January 29, 2018

Coco (2017)

Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, et al

A few years ago I ragged on The Book of Life for not being Mexican enough. Despite the Dia de los Muertos theme, the colors, etc etc etc, it felt like a shallow interpretation of Mexican culture. Coco felt like redemption. (Yes, I realize it's a different studio making it.)

This movie is Mexico. (Don't worry, I approved this statement from an actual Mexican.) It is absolutely dripping with all the right details--the music, the costumes, the historical figures, the way families interact, even the Spanish slang! And when I say details, I mean details. The old movies of Ernesto de la Cruz even have famous Mexican actors drawn into their backgrounds. Every voice actor is Latino (minus John Ratzenberger, but they obviously had to work him in somewhere). Basically, no Channing Tatum or Ice Cube here.

But going in, I knew Pixar would nail the details. They always do. What I was worried about was being disappointed in yet another Dia de los Muertos story (do people not know anything else about Mexican culture?!?) that had been overhyped by people impressed by any movie not named The Emoji Movie. Maybe I have too little faith in people.

This movie was incredible.

It is everything a movie should be, animated or not. It transitions beautifully between funny and sad, heartfelt and fun. The musical interludes (while I'll admit, were not my favorite part despite being sort of the basis for the movie--I wish at least some of them had been in Spanish) all made sense, timing wise, and didn't drag. And the voices were perfect. I'll say it again: perfect. The accents were all spot on and not one voice was recognizable enough to detract from the story. Perfection! (A special shout out to Anthony Gonzalez, who is my new favorite child actor because of this movie.)

I will say, as one small caveat, that this movie was a little darker than most Pixar movies. It's not just the skeletons, but the message about dying and being forgotten is pretty depressing, especially for those of us nearing middle-age. (Wah!!!)

Final word: It really is as good as everyone claims it is.

January 25, 2018

The Post (2017)

Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep

Somehow it seems this awards season the more I'm looking forward to a movie is inversely proportional to how much I will enjoy it.

So. Tom Hanks. Meryl Streep. In a movie about journalistic integrity. It checks all the boxes. 

The problem is it doesn't do much more than that. First of all, the beginning 30 minutes or so is complete chaos. I mean, scattered conversation, people running around, and an audience left scrambling to try and figure out who is who and what the hell is going on. I didn't live through the Vietnam War, so while I'm familiar with the broad strokes of this story, I can't immediately identify characters and remember exactly what their role was. I can't imagine what the beginning of this movie would be like for those are aren't familiar with the story. (And before you become over-righteously indignant about the lack of historical knowledge in this country, first ask yourself if you've supported politicians gutting arts and social studies in favor of STEM subjects because it will "help our country.")

After a chaotic beginning, the story picks up and there is a lot of excitement surrounding the acquisition of the Pentagon Papers (no, not those Pentagon Papers), what they contained, and the stakes for publishing the information inside of them. The story itself is fascinating. The movie about it is less so.

It's hard to pinpoint where exactly the movie went wrong in portraying such an important (and timely) story, but maybe somewhere in the third rousing monologue from Hanks about the importance of freedom of the press? Don't get me wrong, I think the freedom of the press is probably our most precious freedom, but do we need a speech to understand that? Er, several speeches?

This movie just sort of hits you over the head with its points. Yes, it was a monumental decision to publish those papers, made by the only female owner of a newspaper. And though I'm glad Sarah Paulson's character took fifteen seconds to explain why it was so monumental, it felt like yet another explanation of why this movie was important. Telling, not showing, so to speak.

Lastly, I take issue with Meryl Streep. Not her performance, which is fine. But the recognition of it as something award-worthy. It's not. There are some performances that feel tailor-made for her, but this role felt like it could have been played by literally any accomplished actress over the age of 50. And Tom Hanks, bless his heart, takes on a very odd accent that disappears any time he yells. So it feels like this movie is only being recognized because Hanks and Streep are in it, though I think it may have been better off without them. Maybe it would have felt more like a collaborative ensemble of bravery than a movie about two people I'd never heard of before today. More Spotlight, less this.

Final word: It's no Spotlight, that's for sure.

