Saturday, July 7, 2018

Game Night

Directors: John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti
Running Time: 100 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Getting a big boost from a clever script that takes some unexpectedly twisted and darkly inspired turns, it's unlikely anyone would walk away from Game Night dissatisfied. And that's exactly how it should be. While this doesn't reinvent the comedy wheel, it  accomplishes what few recent comedies have in delivering a fun time without being burdened by qualifiers that it's overlong or makes boneheaded decisions along the way. Carried by a ridiculously talented cast, it takes a reasonably high concept comedic premise and just runs with it, offering the reassurance that everyone involved knows exactly what they're doing. As it turns out, they do.

When super-competitive gamers Max (Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) meet during trivia night at a bar, it's love at first sight, as the two begin dating and then marry, bonding over their shared obsession with winning. This is exemplified by their traditional weekend "game night" with friend Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and spouses Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury). Excluded is creepy, socially awkward cop next door, Gary (Jesse Plemons), who's been uninvited from the festivities ever since his wife left him and is desperately looking to get back in. But when Max's extremely successful and charming brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) reappears on the scene, it causes his lifelong feelings of inadequacy (as well as his inability to conceive a child with Annie) to bubble to the surface.

Looking to once again show up Max, Brooks plans to take game night to a whole new level, staging an elaborate interactive role-playing mystery at his new pad that the participants won't soon forget. The winning prize: His Corvette Stingray. But when things get out of hand, and the line separating what's a game and an actual kidnapping starts to blur, the players must band together to save Brooks and somehow find a way to escape with their lives intact.

What makes all of this work is its premise, or rather co-directors John Francis Daley (best known for playing Sam on Freaks and Geeks) and Jonathan Goldstein's commitment to keeping the characters and viewers in the dark about what's happening. There are moments in the script where you confidently assume the unfolding events have to be "part of the game," yet you're still not completely sure. The uneasiness surrounding that, and each of the major players' reactions to the escalating crisis, permeate every scene, making for some great comedic exchanges.

Each character seems to have a relatable quirk that's exploited with every catastrophe, allowing the night's "mystery" to act as the perfect platform for their faults. The movie wastes no time, from an ingenious board game-style opening credit sequence that lets us know everything about Max and Annie within minutes, leading right into the "game night" concept. He's insecure. She's hyper-competitive. Brooks is an attention whore so in love with himself that this interactive mystery theater could only be his idea. And with the arrival an "FBI Agent" at the door, we're off to the races.

If you're searching for a comedic or dramatic actor who makes everything around him better by simply being there and logically, matter-of-factly existing as a surrogate voice for the audience, few are better than the largely unheralded Jason Bateman. And you could argue none are as reliable, knowing when you see his name atop the credits he'll deliver exactly what you want and expect, regardless of whether the project itself happens to disappoint. And it definitely doesn't here. Of course, the argument against him is that he always plays the same put-upon straight man. Aside from that being entirely disproven with darker turns in The Gift, Disconnect and his recent best ever work in Netflix's Ozark, I'd still argue variations of that lane is all he needs since it's such an easily adaptable one across all genres.

Bateman's normalcy makes those around him seem scarier, funnier and more entertaining than they would have otherwise been opposite someone else. Ceding the spotlight so co-stars can reap the rewards, no one can look as befuddled, grimace in disgust or dryly deliver a sarcastic dig quite like he can. If the quintessential small screen example of his comedic skills are are found in Arrested Development, then Game Night might stand as his best recent big screen offering of it.

Nearly every sub-plot and one-liner lands, logically furthering a plot that's probably better mapped out that it had any right being. While it's arguable the mere casting of Bateman and Chandler as feuding brothers is enough to carry this, it's surprising how many other elements click into place and manage to play just as well. If only occasionally given the chance to show it in other projects, Rachel McAdams can be devastatingly funny when she needs to be and here she's given the opportunity opposite Bateman to utilize that timing. They bounce off each other so well that they're the rare screen couple that are even funnier when they're in total agreement because their personalities are so competitively obnoxious, yet strangely compatible. They play the whole thing straight, forging forward to win despite obvious signs this isn't a game. Or is it? To these two everything may as well be, which make them the perfect victims/players.   

Even running, throwaway gags like Kevin's unhealthy obsession with guessing the identity of Michelle's secret celebrity hookup and the airheaded Ryan wising up and bringing his super-intelligent ringer date, Sarah (Sharon Horgan) into the game, not only provide a decent amount of laughs, but result in extremely satisfying payoffs that enhance the characters. But the character who makes the most impact and sends the the film's entertainment quotient through the roof is Jesse Plemons' creep cop neighbor, Gary, whose obsession with his ex-wife and her "game night" friends make everyone within his vicinity deeply uncomfortable.

Plemons plays this perfectly, which is to say deadly serious, as if he's Hannibal Lecter wondering why no one's invited him to dinner. Just watching the other actors' react to this is a treat in itself, as everything from his stilted body language to monotone delivery imply a complete sociopath. He completely and unflinchingly commits to it, and the film is all the better as a result. While for many there's a certain level of anticipation in seeing Friday Night Lights alum Plemons reunited with Coach Taylor, he and Chandler share maybe about two scenes together. But it's the latter scene in the third act that will grab the most attention because it's just so completely insane. It isn't often you can say you've seen Chandler, Plemons, Bateman and Michael C. Hall all share the screen together at one time and have it exceed even the wildest of expectations.

It's nice to see a comedy that's as smart as the actors appearing in it since the last one to reach that lofty goal was Shane Black's criminally overlooked The Nice Guys. This isn't quite as laugh-out-loud hilarious and subversively clever as that effort, but it succeeds just the same for what it's aiming for. While there likely will be a sequel looming on the horizon, the idea of this concept being expanded isn't something I'd necessarily roll my eyes at provided it's done right and reunites the cast and creative forces that made this work so well. It isn't often you can say a big, mainstream comedy is even worth the trouble of revisiting, but another Game Night actually doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

13 Reasons Why (Season 2)

Creator: Brian Yorkey
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Christian Navarro, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke, Kate Walsh, Brian d'Arcy James, Brenda Strong, Jake Weber, Michele Selene Ang, Ajiona Alexus, Sosie Bacon, Steven Weber, Anne Winters, Samantha Logan
Release Date: 2018

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers From the Second Season of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why**

The biggest challenge facing a second season of Netflix's teen suicide drama, 13 Reasons Why was in convincing audiences it's even necessary. That there was more story left to tell when it appeared to have reached a clear, logical conclusion last year with Hannah Baker's suicide. It was a climax we knew was coming, yet the details surrounding it, recorded on 13 tapes that Hanna left behind, provided the structure and substance behind one of the more complex, intelligent depictions of teens in recent series television. And with that came controversy, as the suicide prevention disclaimers that air before and after each episode this season remind us, bookending a brutally honest show that earned its following by not pulling many punches.

While "suicide contagion" is real and even directly referenced and discussed during the season, the need for a content warning does seem to be a greater reflection of our current cultural climate of heightened sensitivity than the actual series itself. It's a safe bet we wouldn't have seen it a decade earlier, and after witnessing what occurs in this season's final episode, I'm not sure it's still entirely due to last season's graphic suicide.

