Showing posts with label Film Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Film Review. Show all posts

February 13, 2017

The Lobster and Cults of Singular Thinking

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz run for their lives in The Lobster.

It’s become easier with each passing week to understand dystopian films. Elected officials make statements that would seem hilarious if they weren’t so frightening. This is especially true when it comes to basic ideas of identity and respect for differences. When a candidate thrives under a message of bigotry and ignorance, it indicts all of us. This moment also gives close-minded thinkers the belief that they can speak freely with intolerant views. These issues all connect to the absurd world of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, particularly ideas on romantic relationships. The strict rules of that society don’t seem as far-fetched when you consider them while under a potentially authoritarian leader.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay from Lanthimos (Dogtooth) and Efthymis Filippou depicts The Hotel — the world’s worst singles retreat. Residents like David (Colin Farrell) have 45 days to find love or will become an animal of their choosing. He chooses a lobster (hence the title), which doesn’t seem like the best idea. There are many rules to follow at The Hotel, including the partner you choose. You can’t just lie and say that you love another person. A specific personality or physical trait has to match the other person. It’s eventually clear that these rules do not just apply to The Hotel. They are a core aspect of The City on the whole. Even the animals must find companions or risk extinction. The entire society thrives on coupling.

This premise is absurd on its surface, and it appears more outlandish because everyone plays it straight. No one but David even gets a character name in the credits. Ben Whishaw’s character is known as Limping Man, though you could also call him “Man Who Smashes His Nose to Get the Girl”. The set-up works as a comedy, and there are plenty of funny moments. It also clicks as an indictment of our culture, and that idea has only grown for me with each passing day. I’m married but can remember the days of probing questions from relatives about girlfriends and marriage. Loners are regarded with suspicion, and relationships that differ from the norm receive scrutiny. Fear of anything out of the ordinary remains a common trend in society.

What makes The Lobster more than a comment on marriage is the way it presents The Loners out in the woods. A lesser film would depict that group as free-thinking rebels like Denis Leary’s gang in Demolition Man. Instead, they also have restricted views and employ brutal punishments to offenders. People who flirt can face the “red kiss”, and I don’t even want to consider what the “red intercourse” punishment would be. Lea Seydoux plays the Loner Leader with a stone-cold detachment, and she enforces the strict rules without compassion. The Loners seem even worse than The Hotel because their choices defy our expectations.

The connective tissue between the Loners and The Hotel is the cult of singular thinking. This lack of nuance hits home when you consider the frustrations of our current political divide. It’s all or nothing, with little in between the sides. When David and the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) fall in love, the response from the Loner Leader is quiet but vicious. She can justify the move with the rules, but it’s really just a cruel act. This type of logic is dangerous, particularly when it goes to people in power. Others will fall in line just to avoid a similar fate.

The Lobster works as a comedy and includes wonderfully odd moments, especially at The Hotel. John C. Reilly fits right at home in this setting. The romantic interactions are painfully awkward as characters look for any way they connect. If a couple starts to struggle, you can always give them a kid to change the landscape. It’s such a nihilistic look at relationships! The only true romance happens by chance, but there are few opportunities for long-term happiness. A society built on restrictions will stamp out anything that veers from the model. Lanthimos reminds us to stay vigilant against normalizing these rules; they can only lead to our destruction.

The Lobster is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime and highly recommended.

January 30, 2017

Hidden Figures and the Joy of Movies

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer star in Hidden Figures.

It’s a scary time with horrible news lurking around every corner. Here in the U.S, the Trump administration is revealing terrible plans on a daily basis. There are many ways to combat these policies, including protests, calls to senators and representatives, and personal interactions. Where does art fall into the mix? It’s easy to dismiss movies as less essential during serious times like our current era. That is true in a certain way; there’s a lot more to do than just watch films. On the other hand, even prominent commercial releases can play an important role. They bring us together and can spotlight voices that are pushed to the background too often.

A perfect example is Hidden Figures, which arrived in theaters as just the right time earlier this month. The crowd-pleasing film tells a story that few of us know about the early days of the space program. It also provides three standout roles for African-American women that are far too rare. This isn’t a case where a white guy dominates the story and becomes the central figure. Instead, it’s the incredible work from Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer that takes center stage. All three give award-worthy performances as strong, intelligent women that worked behind the scenes at NASA during the Mercury program.

Cynics might dismiss this film as a conventional story that just makes audiences feel better about themselves, but that isn’t a fair assessment. Instead, it clicks because we’re on board with the characters from the start. It’s fun to just hang out with this trio even when they aren’t solving problems at NASA. That’s no easy feat. Katherine G. Johnson (Henson), Mary Jackson (Monae), and Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) aren’t just symbols of overcoming an oppressive system. They come alive on the screen as fully fledged characters with real hopes and dreams. It’s a joy to spend two hours with them and see their ultimate success.

Jackson’s big speech before a Virginia judge (Frank Hoyt Taylor) is a good example. The only way she can enter NASA’s engineer program is to take certain night classes, but they’re only at an all-white school. Jackson’s speech is pure Hollywood, but it still works because Monae injects such feeling into it. The way that she sells the judge on being “first” is brilliant and makes the scene crackle. Director Theodore Melfi brings the camera in close to focus just on the faces of Monae and Taylor; he makes it a personal moment between two people. Monae owns this scene and reveals (along with Moonlight) her impending stardom.

This human connection is at the heart of why Hidden Figures shines for such a wide audience. The crowd in my theater included kids, adults, and grandparents from diverse backgrounds, and there was huge applause at the end. I could tell it was connecting with most of us, including my seven-year-old daughter. The best Hollywood filmmaking feels effortless, and that airy feeling is all over this movie. Henson is the centerpiece as Johnson, and she endures a lot from the condescending white guys in her Space Task Group. It never feels like too much cruelty, however. The script from Melfi and Allison Schroeder strikes the right balance in showing the hardships while still delivering an inspiring story.

Henson delivers what is easily one of my favorite performances of 2016. Johnson is brilliant and knows she’s smarter than her co-workers yet follows the rules of that environment. Her gruff boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) understands her value but will only do so much. He fails to recognize her daily strife of running across campus to the bathroom until she breaks down. Costner’s hero moment in tearing down the sign doesn’t feel earned for him, but it draws a fist pump because it’s a victory for Johnson. Henson charms us from the start, and we’re definitely on her side. When a possible romance starts with Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), we won’t accept him until she does.

It's convincing to see the institutional racism that each woman faces every day. The rules are written to keep Jackson from becoming an engineer, and people treat it like a fact of life. Johnson must drink from a separate coffee pot, use a different bathroom, and dodge other hurdles. The sexism from her all-male co-workers on Harrison's team is accepted as normal. Some of them mean well, but that accomplishes little under a rigged system. There's no margin for error for Johnson in this group.

Spencer earned an Oscar nomination last week for Best Supporting Actress, and she deserves the acclaim. She wonderfully underplays Vaughn’s intelligence and understanding of the office landscape. Vaughn recognizes the dangers of the IBM computers to their roles but sees the opportunities in mastering it. Her changing interactions with the stuffy Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) reveal her growing power. By using her mind and understanding the technology, Vaughn subverts a system designed to keep her down. Her heroic scene in leading the women of the West Campus to their new jobs is thrilling and quite a change from the cold NASA hallways.

I did not expect Hidden Figures to receive a Best Picture nomination because it’s such a crowd pleaser. There’s joy emanating from the screen, and the audience keys on that excitement. Certain beats are predictable, but that doesn’t mean they fail. Even relaxing moments like watching the three stars dance remain engaging. Each lead gets her chance to shine. With a modest $25 million budget, it’s also the type of film that’s become less common from the big studios. In looking for the big payday, they often miss the importance of telling new stories that connect with a general audience. See this film, and make sure you take your daughters with you.

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January 12, 2017

52 Films by Women and a Broader Perspective

Ava DuVernay's debut film I Will Follow deserves a lot more attention.