January 23, 2018

The Shape of Water (2017)

Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones

I've tried, unsuccessfully, to start this review half a dozen times. I simply cannot come up with a coherent response to it. I literally don't know how I feel about it. So if you can bear with me, I'm going to work through my feelings about it in a messy, hopefully somewhat legible way.

It's weird. It's really fucking weird. No one should be surprised by this if you've ever watched anything by Guillermo del Toro, but it still weirded me out. I have no doubt that was part of the point, but even 24 hours later, the initial shock of the movie hasn't really worn off.

Pluses: The acting is excellent. My favorite character is probably Richard Jenkins, who keeps the movie from veering too far into the artsy side and whose voice I could listen to all day. Him providing the opening and closing narration of the film give it an extra boost. Octavia Spencer, as usual, is delightful to watch. BUT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD CAN WE GET THIS WOMAN A STARRING ROLE IN SOMETHING? It would really great to see her in something where she's NOT forced into some servile role because of her race/class. And Michael Shannon, as usual, looks like the guy you're going to hate from the moment he steps on screen. He just has that kind of face to play the role.

Now, let's talk Sally Hawkins' character. I love the fact that she is a differently-abled person here (in this case, someone who is mute) and the embrace of that. The script doesn't try to change her or improve her and those around her simply accept her as she is. I love that she has friends, a job, and leads a relatively normal (albeit stark) life, despite this "condition." As we talk about representation in media, it's important to remember that includes more than just people of different races. The ability to seamlessly integrate this aspect of her character into the movie without relying on it for jokes or climax or change--she simply IS this way--is pretty amazing when you think about it. 

Then of course, there's the fish/merman/whatever he's supposed to be. I never watched del Toro's Hellboy, but I have seen pictures of the makeup and it's incredible. This movie is no different. The intricate detail on his costume (is that the right word?), his eyes - everything - is really cool. There's not really another word to describe it. The fish-man is cool. Which helps since, you know, it's a love story and though attractiveness is a relative concept, there are some things that are truly too ugly to love. (see: Chinese hairless dogs)

In all seriousness, this really is as beautiful a film as everyone keeps saying it is. It might not seem like it on first watch, but the more I think about it, the more I remember I like about it. It has its flaws, for sure (some very questionable decisions on the part of Hawkins' character, to name a few), but the overall arc of the story is tidy and just tense enough to edge out the weirdness. It was also far less dark than I imagined, which was a pleasant surprise. While I thought Pan's Labyrinth was brilliant, it also creeped me out to the point I had to cover my eyes sometimes because I was certain something terrible was going to happen. This movie was far less disturbing. (But of course it was, how do you compete with Nazis?)

So when I break it all down and think about the different pieces, I realize what a brilliant movie it was. When it think about my experience watching it and trying to talk about it afterward, all I can say it it was weird.

Final word: It was really weird. But in a good way. 

January 21, 2018

I, Tonya (2017)

Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney

Before I even wade into the controversy (is there a nominated movie this year that doesn't have any??) of the movie itself, can we talk about Margot Robbie's physical transformation?? No offense to Tonya, but Margot is stunning and to see her here, you would not know it. I honestly had to Google a photo of Robbie mid-movie just to reassure myself that she is, in fact, beautiful in real life. It's not really Tonya's fault or that's she's ugly--the 80's was tough on almost everyone. Kids today will have no idea of the struggle through those awkward years. Now they have filters on their phones. It was a different world.

Ok, getting back to the movie. Ah, controversy. It wouldn't be awards season without it. A lot of people are up in arms about this movie somehow glorifying Tonya Harding. I don't see it. It definitely takes a very sympathetic look at her, but that is not the same as glorifying her. And while some may feel it's too soon to forgive her for her role in the Nancy Kerrigan "incident" (as they kept referring to it in the movie), I don't think you have to in order to enjoy this movie. It is just a movie, after all.

This movie, a biopic that centers a large portion on "the incident," is exactly the movie I criticized The Battle of the Sexes for not being. It not only gave a thorough backstory, culminating in the point we were all waiting for, but did so in a highly inventive way so as to show the varying accounts and viewpoints of what happened. The interviews cut throughout are completely wacky and knowing these people exist as they've been portrayed makes it even more amazing. The whole movie is somehow quirky--a term usually reserved for offbeat romances and lighthearted fare--while being completely serious.

