standards of James Spader characters. Or Felix, the mentally unhinged security guard that pursues McCarthy for most of the film. Actor G.W. Bailey mugs furiously in the part, a completely insane man who keeps dogs named after action heroes, treats his feeble job like its a war. His obsession with exposing Jonathan's mannequin love extends far beyond the normal boundaries of a night watchmen. The most extreme character in the film is Meschach Taylor's Hollywood, a flaming gay man. Hollywood is not a flattering character, a textbook Gay Best Friend and embarrassingly flamboyant stereotype. Yet Taylor is clearly having the time of his life in the part, goofing it up in a way that's far more entertaining than the film around him.

While rightfully doused by critics, “Mannequin” is another one of those random turkeys that somehow scored an Oscar nomination. Starship's love theme, “Nothing's Going to Stop Us Now,” was a number one pop hit and would be nominated for Best Original Song at the 1988 Academy Awards. Director Gottlieb would gift the world with other similarly high concept comedies like “Mr. Nanny,” “A Kid in King Arthur's Court,” and “The Shrimp on the Barbie.” (Which was so bad, even Gottlieb took his name off it.) At least he didn't direct the film's misbegotten sequel, 1991's “Mannequin: On the Move,” which is supposedly even worst. Kristy Swanson and William Ragsdale's careers never really recovered from that one. As for the original “Mannequin,” it's a really special kind of dumb. Too brainless to be genuinely good but far too shallow in its goals to be an off-beat cult item, it's a truly bad movie.

Why Do I Own This?: I don't know, you guys. Sometimes I just buy stupid bullshit for no reason. [3/10]

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

NO ENCORES: Strange Brew (1983)

1. Strange Brew (1983)
Director: Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas

Need I explain what “SCTV” was? Listen to my story. Long ago, in a mythical country known as Canada, a sketch comedy show grew out of the local Second City comedy troupe. The show would immediately become a cult favorite and ran for six seasons. It introduced a number of beloved performers to the wider world, such as John Candy, Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis. In its third season, in order to satisfy Canadian broadcast standards that all shows must feature a certain percentage of “Canadian content,” Thomas and Moranis would introduce the characters of Bob and Doug McKenzie. A pair of stereotypical Canadian “hosers,” the McKenzies hosted a public access show, drank too much beer, talked about hockey or other trivial manners, and peppered their speech with plenty of “ehs” and “take offs.” The sketches were largely improvised by Thomas and Moranis.

Though created to mock Canadian stereotypes, the McKenzies would actually become very popular. “SCTV's” break-out characters, the brothers would inspire a comedy album, a pop single, commercials, an animated series, action figures, and, in 1983, a feature film. “Strange Brew” was produced by M-G-M, in the hopes that it would replicate the million-selling success of the comedy album. Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis would direct the movie themselves, after it was decided no one else could capture the specific tone and styles of the character. While Dave Thomas has directed several other films and television series, “Strange Brew” remains Moranis' sole directorial credit.

Following a misbegotten film-making experiment, full-time slackers Bob and Doug find themselves in need of some money. An attempt to con free beer out of a local liquor store ends with the brothers being employed at the Elsinore Brewery. After meeting up with Pam, the daughter of the company's recently descend owner, the two uncover a bizarre conspiracy. Brewmaster Smith is plotting world domination, by sneaking mind-controlling chemicals into the beer which he tests on the inmates of the neighboring mental institution. After Bob and Doug discover this, the Brewmaster does everything he can to discredit the guys.

The main reason I enjoy “Strange Brew” is the main reason I enjoy “Wayne's World,” the “Bill & Ted” films, and other movies about “dudes.” Watching two wacky guys be goofy together, going on rambling adventures, reminds me of a wasted youth with my high school friends. Though Bob and Doug choose beer over pot, the film has a similarly loose, “hang-out” movie appeal. In keeping with the tradition started by the “SCTV” segments, Thomas and Moranis improvised much of their dialogue. This is especially delightful in scenes where, when locked up in the institute or in a prison, they rough-house like kids or goof around while getting their mug shots taken. Moranis and Thomas are so totally relaxed with these characters and around each other, that sense of easy fun rubs off on the audience.

A producer on “Strange Brew,” who supposedly guided Thomas and Moranis as their first directing job, had previously worked on “The Producers” and Woody Allen's early, funny movies. So it's not surprising that “Strange Brew” also features some broader, more spoof-like gags. Luckily, quite a few of these work very well. There's an overblown van crash, which hilariously escalates, before Bob and Doug are shown to have survived in the most ridiculous way possible. This is then followed by a two second long intermission. Another solid gag has Bob and Doug's lawyer protecting them from the press in a very literal way. Some of this stuff is really silly, like how Bob survives being drown in beer, but the film usually stays on the right side of ridiculousness.

Also elevating “Strange Brew” is the delightful streak of surrealism that runs through most of the film. The plot is often bizarre. A ghost features occasionally into the plot, Pam's father appearing as a figure on a screen or a glowing red ball of light. This supernatural intervention appears out of nowhere. How Brewmaster Smith tests his mind-controlling booze is very strange. He gets the inmates dressed up in futuristic looking hockey armor and has them fight one another, while listening to droning electronic music. That feels like something out of “Rollerball” or a similar film. Lastly, one of the film's wildest gags involves a dog leaping into the air and flying totally without explanation. It's all honestly kind of bold in its abject silliness.

What makes “Strange Brew's” cavalcade of goofiness even more ambitious is that it's an adaptation of “Hamlet.” I mean, only sort of, kind of. Apparently, earlier drafts of the script was more explicit about this. In its final form, you can only see brief nods towards the Bard. Largely the subplot about Pam's uncle murdering her father and immediately marrying her mom. This stuff ends up being totally secondary to the movie's actual point. Yet the simple idea of trying to squeeze an adaptation of Shakespeare inside such a goofy movie is certainly another one of “Strange Brew's” good gags.

Anybody who knows anything about comedy knows that the best slapstick man in the world is nothing without a quality straight man. Since Bob and Doug are perpetually absurd characters, it's up to most of the other characters to tackle everything at face value. This is fantastically done. Lynne Griffin and Angus Machine, as Pam and the burly hockey player that falls in love with her, would be the heroes in any normal movie. Neither seem aware that they are in such a screwball film, making them perfect. Yet nobody is better cast than Max Von Sydow as Brewmaster Smith. Sydow plays the part totally straight, acting like a ruthless super villain, threatening to crush people's heads (which the film brilliantly pays off on) and megalomaniacally ranting about his evil plans.

Over all, “Strange Brew” succeeds in its very modest goals of being an affably wacky comedy. It's obviously designed to be enjoyed while intoxicated and prospers from rewatches, as the full absurdity of some of its jokes grow with repetition. For a film destined to be a cult classic, it made decent money at the box office. Thomas nearly made a sequel in 1997. It would've been called “Home Brew” and would've detailed how Dan Akyroyd got the McKenzies into microbrewing. As for why Moranis never directed another movie, despite the film's success, his mysterious and capricious nature makes it seem likely that directing isn't really his style. Either way, “Strange Brew” endures as a thoroughly entertaining bit of zaniness. [7/10]

Sunday, February 24, 2019


7:00PM - Welcome to Film Thoughts' live blog of the 91st Academy Awards! This is my tenth such live blog. Yes, I've seriously been doing this shit for a whole decade now. If you are a regular reader, you probably know I do this the old fashion way. I simply write down the time, my thoughts, and press publish, adding to the post as the ceremony goes on. Re-fresh frequently, re-fresh often!

