Thursday, August 18, 2016
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O' Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Menochet, Dustin Hoffman
Running Time: 103 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Here's a first. A biopic in which hardly a single aspect of the subject's personal life is addressed. But when your subject is embattled cyclist Lance Armstrong, you'd figure it makes sense that normal just don't apply, as they certainly didn't for him. As if the pre-release promotional art featuring Armstrong and giant syringe with the tagline, "Winning Was In His Blood," wasn't enough of a hint that Stephen Frears' The Program would be heavily weighed toward exposing the doping scandal that toppled an American sports icon, there are many instances in the film where the person himself fades into the background as performance enhancing drugs take center stage.
A quick glimpse at the list of Tour de France winners immediately reveals the seven blank spaces where Armstrong's name was, drawing so much sensationalistic attention to itself you start wondering if that punishment accomplished the opposite of its goal. Second only to O.J. Simpson as the most disgraced sports figure of recent times, you almost get the impression from watching this film that he'd bask in any kind of attention he could get. And that's why it's so cruelly ironic that hardly anyone knows this Lance Armstrong film exists or was even released, albeit briefly on V.O.D and theatrically earlier in the year.
Frears seems to present an argument that the man himself never really existed before that scandal and hasn't existed on any level since. It's tough to tell how much of that approach is deliberate or the result of crucial editing room cuts that excised what could have been deeper insights into his personality. Then again, what personality? He wanted to win at all costs and that's it. This a cold, clinical framing of events that's adequate enough because the detached style feels so oddly appropriate in this case. And they got the best actor they possibly could in both physical resemblance and temperment to play Lance, emotionlessly reflecting back at us our worst suspicions. It should be seen for that performance, which probably didn't get a chance to go to the places it otherwise would in a traditional sports biopic. In a way, that may have been for the best. Any portrayal of Armstrong as something other than a blank slate of deception would likely ring false.
Based on Sunday Times sports writer David Walsh's 2012 book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, the film covers Walsh's (Chris O' Dowd) struggle to expose Armstrong's (Ben Foster) use of banned substances in gaining an illegal advantage that led to his seven Tour de France wins. In tracing a link between the cyclist and notoriously controversial Italian Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), Walsh opens the floodgates in eventually revealing the Armstrong-led US Postal Team's involvement in the most sophisticated doping program in professional sports.
While serving as a role model and ambassador for cancer survivors worldwide with his Livestrong foundation, Armstrong was deceiving not only the public, but the UCI governing body, which brushed off Walsh's valid claim while turning a blind eye to obvious signs of cheating in order to bolster cycling's bottomline. And in expecting teammates like promising newcomer Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) to risk their careers for the sake of protecting his reputation, Armstrong finally meets his match in the determined Walsh, who's gathering the necessary witnesses and evidence to finally let the world know their icon is a fraud.
The details absent from the film might be more revealing of its approach than what is. There's no information on Armstrong's childhood, what spurned his decision to become a cyclist or the collapse of his marriage. Screenwriter John Hodge seems to be working on the assumption it doesn't matter, and sadly, he's probably right. Armstrong's life as a public figure really began in the early 90's and the most damning information provided is he really wasn't all that good of a cyclist at the start of his career, making Walsh's eventual claims sting that much more. An early, cordial interview between the two is a highlight, setting the table for what follows.
The public and media's refusal to see what was right in front of their faces the entire time spoke to their desire to have a hero, and according to the film, no one knew that more than Armstrong himself. In what pretty much plays as a synchronized summary of events that occasionally comes off as a full-on reenactment, the most controversial revelation is that his 1996 cancer diagnosis created a monster. The very idea he came so close to dying sickened him more than any medical treatment could, and it's here where Ben Foster's compulsively intense performance (he actually took PED's for the role) is off to the races, hooked to wires and wearing a Vader-esque oxygen mask to begin his evolution into this racing cyborg.
Bringing himself back from the dead to become the best cyclist in the world was how the media framed the story, and Foster plays with this righteous indignation that no one or no thing stops Lance Armstrong. Therein lies the birth of "the program" as Dr. Ferrari transforms the cyclist (and eventually his teammates) into his personal lab rats and we find out exactly how Lance evaded and manipulated the drug testing. One of the recurring mantras is his repeating, "I have never tested positive," as if in an effort to convince himself. Foster's delivery of it and his acting choices when visiting juvenile cancer patients give off just the subtlest pangs of guilt and briefest glimpse of what vaguely resembles a conscience. How he and his agent Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace) raised his profile and reputation with philanthropic work and conned SCA Promotions founder Bob Hamman (Dustin Hoffman) out of millions are almost minor indiscretions compared to how he screwed over Floyd Landis in the film's most compelling sub-plot.
Played really well by Jesse Plemons as the cycling prodigy from Amish country, Pennsylvania, Landis puts it all on the line for Lance, only to discover what happens to people Armstrong no longer has use for. It's the final piece of the puzzle for Dave Walsh and when the walls start closing in on Armstrong, Foster plays him even angrier, more entitled and arrogant, as if anyone could have the nerve to expose his lies. With an untouchable attitude, the thought that all this could come crashing down doesn't even occur to this competitive athlete Foster portrays as a delusional narcissist.
As big a stretch as it seems, anyone who saw the recent O.J.: Made in America documentary could make reasonable comparisons, obviously not to the severity of crimes, but to their subject's unwavering sense of entitlement and lack of self-awareness. The argument that drug abuse was so rampant in cycling that Armstrong was vilified merely for obtaining the best results and perfecting a system isn't presented in a film where a syringe is credited with all the work. Ultimately though, it was the deceit that unraveled him.
This isn't one of Frears' stronger efforts visually, as some location shots look downright awful due to budgetary constraints and it's probably too short, not nearly expansive enough in depth for the issue covered. Presented chronologically, it moves too fast to ever really get a strong sense of time, place, or the public's reaction. This is a Cliffs Notes version of what happened, so while it's kind of dramatically flat in that respect, much of what's on screen works largely due to Foster's performance.
There's a scene at the peak of Armstrong's career where his teammates are speculating which actor could play him in a feature film version of his life. And yes, as strange as it now seems, Matt Damon and Jake Gyllenhaal were both once attached to what would have been at the time a far different movie. An inspirational one. Instead he gets Foster, but it's far from a downgrade as Armstrong's indiscretions send it down a darker alley this actor proves even more equipped to handle. Whatever its issues, The Program is still a better film than many feel the person deserves.
Saturday, August 13, 2016
Creators: The Duffer Brothers
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Cara Buono, Matthew Modine, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Shannon Purser
Original Airdate: 2016
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
**Spoiler Warning: This Review Reveals Minor Plot Details**
If you told me a month ago what I'd most need out of entertainment in 2016 would be a final, missing season of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories nearly thirty years after the fact, delivered through the spirit of The Goonies, E.T., Poltergeist, Close Encounters and Stand By Me, I'd call you crazy. And that's what's so funny about knowing what you need. Sometimes you just don't until it's arrived. A one or two line description of Netflix's nostalgic supernatural series from The Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things, could have easily been met with some collective eye rolling for fairly obvious reasons.
|Netflix's Stranger Things|
After watching the eight most mind-blowing episodes of original content Netflix has yet produced, I couldn't help but think back again to Spielberg, and to a slightly lesser extent, Stephen King, who's already weighed in with high praise. Did Spielberg watch it? What did he think? Has he met the kids? This might be the first time I've this strongly wondered or cared about his opinion on anything in years. And that's not a knock on him anymore than it is on myself and others in a similar age bracket who grew up spoiled on the movies he directed and produced in the 80's. Filmmakers evolve and it's at least somewhat unfair of audiences to expect them to keep repeating themselves, but man was Spielberg ever completely in his wheelhouse making those, regardless of whatever well-received work followed.
This will always be the era for which Spieleberg is most remembered and it's been channeled with such honesty and authenticity here, succeeding where so many imitators failed. If much of that is in the tone and execution then The Duffer Brothers nail it, using the 1980's setting to do more than invoke warm, fuzzy childhood memories, instead systematically removing all the shackles restricting most modern-set efforts of the genre. It was at once a more innocent yet entirely less innocent era, all of which is magically invoked and reflected through its story and these kids. In other words, it's a keeper and easily the biggest, most welcome surprise so far this year. In any medium.
|The Gang: Lucas, Mike, Eleven and Dustin|
This is a series you can pretty much go to town in describing without fear of giving anything away since so many of its surprises are hidden between the crevices, actually have very little to do with plot. While Amazing Stories is a decent starting point for comparison's sake, that's slightly misleading since this a single, standalone story rather than part of an anthology (at least thus far) and that show creatively missed about as much as it hit. While each of these episodes given a "Choose Your Own Adventure" style chapter title, even just one of them would undoubtedly rank as the strongest entry in that short-lived 80's series' wildly mixed catalog of quality. But the feelings and intentions associated with it remains. In so many ways, Stranger Things could be viewed through the prism of what Spielberg's expectations were for his short-lived TV project, which couldn't thrive at the time due to his exploding feature film career.
|Dr. Brenner at Hawkins Laboratories|
The initial skepticism of watching a season of TV centered around solving the mystery of a 12-year-old boy abducted by a monster that resembles The Thing is wiped away by the second episode when it becomes clear that this is a show that treats the genre and the kid characters inhabiting it with intelligence and respect. Tearing a page out of Jaws, we don't see the creature all that much so when it does appear its presence actually means something, with its eventual impact having been gradually built off-screen over the course of multiple episodes.
The special effects (which are quite good) just might be the only modern element of the series, but there's a B-movie quality to them that still fit right into place in this world. And there's no mistaking that the Duffers have very much created a world, or a couple of universes to be exact, where anything seems possible and kids and adults behaved in a way that could seem jarring to anyone that didn't grow up on 80's TV or movies this is paying tribute to. But if you did, this will feel like going home.
|Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy anticipate the worst|
The minimal technology of the era also leads to more exciting, suspenseful situations and better storytelling as there are many points during the series that, save for their walkie-talkies, these kids have no way of communicating the harm they're in, forced to use their resourcefulness and imagination to come up with solutions. This is where it most strongly resembles The Goonies, with no winking at the audience or talking down to children like they're sub-humans. They curse, pull knives on each other and do all sorts of other things you'd never see today in a any series starring children. And only does the very real threat of death exist, it occasionally even occurs.
While the characters are most definitely recognizable "types" from 80's entertainment and even beyond, it's enthralling seeing all of them eventually subverted and challenged while serving the grand design of this genre-bending exercise. The kids each have identifiable personality quirks, with the actors giving some of the best child performances we've seen in ages. There's the always entertaining, toothless mediator Dustin played by newcomer Gaten Matarazzo, stealing scenes and hamming it up as really entertaining comic relief . Caleb McLaughlin's Lucas is the rebellious, free-thinking skeptic of the gang with most of his concerns about Eleven being justified given the situation. We don't get much of Noah Schnapp as Will Byers considering he goes MIA in the first episode, but his few scenes establish him as an outwardly nerdy, nice kid with the ability to summon the inner toughness to fight for his survival if necessary. And it ends up being very necessary.
|Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven|
As the only one with the ability to locate Mike, El is eventually torn between the only world her young mind knows and this new one with the foreign, but welcome concept of real friends and family. Brown's scenes opposite both Wolfhard and Ryder are the strongest and most touching of the series, particularly one where Mike starts making plans for her to stay with his family permanently. Of course, we know why that can't happen, and even as we hope for at least the second best outcome for her, the scene still rips us apart. As does the mere suggestion that the possibility exists that we've seen the last of Eleven. Regardless of where they go from here, this talented young actress's card is punched for superstardom.
|Winona Ryder as ax-wielding Joyce Byers|
Similarly, there's something that just feels so right about Winona Ryder as frantic single mother and store clerk Joyce Byers, to the point that she's irreplaceable. More than just the nostalgia factor of returning Ryder to the decade during which her career began, she's doing it this time as something she's never played before: A grieving mother.
Falling through the cracks for a while, her career was always built on being the cool, hip young chick, but when he she aged out of it, Hollywood didn't quite know what to do with her. This feels not just like a comeback, but a full-blown homecoming, with material that plays to her inherent quirkiness while still giving her big dramatic opportunities opposite the adult and child actors (the latter she should understand better than anybody given her past).
Ryder leaves enough room to make Joyce's insistence that her presumed dead son is communicating with her seem like both the ravings of a complete lunatic and a reasonably desperate mom whose son's gone missing. Just watch how she plays the scene where she asks (or rather demands) her boss give her an advance. Undoubtedly high on the list of actresses everyone wanted back in a big way, this feels as if it was written specifically for the now middle-aged but still undeniably youthful actress, taking into account where her career started and, where we hoped, it would eventually end up under ideal circumstances.
|David Harbour as Chief Hopper|
Just as integral to the investigation, if unintentionally, are the teen characters, who on the surface could be viewed as composites from The Breakfast Club before revealing themselves as three-dimensional characters. It's again to the benefit of the series that these roles are played by unknown actors, conveying a certain believability and freshness that couldn't be achieved with big, recognizable names above the credits. Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery and Shannon Purser are all exceptional in bringing something completely different to whom we'd label the good girl, the weirdo, the jock and the nerd, respectively.
|Steve, Nancy and Barb|
Add to the list of accomplishments the writing of the Mr.Clarke character, a science teacher who's somehow able to explain alternate universes and space-time tears in perfectly logical terms that any 12-year-old could understand, especially these. The Duffer Brothers' Spielbergian ability to never have the adults talk down to kids is most evident here, with Clarke rarely taking a break from encouraging and feeding their curiosity to learn. He's such a minor character, but even this depiction highlights just how much has changed in thirty years about how teachers are portrayed onscreen.
It's tough to tell which of the show's nostalgic influences were conscious choices made by its creators and which may have unconciously seeped in, as not all are homages from decade's past. What it brings back is the idea of the government as the evil, controlling force manipulating the public and exploiting science for its own benefit. All the E.T. comparisons are right on target but the actual plot more closely resembles the 2011 Canadian cult sci-fi horror film, Beyond The Black Rainbow, also taking place in 1983 and featuring an aging hippie scientist conducting telepathic experiments on a young girl.
|Eleven trapped in the Upside-Down|
This is obviously a huge victory for Netflix, as Stranger Things came completely out of nowhere with little advance buzz and relatively minimal promotion. Given the nature of the project, it's easy to appreciate the old school approach of making something great and trusting the audience to discover it and spread the word. It worked. This wasn't shoved down our throats or overhyped since there was simply no need. Known for taking chances on fringe programming that more mainstream networks tend to pass on, everyone involved likely shared the general idea that the Duffers had something special here. And did they ever.
When this season came to its spectacular conclusion I actually found myself upset that it was over, but equally concerned about what's next. These eight episodes were just so perfectly constructed and tightly paced that I almost want it to end now, fearing a second season could tarnish this. But you have to do it. There's simply no choice. The question is whether you literally take the anthology route by telling a whole new story or continue with this one? The ending leaves no doubt as to the decision and it's the right one.
|The gang sticks together|
It goes beyond the technicalities of being shot similarly, making the right wardrobe and set choices, or even writing authentic child characters. It's like they were able to hit this nostalgic nerve that's never been tapped before, making the show as much about us and the experiences we bring to it as what's on screen. In barren landscape of disappointing summer popcorn movies, Stranger Things is the best 80's summer blockbuster that isn't a movie or made during that decade. But good luck convincing yourself of that while watching.
Saturday, July 30, 2016
Starring: Rami Malek, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, Martin Wallström, Christian Slater, Michael Cristofer, Stephanie Corneliussen, Michel Gill, Gloria Reuben, Ben Rappaport, BD Wong, Sakina Jaffrey
Original Airdate: 2015
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
**Spoiler Warning: This Review Reveals Some Plot Points**
There's this myth that there are only about five or six stories capable of being told and the rest are just variations on them. I rarely thought about that theory until watching USA network's award-winning drama, Mr. Robot, which doesn't necessarily give us a something new as much as it takes what we already know and ties it in knots. But it's in how writer/creator Sam Esmail executes it and the techniques he employs that further push the boundaries of what we thought was possible on cable television.
|Mr. Robot Title card|
The series wears its influences on its sleeve, causing detractors to slam it as being derivative of other works, which is somewhat missing the point. The best way to think of it is as a pop culture mixed media project, throwing such jarringly contemporary works as Fight Club, V For Vendetta, Dexter, The Matrix, American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, House of Cards, Black Swan, Star Wars and Hackers in a blender and emerging with this kind of bizarre Kubrick/Fincher hybrid that still holds its own in the originality department. And this, somehow, made it to the USA Network. Visually, it breaks new ground for the medium and as off-putting as it seems that I'd reference so many other pop culture staples, Esmail's debt to them is more often felt than conciously seen, as you're too invested in his story to care much about influences.
If 2015 had a time capsule, this series would be a good candidate to go in it, not necessarily because it's the best or will hold up exceptionally well years down the road (reliance on current technology may harm those prospects), but because it reveals the most about where we're at now. Conformity, social media, the economy, corporate malfeseance, wealth distribution, corruption, capitalism, the 1%. At this point, I'm just throwing out words, which is all that can really be done with Mr. Robot without revealing the plot and overall sensory experience accompanying it. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, as the season's arc loses a bit of steam in the last third, an almost necessary consequence to the twists and turns that proceed it. There's probably one or two of those too many, nearly beating the audience into submission long before its finale. But in retrospect it provides an adrenaline-filled experience that's gone unrivaled in entertainment over the past year.
|Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek)|
The game changes when Elliot's approached by a mysterious hacker named Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) who wants his help in taking down Allsafe's most valuable client, the Enron-like E Corp (complete with a crooked E logo), one of the most powerful and corrupt companies in the world, headed up by Machiavellian CEO, Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer). Only Mr. Robot isn't just a hacker, but an anarchist recruiting Elliot for an underground group of hacktivists known simply as "fsociety," which includes the grungy, rebellious Darlene (Carly Chaikin), who seems immediately suspicious of the newbie. Riling up the public with threatening viral underground videos, its public face is a mask that looks like a cross between infamous Gunpowder Plot member and V for Vendetta/Anonymous inspiration Guy Fawkes and Monopoly's Uncle Pennybags.
Bringing a whole new meaning and intimacy to the idea of an unreliable narrator, the pilot (eps1.0_hellofriend.mov) brings us deep inside the fragile psyche of Elliot, for whom the simplest of human interactions, both at home and at work, are becoming a near-impossible challenge. He's more open with us, the audience, than his therapist, Kristen (Gloria Reuben) or boss, Gideon (Michael Gill), perhaps the only two truly moral characters this show will have. Ranting about society's ills and his failure to fit in with Fight Club-esque interior monologues, he's psychologically weakened and ripe for the picking by the time Slater's repairman-looking Mr. Robot gets to him.
|E Corp's creepy Tyrell Wellick|
If there's an episode where we first discover what Mr. Robot is as a series it would be the hallucinatory fourth (eps1.3_da3m0ns.mp4) during which fsociety's plans escalate just as Elliot is suffering from severe drug withdrawal. Taking place mostly in his mind, it's important in establishing not only the severity of his problems, but the notion that we can never be sure whether to believe what we're seeing or hearing in this show, especially if it's coming from Elliot. Torn between just crawling into a cave to disappear and being actively involved in real social disruption at the highest level, there's this internal battle going on that's best represented by his desire to help strung-out neighbor and sort of girlfriend, Shayla (Frankie Shaw).
Of course, the more Elliot tries to help, the worse things get, as his past and relationship to Angela and Mr. Robot, inform a lot of this, as details are frequently revealed through flashbacks and even passing dialogue. But most of just trickles out, with Esmail's writing and Malek's manic, wide-eyed performance rewarding viewers' attentiveness. Minute-to-minute, we're never quite sure whether the character's crusading actions are doing far more harm then good, such as in episode six (eps1.5_br4ve-trave1er.asf) when his hacking eventually carries tragic consequences for someone close to him. Without Malek's pitch-perfect portrayal of Elliot's crippling loneliness and isolation, it's easy to imagine him being an impossible character to root for considering the morally questionable actions he takes to achieve his goals.
|Mr. Robot lectures Elliot|
Coming out of nowhere, with only two previous credits to his name, Esmail doesn't believe in explanations, at least not yet. Visually staggering, with actors unusually positioned in the frame and hypnotic work from cinematographer Tim Ives that rivals anything on the big screen, the images in Mr. Robot tend to linger even longer in the mind than its twisty narrative machinations. Even the show's 80's arcade-style title card (randomly popping up during its cold open) is a thrill to behold, as you're never quite sure when during the scene it'll appear. And music supervisor Mac Quayle's throwback electronic synth score and the frequently off-kilter song selections serve to only reinforce the show's unsettling, paranoid atmosphere.
There comes a point in this season where a major reveal is made. Some will see it coming from the jump. Others won't. But from that episode on, it's clear Mr. Robot becomes a radically different series than when it began. It's a risky decision to essentially erase so much of the mystery accompanying the first half of the season and completely change the game. While I'm still not yet sure the gamble pays off, it now places viewers in a position where they're constantly doubting whether certain events or characters are even real. That's a dangerous creative move to make unless there's a solid long term plan in place.
|Fsociety puts its best face on|
As Vince Gilligan proved with Breaking Bad, adjusting on the fly isn't necessarily a weakness when it comes to creating great dramatic TV. But for every one of those there's also a Lost or The X-Files, alienating fans who believe the showrunners are literally making things up as they go along. While there are definitely indications of the latter at work, you can just as easily imagine Esmail delivering on his promise since this truly is like nothing currently on TV right now.
While the last few episodes of Mr. Robot don't necessarily come to a pulse-pounding crescendo, it still delivers on a payoff many would have deemed unlikely, if not impossible at, the season's start. And a cliffhanger. The question now becomes: Where can it possibly go from here? Topping this while still satisfyingly forging forward will be the biggest challenge ahead. As the first few episodes of Season 2 have already proven, this series, like its protagonist, has no designs on making any compromises for mainstream acceptance.
Saturday, July 16, 2016
*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of Jeremy The Critic, in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. Don't forget to check out my previous posts for 2006 and 2007. This installment will be focusing on 2008. Just a reminder that movies must have a U.S. release date of that particular year in order to qualify.
It's time to put 2008 to bed. If forced to rank, I'd probably name this the second weakest year covered in this series behind 2006. Like '07, I did compile a belated Top 10 list for this year, but very much unlike 07, a disappointed resignation accompanied my choices as I bemoaned their many flaws. Eight years later, few will be shocked at the films that made it, but may be taken aback somewhat at the order, which has changed considerably with time.
The Dark Knight, already an iffy choice for the top spot, loses that position here, dropping to a still respectable number 3. Let's face it: It has issues and the overabundance of superhero movies since has either hurt or helped its cause depending on whether you'd classify it as one. If nothing else, it'll always be remembered for Heath Ledger's posthumous Oscar-winning performance, which far surpasses the film it's in, which is still groundbreaking in many ways, arguably representing the high-water mark for director Christopher Nolan. But count me among the very few who prefer its sequel, The Dark Knight Rises.
Time has been kinder than expected to Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, in hindsight one of the wiser Academy choices compared to what we've gotten since. Every time it comes on, it's tough to look away. Gran Torino holds steady as possibly the best late-era Eastwood entry while WALL-E becomes the first animated feature to make one of my lists, with few Pixar films measuring up to it since. Its existence as a weird political timepiece/character study and the great work from Josh Brolin and the entire cast surprisingly allows secures Oliver Stone's W. to sneak in.
David Fincher pops up again with Benjamin Button, but even with its incredible final hour I'd still have problems defending it as one of his stronger career efforts, much less worthy of the top spot. Revolutionary Road and Frost/Nixon are both so ridiculously underrated that I actually contemplated sliding them into the top two slots just to make a point. I resisted because neither really get over that hump that takes it to the next level. Still, I'd contend both are near-flawless, representing the best the decade has to offer (especially the latter, which grows more exciting on each rewatch). Roger Ebert's favorite film of the decade, Synecdoche, New York, is certainly challenging and ambitious enough to take top honors, but could I sit down and easily watch it right now? Probably not, as I'd have to be in the right frame of mind, but its standing here may as well be a vote of supreme respect for what director Charlie Kaufman and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (in maybe his greatest role) accomplish.
But almost by process of elimination, it's The Wrestler for the win, a movie that's proven to hold the highest rewatch value for me despite its depressing subject matter and the fact that I initially thought Aronofsky's film arrived too late to open enough eyes to what actually goes on within the pro wrestling world. History has proven that theory wrong and as much as Mickey Rourke's tried (and largely succeeded) at squandering the goodwill of his comeback, there's no taking this performance away. It probably wouldn't my top ten or fifteen films of the decade, but doesn't need to. It just needed to be the best of 2008. Some runners-up that didn't make the list include In Bruges and Pineapple Express (both of which made my previous one) Wendy and Lucy, Son of Rambow, Rachel Gettting Married and The Visitor. Next up is 2009, where my crutch of referencing a previous list to inform these rankings falls by the wayside. From here on, the results get a bit crazier and more unpredictable.
"Stone paints (Bush) as an underachiever, full of self-doubt and burdened by expectations. In doing that, he sets the stage for the film’s most frightening realization: He’s just like us. And whether we want to admit it or not, there’s no guarantee we could have done a better job in the White House under similar circumstances. But more importantly, in being the first biopic to centered around a current sitting President’s legacy, we’re robbed of time, distance and historical context in examining the film, making for a fascinating character study." - 10/24/08
9. Gran Torino
"It helps that WALL-E, part Charlie Chaplin, part R2D2, is the most adorable onscreen creation since E.T. All the details of his personality and how they’re conveyed onscreen are amazing, like when he shakes uncontrollably and collapses himself into a box to hide when he’s frightened. We recognize his quirks, relate and empathize with him as if he were real, and the story becomes that much more involving because of it." - 7/10/08
7. Slumdog Millionaire
"The flashbacks span years with three different actors playing the characters at various points, tragic circumstances eventually separating them, until all paths lead to the moment Jamal appears on the show. As we’re given each question we’re also given the accompanying story behind it. They range from “Who invented the revolver?” to “Which historical figure is on the $100 bill?” The film constantly astonishes in how the answers show up in his life. One early query involving a Bollywood star, has a payoff that’s both touching, disgusting and hysterical all at the same time. We know the ending but it doesn’t matter. What matters is how Jamal gets to it, and that’s what kept my mouth open in amazement the entire time." - 12/19/08
6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
"An accident befalls a character and Fincher flashes back, showing us all the little, seemingly meaningless events that had to fall perfectly into place for that event to occur. Had one of those tiny circumstances not happened, there's no accident and the paths of those involved would have been considerably altered. Life is a series of windows, opening and closing at very specific times, which can be a source of both joy and unbearable sadness. We have control over it…and we don’t. That’s life, and this film is rich with every little detail of it." - 2/20/09
"After a while we realize that Nixon’s obsession with “beating” Frost has more to do with him actually wanting to be him. Beyond simply being jealous of his youth and success, in Frost he sees the man he could have been if only he had the people skills. His fixation on every detail of the interviewer's life, from his shoes to his girlfriend, suggest what in Nixon’s personality really caused the Watergate break-in and why he so sloppily covered it up. For Nixon, he and Frost are really two sides of the same coin. Both have accomplished much in their given fields, with neither being taken seriously or respected in the slightest." - 2/12/09
4. Revolutionary Road
"Fans of Titanic who waited over a decade to see the re-teaming of Kate and Leo will probably want to hang themselves by the time the final credits roll. This is not an epic romance, or even a romance at all. Despite the fact it was misleadingly marketed as Titanic 2, there isn't a single romantic element in it. It's closer to a horror movie. Think Pleasantville meets Rosemary's Baby with a side helping of Mad Men thrown in for good measure." - 6/7/09
3. The Dark Knight
"While played by Ledger as a sick hybrid of Clockwork Orange's Alex and Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols, the Joker still bares no resemblance to any villain previously committed to film. It's truly the definitive portrayal of this iconic character, with the actor making Cesar Romero and even Jack Nicholson look like clowns hired for a children's birthday party. Every moment he's on screen is pure terror and Nolan is smart enough to know the right dose of screen time to give him." - 7/20/08
2. Synecdoche, New York
"Watching, you might be reminded of more films exploring similar themes of mortality, human existence, forgiveness, love, and regret in very unconventional ways. But none like this. My mind immediately turned, in either method or execution, to pictures like Vanilla Sky, Magnolia, Adaptation, Stranger Than Fiction and I Heart Huckabees. It shares its dark humor with Huckabees, as well a similarly whimsical John Brion score, but Like Nicolas Cage's Kaufman doppelganger in Adaptation, Caden seems to represent the filmmakers' perception of himself and his failures. This introduces an intriguing question. Can you criticize Kaufman for self-indulgence when the film is actually ABOUT a director's self-indulgence and how it destroys him?" - 3/11/09
1. The Wrestler
" This isn’t a feel-good movie about redemption, overcoming the odds or even winning the big match. If pushed for comparisons, it comes closest in tone to the gritty Raging Bull, digging so deep and pulling so few punches that the professional wrestling industry as a whole had no choice but to disown it. The accolades and superlatives for that accomplishment belong to Aronofsky, and especially Mickey Rourke, drawing on a well-documented lifetime of pain and suffering to give a performance for the ages." - 1/25/09
Top 10 Films of 2008
1. The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
2. Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman)
3. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan)
4. Revolutionary Road (dir. Sam Mendes)
5. Frost/Nixon (dir. Ron Howard)
6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir. David Fincher)
7. Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Dannny Boyle)
8. WALL-E (dir. Andrew Stanton)
9. Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood)
10. W. (dir. Oliver Stone)
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Director: Steve Martino
Starring: Noah Schnapp, Hadley Belle Miller, Mariel Sheets, Alex Garfin, Francesca Angelucci Capaldi, Troy "Trumbone Shorty" Andrews, Kristin Chenoweth, Bill Melendez
Running Time: 88 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Supposedly, there were some rules laid out before production began on The Peanuts Movie, the first full-length feature for Charlie Brown and the gang since 1980, and the characters' first reappearance since the comic strip folded following creator Charles M. Schulz's death in 2000. When you hear about these ground rules (and they're good ones), set by forth by his sons, writers/producers Craig and Bryan Schultz, it starts to make a lot more sense how it took so long for the movie to finally get made. Flying in the face of nearly everything consumed today for family entertainment, Peanuts is unique, and what makes it so can't simply be replicated with an "update" or "reboot," at least while retaining the original's essence.
We found all this out the hard way with the live-action Dr. Seuss adaptations, one of which proving a 30-minute cartoon from the 60's can carry more narrative power than a big budget, star-driven spectacle that sucks more joy out of Christmas than The Grinch himself. The Muppets enjoyed a mini-resurgence, but we'd be kidding ourselves by claiming that franchise (or the entertainment world) ever truly recovered from losing Jim Henson, as their recently cancelled ABC series proves. But if these revived properties are competing with nostalgia and childhood memories, it begs the question of whether they even stood a chance. It only makes sense that it's now Peanuts' turn.
It's somewhat fitting that the director of The Peanuts Movie, Steve Martino, previously helmed Horton Hears a Who!, the only well-received recent Seuss adaptation and the first to entirely use computer generated technology. The biggest worry surrounding a rebooted Peanuts was the inevitability that Schultz's hand-drawn animation (so instrumental in conveying the warmth and melancholy of that universe and its characters) would be replaced by slick, computerized coldness. And in 3-D no less. The thought of Blue Sky Studios screwing up Peanuts is disappointing, but them screwing it up like THAT, on its 65th anniversary, is almost too much to bare. Then comes the added challenge of doing justice to the character of Charlie Brown, a creation through whom many children and adults see themselves.
A nervous, insecure failure or sorts, there's rarely been a children's character that's felt as real or genuinely inspirational in his refusal to give up. Luckily, The Peanuts Movie captures that while managing to create a look and feel that remains at least in the general spirit of Shultz's work. Is it as strong as the animated films from the 70's like Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown? Of course not, but they really only manage to get one thing horribly wrong, otherwise crafting an endearing story that caters to the fans and should have no problems pleasing uninitiated audiences of all ages.
Shy, awkward Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) seems to be constantly failing at everything. Whether it's kicking the football, test taking, or flying a kite, he's somehow capable of finding endlessly new ways to screw them up. But when the Little Red-Haired Girl (Francesca Angelucci Capaldi) moves into the neighborhood, he quickly becomes infatuated, making a pact with himself to master new activities to gain confidence and eventually impress her with his talent. Unfortunately, he's too scared to even talk to her and when all his attempts at picking up new skills lead to disaster, opportunity arises in the form of a school project he hopes will gain her attention.
With good-hearted sister Sally (Mariel Sheets) and best friend Linus (Alex Garfin) urging Charlie Brown on, he receives questionable psychiatric advice from Linus' aggressively loud-mouthed sister, Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller), who seems more concerned with gaining piano prodigy Schroeder's (Noah Johnston) affections than helping her arch nemesis. As always, Charlie is shadowed by his loyal pet beagle Snoopy and his chirping sidekick, Woodstock, both of whom are fully immersed in Snoopy's World War I flying adventure novel, in which he must save Fifi the poodle (Kristin Chenoweth) from the clutches of the Red Baron.
One of fans' biggest fears is tempered right away, as the computerized animation looks good, but not too good, bringing proper life to characters we've only previously seen emanate from Shulz's drawing board. As expected, it doesn't quite contain that same warmth or personal touch, but as much of their personalities and physical quirks shine through as was possible under the circumstances. While I'm in full agreement with those lamenting the extinction of cartoons on the big and small screens, that debate already feels lost, and if it's between that or no Peanuts at all, I know which I'm choosing. There's a concerted effort from Martino to preserve and at times visually recreate nostalgic touchstones of the strip, such as Lucy's aforementioned psychiatric booth and the skating pond. And as mandated, there are no iPhones or tablets, with Snoopy typing on his trusted typewriter and corded telephones in sight.
All of these cosmetic issues may seem like minor details to those unfamiliar with the strip, but this brand is so steeped in tradition that a misstep on any one of them would be glaringly obvious, derailing the film and upsetting fans. In this particularly rare case, they're not merely "creative choices," but kind of an invisible contract that extends far beyond the legal department of a studio. The same is true for the music, with composers Christophe Beck and David Benoit handling the score and finding places to incorporate Vincent Guaraldi's classic themes, most notably his legendary "Linus and Lucy."
Meghan Trainor's more contemporary contribution (in the form of her single, "Better When I'm Dancin'") doesn't feel out of sync with the action, making for a fun diversion while also tying nicely enough into the story's themes. While even going so far as to resurrect Snoopy and Woodstock's original voice from archival recordings of Bill Melendez, the filmmakers obviously took great pains insuring that all the necessary boxes were checked going in. Most of the other voices are even provided by actual children, lending an air of authenticity to the proceedings.
It's unfortunate that aside from his one-on-one interactions with Charlie Brown, Snoopy is easily the worst element in the film, with his Red Baron sub-plot too frequently pushing aside his owner's far more engaging "A" plot with The Little Red-Haired Girl. It's not a stretch to call Snoopy's excursions filler since it seems as if that's exactly what they were intended to do: Fill time. With a running length short of 90 minutes and Martino having to recycle familiar plot points in the Peanuts universe, it was inevitable that the popular Snoopy would need a showcase. But boy is that showcase is a bore, causing me to dread any moment he starts typing away at his doghouse, knowing we'd be temporarily transported from Charlie Brown's struggles into a lifeless fantasy action sequence. Did the Red Baron material always seem so inconsequential? Maybe it's just an age thing, but it's hard for me to imagine that kids wouldn't also be fidgeting in their seats during this.
Wisely, the screenwriters put Charlie Brown and all his insecurities front and center with the pursuit (or rather active avoidance) of his crush. Those familiar with the plot will deem it a worthy story choice for his theatrical return since it allows the writers to take him on a journey of self-discovery and remind fans what they love about the character. A new generation of audiences won't miss a beat either, as it's a simple, relatable one that's told well. In thinking he's screwing up again and again in front of the Little Red-Haired Girl, it's those very mistakes that turn out to be tiny triumphs in the end.
There's this clever meta subplot with Charlie Brown experiencing a glimpse of fame and adulation that ends up being short-lived. He can have little victories here and there, but this really wouldn't be Peanuts if he felt like a winner all the time, or even at all. His most endearing quality is how frequently he dusts himself off and keeps trying in spite of all the obstacles life throws his way. This thankfully remains in tact here, even if it does seem as if a certain authorial voice is missing that made the animated screen outings of the 70's and early 80's a little wiser and more in touch with the challenges of being a kid. That absent voice is obviously Schulz's. While it's impossible to gauge what his reaction to The Peanuts Movie would have been, it's safe to assume he'd be pleased audiences still remember, and that producers didn't abandon his formula.
Sunday, June 26, 2016
*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of "Jeremy The Critic," in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. 2006 can be viewed here. This installment will be focusing on 2007.
How great a year was this? It was so great that, for change, I actually did compile a belated Top 10 List for it in 2008. But we'll just have to throw that out the window because a lot can change. The biggest leap of faith in tackling this project was trusting that enough time has passed that I'd "just know" what my top 10 films of each year are. That understanding is seriously tested with '07, the strongest movie year of the entire decade and the cinematic fuel that kept me going to the point we've arrived at now.
Surprisingly, when it came down to the much anticipated Zodiac vs. Southland Tales vs. Into The Wild vs. There Will Be Blood showdown, I knew. You try out a couple of films in that top spot and it just feels wrong. It's a testament to the staying power of David Fincher's Zodiac that this is the closest this obsessive procedural has come to getting that spot and when Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpiece, There Will Be Blood is coming in at number four, you know it's a formidable field like no other. He'll have another shot later, as will Fincher.
Given the current events, Southland Tales seems more prescient than ever, and remains one of my favorites regardless of contrary popular opinion, which seems to have shifted toward my side of late. It's so unusual that honoring it with a best of the year honor feels almost like an insult as it defies labels of any sort. It's simply something else entirely. After an initially lukewarm reaction, I've come around on No Country, which in hindsight stands as one of the strongest Best Picture winners of the modern era, despite its controversially wide open ending. Michael Clayton is such a well-oiled machine, the idea of seeing it in the number one spot is far from absurd, as it boasts what's easily the best performance of Clooney's career.
To the likely delight of anyone who's seen it, The King of Kong becomes not only the first documentary to place, but my first unreviewed pick, forcing me to come up with a quote that somehow, at least partially, does it justice. I'm Not There, The Assassination of Jesse James and Atonement all held strong, whereas inclusions from the last list like the poorly aging Juno, Ratatouille and Bridge to Terabithia got knocked off, with only Terabithia earning runner-up status alongside Superbad, The Lookout, Alpha Dog, Once, American Gangster, The Mist and Gone Baby Gone.
This leaves us with Sean Penn's Into The Wild, an experience that only seems to grow richer with each passing year and rewatch. Techically undervalued and emotionally transcendent (who can forget that scene on the street with William Hurt or any featuring Hal Holbrook?), it's still the film from that year I get the most out of and best connect with. But the real winners were moviegoers and critics spoiled by all these quality titles in a loaded 2007.
"I’d call it a 'twist ending' but that would be inaccurate since the beauty of it is in how it follows the narrative course set from the beginning. We just never bothered to notice. It causes you to go back to reevaluate every scene and word spoken in the film and view it in a completely different context. At the beginning I nearly giggled at how much the script expected me to care about these young lovers and the seemingly contrived situation they found themselves in. By the end, it's no laughing matter." - 3/30/08
9. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
"(Ford's) obsession with James also causes him great embarrassment and humiliation at the expense of his brother and his peers who view him as nothing more than a pathetic, whiny little boy who would do anything for his hero. They're right, and Ford's resentment over the situation builds slowly , leading him down a moral path he didn't think himself ever capable of traveling." - 2/14/08
8. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
"When creepy, mullet-haired Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell appears to be physically stalking earnest challenger and potential successor to his throne, Steve Wiebe, at the arcade, we realize that within the framework of a non-fiction documentary, director Seth Gordon has managed to create a good vs. evil dynamic surpassing any superhero movie. And it all actually happened. The phrase, 'You can't make this stuff up' has never seemed more applicable."
7. I'm Not There
"...while most films have only one method of entry, this has seven, with a new way to get in each time. Any way you approach it, you end up knowing no more about Bob Dylan the person than you did before, and that’s okay. He remains exactly as he should be: An enigma. And in telling us nothing about him, Haynes somehow reveals so much more than we could have hoped." - 5/9/08
6. No Country For Old Men
"The film, set in 1980, finds a way to remain very much of that time period while still telling a story that’s just as relevant now. The Vietnam wounds are still fresh in these characters’ minds and there’s a new kind of evil emerging. It’s an evil Sheriff Bell and even his father’s generation before him couldn’t have possibly prepared for. It’s encapsulated in Anton Chigurh and Bell wants no part of it. With time passing him by and retirement on the horizon, he’s just going through the motions and would likely prefer not to come face-to-face with this monster. If he does, he’s through." - 5/13/08
5. Michael Clayton
"There isn't a single twist or turn in the film that's revelatory and the plot is one we've seen before. It moves methodically toward its predestined conclusion. And yet, it succeeds by executing its premise with laser-like precision and uncommon intelligence. Gilroy knows what he has to do and does it expertly, not getting bogged down in silly sub-plots or unrealistic situations. It also features the best performance of George Clooney's career, as well as two more supporting performances of nearly equal value." - 2/20/08
4. There Will Be Blood
"Some have criticized Day-Lewis' performance as being hammy and over-the-top and it sort of is, but what's so remarkable is how he turns those qualities into attributes that deepen the story's psychology. On a first viewing it may not be entirely noticeable, but on repeated ones it comes clearly into focus. And surprisingly, that only makes Plainview's downfall scarier and that much more desperate. Even while hating him with a passion, we still care deeply about his fate." - 4/11/08
3. Southland Tales
" It helps that Kelly is an equal opportunity offender, hilariously taking swipes at both sides. It works as a hysterical spoof of everything from YouTube to cable news channels to celebrity culture. Maybe it’s just my weird sense of humor, but I laughed harder during this than any mainstream comedy in years. Labeling this a masterpiece is false advertising if only because it’s just such a beautifully flawed mess. Perfect in its imperfection."- 3/24/08
"Of the many cryptic notes sent from the Zodiac, one left the most lasting impression. It reads: 'I am waiting for a good movie about me.' He gets a great one. But you can't fight the uneasy feeling that maybe he's still out there and knows it. If that's not enough to send chills down anyone's spine, I don't know what is. Unfortunately, by making such a brilliant film about one of our country's greatest unsolved cases, Fincher may have also given this deranged killer exactly what he wished for all along." - 7/30/07
1. Into The Wild
"You’re not sure whether to be angry at or feel sorry for this admittedly selfish protagonist and Penn wisely doesn’t force us to make such a determination. He’s not asking us to like McCandliss or condone his decision to abandon his life and family, but only to understand what he was doing made sense to him. Foolish as it may seem to us and those he encountered in his travels, he left this Earth on his terms. The degree of empathy you feel for him or his family may vary, but your heart will break for the people whose lives he touched along the way." - 3/7/08
1. Into The Wild (dir. Sean Penn)
2. Zodiac (dir. David Fincher)
3. Southland Tales (dir. Richard Kelly)
4. There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
5. Michael Clayton (dir. Tony Gilroy)
6. No Country For Old Men (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
7. I'm Not There (dir., Todd Haynes)
8. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (dir. Seth Gordon)
9. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (dir., Andrew Dominik)
10. Atonement (dir. Joe Wright)