And at the epicenter of it is the incredible performance by Margot Robbie. Beyond the physical transformation, Robbie manages to embody the attitude of Harding, which was her defining feature. To her, it wasn't just about skating; it was about the elitist world of figure skating and the Harding's unlikely triumph in it. Even as a kid, I understood the dichotomy between Harding's raw athleticism and Kerrigan's natural grace and how the sport favored the latter. I understood the unfairness of the system and while Harding was never my favorite skater to cheer for (hi, Kristi Yamaguchi!), I did always sense a rigged system and one in which a powerful skater that was not liked could not triumph. This movie manages to encapsulate all of that without painting Harding as a passive victim to it, which I think is doubly impressive because making a biopic while the subject is still alive means she has to sign off on your portrayal of her. 

So regardless of what you think of Tonya Harding, this movie is so well done it's worth watching. Oh, and the skating scenes are friggin seamless. Kudos to whoever spliced those. Seriously.

Final word: A new chapter for the most-remembered event of my childhood (I cared way more about this than OJ Simpson when I was a kid).

January 16, 2018

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet

In the era of backlash to supposed "PC-culture," where just being gay or mentioning the fact that you're black is somehow a political statement, some people are getting the impression that Call Me By Your Name's critical acclaim is somehow riding off the societal coattails of last year's Moonlight. (See this thread about it from film critic and Oscar voter Mark Harris)

But just like every coming-of-age film is unique in its own way, gay coming-of-age movies are unique too! This one takes place over 6 weeks in 1980's Italy and half the movie is in a foreign language. So you know, slightly different from a story about a bullied black boy growing up on the gritty streets of Miami. But gay romance and gay romance, right? *insert eye roll*


If you judge this movie solely from Timothée Chalamet's point of view, it's beautiful. The story is touching, poignant, dramatic, full of tension, and superbly acted. The little dialogue there is vacillates between Italian, French, and English, and Chalamet switches between them seamlessly and without any awkwardness. He embodies the uncertainty of youth, the desire of new experiences, and the sorrow of heartbreak. Gay, straight, or anything in between, anyone should be able to relate to the emotions he pours out on screen.

Enter: my issues with the story. Namely, the fact that he is a child and Armie Hammer's character is a full-fledged adult. After watching the movie I looked up how old Hammer's character was supposed to be because honestly, I was so upset about the whole thing. Allegedly 24. Except that Armie Hammer is 31 and looks it. (Chalamet, on the other hand, is 22 but actually looks 17.) So the whole movie very much as the feel of an adult/child relationship. So no, sorry, I couldn't get on board with it being a "beautiful love story" from that point of view. Whether it was legal or socially acceptable in 1980's Italy for such an age discrepancy to exist, it rankled me to see what felt like an adult entering into a sexual relationship with a confused child. It just feels like a power imbalance and yes, I tell my 30-something friends the same thing about dating 19-year-olds of the opposite sex. You can't have a mature relationship with a teenager and frankly, an adult should know that. Even at 24 (which Hammer again, is clearly not).

My other issue is with Armie Hammer himself. He feels like someone created and propped up by Hollywood executives who have a "leading man look" in mind. He's like a poor man's Bradley Cooper, who himself is mostly just a great head of hair. But in a movie filled with loooooooooong stretches of silence (seriously. this movie has more silent stretches than a Terrence Malik film.), every word uttered and every meaningful look needs to count. And so often, I was left confused by his portrayal. Is he confused? Angry? Sad? I literally can't tell from his acting. He's basically a cardboard cutout of an Abercrombie model.

So my verdict on the movie is pretty divided. On one hand, I love it for the story it tells us of Elio, Chalamet's character. I love the score, the scenery, and even the gentle loving relationship Elio has with his parents. It is such a positive film and not one we see very often.

On the other hand, this movie would have been a million times better with someone else in the role of Oliver. Almost anyone else. Bradley Cooper, even. (Though really, someone who is actually in their early twenties. And can act.) Hollywood: stop trying to make Armie Hammer happen.

Final word: The teenager in me loved it. The adult in me did not.

P.S. One more thing. I think the name of the movie is stupid. /Fin

January 11, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson

This movie is nothing if not divisive. Some love it, some hate--both with good reason.

First, let's address the elephant in the room: the undercurrent of racism that flows through this movie but isn't ever really addressed. There is a racial slur used as a punchline to a joke and more than a little humanizing on the part of the most blatant racist cop. The fact that the few black characters in the movie are essentially used as props also does not help matters. So I think the backlash against this movie by people of color is not only understandable, but also justified. Intentionally showing the humanity of racist people, especially those who have exploited their positions of power to inflict harm because of those racist beliefs, is a slap in the face to those who have experienced it in real life. It is a slap in the face to stories of marginalized people who haven't been given the opportunity to tell their stories because stories like these are dominating the narrative.

In spite of all that, I found myself enjoying the movie. It is, actually, a really well done movie. It portrays Frances McDormand in all her glorious, weird, unforgiving self and makes us uneasy about whether we want to root for her or whether we are terrified of her. It explores moral gray areas, including (yes), the humanity of racists. And it makes us question how far we'd go to get what we feel is justice for the death of a loved one. It's something, I think, everyone can relate to, even if they are not a rural white hick who has the privilege of brushing off blatant racism. (Though it is hard to ignore the fact that a black woman doing what McDormand did in that town would more certainly have been arrested, beaten, or killed the moment she put up those billboards.)

Now, for my controversial take. I like the nuance in this movie. I like that no one is all good or all bad and yes, that includes the character played by Sam Rockwell, who, by the way, is absolutely brilliant in the film. I like moral gray areas. And while I understand people's desire not to see any redemption in a racist cop, I don't think the movie absolves him, just like it doesn't paint McDormand as a hero. Everyone is just stumbling through this incident, making some good and some terrible decisions, some worse than others. I like complicated. I like something that is thought-provoking, even if some of those thoughts are "why are we glossing over the terrible crimes committed by this particular character?" And though it doesn't make it right, I do think that blatant racism is simply a part of some rural towns. Showing it as such doesn't equate to an endorsement of it, only the privilege that comes from white characters being able to ignore it as background noise.

So ultimately, I think this movie deserves both the accolades and the intense scrutiny it's receiving. It is a fantastic portrayal of grief, anger, and complicated relationships (not to mention the fantastic acting, engaging plot twists, and clever pacing). It is also a reminder to Hollywood that there is a desire from audiences to see stories that are more diverse and more attuned to the prejudices faced by millions.

Final word: See it so you can talk about it.

January 9, 2018

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Emma Stone, Steve Carell

In the realm of sports movies, tennis has been woefully neglected. Aside from Match Point and Wimbledon, there haven't really been any major movies on the subject. (I'm ignoring the random ones you've never heard of that pop up when you Google "tennis movies") And the tennis in those is, to put it mildly, hideous. So to see a "real" movie about the sport, about a legend like Billie Jean King, getting Awards buzz?


It's a worthy subject, the Billie Jean King match versus Bobby Riggs in 1973. It was a huge moment for the women's movement and something most female athletes are acutely aware of. King herself is also a worthy subject, having been a trailblazer for female professional athletes, women, and the LGBT community. Some people were surprised when the USTA Center in Flushing Meadows (aka where the US Open is held) declined selling the naming rights to the complex and instead named it after Billie Jean King. I'm surprised more things aren't named after her, frankly. Her contributions to tennis and sports in general are not even remotely recognized enough.

That being said, this movie is sort of meh. I wanted to like it far more than I actually did. Far and away the best part is Stone herself, and any reader of this blog knows how I feel about her, so that took a lot for me to say. She does a really good job and somehow even manages to look like Billie Jean. Steve Carell also does a commendable job as Riggs, so it's really not the actor's fault this movie falls flat. They even took pains to hire proper stunt doubles so the tennis sequences aren't embarrassing to watch. Instead, it was the decision to split the movie into half a biography of King and half a movie about the match itself.

Like I said previously, King is a very worthy subject of a biography. The fact that she is an LGBT icon and the issues she had to deal with at that time, trying to discover her sexuality without being able to be open about it, is obviously terrible and a solid storyline. The problem is that this movie is fundamentally set up as a sports movie. It's titled after a particular match and it's pinnacle point is the match itself. So to integrate King's personal journey with her marriage and sexuality, to me, was too much to cover.

As I see it, the movie should have gone one of two routes. Either:

1. It's a biopic of King herself. Her rise to the top of tennis, the creation of the tour and its struggles, the discovery of her sexuality, and the aftermath of that famous match. I want more detail about the struggle to start the tour. The struggle of living on the road and the toll it took on her marriage. The opinions of other women on tour on how it was going or what they thought of King (other than Margaret Court's numerous side eye glances). Even naming the other women who left the LPTA to start the tour would have been a start. Or,

2. A match more strictly about the event itself. When I think about an excellent sports movie about a true event, I think of Miracle. What that movie did so well was show all the events leading up to, including the general environment, before the event itself. While some might argue that's what this movie did, I found it lacking. Yes, the movie showed the creation of the tour to give us the backstory that it had to do with female athletes demanding respect, but it didn't show the general atmosphere of the US at that time. How did people feel about the sport? About what King was doing? How aware was the general public? What did it mean for women at home to watch her win? What happened to Jack Kramer? What changed as a result of this? The movie tried to build up to this climax of the match, but ended abruptly after it was over as if it was washing its hands and going home. Bobby's backstory also felt rushed. It would have been nice to have clips of his days on tour, so viewers got a fuller picture of the type of player he was. Why was this senior tour player, at 55, able to command an audience with these top women? And what was up with those vitamins? This movie felt more like it was checking the boxes on showing particular events of pieces of the story instead of diving into them to tell a richer story.

I think the movie tried to split the difference and give recognition to King while trying to make the movie more "mainstream" by marketing it as a traditional sports movie and it suffered as a result. So if any other director ever decides to make a proper movie about Billie Jean King, I look forward to watching it. In the meantime, however, I pray Emma Stone doesn't win a second Oscar for yet another mediocre movie.

Final word: Though I love the attention being paid to tennis and Billie Jean King, the movie itself doesn't hold up to the buzz.

January 4, 2018

Descendants 2 [TV movie] (2017)

Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, et al

I adore Disney Channel Original Movies. Adore. Not only did I grow up with Zenon (zetus lapetus!) and Motocrossed and The Color of Friendship, but the movies were so great that High School Musical 3 and The Cheetah Girls: One World were released in actual movie theaters! They are a force to be reckoned with.

So it makes sense that Disney had to go and screw it up.

Descendants (the first one) isn't a bad movie, necessarily. It's not great either, but it's tolerable. Which almost makes it worse that they've tried to turn it into a franchise. One movie was forgivable. Two, plus a spin-off TV series? No.

This is not the next High School Musical. For one thing, the characters aren't nearly as likable. It's basically all Mal all the time, with a few sidekicks that are given hideous outfits (why does everyone wear motorcycle gloves? To show how bad they are?) and flimsy storylines. The songs are terrible, oddly placed, and are more auto-tuned than a Rebecca Black song. Even the lip syncing is bad. Literally the best part of the movie is Uma, and she's the villain. And even she's not that great.

This movie is aggressively mediocre, but advertised as the second greatest Disney Channel Original Movie ever. I find that offensive. Yes, offensive. With a vast library of greats like Eddie's Million Dollar Cook Off and Model Behavior or even Luck of the Irish, the fact that Disney has poured so much money and energy into such a lackluster series honestly makes me angry. The fact that Kenny Ortega could go from HSM to this crap makes me angry. And the fact that such a great premise--the scorned children of Disney villains try to find their place in the world--is squandered on such cheesy and over-choreographed movies makes me angry. This franchise is stupid. And the probability that Disney will make a third one of these makes me even more irrationally angry.

I want new movies! Exciting movies! Movies that explore boundaries without relying on kitschy songs and terrible dancing. I want a return to the heyday of Disney Channel Original movies that unabashedly explore racial boundaries and gender expectations and don't require third rate CGI dragons. I want Disney to stop trying to be "trendy" with colored hair and stupid slang and just focus on the basics. (Fun side note: the version I watched on TV was a "pop-up" screening and had little messages float across the screen throughout with things like "mic drop" and "LOL") They even added a talking dog because, why not? This movie is the very definition of "trying too hard."

Final word: If I had watched this movie before Halloween, I probably wouldn't have given candy to any kid in a Mal costume. I'm that bitter about it.