"13 Reasons Why is a fictional series that tackles tough, real-world issues, taking a look at sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, and more. By shedding a light on these difficult topics, we hope our show can helps viewers start a conversation. But if you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult. And if you ever feel you need someone to talk with, reach out to a parent, a friend, a school counselor, or an adult you trust, call a local helpline, or go to Because the minute you start talking about it, it gets easier."

So, how do you follow a phenomenon that seems entirely self-contained to a single season, setting up and concluding its narrative within its 13 episodes? Luckily, the first season wasn't merely a one-trick pony, successfully mapping out a universe and developing even its most minor characters well enough that's there's still a surprisingly rich well from which to draw, despite now losing most of Jay Asher's YA novel as its guidepost. And after a slow start that makes you wonder whether the producers were more interested in finding ways to shoehorn Golden Globe nominee Katherine Langford back into the show as Hannah, they somehow manage to deliver a sensational, at times jaw-dropping, sophomore season that not only expands the scope of the series, but effectively continues a story many believe had run its course.

By framing the episodes with individual court testimonies, this season provides bigger acting opportunities to a greater number of its hugely impressive cast, still developing into an essential next chapter minus Hannah's tapes or even a particularly sympathetic protagonist. It also benefits from being timelier than its preceding season, tackling more than teen suicide and diving head first into controversial, hot button currently issues facing schools and society as a whole. Everything doesn't work, but with creator Brian Yorkey attempting so much, that was almost inevitable. And while I'm still not sure I'm on board with Netflix's campaign to reframe the completely fictional series as some kind of teaching tool for teens (complete with an accompanying "Beyond The Reasons" special with licensed psychologists), the final result speaks for itself, at least as far as its ability to entertain.

Justin Prentice as serial rapist Bryce Walker
Sometimes just honestly depicting serious issues on screen with raw, believable performances and strong writing is enough. And in the case of this second season, it's more than enough, justifying its existence by confronting rape, suicide, sexual abuse, drug abuse, male privilege, bullying, homophobia, slut shaming, vandalism, racism and school shootings head-on. Is it over-the-top? Maybe, but good luck trying to look away or dismiss the discussions sure to emerge from it.

With Hannah Baker (Langford) now gone and her 13 tapes heard by its intended audience, focus shifts to the court case brought against Liberty High by her grieving, now separated parents Olivia (Kate Walsh) and Andy (Brian d'Arcy James) as well as Clay's (Dylan Minette) attempts to move on following the loss of the best friend he considered the love of his life. But he's not having much luck, talking to hallucinations of Hannah as he reaches his psychological breaking point, consumed with proving popular, privileged baseball captain Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) raped her and exposing a toxic culture of abuse and faculty negligence at Liberty.

Clay will not only have to battle against a legal defense strategy painting Hannah as a slut and a school staff looking to cover their tracks, but enlist the help of the returning Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe), who herself was raped by Bryce while her boyfriend and Bryce's best bud, Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) did nothing. Getting her to speak openly about what happened on the stand and tracking down a now homeless, guilt-ridden Justin become Clay's chief objectives, and while good friend Tony (Christian Navarro) tries to help, he's busy struggling with anger management issues of his own.

Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) drowns out the pain
Returning to Liberty with ex-girlfriend Jessica is Alex Standall (Miles Heizer), whose attempted suicide over the pain both caused Hannah has left him physically and emotionally broken, leaning on an unlikely ally for support in kindhearted jock Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler).  One-by-one witnesses take the stand, as new details about Hannah's relationships with each of them that aren't found on the tapes start to surface. As  the true severity of this school's problems are revealed, the battle lines are drawn, with Bryce and his boys willing to do anything to exact revenge on those testifying.

Sick of it all is social outcast, sometimes "peeping tom," Tyler Down (Devin Druid), a bullying target who turns to the rebellious Cyrus (Bryce Cass) for help in striking back. And for guidance counselor Kevin Porter (Derek Luke), the guilt of having routinely dismissed Hannah's cries for help has inspired him to take action like never before, possibly to his own detriment. With tensions reaching their boiling point, it's clear that while Hannah's no longer alive, the underlying causes of her problems are still very prevalent at Liberty.

We should probably breathe a sigh of relief that the writers didn't pull out another batch of 13 more tapes in order to artificially continue Hannah's story. Having each of the witnesses take the stand as previously unseen bits and pieces of their relationship with Hannah unfold works really well, as does this shift of narration from her voice to theirs, leaving us constantly wondering just how reliable their accounts are. And since there's more to her life than was heard through the tapes, it doesn't feel cheap or manipulative that we're now privy to information that wasn't previously accessible.

Clay converses with Ghost Hannah
All this new info angers an already tortured Clay, who listens to painful details about Hannah that not only shatter his idealized image of her, but present her actions and choices in a horrible light. Of course, this is the cornerstone of the defense's case, as they attempt to prove it was a reckless lifestyle full of promiscuity that led her to take her own life rather than the school ignoring or dismissing clear warning signs. If she seems to be the one on trial here, that's exactly the point.

A less effective use of Hannah, or rather Clay's memory of her, is as a ghost with whom he has  frequently heated discussions and arguments. That, and his new doomed relationship with tattooed  barista and estranged childhood friend Skye (Sosie Bacon) comprise some early episode lowlights until the season finds its groove shortly thereafter. The former device starts to make more sense as Clay's psyche further unravels under all the stress of the trial while the latter subplot disappears entirely, replaced with an unlikely bromance that proves to be one of the show's biggest rewards. Those creative hiccups and a bewildering subplot involving Olivia's friendship with an anti-bullying advocate (played by Kelli O'Hara) that seems to go nowhere is all that doesn't really work in these otherwise satisfying and ambitious 13 episodes.

What's conveyed exceptionally is just how hard it is for a rape victim to come forward, regardless of the circumstances or how much or little of a support system they have. The idea that the victim is actually raped twice, once by the perpetrator and again by the legal system and court of public opinion is agonizingly depicted as Jessica must return to Liberty and walk the same halls as her assailant, while Hannah, even in death, is continuously stripped of her dignity in a courtroom because she supposedly "wanted it."

Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) takes the stand
The show would seem to be preaching if it didn't sketch its characters with such depth and so viscerally convey the true extent of complicity that makes any kind of justice for these victims impossible  No one wants to rock the boat and are willing to sweep anything under the rug when the careers and reputations of the school's faculty are on the line. And that's emblematic of this entire season, as kids continue suffering because of either a broken system or apathetic adults determined to maintain the status quo.

The privileged existence of Bryce Walker (who Justin Prentice plays with a terrifying smugness) contaminates everything around him, his popularity and family connections helping to protect a culture of rape and bullying that's become accepted as the norm. And the jocks follow him like sheep, covering his tracks even while we learn just how prevalent and far-reaching his crimes are. It even engulfs his new girlfriend, the almost equally popular Chlöe (Anne Winters), who remains in the dark and eventually in denial about who she's really with. When confronted with indisputable evidence, we're reminded yet again why so many rapists go free, as even those with the strength to come forward always end up sacrificing the most in the process.

One of the season's more cleverly constructed devices involves Bryce's secret "Clubhouse," where damning Polaroid photographs take the place of Hannah's cassette tapes as this season's retro tech smoking gun, providing evidence of his and the team's sexual assaults. Clay and company being able to obtain that evidence and get it into court will prove to be one of their biggest challenges.

Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) returns to Liberty High
One of Bryce's most loyal followers was troubled childhood friend, Justin, but as his disappearance and subsequent descent into addiction prove, he can no longer bare the burden of having done nothing to help Jessica. Much of the season revolves around Clay bringing Justin back to testify, and the roadblocks preventing it. Justin's emotional instability tops the list, while also leading to one of the more unlikely, genuine friendships of the series with him and polar opposite Clay. And to a lesser extent, even his relationship with the Jensens (Amy Hargreaves and Josh Hamilton) who, along with the rest of the parents, seem more actively involved this time around.

If many of the supporting characters benefit from Hannah and Clay ceding their spotlight within this new storytelling structure, so too do the actors playing them. While Katherine Langford was heralded as the show's breakout star with her turbulent, controversial role, you could easily argue Alisha Boe continues to evolve as the show's strongest acting presence, as Jessica's fight with PTSD is brought to the surface with the pressure to out Bryce as her rapist. One of the season's powerful moments comes when she realizes that if white, girl-next-door Hannah's reputation is being dragged through the mud in court, what could happen to her, as a black girl, if she chooses to come forward?

Brandon Flynn does equally powerful work as Justin, plumbing the depths as a heroine addict with a toxic family life who leaves all traces of his former popularity alongside Bryce behind, determined to do right by Jessica, even if he destroys himself in the process. Physically, Miles Heizer's Alex is in the worst shape of all, having survived his suicide attempt only to discover the broken pieces of himself he's left for both friends and family. Barely able to walk and isolating those closest to him out of pride, his extensive memory loss limits any potentially meaningful contributions he could make in the court case.

Mr. Porter threatens Bryce
The only adult who senses the full gravity of the situation and is actively attempting to make a difference in these teens' lives is embattled guidance counselor Kevin Porter, who's torn apart by the guilt he could have done more to help Hannah when she came to his office. Derek Luke really nails the role, infusing one of last season's more frustrating, one-dimensional characters with a renewed moral compass, wrestling with the realization he's on the wrong end of this case, defending a school system that didn't do enough.

Realizing his days at Liberty are numbered and determined to clean up the school with his own form of vigilante heroics, it's clear he stopped caring about consequences a while ago, pissing off the apathetic principal and doing everything he can to take down the Bryce and his cronies. It's kind of thrilling to watch, especially his big moment of truth on the stand, which reveals what happened to Hannah was as much the school's responsibility as his, failing to provide the tools and training necessary for him to effectively do his job.

From the very start, you can almost sense these episodes heading in an ugly direction that will elicit more debate and controversy. You can argue it started at the end of last season when Devin Druid's Tyler revealed a chest full of automatic weaponry and ammunition that uncomfortably invoked everyone's worst recollections of Columbine's Harris and Klebold. We eventually see the chest again, but it's the inciting series of events surrounding Tyler throughout the season that makes its reappearance so terrifying. While the yearbook photographer was established as an eccentric loner from the series' start, harboring an unhealthy, potentially stalkerish obsession with Hannah, a dangerous combination of chronic insecurity and mistreatment soon lead Tyler down an even darker path.

Tyler Down (Devin Druid) hits rock-bottom
The Emmy-worthy Druid might have the toughest role of any actor in the cast since it isn't often we're unknowingly given a 26-episode glimpse into what both makes up and creates a school shooter. He gives us clues both subtle and obvious, until the subtlety ends and we're just left with a bathroom assault scene that rivals Hannah's suicide for sheer emotional terror.

It isn't the scene's violence that gets to to us as much as Tyler's desperation, attempting and failing to utilize the tools he was told would help him improve as a person. It seems that every time he comes close to a breakthrough, he sabotages himself. This time he didn't and actually tried to do the right thing, only to receive the worst, most humiliating punishment imaginable for his efforts. And that's what sends him over the edge.

It's natural to understand critics' and audiences' discomfort with the season-closing arc, which pushes us to feel empathy for someone we suspect is about to commit an unthinkably evil act. But there's no denying that the writers and Druid's performance attach a very specific, slow burning "how," "why," "where" "when" to it, which is far more than can be said for most depictions of senseless violence on screen. That it never gets that far only seemed to increase the criticisms, with many accusing the show of using a potential school shooting situation as cliffhanger bait. But that's missing the point.

That it's Clay, still traumatized from his inability to prevent Hannah from taking her own life, who ends up talking down Tyler makes a lot of sense since they always seemed cut from a similar cloth in how they handle perceived injustices. And anyone who thinks the show's endorsing the idea of confronting active shooter probably shouldn't be watching. This isn't a school safety training video. It's a drama that's only obligation is to its story and characters. That Netflix hasn't buckled under the pressure of politically correct resistance has served the series well, continually keeping its emotions grounded in reality, regardless of how heightened the circumstances become. 

Clay speaks at Hannah's memorial
The Hannah Baker suicide is undoubtedly put to bed in the final, powerful episode of the season, as it should be. While it's inaccurate to say that the single inciting event that most impacted and shaped all these characters and their stories could ever truly go away, it was admittedly a little awkward to have Hannah's (or rather Katherine Langford's) physical presence still occupying such a huge chunk of the series. If Clay is to continue being the show's anchor, she has to be completely gone, especially since so many of the supporting players have been developed to the point that this now revolves around them. Plus, her story's over, as Clay clearly found his own type of painful closure both at the school dance and her memorial service.

While this season wasn't as clearly defined as it's last and even a little messier, the 13 Reasons is in no need of any type of creative rehabilitation and calls for a return to first season form are not only needlessly premature, but sort of ridiculous when you consider how many more moving parts it now has. If the series has supposedly stirred up all this outrage, it's brought to the forefront just as many necessary conversations, whether people are ready to have them or not. For a show everyone claims to hate, it's sure giving us a lot to consider.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Cobra Kai

Creators: Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Maridueña, Mary Mouser, Tanner Buchanan, Joe Seo, Jacob Bertrand, Nichole Brown, Griffin Santopietro, Bret Ernst, Ed Asner
Original Airdate: 2018

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Few recent sequel announcements of a long-beloved franchise or movie series have been met with as much skepticism as YouTube Red's Cobra Kai. While it appeared the final nail was put into The Karate Kid as a pop culture property eight years ago with an embarrassing remake that may now further recede from collective memory thanks to the existence of this show. If anything good came of that ill-fated reboot starring a certain movie star's son, it's that it only increased our appreciation of the original, with which it shared a title and little else.

YouTube Red's Cobra Kai
To this day, and maybe never more than in the past week, I'll strongly contend the 1984 film is criminally undervalued and a better overall experience than Rocky, to which it's frequently measured against. The comparison's worth noting since they not only share the same director, but have recently been revived with similar "What If?" creative approaches. 2015's Creed asked what would happen if Apollo Creed's son were trained by Rocky. It opened pandora's box, creating a strong link between old and new that most of the franchise's previous efforts couldn't come close to matching.