This past summer, I lost my job and was out of work for several months. It was a rough year for a lot of reasons, but we were able to rebound and are doing well today. I mention this experience not to garner sympathy; I know that many others had it much worse. I’m a 40-year-old white guy, so our system is in place to benefit me. It’s been that way for too long, and our current landscape could get much worse. I hate to be cynical but do not see positive signs when I consider who’s leading this country. We're in the middle of the last gasp of a patriarchal structure that needs a major overhaul.

I live in Missouri, a state that has moved further to the right in recent elections. I’ve called my senators and representatives, but those efforts can only accomplish so much. I’m a film fan and manage this site, so I do have control over this small pocket of the Internet. During the past year, many film bloggers and other cinephiles participated in the 52 Films by Women project. I’ve decided that it’s time for me to join up and do the same. I may talk a good game, but my viewing habits still veer way too much towards movies by white guys. It’s time to fix those trends.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Changing what movies I see may seem like a trivial move, but it’s a concrete way to gain a broader perspective beyond the world of movies. I support liberal causes and vote for progressive candidates, yet it’s easy to fall into typical patterns. The Hollywood system continues to give male directors a huge edge in access to major projects. Other behind-the-scenes roles are also dominated by men. Courtesy of Melissa Silverstein of Women in Hollywood, here are some painful statistics from a recent Celluloid Ceiling Study about 2016 representation:

  • Women accounted for just 7% of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films, down 2% from 2015.
  • Only 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers were women.
  • Just 3% of composers on the top 250 films were women.
  • A stunning 35% of films employed 0 or 1 woman in key roles.

I knew there was a serious problem, but these numbers are even worse than I expected. In particular, the small percentage of directors remains embarrassing for the industry. There’s still a perception that women can’t direct blockbusters; a glance at the men behind the Marvel, DC, and Star Wars films is an easy way to start. I’m hopeful that Patty Jenkins will help to change that perception with Wonder Woman this year. From top to bottom, we must use our dollars and voice to support movies from women or risk seeing few changes to the formula.

Michelle Williams stars in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women.

A Personal Change

It’s easy for me to look at the numbers and decry the sexism that keeps them so low. That accomplishes little and is actually hypocritical given my own recent history. I may have supported Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and Ava DuVernay’s 13th in recent months, but those examples are anecdotal. The trends aren’t any better for me when I retrieve the overall numbers. Here’s a sobering look at my movie viewing habits in the past three years.

  • 2016 – 101 films watched, 7 directed by women (6.9%)
  • 2015 – 101 films watched, 8 directed by women (7.9%)
  • 2014 – 129 films watched, 13 directed by women (10.1%)

Back in 2013, I made a similar conscious effort to see films directed by women and watched six in a marathon. Even so, my numbers from that year were not much better. I saw 136 films and still only watched nine directed by women (6.6%). Are you sensing a pattern here? This should help explain why I’m pushing myself further in 2017. I understand the issue but haven’t made any significant increases in my viewing habits. This trend needs to change.

It has some slow points, but Chantal Akerman's South is definitely worth seeing.

A Promising Start

During the first two weeks of January, I’m on track and have watched two interesting films. The first was DuVernay’s I Will Follow, her first dramatic feature. It’s a low budget affair that clicks because we care so much about the characters. Salli Richardson-Whitfield shines in the lead role as a woman grieving the death of her aunt. I’m not familiar with Richardson-Whitfield's other work and will definitely be on the lookout for her. It’s a quiet story yet connects with me because the characters feel real. I could empathize with all of them even when they’re struggling.

My second film was Chantal Akerman’s documentary South (Sud), which depicts the Texas town of Jasper following the murder of James Byrd. I’m sad to admit this was my first Akerman film. There are long stretches of time where Akerman just shoots the town and lands around it. Despite the beauty on display, there are moments that become a little tedious. The film stays afloat due to conversations with various citizens about the area’s racist history and the brutal killing. There are no easy answers to the problems, especially when economic struggles come into play. I definitely need to see a lot more of Akerman’s filmography.

I don’t mean to overstate the importance of this project. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to everything that’s possible. Given the awful political climate led by our president-elect, it’s easy to feel powerless. Changing my viewing habits is one way that I can make a small difference in how I perceive the world. I’m also planning to blog about these films whenever possible and look for ways to support them commercially. It’s one thing to talk about supporting female directors on social media and this blog. The real work comes on the business side. Money talks, particularly with conservative studio leaders. They need to see the commercial value in supporting diverse voices. It’s less idealistic but the most important move to change the game.

After losing my job last summer, I was calm for most of the time. There was just an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach. That sensation has been present lately, particularly when I read the news. Horrifying decisions and statements are coming from our leaders, and it’s easy to throw up our hands. There’s still a lot for me to learn, and it’s time to do something positive. I’ve put together a watchlist on Letterboxd of films directed by women that I should see. I’ve also organized a Letterboxd diary where I’ll add each selection for this project as I watch it. If you have any recommendations of films to see, I’d love to hear them.

Learn more about the 52 Films by Women project at the Women in Film site. You can also see what others are doing on Twitter at #52filmsbywomen

December 29, 2016

Love & Friendship Review (Whit Stillman)

Lady Susan manipulate Lord James Martin in Love & Friendship.

It’s difficult not to spend this entire review of Love & Friendship just raving about Tom Bennett. His comic work as the foolish Sir James Martin energizes the material from Whit Stillman. The wide-eyed Bennett injects the broad dose of silliness this film needs to counter all the proper behavior. Martin is basically the David Brent of this society; people tolerate him because of his status. The difference is that Bennett keeps his character endearing despite a lack of decorum. While others whisper in the shadows, he talks loudly about everything on his mind.

The surprising part of Bennett’s success is how little he appears. It takes a while for Martin to arrive on screen, and he largely occupies the background. Stillman wisely recognizes that spotlighting Bennett would be too much of a good thing. There’s little depth to this guy, and that lack of self-awareness drives other characters mad. Martin has lots of money, and that makes him a valuable commodity in a place where marrying into wealth is essential. A guy that speaks of the “12 Commandments” and jokes about peas is not a fabulous house guest. On the other hand, Martin is such a contrast from the guys around him that even his dumb ideas are likable.

I must also spotlight the great work of Kate Beckinsale as the lead; it’s easy to forget how charismatic she can be on screen. Her Lady Susan brilliantly twists guys around her finger and looks for every angle. The inventive ways that she hides her lack of money keep even the more suspicious people from seeing the truth about Lady Susan. It wouldn’t be proper to actually pay the woman who assists her; it would only hurt their friendship! Beckinsale has starred in five (!!!) Underworld films, and it’s refreshing to see her in such a commanding role. When Lady Susan isn’t on screen, the other characters spend all their time talking about her.

Love & Friendship reunites Beckinsale with her Last Days of Disco co-star Chloe Sevigny, though it’s a much different relationship between their characters. Sevigny’s Alicia Johnson is a pal who marvels at hearing of Lady Susan’s deeds. The pair has a relaxed camaraderie on screen, but it’s mostly a secondary role for Sevigny. What’s interesting is the way that both speak openly about the dim-witted guys that surround them. There’s no guilt about wishing for Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry) to get a disease as soon as possible. It’s a man’s world, but the guys actually have little power.

Stillman is one of my favorite directors, and I’ve yet to dislike one of his films. That trend continues here, though I wasn’t as thrilled as I anticipated. This story is based on Lady Susan by Jane Austen, and Stillman doesn’t veer too much from the expected style. There are gorgeous costumes and country homes where characters look for marriage. The change here is that romance takes a back seat to the best situation. Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) still believes in love, but she’s young. Most characters are resigned to doing the best they can in the confines of this social construct.

I’m drawn to Stillman’s biting and witty dialogue, and there’s plenty on display in Love & Friendship. Lady Susan is the perfect character for Stillman to convey his usual style. The screenplay feels a bit like a throwback to indies from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Stillman injects his signature wit into the mix, and it’s a pleasant experience. Beyond the work from Bennett and Beckinsale, I don’t see as much that makes me want to dive back into this film. I’ve watched Stillman’s other four films many times, particularly Metropolitan. The Austen source material just wasn’t as enticing beyond the great work from Beckinsale and Bennett. Despite these reservations, I’m excited that Stillman has found success and can’t wait to see what he does next.