7:30PM – Before the show kicks off, why don't we run down what a cluster-fuck the behind-the-scenes scuttle for the ceremony has provided this year.

What has gotten the most press is probably the Academy's search for someone to host the show. After ninety-one years, apparently people have realized that hosting the Oscars is a thankless job that you'll be highly criticized for no matter what. The Academy really wanted Kevin Hart but we all know what happened next. Hart's total refusal to sincerely apologize for his homophobic comments made him even more radioactive, despite the Academy apparently still wanting him to host. After everyone else said no, the ceremony will go ahead hostless.

Which I'm totally fine with! I'm ambivalent to Hart's shout-y antics, so I was never looking forward to him hosting anyway. Honestly, I imagine the show will progress a lot faster and smoother without someone cracking lame jokes or propping up dumb skits in-between the awards being given out. That's what we are actually watching for after all.

It seems ABC has been breathing down the show's producers' necks to get bring in more eyeballs and keep the run time under three hours. The first impulse resulted in the incredibly ill-designed concept of Best Popular Film. This obvious plea for commercial relevance was widely hated by everyone for a number of reasons. That it would make essentially break the list of nominated films into Stuff That Actually Matters and Stupid Bullshit That Normies Liked, which would've prevented truly good blockbusters from getting nods in the top categories. The Academy changed their minds after about two weeks.

Next, the dumb-asses in charge had the genius plan to only have two of the nominated songs performed during the actual broadcast. Basically, only the numbers that had actual crossover with mainstream radio – Lady Gaga's “Shallow” and Kendrick Lamar's “All the Stars” – would be shown during the broadcast. Once again, this would've basically discredited the nominations given to the other songs. Not to mention making it seem like only the likely winner matters at all. After Gaga refused to perform unless everyone got a chance, the Academy relented. (“All the Stars” won't be performed anyway, because Lamar had scheduling conflicts.)

The next harebrained time cutting scheme the producers cooked up was to shoved four categories to the commercial breaks, only showing cut down versions of their wins during the show. I thought this was really shitty, as the Oscars is the only time makeup artists, short filmmakers, and sound technicians get a moment in the spotlight. (And, again, this continues this awful attitude that some nominations matter more than others, which is completely against the philosophy of the ceremony.) I fully expected shit nobody but nerds care about, like the shorts and Sound Editing/Mixing, to suffer this fate. Instead, the Academy chose Best Editing and Cinematography – literally the two things no movie can exist without! – to be excluded. The guilds protested, along with a lot of other people, and the Academy took it back after about a week.

As far as I know, with all these ridiculous schemes to cut the broadcast's runtime down, nobody proposed cutting all the painful skits and tedious montages. Whether or not those are maintained in the broadcast is something we'll discover soon enough.

7:40 – As for me, I really enjoyed my traditional month-long marathon of nominated films. At the end of February, I've managed to see 48 of the 52 nominated films. That only leaves four I didn't get a chance to watch, up from last year's seven. Foreign film nominees “Capernaum” and “Never Look Away” straight-up aren't available anywhere but select theaters somewhere far away from me, while “Mary Poppins Returns” won't be out on digital until next week. I could've watched “Mary Queen of Scots” bur ran out of time and, if I'm being totally frank, wasn't that interested in seeing it anyway. Still, I'm pretty pleased that I was able to squeeze in as many as I did.

7:50 – I did see all the Oscar-nominated Documentary Shorts, all of which are freely available on Netflix or Youtube.

“A Night at the Garden” was chillingly resonant and delivered its point powerfully.  “Life Boat” was very hard to watch but ultimately made a pertinent statement. “Period. End of Sentence” was nicely uplifting but I hated the decision to dub the dialogue, instead of just providing subtitles. “Black Sheep” was very well done but, with its heavy use of reenactments, I honestly wish the director had just made a narrative film instead. “End Game” was an extremely heavy and sad watch but the intimacy it approached its topic with was definitely powerful.

“A Night at the Garden” is my pick but I'm betting “End Game” or “Life Boat” are a little more the Academy's speed.

7:55 – All right, how about some last minute predictions? I stand by most of what I said last month. I still expect “Roma” to take home some of the top prizes. Rami Malek seems to have become the favorite to win Best Actor. Best Supporting Actor is still up in the air, but Richard E. Grant has been getting a lot of support. (I really hope he wins.) It continues to look like Best Supporting Actress will be a toss-up between Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.

7:58 - And we are having high winds tonight, so my cable has already gone out twice tonight. This bodes well for the rest of the evening.

8:00 - Y'all ready for some football overblown, self-congratulatory Hollywood bullshit?

Oh, boy, Christian Bale looks like he loves this.

8:01 - Well, opening with Adam Lambert was an... interesting decision. 

8:02 - That is some of the most unenthusiastic hand-waving I've ever seen in my life.

8:03 - Jesus, I can't fault this Lambert dude for his energy even if he sure as fuck doesn't have the pipes.

8:04 - Oh great, our first unnecessary montage of the night. Featuring a ton of movies that didn't get nominated for shit too.

8:06 - Tina and Amy killing it, like always.

8:08 - Okay, this bit has gone on a little too long.

8:09 - All right, right into Best Supporting Actress. Rooting for Rachel!

8:10 - Let's just cut the controversy and give both Emma and Rachel the award.

8:11 - Oh! Okay, that was a surprise. Looks like Stone and Weisz split the vote.

8:13 - Yes, I am playing my traditional Oscars Drinking Game: Every time they try to play someone off-stage, take a shot.

8:14 - Please welcome Aquaman and his bad-ass pink tuxedo.

8:15 - Documentary Feature! I'm rooting for Hale County but I'm betting RBG gets it.

8:16 - Fuck, I was literally going to say "Free Solo" but everyone was betting on "RBG." I shall never fall to peer pressure ever again.

"OOOOH SHIT!!!" Haha, this dude is awesome.


8:21 - That was a nice Rolex commercial. And this Google Home commercial is pretty solid too.

8:23 - "From Rage Against the Machine." Okay, that was not something I expected to hear at the Oscars.

8:25 - "Please welcome Elise Fisher, who we invited but didn't bother to actually nominate."

It's a bummer "Border" has no shot at winning.

8:26 - Yep, that was expected. "Border" convinced me very odd looking real people were in front of me. "Vice" convinced me that Christian Bale was under a ton of make-up.

8:27 - Having said that, the sincerity of these people are very endearing.

And they just cut off their mics. The Oscars are run by fucking assholes.

8:28 - Oh look, a man in a dress. Melissa's bunnies are a nice touch though.