While not as severely damaged as Rocky by multiple sequels, The Karate Kid  has just never been taken as seriously despite its quality and longevity having earned it the right. Ironically, it's that perception that facilitated this comeback, resulting in numerous videos and a How I Met Your Mother theory that's accidentally evolved into accepted franchise canon over the years. We had it all wrong. Johnny Lawrence is the good guy. Daniel LaRusso is the bad guy. Johnny was just minding his own business when that Jersey punk moved in on his girl, took his Karate title and pretty much destroyed his life. Forgetting the theory doesn't really hold up to logical scrutiny and loads of details are omitted to make it fly, there's just the tiniest kernel of truth to make you grin, and appreciate everything just a little more.

Cobra Kai takes that germ of an idea to the next level, envisioning a present-day scenario that asks, "What if Johnny was the main character and decided to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo?" And with that, we're off to the races, the question hinting at all sorts of possibilities that creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg explore within every inch and crevice of their ten expertly paced and constructed episodes.

Daniel vs. Johnny in '84
So much more than a mere trip down memory lane for diehards, it's the blueprint all future reboots or sequels of nostalgic film and TV properties would be wise to follow. It seamlessly sets up its premise, delivering a mixture of self-aware comedy and pathos that deepens and expands the original characters and ideas, successfully reimagining the entire franchise with a fresh coat of creative paint over thirty years later.

When the last episode ends, you'll want to sit down and rewatch The Karate Kid, and doing it with a even greater appreciation, mostly due to what's accomplished in this series. While the words "Cobra Kai" now mean something entirely different and more nuanced than in '84, the surest sign of the show's success comes in the finals of the 2018 All Valley Karate Championship, which feels as monumental as the classic original showdown. And we care just as much about the two new combatants on opposing sides of the mat, and the story that puts them there, built on the foundation of everything right about the film that inspired it. 

34 years since his loss to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) in the finals the All Valley Under-18 Karate Championship, a drunk, broke, down on his luck fifty-something Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) has just been fired from his latest job as a handyman. One night while drinking and wallowing on the sidewalk of a strip mall, he notices his teenage neighbor Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) being beaten up by a group of bullies and comes to his defense, assaulting them and spending a night in jail.

LaRusso Auto Group: "Chopping Prices"
Having been sprung from the slammer by his wealthy, verbally abusive stepfather, Sid (Ed Asner), his 80's sports car is soon wrecked in a hit and run while reminiscing at the All Valley Sports Arena. Unfortunately for him, his car is towed to LaRusso Motors for repair, with Johnny coming face-to-face with his high school rival, now an extremely successful used car dealer in the San Fernando Valley. Despite Daniel's willingness to fix Johnny's car for free, his former karate opponent's success only serves to painfully remind him how big a failure he's become.

Everywhere Johnny turns is a commercial or billboard touting Daniel, and that jealousy and resentment sparks in him the idea to use Sid's money to reopen the Cobra Kai karate dojo. He takes on Miguel as his first pupil, and despite his overly aggressive, testosterone-fueled teaching methods, starts to make a difference in the kid's life. Other bullied social outcasts follow and join, and as Cobra Kai grows, so too does Daniel's desire to get rid of it.

Daniel's obsession with vanquishing the dojo is perplexing to his wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), as they're running an extremely profitable business, while enjoying a life of luxury in the valley raising their teen daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser) and bratty young son, Anthony (Griffin Santopietro). But even content in middle-age, there's something about Johnny and Cobra Kai that still gets to him, And even with his karate taking a backseat in life following Mr. Miyagi's passing, he's willing to do whatever it takes to make sure they disappear for good.

William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence
It would be entirely too obvious if the writers chose to simply reverse the two major roles, making Johnny some kind of a hero while Daniel's evolved into an egotistical bully. Not only wouldn't it be true to the original characters, it would make for a predictable, uninspired narrative. So wisely, the series presents middle-aged Johnny as just as big an asshole as we remember, if not more so since he now seems completely out of touch with the present-day world in which he lives.

Everyone loved to hate Johnny because he was one of those ridiculously classic, over-the-top 80's movie villains (similar to Biff from Back to the Future) who had to be the best athlete, go out with the prettiest, most popular girl, drive the hottest car, while making sure to find time to let all the "losers" know who's boss. After getting his comeuppance at the hands of Daniel and even experiencing somewhat of a redemption at the end of the first film, it makes sense that Johnny, whose entire existence was built on winning, would still be licking his wounds from the loss to Daniel decades later.

That Johnny would be living alone surrounded by garbage and empty beer cans, still driving the same car, blasting Guns n' Roses and watching Iron Eagle on his VCR as he yearns for his high school glory days was practically a given. Or that he'd also be a deadbeat dad to his son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan) and living in a literal and emotional man cave for most of his adult life.

Johnny rallies the troops
If this is exactly where we envisioned the Johnny character would be in 2018, him attempting to crawl out of the hole he's dug himself and interact with the rest of society represents the series is at its most darkly comical, with Sensei Lawrence attempting to instill the Cobra virtues of striking hard and striking first into a ragtag group of misfit nerds he would have likely spent his entire childhood tormenting. And so begins his redemption.

Seeing the angry, bitter Johnny attempt to function in a politically correct landscape where everyone is used to getting a participation trophy is priceless, allowing Zabka to go to comedic places as an actor that few thought he'd ever be afforded the opportunity to explore outside of a guest spot or viral video. Whether he's reacting to cyberbullying, ordering these kids to punch each other in the face, or telling a student on the autism spectrum to "get off it," we couldn't expect any less from Johnny, nor would we want to.

Johnny and Miguel
Zabka is terrific, and when he needs to get serious, he's even better, showing that as aggressive and downright dangerous as some of Johnny's tactics are, a real connection is being made with his star pupil, Miguel, whose confidence and ability seems to grow with each session. And Johnny seems to form a bond with him he never could with his real son, Robby, due to his various screw-ups through the years.

Sensei Lawrence will never be another Mr. Miyagi, extolling the virtues of "wax on, wax off,"  but he isn't exactly his sadistic former mentor John Kreese (Martin Kove), either. And even if he definitely needs to dial it back and is still a jerk clinging to sexist, racist attitudes, there may be something to his belief that these kids are being coddled to their detriment, providing yet another intriguing discussion point that stems from continuing the story decades later.

Now a father and prominent pillar in the community, Daniel LaRusso takes Cobra Kai's return as personally as possible, as if it's again contaminating the cozy world he's worked hard to create for himself, and has rightfully earned. But there's just this small hint of condescension in his interactions with Johnny and an insecurity that stems from his high school days that rears its head whenever their paths cross. He's still the same great guy, as a sub-plot involving his training of a new LaRusso Auto Group employee conveys, but his worst tendencies emerge when Johnny walks into his showroom.

Miguel wears a familiar costume in Ep. 1.3, "Esqueleto"
Daniel may still be noble, but he's not perfect, and can't really handle the fact his daughter Sam may no longer want to be "daddy's little girl," seemingly having outgrown karate and maybe even her own father. She's also a good kid who's temporarily fallen in with a questionable crowd, as the series becomes as much about her and Miguel, and the risk they'll both become collateral damage in a feud between two middle-aged men reliving their high school feud. Despite the Cobra Kai affiliation, Miguel's set up pretty early on as the heir apparent to Daniel's throne, only trained by his nemesis. But how will Sam prepare her dad for the news that the most important person in her life is a Cobra?

