Saturday, June 9, 2018

Mental Illness and Quality of Life in America

Disclaimer

If you read this blog for awards season analysis and other movie commentary (if you read it at all), this post might come as something of a surprise. When I first started writing here eleven years ago, I imagined that there would be a fair amount of political entries. It didn't take me very long to learn how exhausting that really is. Politics on the internet is a constant parade of various outrages and overblown non-news stories and I'm not sure how anyone with any sort of real-life schedule is supposed to "react" to all of them. I put that stuff aside to keep the focus on what I thought I did pretty well, stuff like Oscar predictions and looking back on childhood shows with an adult's point of view. Sometimes, though, I just have to get something out and that's basically what this is. Not a rant exactly, more like a structured essay that gives me a chance to express some feelings I've been stewing about for a few years now. If that's not your thing, I understand. Oh, just one more note - I've been working on this for so long that the bulk of it was actually written before Trump was elected. I'm going to try and keep him out of it, especially since he's a particularly vile symptom rather than the disease. But with him around, basically take everything here and multiply it by ten.

Preface

I've seen quite a few articles about how anxiety and depression is rising in America, particularly with young people. As I read them, I often slowly nod my head in agreement since the observations of the journalist line up with my own observations in my personal and professional life. I honestly feel like the majority of people I know struggle with anxiety (and possibly depression, although that's harder to spot). Medical science says that people are born with a certain level of susceptibility to these feelings and that leads to a sense of inevitability that compresses the conversation into variations on "What can these individuals do to help themselves?" This is all well and good, but if we really are seeing more anxiety and depression than we used to, I think we have to talk about the bigger picture as well.

The "big picture" is usually invoked as a way to cheer someone up, as in "You had a bad day today but in the big picture, your life is going pretty well!" That's fine but I don't hear people talk about how if the picture gets big enough, it might make you feel worse. I don't think you can talk about these prominent mental conditions in America without talking about life in America. Quality of life in America to be more specific, which is often compromised by our country's obsession with productivity and profit. It's true that some people are more prone to depression or anxiety than others. That doesn't mean we always need to be making it so goddamn easy to feel that. Right now, America is facilitating anxiety and depression, keeping it going the same way my phone charger didn't create my phone but keeps it at 100% power. We've got to do better.

Obviously, there are a lot of directions we can go with this - poverty, discrimination, police brutality, war, environmental blight, our longtime tradition of constant mass shootings, border patrols re-enacting scenes from Sophie's Choice with migrant families at the Mexican border, etc. If I was younger, I probably would have tried to hit all of them with an essay like this. These days, I think a "jack of all trades" approach to advocacy leads to inevitable instances of sounding presumptuous and/or uninformed. That said, while all of these issues don't impact everyone directly, they do contribute to an overall portrait of despair that can do more damage to someone's mental state that we usually give credit for. I'm narrowing my focus to a few loosely connected issues that relate to a person's relationship with their career as well as obstacles in the way of getting the necessary help, which are topics I have plenty of personal experience with. Those who have had conversations with me in real life will probably find that much of this is familiar, but I never get the chance to tie it all together like this. Four paragraphs is a long enough introduction, I'd say. Let's start.

The Broken Bargain

Since the economy went south, it's become very common to hear things like "you should be happy to even have a job right now with the economy the way it is." Yet when you consider how so many people in America are treated by their employers, gratitude is hardly the first emotion that comes to mind.

People talk about full-time work as if there is no downside to it. But there is. There always has been. Giving up 40 hours of your life every week for years is a huge sacrifice. That's time that could be spent with your family, out in a park, doing something creative or just quiet reflection. Time is not a renewable resource. When it's gone, we're gone. The whole idea behind it is that you get paid enough to sustain yourself and enjoy the time that you're not at work. The exchange of time for money - this is a bargain that is supposed to sustain contemporary society, but it's broken.

We've lost respect for the time that people give up when they spend countless hours in an office. America's $7.25/hour minimum wage is an insult, not even close to anything resembling proper compensation for giving up that time. To make up for this, many people have taken on additional jobs, giving up even more time in exchange for earning just enough to stave off hunger for another week. I don't have enough negative adjectives to describe this situation - unjust, heinous, despicable, shameful, horrifying, take your pick. Politicians like to say "Nobody who works full-time should live in poverty." I'd prefer to say that nobody at all should live in poverty, but yes it's particularly insulting when you're also working your ass off. But there's more to quality of life than just avoiding poverty. People who are giving up that much time should make enough to pay their bills, feed their families, and have enough left over for something special every so often. A trip to a restaurant, a family vacation, an opportunity to enjoy life. Because if you can't do that, what's the point of working? What's the point of even being alive?

Sometimes you hear people say that the minimum wage should be kept low in order to encourage fast-food workers and other people at "dead-end" jobs to strive for something better. But those jobs will always exist because there's always a need for them, so someone will have to do them. Not everyone has the resume to move on to something more respectable (and fewer will in the future since higher education has gotten so laughably unaffordable), so is it really right to sentence these people to lives full of struggle just for working jobs that are always necessary and yet seen by the public as disreputable? Fast food places are everywhere so there's obviously high demand for them. Why have we collectively decided that the people who serve the food deserve to be paid so poorly?

This issue is at the heart of the "income inequality" concept, which I have to admit is a term I'm not a big fan of. Not because I don't feel it's a problem, it obviously is, but because I think the wording is ripe for distortion. It's too easy for pundits to get overly defensive and sound the alarm about the plot to bring everyone's wages to the same level. We don't actually need a society where everyone gets paid the same exact amount of money. We just need to make sure nobody gets screwed. The bottom of the ladder, so to speak, should still yield enough money to live a decent life. Once again, I'm not saying everyone needs to be able to get sports cars and mansions and luxuries of that nature, but they should be able to live comfortably with opportunities to create those memories that make life worthwhile.

Real Family Values

The fact that the phrase "family values" is almost exclusively used in American politics as a warped justification for various types of bigotry or moral censorship is a sad commentary on our national conversation in general. We shouldn't have to cringe when our leaders use that phrase, because actual family values are important and not given much respect in this country's work culture. The most glaringly obvious example is that new parents are still not guaranteed any paid time off to care for their newborn children. We love to heap praise on mothers and fathers when their respective parent-themed holidays roll around, but when it counts, it's just talk.

In the interest of honesty, I should note that this is personal. When I became a father, I was shocked and deeply discouraged by how my employer behaved. They couldn't legally deny me time off, but they tried everything to make the process as inconvenient and unhelpful as possible. I'm not going to get into all the details here, I've told the story many many times. I don't mind telling it since it has that rare 100% success rate of getting a sympathetic response, which I've never been accustomed to when talking about my problems. The unanimous solidarity people express when hearing that story, regardless of age, background or politics, makes me wonder why our laws are so behind on this issue because clearly a decent chunk of our people are not. But make no mistake, what America offers is abysmal compared to the rest of the world. Even Iran, a country we always paint as full of backwards-ass fundamentalist nutbars, will give you 12 weeks of paid family leave.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed about 25 years ago and provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents and guarantees that you will have a job when you return. I got to become very familiar with this law during my own experiences, particularly its limitations. Various exceptions within the legislation mean that a huge chunk of the workforce (sometimes estimated as high as 50 percent) is not eligible for anything. But beyond that, unpaid leave creates a very different dynamic than paid leave. Sure you can keep your job, but you are being punished for taking the time off by having your income cut off. Have you ever bought baby formula? How about diapers? It's expensive. Not the best time to be short on money. It's supposed to be an incentive to have children, but instead it becomes an incentive to go back to work earlier. That doesn't strike me as an accident.