8:29 - I have no idea who will win Costume Design. Black Panther?

8:31 - Ruth Carter seems fun.

8:32 - Awww, that was a good speech.

8:35 - Thirty-five minutes in and things are going... Really smoothly? Who says the Oscars broadcast needs a host?

8:38 - "Please welcome two more people we didn't bother to actually nominate." J-Lo's dress is very shiny.

"The Favourite" was my, uh, favorite in Production Design but I think "Black Panther" will get it.

8:39 - Yep, saw that coming. That is an awesome dress she has got on.

8:41 - This is a wonderfully emotional speech. Don't you dare fucking play her off, Oscar!

8:42 - "Please welcome Tyler Perry." *muted applause*

8:44 - Rooting for "Cold War" in Cinematography. No clue who will actually get it.

But "Roma" would've been my pick if you put me on the spot.

8:46 - Sweet and to the point. No, thank you Alfonso!

8:47 - I have only seen Emilia Clarke in that "Terminator" movie she did. Is that a good representation of her ability?

8:48 - Jennifer Hudson does not seem to be hitting every note correctly. Jesus, that sustained high note was ear-splitting.

Ugh, that was awful. I hate that style of super bombastic singing that leaves zero room for subtly.

8:53 - "Please welcome another random celeb who isn't even involved with the film industry."

8:55 - I'm really hoping "A Quiet Place" and "First Man" pick up the sound awards. But it'll probably be "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Black Panther" or some shit like that.

8:56 - I mean, I guess if "Bohemian Rhapsody" had to win something, Sound Editing is what I'd go with.

8:57 - "Working on this movie with a director we are definitely not going to mention was great!"

8:58 - Is Bryan "Predator" Singer's movie going to make it a twofer?

8:59 - Yep, sure did. Are they going to play the "Bohemian Rhapsody" guitar riff every time it wins something?

9:03 - I know we all hoped "Bohemian Rhapsody" would be a total lock-out but this show has been running extremely smoothly tonight. Wouldn't it be hilarious if the hosts are what made the Oscars bad all this time?

Oh hey, look, an actual actress. Did Queen Latifah get picked to introduce "The Favourite" strictly for the pun?

9:05 - All right, closing in on Best Foreign Language film. If "Roma" wins this, will its shot at Best Picture disappear? Rooting for "Shoplifters" or "Cold War."

9:07 - Alfonso trying to reckon with knowing he's not winning Best Picture now.

9:08 - Okay, Key flying in on a wire was a gag I approve of.

9:09 - My mom loves Bette Midler. I felt like sharing that. She's doing a fantastic job on this song.

9:11 - Lovely performance, Miss M.

9:16 - And we are back with Trevor Noah dunking on Mel Gibson. 

9:18 - Best Editing was kind of a shit category this year and "Bohemian Rhapsody" winning reflects its weakness more than anything else. And, yes, they are going to play that guitar riff every time this movie wins something.

9:20 - Another "Bohemian Rhapsody" Oscar winner visibly remembering he absolutely can not mention Bryan Singer's name

9:21 - Here we are in Best Supporting Actor. Will Ali get it? Will Grant come through and get the surprise win? Will someone else get that? I don't know, let's watch and find out.

9:22 - Lol at Ali's mortified facial expression there. I totally called that this would be Adam Driver's Oscar clip, by the way.

9:24 - Um, well, yeah, that was expected. Sigh. Maybe next year, Richard.

9:26 - I was really hoping Ali's speech would be really awkward. He does seem slightly uncomfortable but I guess he's too much of a class act to Make It Weird.

9:28 -  You bring Laura Dern on-stage just to talk about a museum?

9:30 - "Spider-Verse" should get Best Animated Feature. Knowing the Academy, they may just throw it at Disney or Pixar. But, if I was an Academy member, I'd totally vote for "Mirai." And, aww, it got a little cheer.

9:32 - Well, I'm glad that happened. Aww, this speech is already fantastic.

But fuck that other guy for trying to talk. No mic for you!

9:33 - There is no version of this universe where "When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings" wins Best Song tonight but, god, it's far and away my favorite of the nominated songs tonight.

9:35 - That was lovely, you guys. You are already the winners in my heart!

9:37 - Oh shit, I come back from my bathroom break and here's the first teaser trailer for "The Irishman."

9:40 - And here's a clip from "Wayne's World," a movie that was not nominated for any Oscars but, let's face it, should've been.

9:41 - Oh shit, this bit is actually making me want a "Wayne's World 3."

9:43 - Spike Lee's visible discomfort made this skit worth it.

Lol at "They gave us one of the big ones."

9:44 - It's going to be "Bao" but I think "Late Afternoon" is my fave? "Weekends" was pretty great too.

9:45 - Aww, "all those nerdy girls that hide behind your sketch books" is my girlfriend.

9:46 - "To my little Bao Lucy" Awwww, that was adorable too! That how speech was great.

For Documentary Short, I'm rooting for "A Night at the Garden" but I have no idea if it'll win.

9:47 - "Period. End of Sentence"  was my least favorite of the doc shorts but it was a strong line-up. The director seems like a nice person.

9:53 - We are back and a chef is presenting an award for some reason.

9:56 - We are heading into Hour Three of the ceremony and, while I haven't agreed with all the wins, it's been running extremely smoothly.

As for Best Visual Effects, "Christopher Robin" is my fave but - going by the "most not best" rule - it sounds like "Ready Player One" will get it.

9:57  - Wait, someone who worked on "Solo" has the last name of "Chewie?"

I'm glad "First Man" won something as it was a phenomenal film, even if it really should've cleaned up the Sound categories.

9:59 - I like that guy's moxie. "You can't play me off, I'll play you off!"

10:00 - While I'm meh on the song a little, I'll admit this performance of "Shallow" is very well shot.

10:02 - Gaga's "belt everything out with as much emotions as possible" style isn't really for me but I do love that piano riff she just threw in there.

10:06 - Heading into the home stretch. Holy shit, they've actually succeeded in making the show go by faster.

10:07 - Live Action Short was extremely week this year, with "Marguerite" being the sole stand-out.

Annnnd they just gave it to one of the worst films to ever be nominated for an Oscar.

10:08 - I know most people probably didn't get to see "Skin" but, seriously, it is among the most tasteless, exploitative, and tone-deaf motion pictures I have ever seen.

10:10 - Sam Jackson and Brie Larson have some nice chemistry has. The "late, great William Goldman" made me a little sad. Gonna miss that guy.

10:11 - I know "First Reformed" has almost no chance of winning but, seriously, it's one of last year's best films. Here's hoping "Green Book" doesn't get it.

I spoke too soon. "Green Book" is just the most middlebrow of middlebrow junk.

10:13 - I don't know, I'm souring on this now. "Skin" and "Green Book" winning back-to-back is putting me in a grumpy mood.

10:14 - Give Adapted Screenplay to "BlacKkKlansman" or "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" to make up for that bullshit, Oscar.

10:15 - Okay, thank you. Haha, Spike just jumped into Sam's arms! It's about damn time he actually win a fucking Oscar.