One of the core ideas of this series, that we never truly escape who we were in high school, is exemplified in Macchio's performance, which digs a few layers deeper the further he's removed from the protagonist role. Like Zabka, he also gets to demonstrate a playful self-awareness that has a lot to say about those who may have peaked or crashed in their youth and now spending their adult life sorting out the repercussions. 

Many sequels and reboots have failed by either using the original characters as doormats to introduce the next generation or relegating the fresh faces to the sidelines to bask in cheesy nostalgia, simultaneously alienating both younger and older fans. While properties like Star Wars have faced justifiable criticism for this, Cobra Kai represents the most organic transition thus far, crafting a new story that bridges the generations, with neither getting the short end of the stick.

Mary Mouser as Samantha Larusso
It helps considerably that Xolo Maridueña, Mary Mouser and Tanner Buchanan are all instantly likable in roles that serve wildly different, but equally impactful functions. In some ways, they've all inherited the mess that is Daniel and Johnny's 1984's All-Valley Karate Championship Finals, but are nonetheless trying forge their own paths.

While the series does many little things right (like Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson's faithful, modern-day tribute to Bill Conti's 1984 score) the biggest elephant in the room was always going to be Mr. Miyagi's absence. But as it turns out, he isn't missed since the narrative goes to such great lengths to convey he hasn't gone anywhere at all, his lessons still guiding Daniel, even as a middle-aged father.

The moving Pat Morita-dedicated fifth episode, "Counterbalance," sees Daniel taking a much needed trip to Myagi's grave for guidance and reflection. And it's something he needs more than ever given the sudden regression he's undergone since Cobra Kai's surge in popularity. When he makes the decision to positively channel that energy into reincorporating karate into his life, it's the decision to mentor a new pupil that refocuses the character, making for quite the moment when Daniel puts on the classic lotus headband again.

Daniel suits up.
Luckily for us, it's clear Johnny and Daniel could never really be "friends," but the closest they get to begrudgingly reaching some kind of common ground comes in the season's best episode, "Different But Same," as simmering tensions between the two finally reach their boiling point, culminating in the realization they may have had more in common than they thought. It definitely isn't a truce, but rather a reluctant acknowledgement they'll have to somehow co-exist and tolerate each other because this time it isn't only about them.

There's a limitless well of fascination in watching these rivals view their history together in entirely different ways, with each casting the other as the villain. Johnny has a scene with Miguel explaining his feud with Daniel that's interspersed with selectively narrated and edited flashbacks hilarious enough to be mistaken for the many viral videos and clips that partially inspired the idea for this series. Except this time it's actually coming from the character, who Zabka rightly plays as completely lacking in any self-awareness.

The decision to flash back to Johnny's childhood and provide glimpses into what turned him into Daniel's adolescent tormentor should have been a disaster. But like everything else here, it succeeds in adding dimensions to a character everyone previously enjoyed on a superficial level, but really knew little about.

A young Johnny peeks into his future
Without unnecessarily dwelling on it or overexplaining the obvious, the scenes fill in valuable blanks of what brought a young Johnny to Cobra Kai, and why that complicated history makes it difficult for him to reconcile what eventually occurs in the season's finale climactic showdown ("Mercy") that again puts them on opposing sides, albeit in an entirely different capacity. And when Johnny's faced with the true cost of his behavior, we start to wonder if Daniel was right, and it is truly too late for him and Cobra Kai to ever change.

Unlike its 1984 theatrical predecessor, this isn't a sports story about the underdog overcoming the odds, instead operating in a much greyer moral area. By comically acknowledging the differences between then and now, and how its affected these characters, they're able to add this entire extra layer that works as more than just a meta-commentary.

Daniel and Miyagi
Actors are infrequently afforded the opportunity to reassess their iconic roles years later manage to actively improve upon them. This is especially true of Zabka, who not only challenges perceptions of the character that typecast him as an actor, but takes complete ownership of them. It doesn't take long into the series to place any lingering skepticism aside and recognize Cobra Kai works as far more than a nostalgia cash-in, naturally extending a story we didn't know had more to give until now. So when Daniel tells Johnny that it's never going to be over between them, we not only believe him, but honestly hope he's right.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

I, Tonya

Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Houser, Caitlyn Carver, Ricky Russert, Mckenna Grace
Running Time: 119 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

There's this moment that comes in Craig Gillespie's biopic, I, Tonya, when disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, years removed from the infamous event that would define her life and career, turns to the camera to tell us this is part of the story we've been waiting for. It's why we're here. Or the "incident," as it's referred to. More time is spent on it than you've been lead to believe, which includes everything from the planning to the botched execution and even more seriously botched cover-up. But I, Tonya isn't about any of this, while still also managing to be completely about it at the same time.

It becomes nearly impossible to separate the accompanying media narrative pushing Harding as this victimized anti-hero from the film itself. If the full extent of Harding's involvement in the 1994 attack on rival Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan will always be subject for debate, what isn't is the fact that her actions and associations did lead directly to it. And with all that being true, it also needs to be acknowledged that she lead a mostly terrible life defined by physical and psychological abuse.

The toughest aspect of the movie is how it uncomfortably forces all those aforementioned elements to co-exist in a way they haven't before, perhaps in the end landing at the conclusion that Harding, no matter how you feel about her, never stood a chance. That any success she had was indirectly bred from misery and that feeling of never fitting in would persist, regardless of her talent or accomplishments. If you're Team Kerrigan, as I was at the time and still remain, there's relief in knowing that it's okay to empathize with the title character of this film, while not extending that same courtesy to the real person on whom it's based.

While filled to the brim with its fair share of detestable losers, it's also really cleverly conceived, told in a fourth wall-breaking, quasi-documentary style that suits the twisted subject, featuring flashbacks and interviews that carry a satirical tone, assuring the absurdity of the situation and its delusional characters is rarely lost. That combined with the two perfectly calibrated performances make for one of the more intriguing entries into the sports movie genre, as if there's even a correct way to categorize this. But whatever it is, it's definitely not what anyone expected.

It's the 1970's when three-year-old ice skating prodigy Tonya Harding is pushed by her abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janey) to train in her hometown of Portland, Oregon under the guidance of coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). Seeing her daughter's astounding talent as merely a quick cash-in, Tonya (Margot Robbie) continues to rise up the ranks into her teen years, rapidly becoming one of the best figure skaters in the country. But even as she does this on pure skill alone, she faces resistance from those within the skating committee who take exception to her "poor white trash" reputation, which manifests itself on the ice with her costumes and rock music choices, not to mention the constant swearing at judges over scores.

Off the ice, Tonya does herself even fewer favors, associating with the likes of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), whom she began dating at 15, and eventually marrying, much to LaVona's disapproval. It's a relationship that proves to be nearly as destructive and toxic as that with her mom, who continues to verbally cut her down as a failure well into young adulthood, while Gillooly's volcanic temper soon leads to violent beatings. The better Tonya's skating gets, the more hellish her personal life becomes, with all roads leading to the 1994 attack on Olympic rival and teammate Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlyn Carver) by Gillooly stooges Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and Shane Stant (Ricky Russert). Unfortunately, the rest is history.