I've seen a few articles reporting that a significant percentage of people my age and younger don't intend to have kids. If they just don't want to, that's all well and good. Being a parent is a ton of work that shouldn't be forced on anyone who doesn't truly want children. However, the most commonly cited reason is not a lack of desire but financial insecurity. They're afraid that they can't afford it or that it will compromise their careers and they're totally justified in those fears. I've seen a lot of tone deaf articles whining about not enough babies being produced so what's holding us back from doing something significant about it? Well, I read one article that speculated that opposition to paid family leave is rooted in opposition to women working at all. While I'm sure that's the motivation for a decent amount of people in Congress, I think most of it is just cold hard capitalism. Too many employers are worried that paid family leave could cause them to miss out on some potential money. As far as America is concerned, there is no greater good that's good enough to risk such a horrible fate.

So that's the sad state we find ourselves in. Productivity and profit is more important than the continuation of society itself. Bringing the next generation into the world, already challenging on its own, is turned into a major financial risk for thousands of families out there. Speaking from experience, I can tell you this sort of thing is very bad for your mental health. It poisoned my mood for the few months I spent at my job afterwards and even now, it still haunts me. I think of these lyrics from Eminem's "Like Toy Soldiers" - Even though the battle was won/I feel like we lost it/Spent so much energy on it/Honestly, now I'm exhausted/But I'm so caught up in it I almost feel like I'm the one who caused it. But I didn't. I was just trying to be a good father until my job got in the way. We won't shut up about "family values" and yet we don't actually value families. The irony is very cruel indeed.


The One Great Sight

"Wildness is a necessity. I am losing previous days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must get out into the mountains and hear the news."
-John Muir


Quick note: We don't have paid sick leave either. This one really boggles the mind. Do you want a waiter serving your food at a restaurant to have the flu? Didn't think so. This is a much easier sell than family leave and yet for some ungodly reason, we still don't have it.

Vacation time...now that's a hard sell. Most people agree that taking time off to get healthy or to care for a newborn child are still practical choices. But taking time off to relax? To see a beautiful place? To enjoy uninterrupted time with your family? This isn't seen by employers or politicians as smart use of time that could be spent making other people money. This is a distinctly American eccentricity. We've been called "The No Vacation Nation" by the Center of Economic and Policy Research. There are benevolent employers out there who grant paid vacation time to their employees, but the fact that you're at the mercy of your employer when it comes to this issue is what bothers me.

Our obnoxious cultural disdain for enjoying life in non work-related ways can be summed up by a car commercial from a while back. I'm not gonna give a link to it because they can go fuck themselves. It showed an over-privileged white douchebag walking around his house insulting the French for taking six weeks of vacation each year and praising America for using our limited time on the planet making great cars instead. Yeah, I'm sure the French are sulking around Europe during their long vacations because they don't make cars as cool as ours. However, that wasn't the worst part of this commercial. The most insidious part was at the end, when the pitchman said that "only taking two weeks off in August" was worth it for a nice car. This presents two weeks of vacation as the default in America, but it isn't. The default is nothing. A large portion of people working in this country have no time off whatsoever.

Making the whole situation even stranger is that despite our reluctance to guarantee vacation time to our citizens, we still have the federal government taking care of millions of acres of protected land - our National Parks. They're meant to preserve beautiful places for our enjoyment, but these days they're used more by foreign tourists. You know what I'm talking about if you've been to one - most people there are from Germany or Canada or China or Japan. In fact, I've even seen Chinese-speaking tourists at Walden Pond. You've got to have a lot of time off to make the trip from China to Massachusetts...and be really into Thoreau. The parks are one of the greatest things America ever did. Most of the world has followed suit, but why are we not prouder that we did it first? Why do we take more pride in how efficiently we can destroy other nations rather than the beauty of where we live? I actually feel patriotic when I'm in a national park. Yeah, me. The lack of access to television and the internet probably helps with that.

There was a time when our leaders found them patriotic as well. President Theodore Roosevelt, who did more for this cause than anyone else to hold the position, once described the Grand Canyon as "the one great sight that every American should see." But good luck making good on this if you don't already live near it and don't have any vacation time. Trying to do it in a weekend would be more stressful than your job. I saw a particularly dense article (this is becoming a running theme) theorizing why more minorities in America don't go to the parks. The writer wondered if it was because there was no wi-fi. Someone actually got paid to suggest that but I'll tell you the truth for free. They don't go for the same reason a sizable portion of white people don't go - not enough money, not enough time off.

I understand that parks aren't necessarily where everyone wants to go, but whatever you enjoy doing that isn't strictly profitable...you should have time for that without having to risk your financial security. It's not unreasonable to ask for that, no matter what a brain dead commercial might tell you.

Good Help is Hard to Find

"I tell ya, I get no respect! I get no respect at all!"
-Rodney Dangerfield


If you've read everything up to this point and are on board...thanks! But this is the part you're not going to like. Still, it needs to be said. More often than not, the way people react to depression and the people who have it is the opposite of help.

This is the sad, awful truth about living with depression - being alive is hard. It doesn't even have to be a bad day. The simple state of being alive is hard. When you consider the deaths of beloved, successful people like Robin Williams, Chris Cornell or Anthony Bourdain, people who weren't dealing with any of the stuff I've been going on about, you understand just how ruthless depression is. I've got kids running around, I have to drag myself out of bed every day but it's hard when your energy level is so often depleted. Sometimes a simple thing like bending over to pick something up becomes tiring. Some days I panic if people ask too many questions because of the effort required to answer them all. Tasks that most people would complete without a second thought often require me to spend a while shoring up the energy and willpower. People just don't want to hear this. They hate the idea of someone having an "excuse" not to be overly productive or hardworking. It's simply not acceptable. So they tend to react to people who are mentally ill with passive-aggressive glurge or sometimes outright hostility. Want some examples?

"Stop being so selfish!"

You know what somebody who is struggling is going to think after you say this? Here's a hint, it's not "Wow, he's right!" More like "Well, I won't be opening up about my struggles to that person again." If that's what you wanted (and something tells me it just might be), then mission accomplished. Just don't start going on about how "I had no idea anything was wrong."

One of the worst parts of depression or any mental illness is the shame, that awful guilt about being a burden to everyone around you. Unfortunately, a lot of people feel like the proper thing to do is to pile on even more shame. They think it's about your well-being, but it's not. It's about what you can give them. They'll call you selfish for taking something away from them, never mind the hurt of what they take from you.

"You're not entitled to a living wage/sick time/vacation time/family leave/anything that might give you the impression that you're a worthwhile human being!"

Ah, the E-word. Where would assholes be without it? The thing is...it cuts both ways. You're not entitled to borderline free labor from employees who express nothing but happiness about getting screwed over! See how easy that is?

"Smiling is the best anti-depressant!"

Wait, isn't this a quote from The Stepford Wives? No? This is a thing people actually say? Wow. Well, it's inaccurate in addition to being incredibly stupid.

Otherwise well-meaning people might interpret this stuff as "tough love," but frankly nothing about it feels loving. We're all getting called out constantly by the culture around us and to be treated like this by our loved ones does not help. People who are a little more savvy will advise you to get professional help. They're right but it's not always as simple as it sounds.

It's become routine for journalists to provide the number for the suicide hotline at some point in their coverage. It's a thoughtful idea but it's not a magic bullet. The hotline's go-to move is to send you to the ER, because that's the surest bet that you'll remain alive once they're off the phone. But the suicide hotline doesn't pay that ER bill. Not only that, visits to a therapist add up. Medication adds up.

And so we've gotten to the most literal example of mental health being compromised by the whims of business and commerce. As long as we treat mental health care (or any health care, really) like a big screen TV or some other luxury, this won't stop. You can keep pushing people into darker corners, but you can't make them happy about it. We're all going to become very familiar with that reality. When the next shooting comes around (should be any day now, it's been a few weeks) and people start reprising their empty declarations about "mental health," maybe think about what it would actually take to address that instead of just using it to fill airtime.

Conclusion

This rise in anxiety and depression that baffles so many otherwise intelligent people is inextricably linked to a society that doesn't see its citizens as actual people, but economic units to be plugged at their lowest possible price into a ruthless market that provides the greatest possible returns on investment to the wealthy few...all with no thought to the resulting human resentment and misery.

It may be tempting to think that it's not worth even trying. If depression is so bad, is it even possible to do anything? The answer is yes. Some people are lucky enough to have their illnesses go into remission for a long time, sometimes even years. Many other people will always be dealing with them at least a little bit. Regardless, moments of happiness and joy are still possible. It can be anything from standing on top of Glacier Point to hearing "What is Love" start playing over the intercom while you're grocery shopping (I like that, anyway). More than anything else, hope for more moments like these is what keeps people alive. So maybe don't make it so difficult to experience them?

It's just a thought.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Oscars 2018 Educated Guesses

So I guess we should talk about last year?

My prediction for Best Picture was wrong. So was everyone else's. Hell, even the Oscars themselves had it wrong for a few insane minutes. In what will likely be remembered as the most unbelievable moment in the history of the Academy Awards, a mix-up with the envelopes led to La La Land being named Best Picture followed by the producers having to turn over their statues to the real winner - Moonlight.

Even without all the drama, Moonlight's win would still have been a huge shock. I've had plenty of time to think about this and I've concluded that La La Land's immense critical acclaim blinded me and my fellow Oscar prognosticators to just how polarizing it actually was, which became much clearer following its big loss. The preferential voting system favors films that are universally liked and I have yet to hear anyone say anything bad about Moonlight. What was lost amid the scandal is just how inspiring it was that a small independent film about the type of people who live on the margins of society was able to upset a seemingly irresistible tribute to classic Hollywood musicals. The Oscars truly are changing and this year's nominees are another demonstration of that.

Without knowing how the night would end, I also had predicted the biggest takeaway from last year's Oscars would be how confrontational they were in regards to Trump's presidency. This year's ceremony will unfold in the shadow of a different sexual predator - Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced producer who bullied and shouted his way to several Oscars over the years. The industry's shameful treatment of women has remained in the spotlight ever since and watching how the Academy handles it will be intriguing. I can't say I envy Jimmy Kimmel, who will be expected to address the topic in his opening monologue despite it being decidedly unfunny.

I also was wondering what was going to happen with Best Actress, which is typically presented by the previous year's winner for Best Actor. That's Casey Affleck, who managed to win despite persistent allegations of sexual harassment. However, he bowed out of the ceremony, probably nervous that Frances McDormand was going to punch his lights out.

Will the MeToo/Time'sUp movement also affect the actual winners? I think so, at least in the case of Best Picture. But before that...

Best Animated Feature
The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Coco
Ferdinand
Loving Vincent


Who Will Win: This was the first year in which voting for this category was open to all Academy members rather than just a smaller group of experts in the animation field. The inclusion of The Boss Baby makes me wonder if that was really such a good idea. Thankfully, it has no chance of winning. Pixar's acclaimed Coco should easily cruise to a victory, thanks in large part to its tear-jerking ending.

My Choice: Coco is a sweet, heartfelt movie but I tend to root for the smaller films when it comes to this category and I'd love to see The Breadwinner get the win. It takes some serious stones to make an animated film set in Afghanistan during the era of Taliban control, but the result was quite powerful. The Cartoon Saloon studio has made three films so far and all three have earned nominations. Hopefully they'll win one of these days.

Best Documentary Feature
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places
Icarus
Last Men in Aleppo
Strong Island


Who Will Win: This strikes me as a close race between two of the films, but it's hard to say for sure since there wasn't really any documentary this year that caught on with viewers outside the world of movie buffs. A win for Strong Island, a striking story of a senseless murder in 1992 and the subsequent failure of the judicial system to deliver justice to the family, would be historic given that director Yance Ford is transgender (although this has very little to do with the content of the film itself). However, I'm giving the advantage to Faces Places, directed by the celebrated Belgian filmmaker Agnes Varda. This seems like the perfect year to honor one of the key female directors in cinema history.

My Choice: The lesson from The Act of Killing's disheartening loss in 2013 (yes, I am still annoyed about it) is that if a documentary uncovers truths that are too terrible, the Academy shies away. Last Men in Aleppo deserves to win, but it is so emotionally devastating that it has no chance. It's easy to forget about all the suffering going on in Syria amidst the ridiculous news we're all bombarded with every day, but that's a lot harder to do after spending 90 minutes with rescue volunteers digging dead bodies out of rubble. I don't know if I can necessarily "recommend" it, but it is an unbearably powerful movie.

Best Adapted Screenplay
James Ivory for Call Me By Your Name
Scott Neustadler and Michael H. Weber for The Disaster Artist
Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green for Logan
Aaron Sorkin for Molly's Game
Virgil Williams and Dee Rees for Mudbound

Who Will Win: James Ivory, along with his partner Ismail Merchant, founded the popular Merchant Ivory company that has been putting out highbrow movies for decades. Ivory, now 89, has yet to win an Oscar personally and so this seems like the best chance for the highly acclaimed Call Me By Your Name to pull off a win.

My Choice: The Disaster Artist was a pretty polished adaptation of the book, even if it softened Tommy Wiseau's rougher edges to keep him sympathetic. The nomination for Logan is in fact the first time a superhero film has shown up in this category but I did have some issues with how much it borrows from other movies (It's basically Shane meets Children of Men and even draws attention to the former). So I suppose I am rooting for Mudbound. The interracial friendship between Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell's characters was very well-written and believable and I've thought about it a lot since watching the film.

Best Original Screenplay
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjani for The Big Sick
Jordan Peele for Get Out
Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird
Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor for The Shape of Water
Martin McDonagh for Three Billboards

Who Will Win: There's some major action in this category with four of the year's heavy hitters (and The Big Sick, but it's a comedy so good luck) in close competition. The Shape of Water will be rewarded for its more visual elements elsewhere. Lady Bird is an exemplary coming of age movie but may not seem challenging enough in a highly politicized year. Three Billboards, with its enjoyable profane dialogue, could manage a win but I have a feeling the edgy streak of this category will favor the entertaining but thematically complicated writing of Get Out. Whatever happens, it's going to be close.

My Choice: I think the screenplays for Lady Bird and Get Out are both great (for different reasons) so I'd be happy with either.

Best Supporting Actress
Mary J. Blige in Mudbound
Allison Janney in I, Tonya
Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water

Who Will Win: The closest acting race of the night, but so far Allison Janney has been racking up the playoff awards for her memorable embodiment of Tonya Harding's mother from Hell. There is potential for an upset here, especially by Laurie Metcalf as another difficult mother but one who looks positively saintly in comparison. Although she must be used to losing to Janney by now, Metcalf's performance earns a more emotional response from the viewer. Then there's wild card Lesley Manville, whose deadpan humor was a highlight of a movie that turned out to have a strong base of support among the voters.

My Choice: Laurie Metcalf's character, with her control freak behavior and casual put downs, should be someone the audience can't stand. Instead, she's often deeply sympathetic. That's some good acting.

Best Supporting Actor
Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards
Richard Jenkins in The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards

Who Will Win: Here's what's really weird and contradictory about all the Three Billboards controversy. The main bone of contention is with the arc of Sam Rockwell's character, the racist dimwit Officer Dixon, and yet Rockwell is almost certainly going to win an Oscar on Sunday. To get into it more, I'll need to spoil parts of the movie so if you don't want that, scroll down to Best Actress. Dixon begins the film as the kind of bigoted dumbass who is way over-represented in the federal government at this point. It's alleged several times that he tortured a black prisoner, an incident which is never explained, probably because it would compromise his redemption arc. In the final act of the movie, Dixon has half his face burned off and becomes a more heroic figure like some kind of benevolent Two-Face. The question of whether or not the "noble bigot" archetype is still responsible in this day and age has turned Three Billboards into a bountiful hot-take generator. For whatever reason, all the chatter hasn't damaged Rockwell's chances in the least.

My Choice: Willem Dafoe is getting robbed! He's played everyone from Jesus to the Green Goblin over the years, so seeing him nail an everyman character like the overworked hotel manager in The Florida Project was really special. Considering most of the cast was made up of local talent, he blended in surprisingly well...but maybe that's the reason why he keeps losing to a more showy performance.

Best Actress
Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards
Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird
Meryl Streep in The Post

Who Will Win: Frances McDormand gives the kind of larger than life performance actors dream of and it should earn her a second Oscar in this category. If anyone had a prayer of upsetting, it would be Saoirse Ronan, but that seems unlikely. Here's hoping for some quality swearing during the acceptance speech.

My Choice: McDormand is legendary, but she's already won. Meanwhile, Ronan has racked up three Oscar nominations and she's not even 25, which is kind of amazing. She's so good that I could even forgive her character for subjecting me to Dave Matthews Band music. McDormand herself has made comments implying that she would like to see her win.

Best Actor
Timothee Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Who Will Win: Gary Oldman's had a distinguished career but not all that many awards, but none of those roles were delivered while wearing a fat suit and tons of prosthetics and makeup reading famous speeches by Winston Churchill. The Academy can't resist a physical transformation like this and combined with the general sense that Oldman is overdue for an Oscar, he should win without much trouble. However, there's one X-factor here and that's the accusations of spousal abuse from his ex-wife. A lot of other actors have seen awards hopes crash and burn lately because of this kind of thing, but Oldman seems to be cruising ahead unhindered by virtue of, well, being Gary Oldman. It would be hard for Hollywood to avoid accusations of hypocrisy if they make a big show of support for victimized women at the Oscars only to give one of the top awards to someone with Oldman's past. Should that take him down in the end, the beneficiary would likely be Timothee Chalamet, who would be the youngest man to ever win this category. Still, if Casey Affleck can get past this sort of landmine, an actor with Oldman's stature should have no problem.

My Choice: As far as Winston Churchill goes, I prefer the Albert Finney incarnation in The Gathering Storm. Out of these five, I would give it to Daniel Kaluuya. Protagonists in horror films are generally considered expendable to the audience, but he draws viewers in regardless of whether or not they can identify with the specific circumstances that kick off the plot of Get Out.

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

Who Will Win: For all the talk of the lack of diversity at the Oscars, Mexicans have been absolutely cleaning up in this category for the last several years, with a win by Alfonso Cuaron and two consecutive ones for Alejandro G. Inarritu. The trend looks to continue. Having won the telltale Director's Guild award this year, Guillermo Del Toro seems unstoppable thanks to the singular world he created in The Shape of Water. It helps that he's a very endearing dude who can barely contain his love of movies whenever he has a chance to speak about them. It's also worth noting who's absent from this line up - Martin McDonagh of Three Billboards. Some pundits have taken that as a bad omen for the movie but the Academy doesn't pair Director and Picture nearly as often as they used to. In fact, that's only happened once in the last five years.

My Choice: So much talent here, but the most visually spectacular film I saw this year was Dunkirk. The airplane scenes in particular were just breathtaking. Nolan's been due for a while but for now he'll be racking up another loss. At some point, he'll probably have a Scorsese-esque moment where the Academy decides to appreciate him but it won't be this year.

Best Picture
Call Me By Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards


Who Will Win: Let's narrow it down. Phantom Thread and Call Me By Your Name are too highbrow even by Oscar standards. There is so much overlapping subject matter in Dunkirk and Darkest Hour that you could probably edit them together into something pretty epic, but it's not the kind of year where a war movie wins. The Post came only two years after Best Picture went to Spotlight, another film about journalism in the emerging "Ben Bradlee Cinematic Universe." That leaves us with a pretty strong final four.

The Shape of Water has the most nominations of any movie, which is usually a good sign. However, I still can't imagine that a movie where, all beautiful imagery and art direction aside, a woman gets it on with a fish monster, is going to walk away with Best Picture. Either that or the Academy has become much more open-minded than anyone's been giving it credit for. Get Out's success during this awards season has been groundbreaking and makes me smile warmly with pride as a big-time horror fan. However, it is still a horror film and its journey will end here. Lady Bird is a genuine contender and seems to be liked by just about everyone, but I'm predicting a win for Three Billboards.

"But Rob, didn't you just admit to underestimating the backlash against La La Land last year?" I haven't forgotten. Three Billboards is even more controversial but it has something important that La La Land didn't have - major relevance to the times we are living in. Dubious racial attitudes aside, this is a movie about one seriously pissed off woman. She is done with your shit, doesn't care what you think and will do whatever she needs to do to get justice. If you don't think that resonates in a year like this one, you might not have been paying attention. But then again, I could be wrong. It's happened before (like last year).

My Choice: To tell you the truth, once I saw that The Florida Project didn't make it into this category, I became much less invested in its outcome this year. As far as the current nominees go, my preferences are as follows: Lady Bird > Dunkirk > Get Out > The Shape of Water > The Post > Three Billboards > Call Me By Your Name > Darkest Hour > Phantom Thread. But how cool would it be if Get Out actually won?

That's all for this year. Be careful with the envelopes!

Monday, January 22, 2018

The 3rd Annual Perfect World Awards

The Oscar nominations come out tomorrow and spoiler alert, people will be annoyed. Not sure exactly how yet, but they will be. In the meantime, I better get this done. If you haven't seen this before, it's just me stacking the top categories with movies and performances that really impressed me, indulging in a fantasy where the Oscars actually survey the entire year in film rather than a dozen movies released over a month's time. Let's get started!

Best Picture
Baby Driver
Brigsby Bear
Dunkirk
The Florida Project
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Last Jedi
The Villainess


Plausibility: Middling. Dunkirk and Lady Bird are safe bets and surprisingly, so is Get Out. It won't win, but it will be nice to see a horror film in the line-up unless something goes awry at the last second. Brigsby Bear is too quirky and Baby Driver is way too much fun. The Villainess would give a good number of Academy members heart attacks with its intensity. The Last Jedi isn't completely implausible but the Star Wars fandom can be so obnoxious that the Academy probably doesn't want anything to do with it. That leaves The Florida Project, which was my favorite. It could certainly happen, but it's basically on the bubble and could easily be pushed aside by something else.

Best Director
Sean Baker for The Florida Project
Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird
Byung-gil Jung for The Villainess
Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk
Edgar Wright for Baby Driver

Plausibility: On the low side. Nolan's the only one I feel totally confident will show up. The Florida Project would need to have a major showing for Sean Baker to get nominated. Edgar Wright's movies are so delightful and I really hope he shows up here someday, but it won't be this year. Byung-gil Jung oversaw a handful of glorious action scenes that put Western blockbusters to shame in The Villainess, while also balancing them with a character-based melodrama. It's tremendous work, but the Academy's just too insular. That leaves Greta Gerwig. She has good odds, but we know from experience that it's unreasonably hard for a woman to get into this category unless her name is Kathryn Bigelow. If I had to make the call, I would say she gets in...and if she doesn't, be prepared for a shitstorm of the highest order, one that could feasibly push Lady Bird to a Best Picture win (like the Argo/Ben Affleck situation a few years back).