10:17 - And now I'm going to call him "Spiky-Poo."

10:21 - We've really ran the gamut of emotions tonight, you guys.

10:22 - Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson are killing it right now. Some great and some forgettable scores nominated tonight. Rooting for "BlacKkKlansman" but "Black Panther" probably gets it.

Yeah, it did.

10:24 - This Ludwig guy has got some bitching hair.

10:25 - Just go ahead and give "Shallow" the win. We all know "Buster Scruggs" should've won.

Yeah, no shit, we all saw that one coming.

10:27 - Gaga's speech is as weepy as expected but, to be fair, if I ever win an Oscar, I'm going to cry like a fucking baby. And, okay, the speech was pretty good.

10:29 - Okay, here comes the "In Memory Of" montage, the only montage we actually need. I do like the Academy President getting ahead of the "They left out HIM/HER?!" virtrol.

10:31 - Margot Kidder hurt a little. Gonna miss her.

10:32 - Penny Marshall was an unexpected loss. Oh, and I honestly forgot Isao Takahata died last year. Another fantastic talent, to be sure.

10:33 - Awww, they used a clip from "Return of the Living Dead" for James Karen!

10:37 - Was that a liqour commercial or the new "Dune" movie?

"Rocketman - From the director of "Bohemian Rhapsody!" No, the other director!"

10:39 - Barbara Streisand is wearing a nice hat.

10:40 - Spike Lee and Babs being secret BFFs is the most delightfully surreal moment of the night.

10:43 - Lol, Alison Janney towers over Gary Oldman.

It sounds like Rami Malek has got Best Actor in the bag. I have no horse in this race, because Ethan Hawke and "First Reformed" wasn't nominated. Dafoe is my personal choice, I guess?

10:45 - God, Viggo in "Green Book" could not have been more cartoonish.

10:46 - Best Prosthetic Teeth.

10:47 - Visibly cringing not to even think about Bryan Singer.

10:48 - I'm having a lot of mixed feelings about this speech, you guys.

10:51 - It looks like we are actually going to get this in the bag by midnight, you guys. Not by eleven though but close.

10:54 - There's a definite disconnect between the power of John Lewis' speech here and fucking "Green Book."

10:56 - Frances McDormand is a godsend.

10:57 - Definitely sounds like Glenn Close has got Best Actress in the bag, which is a bummer. Colman and McCarthy are much more deserving.

10:59 - Oh, nice! That was a good surprise, Oscar! Aww and Emma is so overjoyed her co-star won.

11:00 - Colman's speech is the real winner tonight. Oh my god, she's so adorably sincere. You can tell she didn't expect to win.

"My mom and my dad... Oh, you know!" "This isn't going to happen again." Oh my god, this is the best moment of the entire night.

11:06 - Alright, guys, just two more to go. Here comes Guillermo!

11:08 - There was a rumor going around earlier today that it had leaked that Yorgos would win Best Director. Though that would've been delightful, I'm sort of glad it was bullshit. "Roma" is exactly the kind of a movie that should win its filmmaker Best Director.

11:10 - It would've been awesome if Spike won this as well but at least he got one tonight. Can't bitch about that too much.

They are weirdly hyping Julia Roberts presenting Best Picture kind of hard.

11:12 - Alright, here we go. Will "Roma" get it or will there be some sort of upset? It's been a very unpredictable night, so I'm not sure. Honestly, as long as it's not "Green Book" or "Bohemian Rhapsody," I won't get too bent. (Oh, "Vice" can get fucked too.)

11:14 - Oh, what the fuck? Are you fucking serious?

11:15 - My eyes just rolled back into my head so hard they fucking disappeared.

Is it too late to hope for another "Moonlight/La La Land" mishap?

11:16 - How the fuck did this happen? Which one of you fucking cowards voted for "Green Book?"

11:17 - Play them off. Fuck this thing.

11:20 - I have so many conflicted emotions right now, guys.

All right, first off, having no host helped the pacing of this show so much! Almost no stupid skits, a single unnecessary montage. Comparatively speaking, this thing just rolled by! This is how you pace a fucking awards show. Please no host next year!

Secondly, there were so many delightful wins tonight! Spike and Colman getting it were fantastic! Lots of really good speeches all around.

But what Academy got wrong they got wrong so fucking hard. "Skin," "Green Book," "Bohemian Rhapsody" getting prizes... This was a big night for mediocre or outright offensive garbage grabbing statues. "Green Book" winning Best Picture is one hundred percent a Best Picture win everyone will look back in with complete bafflement.

11:21 - Over all, it was a wild fucking night. Really high highs, fucking abysal lows. But it wasn't fucking boring, which is very unexpected for the Oscars broadcast.

11:22 - With that, I bid anyone still reading adieu. (Hi, Liz!) This was a weird evening. Thank you and good night.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

It sounded like a disaster in the making. Even after the “Amazing Spider-Man” series crashed and burned during its second entry, even after loaning the character back to Marvel/Disney, even after plans for “Sinister Six” and that “Aunt May” spy movie went up in smoke, Sony didn't give up on the idea of a vast cinematic universe of “Spider-Man” films. Never mind that their deal with Marvel prevented the latest live action incarnation of Peter Parker from appearing in any of these films. Sony marched ahead anyway, with “Venom” and an untitled animated Spidey flick. But then something truly unexpected happened. “Venom” made money. Moreover, a lot of people actually liked it, the movie spawning its own uniquely passionate following. And that animated adventure? “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” became an even bigger viral sensation, winning rave reviews. Many have said it's the best “Spider-Man” movie, if not the best superhero movie. Now, it's looking extremely good that Sony's desperate attempt to wring every dollar they can out of their stake in the franchise is going to win an Oscar.

Miles Morales is a normal teen growing up in New York City. His dad insists he goes to a fancy prep school, even though he’d rather hang out with his uncle. While in an abandoned subway tunnel doing just that, he's bitten by a weird spider and awakens the next day with unusual powers. Returning to the tunnel, he discovers Spider-Man fighting several villains. Kingpin has built a particle accelerator that could suck NYC into a black hole. Peter Parker gives Miles the device that can stop it before the villain strikes him dead. As the world mourns Spider-Man, Miles encounters another version of Peter from an alternate universe. He soon learns five different spider-themed heroes have been drawn into his world. They must team up if they’re going to stop Kingpin and get home.

When it was announced that “Spider-Verse” would star fan-favorite Miles Morales, there was much rejoicing. The film’s team of directors and writers – including the beloved duo of Lord/Miller – do not stop there.  Never would I have thought that Spider-Ham, Spider-Man Noir, or SP//dr would make it into a movie. (Not to mention some wonderful in-jokes.) Moreover, each character is brought to life in a style befitting their universe. Noir is always in black and white, followed by an unseen wind. Peni Parker has a fittingly anime-esque appearance and energy, right down to the lip flaps. I especially admire how the filmmakers never back down from the goofiness of Spider-Ham as a character, nailing the cartoon-y aesthetic and attitude of the character. “Spider-Verse” doesn't just delve deep into the Spider-Man lore for material, it never apologizes or tries to downplay these elements. The film joyfully embraces the potential of the comic book medium. The people who made this film clearly loves comics, loves how goofy, creative, weird, and fun they are.