While it's easy to accuse Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers' screenplay of piling on the trauma that followed Harding throughout her life, too much of it actually occurred to effectively hurl that criticism. And all of it came from her mother, who's played here by Janney in her Oscar-winning supporting turn as just about the most detestable parent and human being one could imagine existing, constantly lashing out at her daughter for no good reason other than to mitigate her own failures.

Making Tonya feel as worthless as possible isn't just an everyday occurrence with the vulgar, chain-smoking LaVona, but her life's mission, poorly disguising it under the mask of "tough love" as she brags about the sacrifices she's made for her disappointment of a daughter. As driving force and chief antagonist of this entire story, I'd love to report she's a deeply complex, nuanced character, but the fact is she's just plain awful. This comes as a relief in some ways, completely in line with the film's darkly comic viciousness, as the script makes no apologies or excuses for her monstrous behavior.

Many detractors are right in assessing that Janney is hitting one note and LaVona is a caricature, but anyone who's seen footage of the real woman (who actually does have a pet parakeet on her shoulder) would tell you that's exactly what she is. And given the semi-ironic tone the picture's going for, any attempt to humanize her would probably be a major mistake. It's a telling moment when during one of the many videotaped confessional moments, Harding expresses confusion as to why so many people would care about Nancy Kerrigan getting hit once when she was beaten her entire life. It takes a second to realize the statement is true, before realizing what that says about Tonya for making it. And none of it's flattering.

In addition to completely transforming her physical appearance, effectively adapting her mannerisms and style of speech and believably inhabiting the figure skater from her early teen years into nearly middle age, the biggest accomplishment of Margot Robbie's outlandishly great lead performance is how it gives you peeks into this tragically troubled athlete's psyche. If her mother has no hint of humanity, Tonya does, putting the work in to reach the top only to have her demons destroy the only thing she ever loved and excelled at: skating.

Despite possessing considerably more raw talent than her rivals and becoming the first woman to nail the triple axel (in one of many believable, masterfully edited competition scenes) it still wasn't good enough because she couldn't "play the game." And that's important in a sport that revolves around class and elegance, something ice princess Kerrigan had in spades but Tonya's upbringing made it impossible for her to fake, even if she was willing to. And she was never willing to, in so many ways setting up this dichotomy that existed between Harding and Kerrigan that went beyond sport and competition, serving instead as media catnip.

The genius of the screenplay is how their feud isn't explicitly explored (Kerrigan hardly appears), but its cultural implications nonetheless permeate through every frame of the film, even reaching back to when Tonya's a little girl. It's crass vs. class. The smoking, swearing rebel vs. the sweet girl next door. And as skilled as Hollywood writers are, none of them could have crafted a better story than the real one that took viewers into Lillehammer in 1994 when for a few short months figure skating became bigger than the Super Bowl. Wisely, Gillespie doesn't attempt to replicate that, instead focusing on its most controversial participant, with even the classic rock soundtrack selections inseparable from Tonya's head space, as well as the lowlifes she surrounded herself with.

Most of the picture's second half revolves around her relationship with Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan in an underappreciated performance. Initially presenting himself as meek and quiet, he eventually assumes the mantle of the new chronic abuser in Harding's life, as their toxic on-again, off-again relationship is filled with nonstop verbal and physical altercations, including a particularly memorable one involving a firearm. And it's in a pathetically desperate last ditch attempt to prove he "loves" her that Gillooly calls in a favor from his buddy Shawn Eckhardt, perhaps the most pitiable and inept character in this entire saga, with actual assailant Shane Stant running a close second.

What begins as an anonymous threat against Kerrigan careens wildly out of control, and what's most surprising about how Gillespie depicts the infamous incident is how it's hilariously played as total farce. And that's exactly what it was. An episode of "World's Dumbest Criminals" that happened to have very real, deadly serious consequences. Did Tonya know?  Does it even matter? While the script doesn't present any additional information to come to a concrete conclusion one way or another, Tonya Harding is responsible. Or rather irresponsible, just by her association with Gillooly. In other words, by the time the knee clubbing occurred, the crazy train already left the station for Tonya, and the screenplay does an excellent job detailing how her life would inevitably lead to disaster. If it wasn't this, then there's a good chance it just would have been something else.

While it's clearly irrefutable that justice was served in the ruling to ban Harding for life from figure skating and TV ratings can be cited as the only reason she was at the Olympics instead of in jail, there's another defining event in the film that lingers longer in the mind. It comes in the only moment LaVona seems to display something resembling an actual soul, before the curtain is pulled back to reveal more heinous motivations. It's may be easy to argue whether Harding did or didn't deserve her lot in life, but few would claim she had that betrayal coming, especially at the hands of her own mother.

While criticisms will continue to persist that Gillespie is really making fun of these people with the mockumentary approach he takes, it's a story that's probably impossible with a straight face anyway, or at least without occasionally winking at the audience. It's the perfect approach because the situation is just too absurd to do otherwise, especially when the harshest skewering is reserved for the media in the form of Bobby Cannavale's Hard Copy tabloid TV producer. At one point, Harding's contemplative and brutally honest, if not particularly self-reflective, narration acknowledges how shows like that are now the news thanks this event and the O.J. case. But I,Tonya delves even deeper by attempting to explore how much a person's actions are guided and shaped by socio-economic circumstances extending beyond their control, and whether or not that  should matter when life's final score is eventually tallied.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The experience you had watching a movie can often far surpass the movie itself, frequently causing confusion between the two. Strangely, such an experience accompanied my early 90's viewing of the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's It. And while I exactly remember the when, why and where, it's more difficult to recall a single thing about the actual movie other than it being overlong and mostly terrible, as the King TV adaptations tended to be. But that second half featuring the child characters as adults was particularly disappointing, sucking whatever entertainment value remained from watching Tim Curry's evil clown wreck havoc in this small Maine town. And while it definitely wasn't scary, it's hard to point to any miniseries of the era that was.

It's fitting to discuss memories and nostalgia when examining the many merits of Andy Muschietti's reimagined vision of It since that's how he makes this interpretation connect. And if there's one thing we've learned about the frequently unadaptable works of Stephen King, it's that you need to find a way in. His mind goes to these strange, weird places, and unless the filmmaker can find a suitable entrance, it can all seem kind of ridiculous. In this case, that door was in front of our faces the whole time: Stand By Me-era King meets 80's Spielberg by way of Stranger Things. At the risk of simplifying it, that's the key, and the rest of the pieces just fall into place.

Anyone doubting the extent of Stranger Things' pop culture stranglehold needn't look any further than It, since this couldn't or wouldn't have unfolded the way it does without that series. But it would all mean nothing if they didn't put in the work and get it right, taking an approach that's exactly appropriate for material that now suddenly feels purposeful, possessing a palpable sense of time and place entirely absent from its predecessor. If someone asks what this is about, you can now actually tell them with a clear conscience. But why bother, when the film does such a magnificent job conveying that all on its own, earning a spot alongside the likes of Stand by Me, Carrie, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption and Dolores Claiborne on any essential list of the most successful cinematic King adaptations.

It's October 1988 in Derry, Maine when nervously stuttering Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) makes his 7-year-old little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) a paper sailboat, which he loses down a sewer drain in the middle of a rain storm. While attempting to retrieve it, he comes face-to face with a terrifying clown who calls himself "Pennywise The Dancing Clown" (Bill Skarsgård). After initially earning Georgie's trust, he viciously attacks the boy, dragging him into the sewer, never to be seen again.