Love & Friendship is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and is definitely worth your time.

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December 23, 2016

Rogue One Review (Gareth Edwards)

Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Rogue One: A Modern Take on a Classic Adventure Story

We’ve reached a point with our technology where films are rarely massive events that draw audiences from every spectrum. It’s become a niche world thanks to greater options in TV, gaming, and other pop culture zones. There still are a few exceptions, however. Star Wars was the type of film (and series) that created obsessive fans for life. Parents initiate their kids into the cult at a young age through the movies, TV series, toys, and books. Now that Disney owns the franchise, they’re focused on building a new group of young fans that never leave. They’re also rewarding the patience of adults like me that became attached to the original trilogy in the ‘80s.

Rogue One is the latest installment in a series that will keep drawing huge crowds as long as films are relevant. Don’t get me wrong; I’m right there with the excited viewers. It took me a week to see it, but I wasn’t going to miss this event. I’m a few steps below fans that dress up as the characters and analyze every small link to the expanded universe stories. Even so, my mind will forever remember every little part of the original films (particularly Star Wars). I’m 40 and definitely a major part of the audience, and I played into Disney’s hands by taking my seven-year-old daughter to see it. We had a great time, and we were hardly unwilling participants either.

It’s unnecessary to describe the plot at this point. The storytelling is effective, but it’s already well-known to anyone that’s interested. I managed to avoid the specifics before seeing the film, and that improved the viewing experience. I watched each trailer a few times and understood the basic premise. It’s difficult to create a story where everyone knows how it will end; George Lucas struggled mightily to keep us engaged in the prequel trilogy. Director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy do a much better job here. The sense of inevitability doesn’t hamper the momentum too much. Even if Star Wars had never existed, we would understand how this type of adventure will function. The characters know this is probably a one-way trip.

An X-Wing makes a daring move to fly through a closing shield in Rogue One.

Rogue One benefits from the strong emotional connection that we feel to the Star Wars universe. We care about the fate of the rebels without unnecessary exposition. The stakes are clear, and witnessing the Death Star’s destructive power early in this film just reminds us of that fact. On the other hand, the familiarity is a crutch when fan service goes too far. The random appearances of Dr Evazan and Ponda Baba (from the Mos Eisley cantina) cheapen the project. I’d also love to have someone make the executive decision to retire lines we hear in every Star Wars film. Those quotes wink at the fans yet also take us out of this story.

Even so, some cameos feel organic and build a believable environment. The shots of the original Red Leader and Gold Leader (from deleted footage) in the attack on Scarif fall into this category. They’re familiar yet also work in the context of this movie. Darth Vader also connects because he’s directly involved in this story. Plus, it’s hard to argue with seeing him wipe out a bunch of powerless rebels in a lightsaber fight. He’s more frightening here than in any moment in the prequels. I know the Death Star plans get away, but I still wanted to shout “throw the plans out the door!” to the frightened rebel. It shows how much Edwards succeeds with this film.

I can defend most of the creative choices in Rogue One, but there is one striking exception. I recognize that advances in digital effects are one key to this movie’s success. However, the CG creation of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin is a mistake. Despite looking convincing at times, it feels unnecessary and appears slightly unreal in the eyes. Re-casting this character would have made sense and not been questioned. While paying tribute to Cushing, the choice to build his face digitally is distracting. That’s also true with the appearance by Princess Leia at the end, but it’s at least a quick shot. Tarkin plays a much larger role in the main story.

Looking beyond my few qualms, I found plenty to love within this film. The opening scene is set on a gorgeous planet and introduces key characters well. It’s easy to get on board with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) because the opener aligns us with her plight. Seeing her mother killed and father captured right in front of her would traumatize anyone. Jones under plays Jyn’s anger towards her childhood challenges well, and we can still see the emotional scars. There’s a lot riding on Felicity Jones’ shoulders, but she doesn’t perform like someone who feels the pressure.

Donnie Yen prepares to battle a group of stormtroopers in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

The most important thrill for me is enjoying the classic adventure story. Jyn and Cassian (Diego Luna) inadvertently pull together a mismatched band of committed rebels for the daring quest. Donnie Yen is great fun as a blind man with connections to the Force. The conservative rebel leaders want no part of their dangerous plans, so it’s up to this small band to do it. The odds against them are great, yet faith still means something. I don’t mean to get too cheesy when considering their plight, but it’s only been a few hours since the credits rolled. There’s a reason that Firefly is one of my favorite shows. I’m drawn to characters that try to do the impossible (it makes them mighty!). There are fewer wisecracks here, but the spirit remains.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars film to portray the mess of battling a powerful enemy on the ground. That sense of loss is evident in the slightly mad face of Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker). He’s killed civilians and committed brutal crimes to fight the Empire. There’s no black-and-white feeling in this story. The rebels commit murder in the name of liberty, and they often do the wrong thing. The deaths are largely bloodless, but we feel the weight of each one. It’s a Star Wars tale for the modern world, and it’s easy to make connections to the Trump era. Fighting an enemy with all the control takes sacrifice; hope is often gained through paying the ultimate price.

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December 22, 2016

The Fits Review (Anna Rose Holmer)

Royalty Hightower plays Toni, a young girl who starts with boxing and moves onto dance.

Our story begins with quiet shots of 11-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) training at a boxing gym. The camera pulls closely in to her face and doesn’t cut away. We’re quickly immersed within Toni’s world of the Cincinnati community center with seamless effort. She trains with her older brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor) and longs to join the drill team – the Lionesses. It would be easy to describe The Fits as a slice-of-life film, but that label is too limiting. In her directorial debut, Anna Rose Holmer crafts something more off-center than how it originally appears. Toni’s experiences don’t play out as expected, and the atmosphere becomes quite surreal.

Clocking in at just 72 minutes, this tale doesn’t feel like it needs another minute. Why are all blockbusters over two hours? They must justify the expense, apparently. Watching a contained story that makes its case with nearly every shot is refreshing. It’s also a plus to check out this film with limited prior knowledge. The first act seems to set up a look at how Toni will become a good dancer and learn about herself in the process. She does improve her skills, but little happens as expected here. When her fellow dancers start having “fits”, it sends Toni’s world into disarray. I experienced a similar feeling as an audience member.

The question hanging over the remaining time asks what is causing the seizures. Is the water contaminated? Are otherworldly forces at play? Holmer doesn’t try to explain the fits in a clear fashion, and that’s a wise choice. Instead, she builds a growing sense of uneasiness with each subsequent incident. The music from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans deserves awards consideration for how well it builds the mood. When Toni looks directly into the camera while the eerie sounds play in the background, a simmering fear grows inside us.

The final act arouses suspicions that perhaps the fits occur because the girls want them to happen. It’s a cynical take on the beautiful moments yet could speak to a teens’ need to conform. Toni’s friends ignore her because she hasn’t experienced the same thing. Instead of providing danger to avoid, the fits become a rite of passage. It’s no stretch to connect this moment to the shift into adolescence. There’s beauty in each fit despite the harm that’s happening to the subject.

It’s not surprising that Holmer collaborated with a real dance team (the Q-Kidz) as the performers. Their moves are far too original to come from actresses learning on the fly. These aren’t the expected group performances you might see in a Hollywood film. Instead, each girl shows her own style with remarkable agility. There’s striking intensity to the way they let loose and dare the others to match their efforts. This in-your-face quality is undercut by the way the fits reduce their control. The women are so powerful yet knocked down by this force.

Material in The Fits is rife for analysis from high-minded cinephiles, but that doesn’t take away from the joy in the movements on the screen. The climactic dance sequence is a beautiful display of life and energy that feels therapeutic in these troubling days. Diverse voices like Holmer’s (plus producer Lisa Kjerulff and editor Saela Davis) deserve a lot more attention. Kjerulff and Davis also co-wrote the script with Holmer (and comprise the collective Yes, Ma’am!), and we never hit expected beats. It’s a thought-provoking, moving tale that deserves a lot more attention.

The Fits is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. See this film.

December 21, 2016

Superhero Catch-up: A Civil War, an Apocalypse, and the Dawn of Justice

Chris Evans, Elizabeth Olsen, and Jeremy Renner star in Captain America: Civil War.

One side effect of making fewer trips to the movie theaters is bypassing so many prominent Hollywood releases. When I do have the chance to see a film on the big screen, I’m not going to waste it. I’d prefer to support projects that aren’t guaranteed to earn hundreds of millions at the box office. This isn’t a hard and fast rule; I’ll make an exception for Rogue One very soon. I just don’t feel the need to see your everyday blockbuster right away. The window before a DVD or streaming release is shrinking, and that trend should continue in the future.

Another benefit is always having so many options for home viewing in any genre. If I’m ready to watch powerful superheroes punch each other for two hours, I have plenty of choices. In the past few weeks, I finally spent (wasted?) my time and caught up with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and X-Men: Apocalypse. I also re-watched Captain America: Civil War to continue this trend. They’re all superhero films with huge budgets, but each film is quite different from the others. By the end of the three viewings, there were no doubts about how I’d rank them.

I’m 40 years old and sometimes think of myself as a discerning movie watcher at this stage of life. On the other hand, I’ll admit to finding great joy in watching the CGI spectacle of so many comic book characters battling on screen. In the best cases, there’s also still a will to glean affecting drama from these conflicts. The trick is balancing the carnage with engaging characters and a light touch. Darker themes only click if there’s something beneath the surface. Let’s take a look at each of the three superhero films and how well they struck the right balance.

Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman fight Doomsday in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)

Why did I subject myself to this mess? Despite many warnings from reliable sources, I couldn’t help myself. The giant square on HBO GO kept calling to me, and I couldn’t resist. Man of Steel wasn’t great, but the origin story and early scenes with Kevin Costner were interesting. The conflict with Zod fell flat, particularly with the excessive use of 9/11 imagery. Batman v. Superman is basically two-and-a-half hours of what I disliked about Zach Snyder’s first Superman film. The components all exist, but they’re put together in the wrong way. There’s no forward movement or logical progression from scene to scene. It’s just a disaster on every level.

The shame with this project is how many talented actors are involved. The cruelty in Ben Affleck’s Batman was strikingly different from other takes on the character. Henry Cavill has been good in other films; this Superman is just impossible to play. Gal Gadot has a good screen presence as Wonder Woman and could shine as the main character. Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, and Diane Lane do what they can with thinly written parts. The only real miss for me is Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg plays eccentric better than insane, and this Luthor is barely connected to reality. Gene Hackman showed how less is more with this character. Dialing up every scene to ridiculous heights just takes us right out of the movie.

Digging further into the plot, it’s a poorly crafted set-up for the moment every fan wants to see. In similar fashion to Civil War, the movie only works if the Batman/Superman fight is compelling. Instead of an exciting clash of the titans, this battle is just brutal and nasty. The stakes don’t feel real, even when Superman appears to face real jeopardy. The resolution is a cop-out that springs out of nowhere. It also diminishes the raw emotion that Affleck throws into Batman. Bruce Wayne is a guy on the edge who’s inches away from descending into madness. The “mother’s name” twist reduces that anger to a glaringly obvious theme.

Batman v. Superman does the heavy lifting to help create an extended universe for DC, but it’s hard to care too much about it. We catch glimpses of The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to set up next year’s Justice League, but they’re a distraction. World building can be exciting in the right hands, but it also can make filmmakers take their eyes off the ball. This film seems rushed and rarely takes a breath, which just wears out the audience. I know it’s not this simple, but cutting 10 minutes from the finale against Doomsday would make a huge difference. In fact, I might just cut Doomsday out of the movie altogether. The gigantic being is a symbol of the entire movie. It’s powerful, loud, and has no soul.

Oscar Isaac is the evil Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse.

X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer)

I’ve generally enjoyed the X-Men franchise since its first installment way back in the ancient days of 2000. At that time, just setting up a sequel was enough! Now that my old man rant is over, I’m ready to talk about this silly movie. There is no way that Bryan Singer can make the stakes feel high with a villain like Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac). He’s basically a strangely voice bad guy right out of Stargate SG-1. That isn’t a criticism either. I love it when a comic book film leans into its ludicrous premise. Apocalypse and his four horsemen spend the movie walking around and causing havoc. The climactic battle is bombastic yet rarely seems dull. We’re free to have fun in this world despite the potential for the end of all humanity.

Another thing that separates this franchise from the DC universe is the fantastical aspects. When the big fight happens in front of a giant pyramid, the environment doesn’t feel real. Magneto tears up the ground and kills countless people, but there are few shots designed to connect us with reality. Despite some dramatic moments, it’s largely a cartoon. We don’t need anyone to comment about how a place is deserted before the destruction begins. We can care about the characters but don’t feel manipulated by obvious tropes either.

I don’t want to over sell Apocalypse, however. It feels like a step backward after the time traveling complexities of Days of Future Past. Fassbinder’s Magneto also is treading on familiar ground in his third appearance. He can only flip around from good to evil so many times. Fassbinder and McAvoy have an easy chemistry that makes us care about both characters. They just aren’t delving into much new territory. Newcomers like Sophie Turner (Jean Gray), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), and Kodi Smit-Mcphee (Nightcrawler) don’t stand out as much. Turner has the largest role and does her best (particularly at the end), yet Famke Janssen still owns that part.

I was skeptical during the opening act but was largely won over by the way Singer and the production designers go for it. By the time Quicksilver (Evan Peters) was saving a dog with a pizza in its mouth, I couldn’t help but smile. It feels like the logical conclusion for this chapter in the X-Men saga. The grim apocalyptic world of Logan (based on the trailer) is here at just the right time. It’s time for a smaller story that doesn’t involve saving the planet from a super villain. The Wolverine had a similar vibe, and I’m thrilled that James Mangold is back from another outing with Hugh Jackman here. Next March can’t come fast enough for this intriguing release.

Captain America fights his last battle with Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo)

I caught up with the third Captain America film in the theater during a very busy time in life this past summer. Instead of being a much-needed escape, it mostly slipped from my mind. I enjoyed Civil War the first time, but it took a second viewing to solidify it as really good film. It’s basically the antithesis of Batman v. Superman. There’s a serious rift between two super heroes, but it’s an ideological one. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers both are right in a certain way, and that makes the conflict resonate. It’s more than just an excuse to bring together the Avengers (and quite a few others) into one gigantic battle. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans sell the emotions of the split between two close friends. The Russo Brothers make it all feel effortless too.

Despite its epic length, this story doesn’t seem bloated or filled with unnecessary subplots. Spider-Man and Black Panther make their first appearances, yet they fit within the main plot. Neither pulls the spotlight away from the disagreement that drives the narrative. I was skeptical of yet another Spider-Man, but Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is a different guy. He’s younger and just getting started, so there’s glee in the way he approaches the others. Spider-Man gets a cute introduction and then shows his skills in the main battle. That’s it. This is an ensemble film where everyone has a role to play. There’s a team atmosphere even across the two sides.

The airport battle is amazing and lives up to expectations, which is an incredible feat. But it’s hardly the only reason to watch Civil War. I didn’t spend the first hour just waiting for everyone to fight. The story is gripping enough to make us forget that it’s leading to such a large confrontation. Individual character moments are just as strong as the action and are fun despite the high stakes. Slowing down the pace is also crucial to avoid pummeling us too much. Quiet scenes like one with the Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) aren’t just ways to pass the time before the action. The fights only work if these scenes connect with us.