Best Actor
John Cho in Columbus
James Franco in The Disaster Artist
Hugh Jackman in Logan
Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
James McAvoy in Split

Plausibility: Pretty much the same as Director. After his Golden Globe win, sexual harassment allegations came out against Franco, but I think Oscar voting was basically done by that point so I suspect he'll still get nominated. Daniel Kaluuya has a good shot, barring another "so white" year. John Cho was great in a movie that was very small, intellectual and understated - not Oscar material. James McAvoy did a hell of a job differentiating all of his different personalities in Split, but if a horror movie's going to break into Best Actor, it ain't this one. In a better world, Hugh Jackman would have had a good shot at this. His final performances as an old, desperate Logan was a great way to end his exceptional run as the character. Someday he'll be thought of as the Wolverine equivalent of Sean Connery's James Bond.

Best Actress
Carla Gugino in Gerald's Game
Ok-bin Kim in The Villainess
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards
Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project
Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird

Plausibility: Another two out of five (seems to be a theme this year). Wonder Woman was good but if you want to see a woman kick even more ass, have I got a movie for you. We've established that The Villainess will not be showing up anywhere this year, but if the Academy made an effort to see more movies in a given year (and if a nobody like me can manage it, they have no excuse), Ok-bin Kim might have made the list. McDormand is guaranteed a nomination and probably the win. Saoirse Ronan won't be far behind. Carla Gugino would have a shot if Gerald's Game wasn't a Netflix movie - old fogeys in the movie business are pretty salty about all this streaming business. Brooklynn Prince gave one of the most moving child performances I've seen in years, but this category is just too competitive.

Best Supporting Actor
Gil Birmingham in Wind River
Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project
Mark Hamill in Brigsby Bear
Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming
Pheoung Kompheak in First They Killed My Father

Plausibility: Not great! Willem Dafoe is The Florida Project's surest bet for a nomination and rightfully so. The rest of these are unfortunately out in the weeds and honestly, I could have stacked this category with ten people this year. The fate of Pheoung Kompheak's stoic Cambodian dad is foretold in the title of the film, but his sensitive performance makes you hope for some kind of miracle to save him. Michael Keaton brought tons of menace and character to one of Spider-Man's sillier adversaries. Mark Hamill's presence really elevated Brigsy Bear, which is in large part about our connection to pop culture icons (like Luke Skywalker, for instance). As for Gil Birmingham, he was only in about three or four scenes, but his performance as a frustrated and utterly devastated father in mourning is outstanding. It's the kind of performance that can open people's eyes to the injustice around us, but unfortunately Wind River was produced by the Weinstein Company and will be a casualty of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein's disgusting (if not altogether surprising) behavior.

Best Supporting Actress
Elizabeth Cappuccino in Super Dark Times
Carrie Fisher in The Last Jedi
Kiara Glasco in The Devil's Candy
Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird
Josie Olivo in The Florida Project

Plausibility: Laurie Metcalf saves this one from being a complete wipe-out. Super Dark Times is too....dark. Josie Olivo's role in The Florida Project is likely too small, but her character has a well-defined arc despite that. I have a soft spot for metalhead teen girls (in a perfectly safe paternal way, you pervs), so Kiara Glasco would be great, but The Devil's Candy is a horror movie. There's a lot of sentimentality going into this Carrie Fisher pick, but I couldn't help but have a sense of that Heath Ledger/Dark Knight melancholy as I watched a moving final performance from an actress who had already been dead for almost a year. The Last Jedi will get a lot of nominations in the tech categories but this is one that is also well-deserved.

That's all for this year. Predictions regarding the real nominations will be next.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Top 10 Films of 2017

Well, we made it. It's hard for movies to compete with the insane drama going on in our nation's capitol, but by the time we got to the end of December, there was a strong slate of movies to choose from and this list became surprisingly competitive. A dominant theme I noticed in most of the films I liked was the necessity of confronting hard truths. It could be the discovery of a terrifying new reality in a horror film, a legendary warrior forced to rethink everything he's ever known, or just a teenage girl forced to realize she has a lot to learn about the world. We could all benefit from some soul-searching of our own, to go beyond the details of one election and examine the broad issues in America that have led us to this dreadful place. If we survive this, the movies are going to get really interesting.

One adjustment for this year - thanks to streaming services, tracking down movies has become much easier and as a result, I can have a full list shortly after the new year, unlike past years where I scrambled for most of January to fill in some missing pieces. A few films that are taking their sweet time to open near me have been cut off (Sorry, The Post). I've also decided to replace the honorable mentions with an expanded list. The second set of films won't get full write-ups but I think it's interesting to see what came within striking distance of making the top 10. And away we go!

10. Get Out
This tense, cutting horror film perfectly captured the anxieties of its era, a typical trait of the genre but with a perspective that was sorely needed. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young black man who drives with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) into upstate New York to meet her wealthy parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). At first, they just seem like awkward but well-meaning old liberals but something sinister lurks beneath the “post-racial” fa├žade. Director Jordan Peele makes the oblivious behavior of the white characters painfully familiar until the big twist happens. I don't think this is a perfect horror film, in particular I found the third act a little too derivative of other “domestic terror” films. Still, its impact can't be overstated, especially since the film seems on track to (fingers crossed) become the first horror movie to get a Best Picture nomination in almost 20 years. And while I wouldn't call it a comedy (unlike the Golden Globes), there is some welcome levity and Lil Rel Howery in a supporting role as Chris's friend is hilarious.

9. Brigsby Bear
The title refers to a kid’s show with an audience of one: James (Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the film), who lives with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) in an underground bunker. When the police show up one day, James realizes that everything he’s known was a lie…although his main concern is how to continue “Brigsby Bear.” In less capable hands, the film might have turned into another smug hipster movie in love with its own irony. But it goes in the other direction and is genuinely sweet, with a complex, even-handed examination of how pop culture indoctrination affects us. The strong supporting cast includes Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Claire Danes and Andy Samberg, who also served as a producer. Good luck not being charmed.

8. The Void
The films of John Carpenter, particularly The Thing, are a clear influence on this lean and mean horror ride, one of the few of this nostalgic era that captures the wonder and dread of the movies it emulates. A police officer (Aaron Poole) discovers an injured drug addict and brings him to a short-staffed hospital, unaware that the building is the target of a mysterious cult connected to something beyond imagination. The cast includes Kenneth Welsh, Art Hindle and Ellen Wong, but the real star is the outstanding practical effects used for the various horrors that unfold. The story feels greatly incomplete by the film’s end, but in a way that will leave viewers wanting more.

7. The Shape of Water
What if the monster got the girl? This twist on Creature From the Black Lagoon takes place in a 1960s research facility, where a mysterious aquatic creature (Doug Jones, but not the new Alabama senator) has been captured in the Amazon rainforest and placed in a water tank for further analysis. In the meantime, the creature forms a strong bond with janitor Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who begins to plot his escape. The creature looks absolutely fantastic, the most impressive part of a film that boasts lots of visual splendor. It’s remarkably cohesive given how many moods it has - Guillermo Del Toro moves from gruesome violence to character-based comedy and back again several times, although the black and white musical number is a little much. The film also has a great supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins as Eliza’s comic relief neighbor and Octavia Spencer as her loyal co-worker.

6. The Last Jedi
Don't look at me, I'm as surprised as anyone. The Force Awakens played things so safe and while Rogue One was solid, it also felt like the beginning of a transformation for the Star Wars series, one that would turn it from a special event into another corporate machine churning out films every year like the Marvel films, which while rarely bad, have grown increasingly indistinguishable from one another. I certainly didn't expect the best Star Wars movie in...what? 35 years? Maybe more? Picking up right after the last film ended, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks training from Jedi legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has become a bitter old man haunted by past failures. Meanwhile, Princess Leia (the final performance of Carrie Fisher brought about some Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight deja vu) and the scant remains of her resistance force are barely staying ahead of the evil First Order. While filled with rip-roaring action and beautiful locations (both real and digital), what makes this film stand out among its peers is a rich subtext about the perils of hanging on to the past while the present changes rapidly. This challenge to the more purist elements of the fanbase, combined with director Rian Johnson’s delight in subverting expectations whenever possible, antagonized a lot of the whiniest fanboys but bowled over this fair weather fan. J.J. Abrams is back in the director's chair for the next one, he better not screw this up.

5. The Villainess
I could not tear myself away from this breathtaking movie, which opens with an assault on a crime boss’s headquarters shot like a first-person shooter. After about five minutes of jaw-dropping mayhem typically associated with male action heroes, someone calls the attacker a “bitch” and her face gets slammed into a mirror. That’s how the audience is introduced to Sook-hee (a terrific performance by Ok-bin Kim), who is subsequently recruited by the government and promised eventual freedom in exchange for ten years of service. Assigned as a “sleeper” agent in Seoul, Sook-hee grows fond of her newfound domestic existence with her young daughter, but the dangers of her other life are a constant threat. Byung-gil Jung wisely doesn’t try to top the phenomenal first scene until much later, allowing a character drama to unfold slowly in layered flashbacks that can occasionally get confusing. While the action is brilliant, it’s not exactly a “popcorn” film - those not used to the ruthless crime dramas that get made in South Korea might find it too upsetting.

4. Dunkirk
A suspenseful, beautifully-shot film that recreates the famous evacuation during World War II. In 1940, British and French troops have been boxed in by the Germans and gather on the beach in Dunkirk. Their only hope lies with a fleet of ships crossing the English Channel, many of them civilian boats answering the call. The story is divided into three perspectives - land, sea and air - and while these plots are occurring at different times, Christopher Nolan’s signature propulsive editing makes them all mash together into a solid overall arc. The cinematography, particularly during the air sequences, is worthy of David Lean. The cast includes Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance, along with a group of other dark-haired young men who can be difficult to tell apart. Critics love it, but the biggest endorsement may have come from Ken Sturdy, a 97-year-old Royal Navy veteran who was actually at the Battle of Dunkirk and said he was moved to tears by the film.

3. Lady Bird
Coming of age films rarely feel this convincing and effortless. Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to be called “Lady Bird,” is desperate to leave her hometown of Sacramento and get away from her difficult mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). In the meantime, she spends her senior year of Catholic high school struggling with her identity and dealing with the usual troubles with friendships and boys. The dialogue is great and both Lady Bird and her mother have rich character arcs, able to remain sympathetic even while acting like jerks. Greta Gerwig, best known as an actress in independent film, had co-directed a film years ago but really made waves with this one. Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges and Beanie Feldstein are all invaluable in supporting roles.

2. Baby Driver
I'm not typically into cool car movies, but I'll watch anything by Edgar Wright and he really delivered this time. This joyous caper stars Ansel Elgort as Baby, a quiet young man with tinnitus (constant ringing in the ears) that he drowns out with constant musical accompaniment (he's a big fan of 1970s rock and R & B). He’s also a masterful getaway driver, able to choreograph daring criminal escapes to his favorite songs, a feat he uses to pay his debt to a powerful mobster (Kevin Spacey...yeah, I know. Ick.). However, Baby gets a girlfriend (Lily James) and begins to hope for a different life. The thrilling car chases feature real vehicles on display, no CGI trickery and the results speak for themselves. With Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm in fun supporting roles, this delightful movie outdoes most blockbusters with three or four times its budget.

1. The Florida Project
It's not as commanding a number one pick as last year (films like Moonlight don't come along often), but what drew me to it was its touching empathy in a time when America seems to have abandoned that concept altogether. The movie is an honest, quietly tragic slice of life which takes place primarily at a three-story purple hotel in Orlando just outside Disney World. These hotels were once tourist destinations but are now something more like housing projects and little Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) couldn’t be happier and prowls the grounds with her friends daily, oblivious to the struggles of her loving but immature mother (Bria Vinaite). William Dafoe, who has played freaks and weirdos for most of his career, finally gets to play a more down to Earth character, the stressed but noble hotel manager. There are also strong supporting turns from Mela Murder and Josie Olivo. The colorful and gaudy setting is Florida incarnate and also helps along the film’s message about struggling Americans forgotten by their neighbors, who are having too much at the theme park down the road. The emotion in this film really sneaks up on you, but it's totally earned. How long will we continue to let people suffer like this? I don't know, but a movie like this is a nice little step forward.

11. Super Dark Times
12. The Disaster Artist
13. Personal Shopper
14. Wind River
15. It
16. Logan
17. First They Killed My Father
18. Coco
19. Wonder Woman
20. The Devil's Candy

Happy 2018, everyone. The Perfect World Awards are coming in a few weeks and then of course, the Oscars. Should be a really interesting year.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Tales From the Crypt: Season Four, Part Two

Showdown: Despite the intriguing possibilities, the Western and Horror genres are rarely mixed, which makes this episode a nice change of pace. It’s also directed by Richard Donner so we know we’re in for something good. Wild West scoundrel Billy Quintane (Neil Giuntoli) wins a classic face-off with a Texas Ranger (David Morse) only to find that the ghosts in the ghost town he’s hiding in are all people he’s killed before. There are a number of major twists which were later ripped off by some very well-known ghost movies. Donner nails the Western imagery and atmosphere although I do wish it was a little scarier. A-

King of the Road: A middle-aged father and police officer (Raymond J. Barry) keeps quiet about his past as a legendary drag racer, but a slimy young punk (Brad Pitt) has tracked him down and challenges him to a race. He’s not interested but the psycho won’t stop invading his privacy until he agrees. It’s often one-note and feels like an episode of a different show, but the unexpected ending is a real surprise that’s darkly hilarious. Warren Zevon (“Werewolves of London”) contributed several songs to this episode. B-

Maniac at Large:
John Frankenheimer directed this episode about a meek librarian (Blythe Danner) working late while a serial killer roams the streets. Seeing threats everywhere, she begins to go crazy with paranoia despite the tepid reassurances of her domineering boss (Salome Jens). This was based off a story in EC’s “Crime SuspenStories” series, which means the horror elements are toned down but the ending is a perfect example of how edgy these comics were in their day. B

Split Personality: The Cryptkeeper suggests parental guidance, as in “guide your parents out of the room so we can have some fun!” Joe Pesci is excellent as a con man obsessed with the number two who meets a pair of rich twins ((Jacqueline and Kristen Citron). Hoping to get his hands on their inheritance, he invents a twin brother to try and marry them both. The twins seem like naive dingbats for most of the episode, but the tables are turned with an incredibly sick finale. A-

Strung Along: Donald O’Connor (yes, the guy from Singin’ in the Rain) plays an aging puppeteer who gets invited to a tribute show and trains a younger assistant (Zach Galligan) to help him out. He also begins to suspect that his young, controlling wife (Patrice Charbonneau) may be cheating on him. There are two big twists, one you will likely see coming and another one that you won’t, because it makes no sense. The casting of O’Connor, whose best known work was in the 1940s and 50s, really sells the character but the episode suffers in comparison to the outstanding Don Rickles puppet episode from Season 2. B

Werewolf Concerto:
In this straightforward episode, a werewolf is terrorizing a ritzy hotel. The manager (Dennis Farina) has assured his guests (which include Timothy Dalton, Beverly D’Angelo and Reginald Veljohnson) that a specialized hunter is on the job, but that person wishes to remain anonymous. Who is the werewolf and who is the hunter? The answer is not as simple as it appears. The makeup effects are impressive, although the story relies far too much on misdirection. B-

Curiosity Killed: Actually, it didn’t. Not really. That’s the least of the problems with this lame season finale where a bickering old couple (Kevin McCarthy and Margot Kidder in old age makeup) meet some friends on a camping trip. The wife thinks her husband is plotting to get rid of her, but it’s not quite as simple as that. There are some neat effects near the end, but this mostly just feels like killing time. C

So that's Season 4. Despite the major star power in these episodes, I think in general this one was on the weak side. Three more seasons to go so let's hope there are still some great ones left. Till next year, boils and ghouls!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Tales From the Crypt: Season Four, Part One

So this series vanished for a long time, eh? Sorry about that. I got off to a strong start but life got in the way and it took a long time to pick it up again. What I plan on doing is going through one season each October for the next couple of years so we'll do Season 4 this year and Season 5 will come in 2018. Get ready for more misbehavior, gore and bad puns!

None But the Lonely Heart: Treat Williams plays a vile con man who romances wealthy older women and then poisons them to get their money. In the midst of his latest scheme, he discovers that someone is on to him and paranoia makes him more dangerous than ever. Spending 20 minutes with this bastard is wearying but the unexpected ending is out of step with everything that’s come before…in a good way. Tom Hanks directed this episode and has a small role. B-

This’ll Kill Ya: The opening of this episode is lifted straight from the film noir classic D.O.A. - an amoral pharmaceutical executive named George (Dylan McDermott) walks into a police station to report his own murder. It’s another story of a jerk who eventually gets what’s coming to him, but things pick up when George is accidentally(?) injected with an experimental drug. The ending is satisfying, but as a whole this one feels like parts of previous episodes mixed together. Even the name is easily confused with “Easel Kill Ya” from Season 3. C+

On A Dead Man’s Chest: William Friedkin of The Exorcist directs this episode, which is the raunchiest one I’ve yet seen. It’s chock full of nudity, swearing and some seriously bloody mayhem at the end. A selfish rock singer (Yul Vasquez) gets a strange tattoo from a mysterious artist (the musician Heavy D) and it seems to have a life of its own. It’s lively fun with an interesting cast - Tia Carrere and musician Gregg Allman have supporting roles. Naturally, the band is named “Exorcist.” B+

Seance: The Cryptkeeper does his best Humphrey Bogart impression (complete with a terrible closing Casablanca-inspired pun) for this engaging hybrid of film noir and ghost story. Two bickering con artists (Cathy Moriarty and Ben Cross) pull an elaborate swindle on Mr. Chalmers (the late, great John Vernon) only for the scheme to backfire and accidentally cause the man’s death. Now they hope to fool his wife with a fake seance. You can figure out the ending right away, but the final scene is very well executed. B+

Beauty Rest:
Mimi Rogers plays Helen, an actress who keeps losing roles to younger competitors. Whens he finds out about a beauty pageant where the winner gets to be a company spokesperson, she becomes so desperate that she begins to murder her rivals. Naturally, winning the pageant turns out to be bad news and the ending twist is bizarre (and would have been more effective with better special effects). Rogers is able to make her character a little more sympathetic than the usual antiheroes of the show, but the glib way the film treats the sexist elements of show business can be a little off-putting. B

What’s Cookin: Christopher Reeve plays humorously against type as Fred, an arrogant chef who, along with his long-suffering wife (Bess Alexander) runs a restaurant that serves only squid. For some reason, the public isn’t particularly interested and the couple faces bankruptcy until one of their employees (Judd Nelson) introduces them to a mysterious new recipe. Fred discovers the truth about halfway through in a disgusting (and yet somehow delightful) reveal and Reeve’s natural charisma makes you root for his character no matter how twisted things get. A funny, engaging and enjoyably twisted episode. A-

The New Arrival: An arrogant psychologist (David Warner, making his character highly hateable) with a radio show is about to lose his gig due to low ratings so he comes with the idea of broadcasting episodes from the home of a mysterious woman (Zelda Rubenstein) who is constantly calling the show complaining about her daughter. Something is definitely very wrong about this child, but the episode wisely keeps her hidden until the very end, nicely building anticipation. B+

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Three Faces of It: Part Three

Last of a three-part (?) series. Go here to read about the book (which also summarizes the premise of the story for anyone who needs a referesher) and here to read about the 1990 miniseries. Spoilers should be expected.

The first reports of a new It movie came out sometime back in 2009. I remember being thrilled when I first head the news and annoyed that there was so little information at that stage. Although I do enjoy the miniseries for its good qualities, I always felt the material demanded more. We needed a movie that could fully embrace the scarier elements of the story in a way that network television was incapable of at the time. Of course, these days HBO or Netflix might come up with something pretty solid if given the chance. In an era full of unnecessary remakes (Flatliners? Really?), this struck me as one that would be very welcome. That and Drop Dead Fred. Somebody get on that.

Some time later, Cary Fukunaga was announced as the director. At this point, I only knew him from his immigration drama Sin Nombre but when the first season of HBO's "True Detective" came out a few years later, I had a better sense of what this guy could really do and was even more excited for the new movie. When was it coming out, anyway? Well, not for a while yet. The studio took exception to Fukunaga's vision for the movie, which was more cerebral and unconventional than what they were hoping for. He eventually quit, although he retains a writing credit on the final script. The actor Will Poulter, most recently seen as a cop more evil than any clown in Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, had been cast as Pennywise but left along with Fukunaga. With no director and star, the movie seemed dead. However, months later it was revealed that Andy Muschietti, the director of the visually impressive horror film Mama, had taken over and later found a new Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard).

The first thing to note is films with this kind of production trouble typically don't turn out well in the end. However, this new It is a pretty solid movie. It's also a little hard to judge at this point since we only have about half of the book accounted for. This It is really It: Chapter One, as the filmmakers tease right before the credits. Nobody knew if a second movie was even happening until the Friday it opened, when early numbers indicated a major box office hit was on the way. The studio has always seen this movie as a risk for reasons that are unclear to me. They needn't have worried and now that they have greenlit the second movie, they should also send a thank you card to Tim Curry because lingering affection for the mini-series is a big part of why people were so excited for this. Now we'll see the opposite approach and have a wave of killer clown movies coming our way. Maybe Killer Klowns from Outer Space will even get a remake.

In my view, the way to judge the success of this version will be how well the two films complement one another. Can't do that yet but there's still plenty to talk about. The "past" of the seven main characters has been moved from the 1950s to the 1980s, presumably so the "present" half can take place in the 2010s. We begin where we have to, with little Georgie Denbrough encountering Pennywise in the storm drain. This scene is ruthless in its brutality, even with some spotty CGI. It also establishes Bill Skarsgard's approach to the clown. He plays Pennywise as totally inhuman and more of a animal predator. He may be able to speak but could never pass for just a regular clown like the Tim Curry incarnation might.



What I enjoyed most about this movie is how some of the moments in the book that were too scary for TV finally come to life. The hideous leper that menaces Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) finally appears and the House on Neibolt Street was perfectly rendered. The scariest moment was actually one the filmmakers made up - Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) gets creeped out by a painting in his father's office only to find the distorted figure from the painting stalking him. The imagery in those scenes was unlike any I've seen before. Muschietti has a knack for gothic visuals and gets a major assist from Chung-hoon Chung, the Korean cinematographer of Oldboy.

All the child actors playing the cast are good, which makes it unfortunate that even at 135 minutes, a few of them feel underdeveloped. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) is the group's leader and naturally gets a lot of screen time. Richie (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things, swearing up a storm) and Eddie were also great. The rest deserved more time in the spotlight. Stan's character arc feels unfinished by the time the movie ends, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Mike (Chosen Jacbos) have weak character arcs that could use more detail, and as for Beverly (Sophia Lillis), she gets plenty of screen time but also a lame "damsel in distress" sequence which I imagine annoyed Stephen King (although he's too polite to say so...or maybe he's just glad Stanley Kubrick is dead and didn't do this one). The evil bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) shows up as well but gets somewhat lost in the shuffle by the end.

What I was most curious about was how the movie would handle the final confrontation with It. It turns out they took a page from the miniseries and decided that it was better just for the kids to face off against Pennywise himself rather than the Spider or the true non-physical form in the Ritual of Chud. Bev briefly sees the "deadlights" but there was one other hint that I saw of the creature's true nature - at one point Pennywise dances on a rickety stage in front of a background that appears to depict fiery orange light. As for the fight, it's more down and dirty than book readers will expect. Instead of a slingshot that fires chunks of silver, the kids pummel Pennywise with things like bats and fence spikes. Outnumbered and with its scare tactics now ineffective, Pennywise appears to perish. Of course, we know he'll be back in 27 years when they're all adults.

It should be fun to follow the progress of the second movie and casting will be especially interesting. It also means that this blog series is not quite over, but it will be dormant for the near future. With the first half a success, a lot will be riding on how Muschietti and the rest handle the final confrontation between the Loser's Club and It. Would a giant CGI spider really be that much better than the claymation Spider from 1990? Or will they take the plunge and depict the psychic battle with the Deadlights? I'm hoping for the latter, but we'll see. Keep floating, everyone.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Three Faces of It: Part Two

After almost a decade of false starts and behind the scenes difficulty, a new adaptation of Stephen King's It is headed for theaters this September. I'm a huge fan of the story so I'll be writing a three-part series about it - first about the book, then the 1990 TV miniseries and finally the new film when it's released. Spoilers should be expected.

See the first part if you want a refresher on the plot and characters of this story.

A long horror movie is hard to do. The few that are out there demonstrate this pretty well. Rosemary's Baby is well over 2 hours and while it may be a classic, I think you could cut about a half hour from it and it would still be just as good. Dawn of the Dead also cracks the two hour mark and the film's interminable middle act slows things down to a crawl. But if there was ever a horror story that demanded an epic canvas, It was...it. The first adaptation of the gigantic book was a three-hour miniseries (four with commercials) roughly divided by the two eras in the novel. Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace from a script by Lawrence Cohen, this version cuts a lot of the more gruesome stuff from the book was still pretty boundary-pushing for its era. It was unusual to see blood on prime time network TV in 1990, let alone balloons full of it.

However, this was also a long time before our modern era of Prestige TV and the budgetary limitations are evident. This is not an easy book to adapt in the first place and not having the means to realize the more mystical elements of the story results in only a few brief references to the true metaphysical nature of It and without the full context of the book, these moments seem like non sequiturs. Later on I'll get into just how much it trips at the finish line with a huge anticlimax of an ending. I may be sounding at bit harsh now but there was also quite a few things this adaptation got right. To start with, the enduring appeal of the miniseries over 25 years later can be summed up in two words - Tim Curry.



Among people who saw this as children, that scene is discussed in almost mythic terms. Simply saying that Curry is "good" as Pennywise doesn't seem like enough. He absolutely disappears into the part and it's become standard practice in entertainment journalism to give him sole credit for making children afraid of clowns. And indeed I have read so many testimonials and spoken to many people who recall how much Pennywise scared them. I can't imagine any other film from that era (the 1990s was pretty weak as far as horror goes) which had that kind of effect.

Considering the limitations, particularly the reluctance to show kids in mortal danger on network television, the movie did pretty well. While the most gruesome stuff was obviously left out, a large amount of dialogue and scenes from the book found its way into the script. At its best moments, the movie captures the camaraderie among the seven kids. It helps that the child actors are really very good, including a young Seth Green as Richie and the late Jonathan Brandis as Bill. The Emmy winning score by Richard Bellis is also a major asset - not just for the demented carnival music that plays for Pennywise but for its main theme, a beautiful melody that nails the novel's combination of nostalgia and fear.

If you only have time to watch half, go with the first half. The strong performances of the child actors make it even more surprising that it's the adult actors who struggle with the material in the second half. Some of this is the dialogue's fault. Adult Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) makes a sarcastic comment about Acapulco that is borderline incomprehensible. Annette O'Toole as adult Beverly gets the groaner, "Why is It so mean?!" Harry Anderson fares best as adult Richie, who gets a big laugh right before the final showdown with It when he says "I don't suppose anyone thought to bring something really useful? Like a machine gun?" In general, the second half is just harder to take seriously. Pennywise is an intimidating presence in the first part but the intervening 27 years must have messed with him a bit since he's much more goofy. He cracks himself up shouting "Kiss me, fat boy!" at Ben and later appears as a severed head to roast the group like he's on Comedy Central. And then there's the hilarious library scene. I used to rewind the VHS over and over again just to hear that wacky laugh Pennywise does after he makes a lame joke. Thankfully, now we have YouTube.



A little trivia - two X-Files stars appear in the miniseries. Megan Leitch, who played Mulder's sister Samantha, is the librarian at the start of that clip and William B. "Cigarette Man" Davis shows up briefly in one of the 1950s scenes.

So the major issue people tend to have with this version is the ending, and rightfully so. At the end of the first half, the kids drive off Pennywise but, unlike the book, never see the creature's true form. This made sense but the confrontation with the adults is a huge anticlimax. The audience has waited 3 hours to learn the monster's true form and then...a stop-motion giant spider walks into the room. Not even very good stop-motion either, Ray Harryhausen was making more convincing stuff in the 1950s. There's a puppet used for close-ups that looks a little better but that doesn't help much. Everyone says "It's just a spider?! What a let down!" I've even seen an article on the movie that tried to blame this on the book, to which I say: Oh, hell no.

Anyone who has read at the book will remember that the giant spider encounter is just a prelude to the real final battle - the psychic Ritual of Chud where Bill and It engage in a battle of wills. As a child, Bill defeated It this way by reciting a phrase he learned to help him with his stutter. The determination required to overcome his speech impediment and repeatedly say the tricky phrase ("he thrusts his fists against the posts but still insists he sees the ghosts") severely wounds It and the creature retreats. As an adult, Bill tries again but loses the fight. He would have been dead if not for Richie, who leapt in and began spouting up different voice impersonations, showing that his powerful childhood imagination was alive and well. It is disoriented and becomes trapped in the spider form it uses to anchor Itself to Earth. In this brief window, the group beats the spider to death and rips out Its heart, defeating It once and for all. (But did they get all the eggs? Bum bum bum) There's more stuff going on, but that's the gist. In the movie, Beverly hits the spider with a slingshot (which makes no sense) and then the group beats it to death. So yeah, they didn't exactly stick the landing.

But just as in the book, 27 years have passed and sure enough, Pennywise is set to show his face once again this September. I'm beyond excited to check it out and Part 3 will hopefully come shortly afterward.