Flashforward to the following year and Bill hasn't given hope finding his little brother, despite his parents' and much of the town believing him to be dead. But when there's another mysterious disappearance under similar circumstances, Bill enlists the help of his friends, foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) and reluctant Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), to to go to a local marsh called the Barrens and investigate the possibility Georgie's still alive. While there, they encounter teen bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang who have been tormenting overweight new kid, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), whose hours of research in the Derry library has provided the group with more than a few ideas about these child abductions.

Joining them is another Bowers Gang victim, orphaned African American student Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and the only female member of what eventually becomes "The Losers' Club," tomboy Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), whose rumored promiscuity has also made her a bullying target, even as a smitten Bill and Ben compete for her affections. Soon, the kids all realize they've had visions of the same clown, the sadistic Pennywise, who assumes the appearance of whatever they fear most. And each of them have personal demons to overcome before attempting to stop this unpredictable entity who knows just how to exploit those fears, aiming to resume the reign of terror he wrecks on the children of Derry every 27 years. To beat him they'll have to bravely band together, despite the clown's best efforts to drive them apart.

Freed from many of the creative constraints that hampered previous King horror adaptations, this one rips the band-aid off right away, with a declarative opening sequence that lets you know this It means business. Shot in a washed-out VHS-era haze and backed by an unnerving, foreboding score by Benjamin Wallfisch, an unmistakable atmosphere is established that was certainly missing in the original. An "R" rating isn't necessarily a must for any horror entry, but in this specific case it really bolsters the material, at least due in part to the fact that we're just not used seeing characters this age acting authentically and being terrorized to the degree they are here. Much like Stranger Things and 80's classics that inspired it, the young actors actually look and behave like kids, and among a fairly large cast, each are given distinctive personality traits that equip them differently in dealing with the evil clown.

Muschietti masters what so many previous filmmakers adapting King's work have failed to grasp by effectively picking his spots, knowing the trigger buttons for maximum fright, as well as how hard and often to push them. After a terrifyingly graphic introduction, Pennywise's subsequent appearances are strategically placed to count, as the focus turns to building the groundwork of the kids' relationships to each other so when the time comes for that ultimate showdown, we'll care.

The more we get to know the group, the more we eventually start seeing of Pennywise, menacingly played by Bill Skarsgård in a performance that shuts down any and all comparisons to Tim Curry's portrayal, if only because the presentation feels so wildly different this time around. Skarsgård brings an innocent, almost childlike playfulness to him that somehow seems even more sinister and monstrous, as he attempts to meet them on their level. King's story always had the advantage that clowns are inherently creepy, but you can't help think this reckless incarnation is more dangerous, frequently calling to mind the differences between Ledger's and Nicholson's Jokers.

Since Pennywise is used so sparingly in the opening hour, when the time arrives for him to take center stage in the battle with these kids, it actually means something. There are moments of true terror in not only their encounters with Derry's sadistic antagonist (particularly one suspenseful scene involving a slide projector), but in their everyday lives. Darker, more adult elements of King's novel were cleaned up for a suitable network TV presentation over two decades ago such as vicious bullying, child abuse, kidnapping and murder are given a more fully fleshed-out treatment here by Muschietti. Of course none of it would work if not for the casting of these kids, each of whom overdeliver, with one delivering one of the most memorable on screen interpretations of a King character in years.

Jaeden Lieberher ably takes the lead as the reluctant but determined Bill while Jeremy Ray Taylor seems to channel a young, chubby Jerry O'Connell from Stand By Me as chronic bullying victim, Ben. The latter's story arc is sure to remind many of Stranger Things, with Nicholas Hamilton's sociopathic delinquent, Henry, baring more than a passing resemblance to the similarly psychotic Billy from that series' sophomore season. But it's ultimately the work of Sophia Lillis as the abused and ostracized Beverly that makes the strongest connection, both with viewers and the source material.

Handed the most emotionally challenging of the main roles, Beverly carries with her a knowledge and world-weariness that seems years beyond her age, even as she remains paralyzingly stunted and a prisoner of her own fear. Or more accurately, the fear of her evil, abusive father. If ever there was a bridge between the first and second chapters of this saga, it's Lillis who builds it with a performance that basically dictates where that installment needs to go, even prompting many to acknowledge there's no better actress fit to take over that role than Jessica Chastain. Aside from the obvious similarity in looks, that she might be the only one to do it justice speaks volumes about what Lillis accomplishes.

If that casting possibility is the very definition of a no-brainer, figuring out a way to make Chapter 2 as involving will still be the biggest obstacle given King's penchant for sloppy, unrealized endings. There's a reason the most successful cinematic adaptations of the author's work have frequently deviated from their sources in unexpected ways. With this being the narratively stronger section, Muschietti manages to get away with not doing much of that but it'll be intriguing to see what tricks he'll have up his sleeve to further develop the story and characters following the twenty-seven year time jump.

That the ending has us looking forward to that second chapter is something few thought was even possible after the project was announced and then spent some time in pre-production purgatory. And even fewer still could have ever guessed It would become the all-time highest- grossing horror film to date. Watching the last thirty or forty minutes should be a strong reminder why, as that slow, simmering build peaks, and the kids are forced to stare fear straight in his face. And while they do see a terrifying clown, 2017's version of It understands that their true challenge comes in dealing with their own worst fears reflected back at them.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Burning Questions from the 2018 Oscars

Did you think you had the wrong channel?

Wouldn't a black and white opening be more appropriate the year that The Artist was nominated?

Does anyone remember The Artist?

Isn't it nice to start the show at a decent time?

Can we end it at one? 

Were you counting down the seconds until Kimmel mentioned last year's envelope fiasco?

Did you think that would come before or after he joked about the #MeToo movement?

Wasn't his line about Trump liking the first third of Get Out pretty good?

What's with that stage setup?

And all those crystals?

Tribute to Superman's home planet?

How about Sam Rockwell's Philip Seymour Hoffman shout-out?

Shouldn't they really tell the winners to "get out" if their speeches run long?

Between that and the jet ski bribe, have we finally found the key to shortening the show?

Wouldn't it be sad if Darkest Hour couldn't win Hair and Makeup with only two other nominees?

Wouldn't it also be sad if a movie about costume design didn't win Best Costume Design?

Is this the first year I haven't seen any of the nominated documentaries?

Was I thrilled that BOTH Roger Ebert and Back to the Future made it into that montage?

Aren't you glad they're not still attempting to joke about not being able to tell the difference between sound editing and mixing?

When Eiza and Ansel came out, didn't you just know Baby Driver wasn't winning?

Full Sail University shout-out?

Was this the first year a man has ever hosted the Scientific and Technical Awards?

Why is film critic Kim Morgan sitting with Guillermo del Toro?

Does del Toro now HAVE to win Best Director just so we can find out what's going on with that?

Isn't that Coco song catchy?

If a film has "Woman" in its title, isn't it a pretty safe bet this year?

Wouldn't you vote for Laurie Metcalf just on that one Lady Bird clip alone?

Is "I did it all by myself" the best opening line of an Oscar acceptance speech?

Isn't it strange beyond belief how Tonya Harding is now suddenly some kind of victim?