This is evident in its visual approach too. After Miles is bitten by the spider, after he becomes the world's protagonist, his thoughts appear in narration boxes overhead. Comic book sound effects appear on-screen, explosions being followed by the word “boom.” As more spider-heroes appear, their introductions are frenziedly edited bursts of color, music, and motion. (Which include more comic panel imagery.) In the last act, as Kingpin's singularity is activated, the film's visual palette goes completely nuts. Colors mix and blur everywhere. Images overlap and float by. There's so much going on but none of its senseless. It's something between a music video, a visual collage, and acid trip. On the big screen, it was almost overwhelming. I never would've guessed that a “Spider-Man” cartoon would be one of the most visually inventive films I've ever seen.

While most animated films are satisfied to be goofy comedies for kids, “Into the Spider-Verse” successfully juggles a number of emotions. There's lots of humor. Miles' first experience with his sticky spider-powers results in some fantastic visual comedy. The older, pudgier, more cynical Peter B. Parker gets lots of laughs with his snide comments and laid-back style. Yet the film is full of powerful poignant moments. Kingpin's villainous motivations are grounded in some surprisingly rich emotion. The struggle between Miles, his dad, and his uncle is potent stuff, paying off nicely. The same can be said for the way the cynical Spider-Gwen defrosts. And as an action movie, “Into the Spider-Verse” is hugely energetic and inventive. The chase through the woods or the final fight with Kingpin are fantastically orchestrated.

Like a lot of modern animated flicks, the studio paid out top dollar for an all-star voice cast, even if their famous faces are entirely unseen. Unlike a lot of modern animated flicks, the result still works very nicely. Some of the casting is just pitch perfect. Hailee Steinfeld – who easily could transfer over a live action “Spider-Gwen” flick if Sony felt so inclined – makes Gwen so hip and lovable. Lily Tomlin is an ideal Aunt May. Nicolas Cage so delightfully bites into Spider-Man Noir's comically hard-boiled dialogue. John Mulhoney is hilariously nonchalant as Spider-Ham. Jake Johnson has the right balance of snark and heart as Peter B. Parker. Though less well known than the others, Shameik Moore could not be better as Miles, hitting every beat perfectly. However, I do wonder why knwon names like Chris Pine, Zoe Kravitz, and Lake Bell were slotted into small parts that could've been played by any number of talented voice actors.

I don't think anyone expected “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” to be as good as it is. 2018 was a stacked year for superhero cinema and this animated feature, rather unexpected, managed to be stronger than any of them. Fans loved it, prompting quite a few memes in the process. Sony is already kicking around various sequels and spin-offs. The movie has ridden its wave of critical acclaim to quite a few awards and not undeservedly. Will it win big at the Oscars tonight? Academy voters tend to be pretty clueless about animation, just voting for whatever Disney or Pixar put out last year, but I think the odds are in this scrappy Spidey's favor. [9/10]

OSCARS 2019: Shoplifters (2018)

To we feeble film nerds idling away in obscurity here in America, the Cannes Film Festival seems like this mysterious event happening in a far away land. While the Oscars generally award highly marketable or at least easily accessed motion pictures, the top prize awarded at Cannes usually goes to foreign language film. While a Best Picture win causes a movie to go down in cinematic history, the Palme D'or winner are often forgotten or at least overlooked. At least, that's how it seems to be in American film fandom. Maybe it's different in Europe. This is my long-winded way of introducing “Shoplifters.” A Japanese film, it won the Palme last May and is now nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Some are saying it might even have a chance to win the honor.

Somewhere in Tokyo lives a family. Father Osamu, mother Nobuyo, and step-sister Aki all have menial jobs – and grandmother Hatsu's pension – but it's still barely enough to make ends' meet. In order to further provide for themselves, the entire family shoplifts food and other goods. After a successful night at the grocery store, Osamu and son Shota spot a little girl shivering in the cold. After discovering that her parents beat her, the little girl is adopted into the family. Changing her name from Yuri to Lin, she quickly becomes part of their life. The group live their lives, challenges and joys arriving. As Shota begins to feel uncertain about the shoplifting life style, secrets are revealed.

I grew up in a poor neighborhood pretty far away from the poor neighborhoods of Japan but there was so much I recognized in “Shoplifters.” The entire family, five people at first, six after Lin arrives, crowd into grandma's house. And Hatsu appears to be a bit of a hoarder too, making the small, unkempt home especially cramped. Osamu, Nobuyo, and Aki all work – at a construction site, a factory, and a peep show – but hours and pay are still in short supply. The family steals not just because it gives them a thrill but because they frequently have to in order to survive. While director Hirokazu Kore-eda beautifully captures the details of this lifestyle, he doesn't let it define the characters. They have little joys in their lives, like enjoying a corn dog on the beach or the kids discovering a hatching cicada in the park. When you have so little, these little moments matter even more.

As “Shoplifters” go on, you get the idea pretty quickly that everyone came to this family the same way Yuri/Lin did. Aki is the black sheep of her family, rejected in favor of a more successful younger sister. Shota was stolen by Osamu out of a car he was locked in. Hatsu is a lonely old woman that took them all in. As with Lin, they changed their names upon being accepted into this make-shift family. Unlike their birth families, which were neglectful or abusive, this is a family they all chose. When inevitable loss arrives, it's exactly the same as loosing a loved one. Though some of them, Shota especially, are reluctant to accept this connection, it is the make-shift heart that drives “Shoplifters.”

In a way, every member of Osamu and Nobuyo's family was “stolen” from someone else. Ultimately, “Shoplifters” has to grapple with what ownership even means. They break the law largely to survive, though not always. Shota starts to feel guilty about this as he sees Lin, not much older than a baby, being indoctrinated into an illegal lifestyle. This is only the first of several moral ambiguities in the household. The last third is built upon revealing the horrible truths behind this arrangement, breaking the hearts of the characters and the viewers. Yet, as the deeply poignant conclusion shows, the grim facts behind their bond doesn't make it any less meaningful, does it?

I haven't seen any of Horikazu Kore-eda's other films, though many of them are well regarded. Based on the merits of “Shoplifters,” I'm willing to say this guy knows what he's doing. This is a powerful film, poignant and gritty but frequently very funny. You grow close to this cast of characters quickly, relating to their struggles and cheering for their small victories. (The extremely talented cast helps a lot.) Roger Ebert said that movies are empathy generating machines. “Shoplifters” is a great example of this principal, being one of the most humanistic and touching films I've seen in recent memory. [9/10]

Friday, February 22, 2019

OSCARS 2019: The 2019 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts

In the past, the live action and animated shorts have been packaged separately. If the animated shorts didn't run very long, usually a few runner-ups were included to make the run time worthwhile. This year, whoever is in charge of such things decided the cartoons were too brief and that they should just stick all the shorts together.

If you follow these categories the way I do, you probably already known that the live action shorts are always an especially somber and depressing collection of stories. So we end up going from a trio of animated features that at least temper their sadder moments with surreal comedy to a collection of extremely downbeat live action shorts. That doesn't seem like the best plan to me. This also causes the entire program to run well over two hours, a bit long for something like this.


Hailing from Spain, “Madre” begins with the everyday scene of Marta and her mother entering her apartment. After a few minutes of talking, Marta receives a phone call. It's from her six year old son. The upset boy explains that his father has apparently left him on the beach. He's alone, it's getting dark, and his cellphone battery is close dying. The panicked mother attempts to determine where the boy is and where his dad went. When that proves unhelpful, she attempts to find help from the police or her ex-husband's current girlfriend. That's when the situation takes an even graver turn.

Writer/director Rodrigo Sorogoyen shoots “Madre” in a single, continuous shot. As Marta grows more concerned, and her unseen son becomes more endangered, the camera movement becomes more and more frenzied. This does a good job of replicating the panic she feels, as it becomes increasingly apparent how much danger her little boy is in. The unsettled feeling in the viewer's stomach only grows as Marta does everything she can to get her child, present only as a small voice on the phone, to safety. The acting from Marta Nieto is excellent, the fear and terror she feels being conveyed clearly. The credits, for whatever reason, are done in an especially grating fashion. I don't know what's up with that. “Madre” is a grim nineteen minutes but one that gets exactly the reaction out of the audience that it's aiming for. [7/10]


Next up is the French-Canadian “Fauve.” It follows two adolescent boys, Tyler and Benjamin. The two are messing around in the countryside, attempting to one-up each other with more outrageous stunts. Their game eventually takes them to a completely empty open pit mine. Foolishly crawling down into one of the pits, the two boys take turns getting stuck in the sticky, wet cement-like substance. Eventually, Benjamin starts to sink into it, causing Tyler to hopelessly look for help.

“Fauve” is exactly the kind of artsy-fartsy, miserablist storytelling I've sadly come to expect from the live action shorts. The early scenes of the two kids goofing off together are interesting. Director Jeremy Comte accurately captures the boyish chaos and playing among male friends at that age. However, once “Fauve” arrives at the mine, it gets stupid in an overly serious, somber way. The idea of a wide-open area like that being so completely abandoned strains plausibility. So does the cartoonish way the kids sink into the ground. After things get especially grim, “Fauve” graduates to full-blown pretentious, with wide-screen shots of Tyler wandering the rocky area and an obnoxiously ambiguous ending. I was fully expecting things to go in a surreal direction from there but they never do, making “Fauve” seem even more frustratingly pointless. [5/10]


The French “Marguerite” is another bummer of a short film but at least its story is told with a degree of subtly and pathos. The titular Marguerite is an elderly woman nearing the end of her life, her frail body covered with wounds. While her nurse is bathing her one day, she discovers the other woman is a lesbian. This causes Marguerite to reflect on her own past, on the time when she loved a woman but was unable to ever consummate or even publicly admit her feelings.

There's definitely a certain grace to “Marguerite.” Director Marianne Farley takes some time to establish the characters and their setting. The audience feels how Marguerite's memories and age weigh on her just from her appearance. The quiet way she discovers her nurse's status as a gay woman, and how that plays out, occur in a very sweet manner. “Marguerite” is ultimately a touching tale of long repressed desire and a long-since-atrophied need to be recognized and seen. The acting, from Beatrice Picard especially, is very good. And it's nice to see some representation of an elderly LGBT person. [7/10]


If four of the five animated shorts are linked by themes of parenthood, four of the five live action shorts revolve around young boys being involved with violence. An Irish film, “Detainment” is directly based off police transcript from a shocking crime committed in 1993. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, two eight year old boys, are playing hooky at the mall and shoplifting. This is when they abduct two year old James Bulger. The older boys dragged the toddler to a railway before beating, torturing, and killing him. “Detainment” details the crime in flashback, as the two young perpetrators are interrogated by the police, assembling a timeline of this heinous event.

While “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” have gotten most of the press, a smaller Oscar controversy has swirled around “Detainment.” The mother of James Bulger, the murdered boy, apparently was not consulted during the making of the film at all. She has protested its release and petitioned for its nomination to be removed. So the question circling “Detainment” is whether its treatment of this incredibly disturbing true life case was worth pissing off the victim's mother. I've got to lean towards “no” on that one.

The film portrays Robert Thompson as a heartless sociopath, who manipulated the other boy into helping commit the crime and then tried to blame him for everything. Jon Venables, meanwhile, is depicted as being dragged into this horrible crime largely against his will. Considering Venables has been linked to other crimes since then, including the possession of child pornography, this is in questionable taste. The same could be said of the entire film. I'm not sure what the filmmaker hoped to accomplish by directly using the real police transcripts. The film seems satisfied to just portray this events, not to make any point. His visual direction is largely heavy-handed, the flashbacks being filmed in a blurry, flashy manner. While decently acted, the film just made me feel disgusted without any wider point. [5/10]


This year's connecting fiber of kids being involved in violence comes full circle with “Skin,” a film with maybe the most offensive premise I've seen in quite a while. The short revolves around a family of white supremacist. Young boy Troy doesn't seem to understand the hateful rhetoric spouted by his tattooed father and his skinhead friends. While at a grocery store one night, a black man smiles at the boy. This prompts his father, Jeffrey, and a group of racists to brutally beat the man in the parking lot. A few nights later, Jeffrey is abducted by a group of black gangsters who devise a painfully ironic and utterly cartoonish punishment for him.

Congratulations to “Skin” for being maybe the worst Oscar-nominated film of all time. If you thought “Detainment” was tasteless and “Green Book's” handling of racism was tacky, get a load of this shit. Up until the beating sequence, the early scenes of “Skin” captures a white trash existence in a fair way. I thought this was going to be a story about a young boy realizing racism is wrong. Instead, following the brutal-for-brutality's sake act of violence, “Skin” spins towards a ridiculously offensive plot twist.

I think the film's moral is suppose to be “violence only begets violence” but making a white supremacist a victim of a group of scary black men, directed in such a way that they look practically demonic, sends pretty much the worst possible message you could in 2019. Wrap it up with a pointlessly nihilistic, faux-shocking ending and you have a film poorly conceived on a level I haven't seen in quite a while. Not that I needed any more proof of how out-of-touch and clueless the Academy is but “Skin” getting nominated at all shows an astonishingly poor sense of judgment on their behalf. [3/10]

OSCARS 2019: The 2019 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

For the last few years, the Oscar nominated short films – once almost impossible to see if you weren't an Academy member – have been made available to the public through cable on-demand programs and various online markets like Amazon about a week before the ceremony. This year, however, it seems the shorts won't be made available to rent until after the 24th... Everywhere that is, except the iTunes store. Being determined to see as many of the nominated films as possible, I naturally bought them through this manner. I had a credit on my iTunes account anyway.

And I have to tell you, I'm never going to buy a movie through iTunes ever again. My attempt to buy them through my computer resulted in a weird error screen, the program repeatedly asking for my password, redirecting me to edit my payment information, and eventually crashing when I attempt to look at my purchase history. So I ended up having to watch the shorts on my fucking tablet. After successfully buying and downloading the shorts package, I was then faced with obnoxiously frequent buffering. Why does something I own have to buffer?

Anyway, enough of the bitching. Here's my thoughts on the animated shorts.

Animal Behaviour

“Animal Behaviour” hails from Canada and seemingly continues a tradition of demented animation that has been going on for a while. The short details a group therapy session for a group of various animals. The delicate equilibrium of this setting, held together by a dog/psychologist named Leonard, is thrown off with the newest member joins: A large gorilla with anger problems.

“Animal Behaviour” essentially has one joke but it's a pretty good one. The short contrasts human neurosis with behavior that's considered perfectly normal in the animal world. So we see a leech who is considered clingy by her partner, a pig that overeats, a cat that obsessively-compulsively licks herself, and a pigeon haunted by childhood memories of pushing his brother out of his nest. It's an amusing idea that is extended to cartoony lengths, such as the leech breathing into a bag or the dog doctor revealing his own compulsions. (Hint: They involve a stick.) The slow build-up here, where the different anxieties and problems of the various characters are revealed, is funnier than the slapstick chaos that eventually follows. However, it all comes around for a decently muted conclusion. The animation is nice too, especially the sequence devoted to the pigeon's horrifying memory. I also like the amusingly round and stout character designs. [7/10]


“Weekends” follows a young boy named Bruce. His parents are recently divorced. Weekdays with Moms are characterized by quiet piano playing, mishaps while cleaning house or cooking dinner, and outdoor exploration. During the weekend visit with his Japanophile father, however, Bruce gets to mess with samurai swords, play video games, listen to Dad Rock, watch gory action movies, and eat Chinese take-out. The arrangement seems to work yet Bruce still dreams about his parents getting back together. This goal is squashed when his Mom brings home a boyfriend and his dad gets engaged.

“Weekends” is likely to summon up emotions for any child of divorce. While my life after my parent's divorce wasn't anything like this, I can still relate to these feelings. This melancholy sense that there's something missing in the house, the permissiveness of one parent versus the other attempting to hold it all together. The weirdness when step-parents or boyfriends enter the picture. “Weekends'” highly stylized character designs allow for a strong degree of symbolism. Mom's frailness is hinted at by the brace on her neck, Dad's stoic quality by his reflective sunglasses. The boyfriend has a candle growing out of his head, indicative of both his short fuse and blazing temper. The way the movie uses various pop culture signifiers – Dire Straits, Nintendo – becomes a reoccurring joke of sorts. It doesn't quite end on a salient point, as that final dream sequence is a bit of a question mark, but there's some potent emotion leading up to that frustratingly ambiguous ending. [7/10]

One Small Step

You might notice some themes emerging through this year's animated shorts. “One Small Step” is about Luna, a little Chinese-American girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut. Her father supports her one hundred percent in this goal. This support is shown through the way he fixes her various pairs of shoes – playtime astronaut boots, saddles, track meet sneakers – as they break apart over the years. As she goes off to college, struggles with academics, and eventually is rejected by the space program, she starts to take her Dad for granted. And guess what happens next?

“One Small Step” works despite being rushed and maudlin. At only eight minutes long, it doesn't have quite enough time to pack in all the necessary emotion. When the inevitable loss comes, we don't feel it as much as we should have. Nevertheless, this one still tugs at your heart strings a little in the scenes that follow, as the way Luna remembers her father are portrayed in a very sweet manner. Also, this is maybe the prettiest of the nominated shorts. The short seamlessly combines hand-drawn illustration and computer animation. Though a little too predictable and touchy-feely, “One Small Step” is still worth seeing. [6.5/10]


Yes, a surprising number of this year's animated shorts are connected by concepts of parenthood and Asian motifs. “Bao,” which was packaged with this summer's “Incredibles 2” and is left out of the shorts package, is similarly themed. In it, a Chinese woman, lonely because of her busy husband, sees the dumpling she has made for lunch spring to life. She starts to raise the little dumpling baby as a child. There are several years of joy, the mom finding happiness despite his doughy child's tendency to get injured. As he grows older, the two grow apart which is very upsetting for the woman. You might have noticed that this is a metaphor for overbearing parenting in general.

Though no less obvious in its themes than “One Small Step,” “Bao” is much more effective overall. There's a lot of humor here, in the way the woman's eyes bulge out at the various antics her child gets into. Or the way she dives into frame to prevent him from playing soccer. (The adorably pudgy character designs get a lot of credit for this too.) The emotion is real too and you really relate to the lonely woman's desperation to hang onto this child she loves. That makes the climatic reconciliation especially meaningful. When combined with the lovely animation – the food looks absolutely delicious – and pretty score, it makes “Bao” one of the best of this lot. [8/10]

Late Afternoon

Also excluded from the shorts package for some reason, “Late Afternoon” comes from Ireland. Only the second of the shorts to feature any major voice-acting, the film is about an elderly woman named Emily. As her nurse arrives to prepare her lunch, she feels a wave of memories washing over her. Of her childhood spent playing on the beach or exploring caves, of finding love during college, of her own years as a parent, and finally how she arrived at this point.

“Late Afternoon” features probably my favorite animation of the lot. The short does a gorgeous job of visually illustrating how memories manifest. Little items – a biscuit floating in a cup of tea, a simple photograph – reminds Emily of very specific events. How they enter her mind is visualized by waves of colors enveloping her. Using this same trick, we see years of her life compressed into a few short minutes. Such as when waves on a beach become the water in a bathtub, revealing a pregnant belly. It's also just really pretty to watch and leads up to a fittingly emotional conclusion. Overall, another strong one that also has a story revolving around parenthood. [8/10]

Thursday, February 21, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Free Solo (2018)

I mentioned this recently but it definitely seems to me that documentaries are becoming more popular than ever. I think there are a number of reasons for this. The modern ubiquity of Youtube, where infotainment content flourishes, have made audiences much more interested in what they call non-narrative storytelling. Internet streaming services have made feature documentaries accessible to a wider audience. It seems likely to me that people binge-watching and obsessing over “Making a Murderer” and the like online and then lining up to see docs in theaters is probably related. Yet I was definitely still surprised to see a television advertisement for “Free Solo,” which was already an Oscar front runner at the end of last year. I guess I still don't expect to see movies like this getting TV spots, though I'm pleased to see mainstream audiences becoming more open.

The film follows Alex Honnold, a “free solo” mountain climber. I didn't know what that was before seeing the film but apparently it's a type of climber who scales tall cliffs, mountains, and rocks completely without rope or safety equipment. Unsurprisingly, there's a high mortality rate even among the experienced “soloers.” Honnold has required a reputation as among the best free climbers, having conquered several famous natural wonders. His next goal is a free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, which has never been accomplished before. The film tracks the weeks leading up to his climb and how his obsession affects his personal life.

I couldn't get into “Free Solo” because Alex Honnold strikes me as a boring protagonist. Which is weird, right? The dude has an extremely dangerous hobby. Without any exaggeration, the film captures him risking life and limb. He's obviously smart too, as his apparent interests in philosophy and literature reveal. (Not that the movie gives any indication of that.) Yet, for some reason, everything the guy says in this documentary just made me roll my eyes. The movie attempts to delve into his mind. We learn about his childhood, how both parents were emotionally closed-off. He gets a brain scan, to determine if he's some sort of psychotic danger junkie. Yet this real person never seems to come alive as an interesting character. His ruminations on his vegetarian diet or living in a van are insufferable, making him seem like the most empty of dude-bros. He talks about climbing in such a technical way, that there's no art to it, no passion. He doesn't seem to entirely understand why he's compelled to do this incredibly dangerous thing. So the audience is never given much of a reason to care about that question either.

Since there's nothing much to probe in Alex's head, “Free Solo” instead tries to build material out of whether or not he'll succeed at his climb. Of course, there's not much suspense over whether or not he'll make it to the top of El Capitan. If he died during filming, “Free Solo” would obviously be an entirely different movie. Despite the foregone conclusion, so much attention is paid to the build-up of him making the climb. There are several premature, failed attempts, where he's too nervous to go far. The film also focuses a lot on Alex's girlfriend, who you feel immensely sorry for. The relationship is obviously doomed, as his extremely dangerous hobby makes her deeply uncomfortable. It's repeatedly confirmed throughout the film that free climbing is more important to him than her, that he'll probably die doing it some day. There's even an ill-advised attempt to blame Alex's performance anxiety on her, which is shitty. She seems like a nice person too.

Yet I think the positive notices “Free Solo” has received doesn't have much to do with Honnold. Instead, “Free Solo” does feature some virtuoso film making. The camera operators utilized drones to capture Alex's ascent, when they weren't just strapping themselves to the mountains he climbs. There's several stunning shots in the film. Such as a moment where a rival free climber falls from a very tall height. Your heart jumps into your throat until you realize he's wearing a parachute. The shots of Alex appearing tiny on the face of El Capitan, way up in the sky, are incredible. As are moments devoted to him squeezing into tiny crevices or dangling off perilous inclines. Instead of the laborious build-up, “Free Solo” probably should've been a hour-long television documentary devoted solely to this breathtaking footage.

I really think Honnold's total lack of camera presence is why “Free Solo” floundered for me. There are side-bars in the film that are interesting. Such as a list of other experienced free climbers who died doing their thing. One fatality occurred why the film was shooting, Alex's reaction being typically blank. A moment where a fan of Honnold's, dressed in a pink unicorn costume, meets him on the mountain sure is interesting. Ultimately, a documentary is only as good as its subject. Despite his incredible feats and skills, and the thrilling way they are captured on camera, Alex Honnold makes it difficult for a viewer to give a shit about him. [6/10]

OSCARS 2019: Border (2018)

The other night, I said the Academy usually turns its nose up at horror. This has generally been true in all but one category. Historically, the Best Makeup and Hairstyling category has been a chance for horror, sci-fi, and fantasy to get some AMPAS love. Notable winners include “American Werewolf in London,” “The Fly,” “Beetlejuice” and “Bram Stoker's Dracula.” At least, that's how it used to be. Blame it on the declining use of practical creature make-up or on the overall gentrification of awards bait but Best Make-Up has kind of started to suck in recent years. The shift seems to have started around 2007, when biopics heavy in aging make-up - “La Vie en Rose,” “The Iron Lady,” “Dallas Buyers Club” – started to push out the monsters. This is how “Suicide Squad” ended up becoming an Oscar winning movie. Voters' unwillingness to venture outside of certain perimeters has caused some foreign language films to unexpectedly score nominations. Following in the footsteps of “A Man Called Ove” and that one with the long title is “Border.” And, miracles upon miracles, this Swedish language film does have monsters of a sort in it.

Tina has always been told that she was born with a chromosome disorder, accounting for her unusual appearance and abnormal reproductive organs. She also has a unique ability to literally sniff out hidden items, making her well suited to her job as a border control agent. Her ability brings her in contact with two strange men. The first of which is smuggling child pornography on his phone, a capture that sees Tina being recruited by the Swedish government to uncover a pedophile ring. The second is Vore, a man with the same facial structure as Tina. Strangely attracted to him, she lets him move into the guest house in her home. Soon, Vore reveals that the two of them aren't humans but trolls. While Tina is enthused to embrace her true heritage at first, she soon discovers Vore's other secrets.

“Border” is based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of “Let the Right One In.” Much like that film and novel, “Border” is an odd coming-of-age tale and a love story between two monsters. Tina is a little old for this kind of plot but “Border” is, nevertheless, about her discovering her body, learning who she is, and finding her purpose. Accepting her powers and using them to fight heinous crime gives her a drive that was missing previously. The romance with Vore is driven primary by her coming to understand her own heritage, feeling accepted for the first time. This leads to an incredibly weird sex scene, a moment that combines the visceral, the disgusting, the weirdly funny, and the oddly touching. Watching Tina come into her own, accepting herself, is sort of sweet even if “Border” goes about conveying this in the most uncomfortable, creepiest fashion possible.

There is something of a divide in “Border's” narrative, as the troll plot and the crime story don't seem to connect immediately. Yet it's definitely fun in its own way. The scenes of Tina literally sniffing out various infractions, from small things like teenagers sneaking booze into the country to major criminals, are fun to watch. The details of the child pornography ring is sickening. (“Let the Right One In” had a pedophile subplot too, so it's clearly a point of grim fascination for Lindqvist.) Yet seeing our oddball heroine self-actualize against such a clear cut evil is worthwhile. The sleuthing scenes, of her collaborating with the government and using her superpowers to find the responsible party, are compelling story telling.

Most of the reviews of “Border” seem to dislike when the crime plot overtakes the troll-sex plot. How exactly the two plots intertwine is easy to predict. The hidden motivations of a certain character are heavily foreshadowed. Even the bizarre plot details of the last third, which features another squirmy monster and some more body horror, can be anticipated. Despite these flaws, I find this turn dovetail with the coming-of-age story. Tina suffers a loss of innocence, learning that she can't trust everyone. She is given a choice, between her human roots and her troll heritage. In other words, as sudden as some of these plot turn seem, they are just as much about Tina's growth as a character as anything from the first half of the movie.

It's pretty unexpected that a movie as weird as “Border” got an Oscar nomination. Apparently, this was Sweden's submission for Best Foreign Language Film, which is probably how it got the Academy's attention. Yes, the make-up effects are excellent. Tina and Vore don't look like special effects at all, just normal living things that happen to be exceptionally ugly. The acting is excellent, with Eva Melander as Tina remaining likable and vulnerable despite the heavy makeup. Yet a movie featuring explicit troll sex is not the kind of thing I expected to appeal to Oscar voters. Then again, in a post-”Shape of Water” world, I guess anything is possible, as far as hot monster lovin' goes. [7/10]