I’ve largely been a fan of the Marvel films, though I haven’t gone back to missteps like Age of Ultron since the theaters. What separates Civil War from that film is the feeling that we’re covering new ground. Iron Man and Captain America are shaped by what’s happened in the past, and references to previous films seem natural here. This success has re-invigorated my interest in Phase Three (I haven’t seen Doctor Strange yet) going forward. It’s my favorite blockbuster of 2016, and it would take a lot for another release to unseat it. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Other Marvel Reviews

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Thor: The Dark World
Iron Man 3

December 9, 2016

Early Silents: The Great Train Robbery and The Lonedale Operator

Justus B. Barnes fires at the camera in The Great Train Robbery.

It’s easy for cinephiles to get entrenched in keeping up with the latest releases, particularly in the digital age. When we do look back to past greats, we often stick with major blind spots from the past 50 years or so. I regularly fall into this trap and rarely venture into the silent era beyond its later years in the 1920s. One of my current goals is to go further back to the early days of film history. I watched quite a few silent films in my high-school and college courses, but that was back in the late ‘90s. I’m ready to take closer aim and learn more about the medium’s early days.

It’s sad to realize that so much work has been lost over the years. Restorers have done their best to revive many films, but there’s only so much they can do. Despite those losses, there’s plenty of important history available on the Internet. Places like the Library of Congress include hundreds of works in the public domain that are accessible for free. YouTube is also a valuable resource. Online film studies can provide novices with a chance to understand the context of these films. It’s one thing to see the movie; learning the background can enhance the impact.

For this article, I chose two notable silent films from 1903 and 1911. I’d seen The Great Train Robbery in the past, but that was almost 20 years ago. It deserves a fresh look now that I recognize a little more of its influence. The Lonedale Operator is a short from D.W. Griffith, who would go on to direct epics like The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. The technical skills that built Griffith’s reputation are evident in this earlier work. He’s controversial because of the abhorrent racism, but Griffith remains a key figure in cinema’s early days.

A fight on board the tender of the train in The Great Train Robbery.

The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903)

Viewed from the lens of 2016 films, Edwin S. Porter’s early western might seem like an entirely different medium. The camera hardly moves, and most images appear in long shots. The audience feels like a bystander hanging just outside the frame. On the other hand, there are elements that connect to modern movies. The story includes action scenes, criminals and their pursuers, and violent deaths. It’s a classic tale of black hats finding success and then facing certain doom. Despite their vigilant efforts to rob the train, these guys have no chance.

Comprised of 14 set-ups, this 12-minute production tells a linear story. We follow the robbers through each step of their plans to grab the money. After stopping the train at the telegraph office, the guys board it and take charge. The standout scene is a fight on the tender near the train engine. The camera sits behind the action while the train surges forward and gives us an interesting view. The unconvincing dummy that’s thrown from the train is a bit much if you’re paying attention. There’s little time to think about it before we move to the next scene, however.

The acting in The Great Train Robbery comes from a theatrical style that was common in silent films. When a passenger is shot trying to escape, his ridiculous arm swings fit with that model. There’s also no sound beyond a possible orchestra or piano score, so he can’t be somber. The camera remains far away, so the performer must draw attention to his tragic fate. The deaths in the shootout in the woods have a similar tone. This early presentation includes thrills for the time, but they’re in a different ballpark than the agile stunts to come.

The iconic moment is the close-up where the robber faces the camera and shoots the audience six times. Martin Scorsese employed a similar effect at the end of Goodfellas, and Tombstone used this film’s scene in its prologue. Unlike the film’s main scenes, this one still packs a punch. The emotionless way in which the actor kills us is quite chilling. The Library of Congress version concluded with this scene, but my earlier screening placed it at the beginning. Either choice makes an impact, but each one delivers quite a different message. The beginning feels more like a warning to the audience, while the finale nails home the bleakness of this world.

Blanche Sweet defends her place against invaders in D.W. Griffith's The Lonedale Operator.

The Lonedale Operator (D.W. Griffith, 1911)

I have quite a limited history with D.W. Griffith’s work beyond the obvious releases. We watched The Birth of a Nation in a college film course, and it led to quite a heated discussion. Some classmates treated it like a relic of a different time and hated it. Others admired the technical expertise despite its terrible racism. I’m more in the latter camp, though I can understand that it’s jarring to see such blatant hatred. Our recent election cycle made clear that perhaps we haven’t made as much progress as we think. If we don’t learn our history, are we doomed to repeat it? I’m trying to stay optimistic that we still have a chance as a country.

I mention The Birth of a Nation because it’s easy to forget how much Griffith accomplished beyond that film. The Lonedale Operator is one of many shorts that he filmed in the years prior to his epic. It centers on the daughter of telegraph operator who takes over when he gets sick. The appearance of dangerous robbers threatens her safety, but her quick thinking delays them long enough for help to arrive. When compared to The Great Train Robbery, this film presents quite a few narrative and technical developments. Scenes happen concurrently and are put together through editing, not just the shift to the next setting.

The opening scene involves the Young Engineer (Francis J. Grandon) wooing the Operator’s Daughter (Blanche Sweet), who looks young enough to be his daughter. I don’t see the connection for this duo. Thankfully, he departs for his job while she goes to work at the office. What’s immediately evident are the improvements in the way the train moves through the set. The editing makes the transition from inside the sets to the exteriors near the tracks look seamless. There’s also some remarkable tinting where the nighttime outside shots are blue while the inside of the train is red. Both energize the story and are clever ways to signify a change of place (and time).

A key reveal of a wrench in D.W. Griffith's short The Lonedale Operator.

The Lonedale Operator is most notable for its use of a close-up for a big reveal. I wasn’t aware of the history and didn’t expect the ingenious way to explain the daughter’s survival. Griffith builds suspense prior to that moment through cross-cutting across three different scenes. There’s the daughter trapped in the office, the robbers trying to break into the room, and the engineer busting his ass to save her. It’s quite effective for such an early silent film! Griffith understood the importance of editing to enhance the impact of each individual scene. To cite an overused phrase, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The villains are laughably one-note, yet their danger grows with each successive cut. The result is a crafty little tale.

The Great Train Robbery is available to watch on the Library of Congress site. You can screen The Lonedale Operator on YouTube.

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December 7, 2016

Moana Review (Ron Clements, Don Musker)

The title character of Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho, prepares to journey out to the water.

The Subtle Grace of Disney’s Moana

As a lifelong Disney fan, I’m well-versed in themes that permeate many of the studio’s films. This is especially true when it comes to princess stories. The lead character is sometimes a bystander in her own film. Sleeping Beauty is a perfect example. The actions of the fairies, Phillip, and Maleficent truly set the course of Aurora’s life. She’s largely passive despite the film’s title. We’ve seen updates to this model in the past few decades, though heroines from the Disney Renaissance still were driven by the love story. Belle and Ariel are more active characters yet still aren’t independent of the old constructs.

Recent films like Tangled and Frozen have made progress in subverting the obvious love story, especially the latter film. Anna wants to find a guy, but she has no life experience and has made assumptions from reading stories. This brings me to Disney’s latest film Moana, which sheds a lot of the beats we expect from this type of movie. The quest to save the world is a familiar hero’s journey, but it feels new without the unnecessary subplots. Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is a strong and likable teenager that wants to make a difference; it’s easy to get on board with her story.

Moana is headstrong but has reasons beyond her personal need to experience the water. It’s rebellion against her father’s (Temuera Morrison) ways but with a purpose. His restrictions don’t connect to her gender or age either; in his view, everyone should stay on the island. Like he sings in “Where You Are”, the selling point is the place, not the social construct. Chris Jackson (George Washington from Hamilton) takes the singing duties for Chief Tui and does amazing work. Given the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, it’s no surprise to have Jackson involved.

The soundtrack’s other main songwriter is Opetaia Foa'I, who was born in Samoa. Miranda and Foa'I (along with Mark Mancina) build a collection of tunes that work brilliantly and complement the story. I could list almost any song as a highlight, but the one that really sticks with me is “We Know the Way”. Performed by Foa’I and Miranda, the song nails home one of the key themes. The image of Moana and her people sailing into the unknown while the song plays brings chills. Its return during the finale reinforces that Moana’s quest is about more than saving the world. She’s also working to bring the spirit of exploration back to her people.

One of the reasons that Moana connects is the diverse cast, which includes the voice of Hawaii’s Auli'i Cravalho as the lead. We also have Temuera Morrison and Rachel House, who both spring from Maori descent. Dwayne Johnson is a huge star, but his Samoan background also connects to this story. Johnson is the right choice to play the larger-than-life Maui, a self-absorbed demigod that is the key to Moana’ quest. Johnson (aka The Rock) even gets a chance to sing the memorable “You’re Welcome” and call out Maui’s huge contributions to this world.

In typical Disney fashion, the story gives Moana a few silly companions. They’re less grating than the normal examples, thankfully. One is a dim-witted chicken that delivers some big laughs. The other is actually the water itself, which gives Moana much-needed assistance. Bearing a surprising resemblance to the alien water creature from The Abyss, this being gives a few nudges to help its chosen one. Moana is yet another hero that’s uniquely qualified for this quest, but that point isn’t heavy-handed. There are no messiah moments. In fact, her love for the water does separate Moana from her people. It doesn’t feel like a stretch for her to be the choice.

Gramma Tala, voiced by Rachel House, gives encouragement to Moana.

Another key relationship is between Moana and Gramma Tala (Rachel House) — kindred spirits that both stand out from the norm on the island. We’ve seen this type of character in past Disney films (particularly Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas). However, the way that Tala approaches Moana with a little bit of mischief helps her feel new. She offers sage advice but also lets the girl find her own way. Tala’s final scene comes at the right time and veers away from just following the “wise old sage” trend. House’s deft voice work makes Tala click as her own character, not just as a helper for Moana.

What’s also refreshing is the lack of constant in-your-face jokes. With the exception of obvious peeing in the ocean gags, it’s more laid back than standard family films. A well-cast Jemaine Clement does get a lively scene as the giant crab Tamatoa. His performance of “Shiny” wouldn’t feel out of place on a Flight of the Conchords album. I also enjoyed the nod to Mad Max (and maybe Waterworld?) in the brief encounter with the Kakamora pirates. These energetic scenes help to make the 103-minute running time flow quite easily.

I have two young girls and have seen quite a few family films with them. Most are pleasant but don’t stick with you for very long. Moana is one of the exceptions where my opinion has grown stronger the more I think about it. The songs are still bouncing around in my mind. Directors Ron Clements and Don Musker led Disney classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, and they understand how to shape an effective tale. In this uncertain post-election haze, it’s refreshing to experience such a beautiful and graceful film. There’s a joy in taking this journey, and I can’t wait to see it again.

December 2, 2016

November 2016 Viewing Diary

Rory and Lorelai re-connect at the kitchen table in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

It’s common for pop culture fans to chronicle every part of our daily habits. It’s a way to prove to ourselves that we’re consuming great content. Letterboxd benefits greatly from cinephiles’ need to keep track of our movie watching. When you’re the type of person that sees multiple films a day, it’s hard to remember everything. I’m going to start tracking both my movie and TV watching in posts like this one. While I’m starting with a monthly schedule, I may increase the frequency to avoid such a long post. Seeing everything in one place solidifies just how much content I watch. It’s a little frightening.

I’ll admit that this idea is hardly a new one. Many bloggers do a similar activity and write posts listing what they’ve been seeing. I’ve stolen this format directly from Sheila O’Malley, one of my favorite online writers. She also compiles both movies and TV every month in one big article on her blog The Sheila Variations. Her work is definitely worth your time.

This first post is very Gilmore Girls-heavy, which isn’t a normal trend. My wife and I watched the entire series this fall to prepare for A Year in the Life. It was a good way to keep track of all the various story lines and characters. Plus, I had never seen the final three seasons until this binge viewing. Next month should look very different without all the Gilmore Girls episodes.

Gilmore Girls Episode 7.4, “’S Wonderful, ‘S Marvelous” (2006, Victor Nelli Jr.)
This is probably the peak of the Christopher/Lorelai relationship in terms of charming moments. It’s hard to argue with a guy that sets up an outdoor movie theater to watch Funny Face. The way he throws money around gets old fast, though. Emily getting arrested is the highlight, and it feels like the new showrunners are starting to find their way. It won’t last long, though.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.5, “The Great Stink” (2006, Gina Fattore)
It’s hard to watch this episode and not think of Clare Clark’s book of the same title. That story takes place among the sewers of London, so it’s quite different. The main story brings an unseen Sherry (sorry, Madchen Amick!) wanting to bring GG to Paris. Christopher’s daughter is mostly just a plot device, and that’s definitely the case here. Lorelai and Christopher just don’t seem to work as a couple, but we all know where this is heading. It’s not good.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, Richard Linklater) - Review
I hesitated to see Richard Linklater’s most recent film, and I have no idea why. On the surface, the story of a bunch of college guys trying to pick up women is shallow. I shouldn’t have doubted Linklater, however. It’s such a light and clever movie that finds heart in even the smallest little competitions among the young athletes. It’s such a breezy hang-out movie!

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.6, “Go, Bulldogs!” (2006, Wil Shriner)
Poor Luke. After breaking up with Lorelai, he’s stuck dating April’s swim coach. Their date is cringe-inducing and falls into the typical “crazy woman” trope. Not cool, Gilmore Girls. Once again, Richard and Emily save the day with their visit to Parents Day’ at Yale. Unfortunately, Christopher again has no idea what to do with his money and acts ridiculous.

Drunk History, Episode 4.6, “Siblings” (2016)
One of my favorite parts of Drunk History is the way that it spotlights lesser-known historical figures. I knew nothing about Katharine Wright’s (Jenna Fischer) contributions to the Wright brothers’ success. This episode also includes fun appearances by Elizabeth Olson and Rachel Bilson as the Kopp sisters. When you add that to Lauren Lapkus narrating the Wright story, it’s a great showcase for female performers.

Survivor, Episode 33.7, “I Will Destroy You” (2016)
It's shocking to see Michaela go home after she received so much attention from the editors. They’ve done a good job of hiding the winner and not showing their hand. I suspect that we’ll see Michaela again soon; she’s such a big character and a strong athlete. Survivor needs to cast more alpha female players, and Michaela is perfect because she’s also fun.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.7, “French Twist” (2006, David Babcock)
This is the low point of season seven and possibly the entire series. I know that Lorelai is still rebounding from Luke, but marrying Christopher on a whim seems way out of character. The shots of Paris are also really unconvincing. I don’t mean to be too tough on the TV budget, but something is just really off about this entire story.

Shake! Otis at Monterey (1987, Pennebaker) - Review
I subscribed to the new streaming service Filmstruck this month and love it. There are so many blind spots that I’m planning to uncover in the near future. My first screening was D.A. Pennebaker’s short film of Otis Redding’s entire set at Monterey Pop. Redding was only 26 yet brought so much power to the stage. It’s tragic to note that he died less than six months later.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.8 “Introducing Lorelai Planetarium” (2006, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
It’s a relief to see the beginnings of a new start for the Luke/Lorelai friendship. Even though I wasn’t spoiled, I knew they wouldn’t spend the entire season apart. It’s good to see that at least Rory isn’t excited about Lorelai’s marriage. David Sutcliffe does his best as Christopher, but the show uses him too often as a plot device to separate Luke and Lorelai. It’s a tough position for any actor, especially with so many fans on Team Luke.

Jimi Hendrix plays Monterey Pop in the documentary Jimi Plays Monterey.

Jimi Plays Monterey (1986, Pennebaker) Review
Here's another full performance from Monterey Pop that drew a lot of attention. Hendrix was largely unknown in the U.S. at the time, which is hard to believe. His charisma on stage is matched by few others, and the music holds up well. It's a treat to see the entire set from such an important show.

The West Wing, Episode 2.7, “The Portland Trip” (2000, Paris Barclay)
I’ve been following along with The West Wing Weekly podcast since the start. I watched the show originally but didn’t see every episode in the pre-DVR days. I also dropped out at some point in the middle. It’s been great to revisit the show on a relaxed schedule. “The Portland Trip” has some interesting parallels to modern discussions on gay marriage, especially in the Trump era. It also includes some of the show’s unfortunate writing for its female characters. Donna takes the brunt this week as she worries about her love life following a failed date.

Survivor, Episode 33.8, “I’m the Kingpin” (2016)
Merge time! I have to admit that casting did a great job this season. Even the goofball characters like Taylor are entertaining. There are very few players that don’t bring something to the table. One downside is the high proportion of women being voted out of the game. There are only three left, and only Paul has left from the guys. I suspect that will change soon.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to the Artist (1979, Saul J. Turrell) - Review
I also caught this 30-minute documentary on Filmstruck, and I’m looking forward to diving into Robeson’s performances. He also was an outspoken activist, and the film barely has time to dive into that side. It’s a good primer on Robeson, a star whose past has mostly been erased.

Stargate Universe, Episode 2.7, “The Greater Good” (2010, William Waring)
This episode is one of the highlights of season two and moves the story forward considerably. We finally learn about the Destiny’s mission from Rush, who faces a beating from Young after Eli discovers the bridge. “The Greater Good” feels like a mid-season finale, especially when you consider the cliffhanger ending. A lot happens, but it sets up an even greater conflict to come.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.10, “Merry Fisticuffs” (2006, Jackson Douglas)
Also known as the episode with the amazing moment when Luke and Christopher brawl, this one moves us closer to the end of the unfortunate Lorelai/Christopher marriage. It can’t come soon enough, though I know the writers have to drag it out further into the season. There’s also the Marty issue with Rory, though the less I say about those scenes, the better.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.11, “Santa’s Secret Stuff” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Lorelai struggles to write Luke a letter of recommendation in his custody battle for April. She ends up writing a love letter that ends her marriage, but we’ll talk about that later. Right now, it’s all about the holidays and trying to be a new family. It’s not going very well.

Drunk History, “Election Special” (2016)
When the election results started going poorly, I had to step away or risk getting too depressed. A helpful remedy was the “Election Special” on Drunk History, which compiled earlier segments that focused on the Presidents. I’d seen them all before, but it was a cool break from a bad night.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.12, “To Whom It May Concern” (2007, Jamie Babbit)
This episode is such a relief. This season is inconsistent, but they handle Christopher’s exit well. His discovery of the letter just confirms his suspicions about being the rebound guy. Their fight is the beginning of the end of their relationship. There’s also the odd moment where Sookie learns that she’s pregnant again. It’s odd but makes sense given Melissa McCarthy’s pregnancy.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.13, “I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Luke has been lost for much of the season, so it’s cool to see the way that he reacts to Richard’s collapse. He’s there for Lorelai and will do anything regardless of past issues. Christopher is not so thoughtful. I also noticed that Gilmore Girls spends a lot of time in hospitals. This isn’t Richard’s first visit, which feels sadder given Edward Hermann’s passing.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.14, “Farewell, My Pet” (2007, Jamie Babbit)
I’m glad the show didn’t spend the full season on the end of the Christopher relationship. We still have eight episodes to go, and it’s great to focus on something else. Thankfully, it won’t be the new TA at Yale that makes Rory lose her mind in the bookstore. That scene recalls the way she acted with Dean in season one, and it’s a weird look for Rory here.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.15, “I’m a Kayak, Hear Me Roar” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
I don’t mind Logan on the whole, but his business issues are boring. This does bring the welcome return of Gregg Henry as Mitchum Huntzberger. I can’t believe one word the character says; he reminds me a little bit of a younger Trump. In the ongoing saga of Luke having no fun, he’s stuck with Liz, T.J., and the baby in his small apartment. Poor guy.

Michael Shannon helps his son in Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special.

Midnight Special (2016, Jeff Nichols)
Michael Shannon is the perfect collaborator for Jeff Nichols because he excels in understated roles. All we need to do is look at Roy’s face to grasp the turmoil inside that guy. He loves his son but doesn’t understand forces beyond him within the boy. Nichols drops us right into this story and creates a sci-fi story that grows with more time after seeing it.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.16, “Will You Be My Lorelai Gilmore?” (2007, David Paymer)
It’s time for Lane’s baby shower, and I remember now why I dislike Logan. It’s hard to sympathize with a rich kid who bolts at the first sign of trouble. He’s like a mini-Christopher! It is good to have more attention on Lane, who gets little to do in season seven besides having a baby. I do like Zack’s attempts to bond with Luke, who likes the kid but has no idea how to act.

Survivor, Episode 33.9, “Still Throwin’ Punches” (2016)
We finally lose a guy on Survivor! As an added benefit, the victim is the dim-witted Taylor. He was never dull, but there’s only so much goofiness you can take. I still don’t understand his skills with mason jars beyond just putting food in them. Following this episode, I wrote a RHAP blog about how going big and not always good strategy.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.17, “Gilmore Girls Only” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Amazingly, Mia has actually aged backwards since her first appearance. This time she’s played by Kathy Baker as a bohemian type. Despite covering familiar territory, the road trip for Emily, Lorelai, and Rory has some fun moments. I again like the continued way that Lane and Zack are connecting with Luke. It gives him more to do before he’s ready to reconcile with Lorelai.

Drunken Angel (1948, Akira Kurosawa) - Review
I’ve only seen 10 of Kurosawa’s films, so I still have a long way to go. I’ll be taking advantage of Filmstruck to catch up with many of them. My first choice was Drunken Angel, the first collaboration between Kurosawa and ToshirĂ´ Mifune. It’s a pretty straightforward noir story, but it clicks due to way Kurosawa captures a mood of post-war melancholy.

Drunk History, Episode 4.7, “Landmarks” (2016)
There are quite a few inspired choices for the guest actors in this episode, including Taylor Schilling and Liev Schreiber. The pleasant surprise is John Cho playing William Shakespeare. It’s a subtle way to remind us that perhaps our preconceived notions deserve a push away from the obvious. We’ll see that move again in the Alexander Hamilton episode in a few weeks.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.18, “Hay Bale Maze” (2007, Stephen Clancy)
This season feels so much lighter without Lorelai’s marriage hanging over it. We get the chance to enjoy Taylor’s gigantic hay bale maze, which surprises everyone by actually being fun. Luke and Lorelai also finally talk openly about their issues; we’re in store for great things soon!

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.19, “It’s Just Like Riding a Bike” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Paris is one of the show’s best characters, even when she’s acting ridiculous. Her freak-out about which school to choose is fun, though it does go on for quite a while. We also get to see Lorelai riding through town in a bike, which is a good image. The rest just blurs into the background. I think that I’m wearing down and ready to finish this project.

Morris from America (2016, Chad Hartigan)
While the story felt a little too conventional, the performances from Markees Christmas and especially Craig Robinson make it worthwhile. The scenes with the two actors have great heart and never strike a false note. The scenes away from the pair don’t always click, especially with some of his German classmates. Even so, the laid-back style doesn’t oversell the stakes.

The Walking Dead, Episode 7.3, “The Cell” (2016, Alrick Riley)
It was hard to dive back into The Walking Dead after the vicious season premiere. The show reveled in watching Negan beat several characters to death; it was all too much. Following the election, I also wasn’t thrilled to dive back into such a dreary show. We finally caught the third episode, and it felt mostly like a retread despite convincing work from Norman Reedus.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.20, “Lorelai? Lorelai?” (2007, Bethany Rooney)
I’d heard a lot about the big Luke/Lorelai karaoke scene, and it did not disappoint. The looks from both of them say it all. They belong together and need to set aside all the obstacles. Season seven gets a lot of flak (much is deserved), but it finishes strong. Despite all the odd detours their characters have taken, Lauren Graham and Scott Patterson totally sell this moment.

The West Wing, Episode 2.8, “Shibboleth” (2000, Laura Innes)
It’s time for the Thanksgiving episode, which brings C.J. a few surprise guests in her office. Allison Janney’s interactions with the turkeys are a comic highlight. The main plot involves Chinese Christians looking for asylum in the U.S. after fleeing their country. While the story is a bit on the nose for the holiday, it works better than expected. There’s also a nice moment between Bartlet and Charlie around carving knives at the end.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.21, “Unto the Breach” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
It’s time for Rory’s graduation from Yale, and it brings a surprise marriage proposal from Logan. The show handles this familiar situation well; Rory is not ready to become Mrs. Huntzberger. Beyond the graduation, this episode is really a set-up for the finale. Luke and Lorelai are figuring out their future (and being weird to each other), and the town is ready for a big party. Plus, Kirk in a box! That moment sells the episode on its own.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.22, “Bon Voyage” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Whew. I enjoyed seeing the entire series in a short time, but I’m ready for some other shows. Of course, there’s still A Day in the Life coming shortly (see below!). It’s funny to note that Rory leaves to go cover Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign in Iowa. Those were the days! The show ends well, particularly with the whole town saying goodbye to Rory (and us). I loved the last scene of Richard and Emily with Lorelai. As a dad, his final words really hit home for me.

Mahershala Ali teaches a young boy to swim in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight.

Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins) - Review
Believe the hype. This is easily one of my favorite movies from this year. The main reason is the performances, particularly from the three actors playing Chiron. Mahershala Ali also gives a supporting performance that’s going to win a lot of awards. Moonlight is the type of film that only grows stronger as I think about it more. We feel so much for the characters, especially Chiron. Jenkins builds such an emotional connection with the audience; there’s no distance.

Drunk History, Episode 4.8, “Food” (2016)
I wasn’t as engaged by this episode, though Tess Lynch has great fun talking about the artichoke wars. Michaela Watkins also stands out as Julia Child in a story that was brand new for me. Drunk History spotlights so many talented women that deserve a lot more attention.

Westworld, Episode 1.2, Chestnut (2016, Richard J. Lewis)
I reviewed the Westworld premiere “The Original” back in early October but just never found my way back to the show until now. The show has good production values and talented actors, but it’s also really proud of itself. The puzzle box mystery has promise, yet I’m finding it hard to connect with any characters. This episode’s highlight is Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) haunting memories of another time or place. She also wakes up during an inopportune surgery behind the scenes. Newton and Evan Rachel Wood are the main reasons to tune in at this point.

Survivor, Episode 33.10 and 33.11, “Million Dollar Gamble” (2016)
This two-hour episode is easily the highlight of the season. The first hour includes lots of interesting strategy and the departure of a key player. And that’s just the appetizer for the chaos of the second Tribal Council. The rock draw is so tense! The stakes are high for everyone involved, not just the players trusting luck to survive. We’re in store for a great finish.

The Great Muppet Caper (1981, Jim Henson)
When I was a kid, we had a small number of VHS dubbed movies and watched them repeatedly. One of them was The Great Muppet Caper, which I remembered as being a big step down from The Muppet Movie. I was surprised by all the clever gags that went over my head as a kid. It’s still not as great as its predecessor, but the gap is smaller than I thought.

Drunk History, Episode 4.9, “Hamilton” (2016)
Lin-Manuel Miranda gets a full episode all to himself, but it doesn’t feel padded. I love the choice to have Alia Shawkat and Aubrey Plaza play Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It’s another cool way to subvert our expectations and spotlight diverse comedians. Miranda is clearly a fan and has a blast with Derek Waters. The moment when Questlove calls them is so funny because the Roots’ drummer is giddy about the show. The enthusiasm is everywhere.

The West Wing, Episode 2.9, "Galileo" (2000, Alex Graves)
It's easy for me to enjoy an episode where a character gives a rousing speech about exploration and the space program. Sam gets that honor and is helped by the soaring music behind him. "Galileo" is a breezy episode that gives Janney plenty to do, which is never a bad idea. Even when there's a crisis involving a Russian missile silo, the episode still flows smoothly. It's one of my favorites of the season to this point.

Survivor, Episode 33.12, “About to Have a Rumble” (2016)
There was no way that Survivor could match last week’s insanity, but this episode came close. Jeff talked a lot about “love” during the family visit, and everyone cried. It was really after the immunity challenge when the fun began. Will openly talked about shoring up his resume, and Ken topped him with an even dumber idea. Adam won everything this week; he got rid of the advantage, won immunity, and played the idol for Hannah. It doesn’t matter that the votes were 5-4 against Zeke. The move will help Adam a lot if he makes the end.

Westworld, Episode 1.3, “The Stray” (2016, Neil Marshall)
It’s confusing to keep track of the different story lines (time periods?) in the show at this point. The pursuit of the cultists is well-done, yet it raises a lot more questions. Are they humans that have taken up residence at the park? The bullets were ineffective, which means that’s the likely situation. And what was up with the stray guy hidden in the rocks? So many questions. I don’t mind not having the answers, though the writers are playing a dangerous game.

Alia Shawkat stars as Dory in Search Party.

Search Party

For these last two entries, I’m combining all the episodes into one section. We’re already more than 3,000 words into this article. If you made it this far, nice job! Also, a show like Search Party is only loosely separated into episodes. TBS released all 10 at once online and aired them within a five-day period. This was a smart choice for this show, which wouldn’t click so well as a weekly show. It’s great to see a starring role for Shawkat, who deserves a lot more attention.

Search Party is tricky to explain because it doesn’t hit the expected beats. It’s a mystery but regularly gets distracted by random subplots. On the other hand, these detours lead to good comedy. It seems like Shawkat’s Dory is the one character that isn’t self-centered. What’s apparent by the end (which really surprised me) is that she’s on the same plane as her friends. They’re not despicable people, particularly compared to some other characters. The show flies by and includes quite a few lively supporting performances. There’s rarely a dull moment, and the season’s length feels just right for the half-hour series. Check out this surprising little gem.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

It seems fitting that I would close this diary with the show that occupied a majority of my viewing time this month. Expectations were sky high for this revival, and it mostly delivered. I loved getting the chance to spend time with these characters again, particularly the citizens of Stars Hollow (except Andrew). Kirk should be on my TV as much as possible. I’ve read quite a few critical pieces about A Year in the Life, and they usually make good points. There are some issues, particularly with Rory’s story line. On the other hand, her arc wasn’t so dominant to drown out what worked so well.

The heart of the four 90-minute episodes is actually Emily’s story. She becomes the third lead Gilmore and makes us root for her happiness. Seeing her just enjoying her life on Nantucket after Richard’s passing is such a relief. Kelly Bishop excels at playing Emily’s nasty side, and that’s still present frequently. What I loved was seeing her let all that anger slide away. She had fun belittling her fellow DAR members (“bullshit!”) and scaring the kids at the whaling museum. It was also good to watch her dismissing Ray Wise’s nice but dull suitor.

I should take a moment to talk about Rory’s misadventures as a freelance journalist. It’s hard to feel too bad for a woman that flies to London and has multiple large houses open to write her book. The show just doesn’t know what to do with Rory; she needs a conflict to overcome. This time it’s really an internal conflict. The lack of realism with the journalism scenes doesn’t bother me too much; this is a show that once included a ridiculously giant pizza. It’s just too bad that we didn’t care as much about Rory in these episodes. Even the last four words drew more of a “what?” reply than compassion for her.

I was more invested in Luke and Lorelai’s relationship. If they were not together at the end of “Fall”, I would have been angry. Those two deserve each other, and it’s sad to see them still a little distant here. I did love their big scene, which mirrors the break-up at the end of season six. Luke refuses to let that happen again, and Lorelai’s right there with him. It’s just a sweet way to bring together characters that have been through so much. I wish A Year in the Life could have ended before Rory’s reveal. However, it does open the door for more episodes.

I suspect we’ll see another run given the huge interest in this revival, but I have mixed feelings. There will be fewer cameos (sorry Dean and Jason!), and we’ll need more than Rory’s pregnancy to make it work. Lorelai is preparing to buy another inn, so her story isn’t finished. If they do continue, I’d like to see new characters. The forgettable Paul does not count. People like this world; let’s expand it and tell a few new stories.