Not a question, but Mark Hamill!

Not a question, but BB-8!

Isn't Kobe glad he was on the Lakers?

How about that shot at FOX News?

So, I guess they fit Sufjan Stevens onto the show after all?

Kind of?

I know the show runs long, but isn't it a little extreme for Kimmel to be ushering the audience out already?

You mean people actually went to see A Wrinkle in Time?

They didn't seem too upset it was interrupted, did they?

Is Ellen DeGeneres going to sue Kimmel for stealing her act?

Poetic justice that this guy mispronounced Tiffany Haddish's name?

Is that the first winner to accept their Oscar with sign language?

Haven't you always wanted to see a short film "inspired by Walmart delivery boxes"?

Didn't you just know we'd get an entire montage dedicated to #TimesUp?

But didn't Kumail Nanjiani's humorous insights make it work?

Did it convey just how strong the love for Get Out is?

If that didn't do it, then Peele's screenplay victory must have, right?

Gal Gadot is all over this show, isn't she?


How many times do you think he's rehearsed that speech over the past decade?

Is it unfair to say he should already have 5 or 6 of these statues?

Seriously, what's the deal with Kim Morgan and del toro?

Were you worried they'd have to bump the In Memoriam montage from the show?

Don't we say that every year?

Should we just pinch ourselves now that Eddie Vedder is covering Tom Petty's "Room at the Top" on the Oscars?

Isn't that a perfect match of song and artist?

Did you know it's my third all-time favorite Petty song?

Can you guess the other two?

So, does that make up for not nominating Eddie Vedder for Into The Wild?

Um, Adam West?

So, I checked imdb and apparently Kim Morgan is co-writing del Toro's remake of Nightmare Alley, so that explains that... right?

Is this del Toro's year or what?

Can you wake me after Gary Oldman wins his Oscar?

Wait, where's Casey Affleck?

On second thought, maybe don't answer that?

Where's Jack Nicholson when you need him?

On that note, didn't there seem to be a noticeable lack of stars in the audience this year?

Did the producers give that away when they kept cutting away to Timothée Chalamet and his mom?

Didn't Chalamet look legitimately thrilled to be there? 

Wasn't Foster and Lawrence's Meryl Streep bit pretty funny?

Were you bracing yourself for McDormand's speech?

Was the audience reaching for their seatbelts?

Waterhouse under the bridge?

Don't you love the story that Beatty knew the winner was wrong, and then just gave the envelope to Dunaway to throw her under the bus?

Do you miss when there were just five Best Picture nominees?

Beatty didn't seem to get any better at opening the envelope, did he?

After going 21 for 24 with predictions, do I regret not entering an Oscar pool?

Kimmel really has this Oscar hosting thing nailed down now, doesn't he?

Didn't you just know Helen Mirren and the jet ski would reappear at the end of the night?

What do you say about a show that was really well-produced, but sort of boring and uneventful?

After last year's, wouldn't anything be?

Saturday, March 3, 2018

2018 Oscar Predictions

While resigning ourselves to the inevitability that few moments during this Sunday's 90th Annual Academy Awards will come close to matching the shocking final minutes of last year's show, I have only wish for the 2018 Oscars: That they keep it about the movies.  We've had about four to six months of #MeToo, #TimesUp and Harvey Weinstein so I don't think it's asking too much, aside from the opening monologue, for the industry to spend one night focusing all their attention on celebrating and appreciating the onscreen work we've seen in the past year. That is, after all, why the Oscars exist. And boy do we badly need that celebration now, with the gap between the tastes of the general moviegoing public and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences growing by the day.

With the notable exception of box office juggernaut Get Out, there's really no 2017 film listed here that came close to permeating the culture or causing even casual chatter among the general population. And there's still the chance that may not even go home with anything. Movies just aren't at the forefront right now, but that's okay since there's still no better night all year for those who love good ones. That one of the best Oscar hosts in years, Jimmy Kimmel earned the call back can only be viewed as a positive, as is the recent news that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway will be returning to the scene of the crime, attempting again to present Best Picture after last year's ridiculously entertaining debacle.

Speaking of which, this might be the most wide open Best Picture category we've ever had, with as many as three films or four films all with a solid chance of taking home the gold. Unfortunately for me, it could also mean owning the embarrassment of incorrectly predicting the biggest category for the third consecutive year. So, as I struggle to play catch up again and cram in viewings of all these nominees, here's hoping they build on last year's momentum to deliver another solid, well produced broadcast that doesn't run over 5 hours long. Below are my predictions, along with some comments on the major categories. As usual, I'm reserving the right to adjust these picks leading up to the start of the show.

*Predicted Winners

Best Animated Feature:
“The Boss Baby,” Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
“The Breadwinner,” Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
“Coco,” Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
“Ferdinand,” Carlos Saldanha
“Loving Vincent,” Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman

Best Animated Short:
“Dear Basketball,” Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant 
“Garden Party,” Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
“Lou,” Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
“Negative Space,” Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
“Revolting Rhymes,” Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer

Best Documentary Feature:

Best Documentary Short Subject:
“Edith+Eddie,” Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
“Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” Frank Stiefel
“Heroin(e),” Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon 
“Knife Skills,” Thomas Lennon
 “Traffic Stop,” Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

Best Live Action Short Film:
“DeKalb Elementary,” Reed Van Dyk
“The Eleven O’Clock,” Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
“My Nephew Emmett,” Kevin Wilson, Jr.
“The Silent Child,” Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
“Watu Wote/All of Us,” Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

Best Foreign Language Film:
“A Fantastic Woman” (Chile)
“The Insult” (Lebanon)
“Loveless” (Russia)
“On Body and Soul (Hungary) 
“The Square” (Sweden)

Best Film Editing:
“Baby Driver,” Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
“Dunkirk,” Lee Smith
“I, Tonya,” Tatiana S. Riegel
“The Shape of Water,” Sidney Wolinsky
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Jon Gregory

Best Sound Editing:
“Baby Driver,” Julian Slater
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mark Mangini, Theo Green
“Dunkirk,” Alex Gibson, Richard King
“The Shape of Water,” Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

Best Sound Mixing:
“Baby Driver,” Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
“Dunkirk,” Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
“The Shape of Water,” Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick

Best Production Design:
“Beauty and the Beast,” Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
“Blade Runner 2049,” Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
“Darkest Hour,” Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
“Dunkirk,” Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
“The Shape of Water,” Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

Best Original Score:
“Dunkirk,” Hans Zimmer
“Phantom Thread,” Jonny Greenwood
“The Shape of Water,” Alexandre Desplat
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” John Williams
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Carter Burwell

Best Original Song:
“Mighty River” from “Mudbound,” Mary J. Blige
“Mystery of Love” from “Call Me by Your Name,” Sufjan Stevens
“Remember Me” from “Coco,” Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
“Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall,” Diane Warren, Common 
“This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Best Makeup and Hair:
“Darkest Hour,” Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick 
“Victoria and Abdul,” Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
“Wonder,” Arjen Tuiten

Best Costume Design:
“Beauty and the Beast,” Jacqueline Durran
“Darkest Hour,” Jacqueline Durran
“Phantom Thread,” Mark Bridges
“The Shape of Water,” Luis Sequeira
“Victoria and Abdul,” Consolata Boyle

Best Visual Effects: