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Mar12022

Movie Review: “Zodiac” (2007)

Zodiac movie poster.

4.5/5 Stars

Relentless, frustrating but never boring police procedural about the San Francisco Bay’s most famous unsolved mystery. I was positive there wasn’t anything left to say about Zodiac and therefore nothing for a 2 1/2 hour movie yet this one is steely in its resolve, perfect in its pacing and absolutely true to its conviction–that not knowing is a pain of the soul but one we all but bear.

David Fincher, our most tactile filmmaker, can fall too deeply in love with the beauty of his own shots and can stop asking whether we care about the story in the meantime (Exhibit A: GONE GIRL). He never loses our attention here. And the sequence of the Trans America pyramid being built is as good as every says it is.

Jan142022

Movie Review: “Being the Ricardos” (2021)

4/5 of 5 stars

Aaron Sorkin’s gonna Aaron Sorkin. Meaning there’s great dialogue in this movie, it’s brilliantly acted and a lot of the big speeches mean less than they originally seem to. But Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem knock it out as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on a fateful week of their career when the Lucy Show is threatened with cancellation.

You’ll obviously enjoy this more if you are fan of vintage television and mid-century America. If you aren’t its still a great movie about how hard it is to work with someone you are also married to/involved with/releated to. Frankly I don’t know how say, The Coen Brothers or Beyonce and Jay Z do it.

Apr242020

How to Host a Shelter-in-Place Film Festival

Note: This guide was the basis of an episode of the podcast Deviate w/ Rolf Potts which aired on May 6, 2020. 

While we’re all on lockdown and not working or home schooling around a kitchen table, perhaps in the off hours, you’re looking to catch up on some movie watching. A bender with the queue of your choice, perhaps? Hold on, now. We don’t know when we’re getting unlocked down here. Think longer.

Something like your own Shelter in Place film festival.

Designing a film festival for family and friends or just yourself enables a lot of great time with movies plus the added pleasure of how they all hang together. It’s not the same as “Binge watching’ an endurance event designed to complete a long narrative and lose track of time. But you could binge watch the year 1997 and we STILL might not be out of the woods with this thing. Your Shelter in Place Film Festival still has a lot of sitting and watching and snacking to it but with more reasonable expectations.

It ain’t hard to do, so long as take a few pre-emptive steps which make building your own film festival fun instead of a multi hour wander ending in a shrug. Here’s how

1. How much time do you have for this?

An afternoon? A day? A weekend? Film Festivals are inherently a time-bound activity.

It may seem counterintuitive to begin planning with how much time you wish to spend watching movies than how many or what movies you wish to see. But you can always add movies if everyone’s having a great or cut the lineup short if everyone’s drifting off to the kitchen or falling asleep.

You cant add another Friday.

Setting a time limit also creates reasonable expectations. Watching 11 movies in a day is not going to happen. Watching 3 over a week might seem anti-climactic, something you’d do anyway instead of an event. Since film festivals are about maximizing quality for each hour spent watching, not about watching until you or your guest physically can’t anymore.

Wait, guests?

2. Who all is invited?

A film festival for just you and your loved ones at home is the easiest way to do this. Level up by inviting friends or another family to join: Everyone watches the movies in their own home then signs on to zoom or google hangout afterward at a designated time to talk about the movie you just saw. Watching movies all at the same time while all on video conferences I’ve found technically complicated and not very rewarding.

If you’re making it a truly virtual film festival, it’s a bit more important to stick to a schedule so all participants know when they should be watching and when they should be yapping with each other. We’ll get to scheduling in just a sec but first..

3. Who is choosing the movies? You can either designate a leader who picks all the movies but also bears responsibility if they suck or you can create a list based on a theme (see next) and vote. A designated leader, like dictatorship, is more efficient. Democracy, as Oscar Wilde said, “is great but takes up a lot of weeknights.”

If you’re the leader, do your own research and come up with the program or poll your own electorate of family and friends for both a theme or movies that fit it. But remember, planning a film festival isn’t all that different than planning a party. It’s designed to entertain the guests not show what sort of genius you were coming up with the event in the first place.

In my experience, film festivals benefit from a strong leader so the movies are well chosen and hang together someone but a leader that listens to those he/she has invited to their festival.

4. Theme? Festivals have themes to distinguish themselves from binge watching. The idea is many movies creatively grouped in a interesting way. Half the joy is coming up with that creative list rather than just hitting “next” on the remote control.

Self-creating film festivals come in a few different types: A Vertical Festival is usually organized around the body of work of a creative person (all of Denzel Washington’s pre-Oscar movies, All movies directed by Ava Duvernay) A Horizontal Festival is organized around something non-people related all the chosen movies have in common (movies who all have “Star” in their name, movies that take place in Chicago).  A Spring Cleaning Festival is a conscious attempt to see movies that have languished on your to-be-watched list for too long. A Hall of Fame Festival is usually grouped around the perceived “best” movies in a genre (Romantic Comedies) or a given time period (the 1990s). A Hub and Spoke Festival will begin with a beloved, well known film then see ancillary movies (another movie by that director, a remake, another movie featuring a jazz soundtrack) and material (short films from that director, a documentary about the hub film’s subject) from there.

The purpose of a Vertical Festival is to notice commonalities (Michael Douglas never plays a working-class person) and evolutions (Laura Dern often played quiet characters in her 20s and loud characters in her 40s and 50s). The purpose of a Horizontal Film Festival–because you have declared the thing they have in common up front–is to notice differences (look how many different kinds of movies took place only at night). A Hall of Fame Festival will inspire debate and discussion b/c “best” is a subjective criteria. A Hub And Spoke Festival usually needs a strong leader to push the spokes out far enough from the hub so the movies at this festival feel different enough from one another. A Spring Cleaning Festival is better reserved for a my-family-only kind of festival where everyone’s had a hand in the queue to be cleaned out in the first place.

4. What movies? Whether you go with one leader or a group vote, start by collectively making a first draft list of movies that fit your theme. Most likely it will be larger than the time you have. If it is, either the group votes or the leader should chose their best judgement. Failing either of those, go with the movies highest rated on Rotten Tomatoes unless you are really into watching bad movies.

5. How? It is best to have either hard copies of your chosen films, either on DVD or digital download. Streaming services are notorious for removing movies from their library without telling anybody and you don’t want to depend on a movie being available service on day of your festival because there’s no promise of that.

6. Schedule. Unless your theme requires you to go in a specific order, start with a short fun, banger of a film to whet everyone’s appetites. End on a movie with uplift because if you end with a horribly depressing movie, the audience will not only feel that way about the movie but the festival itself and most likely you as well. In between, you generally want to alternative between heavy and light in tone, between short and long in run time.

7. The Next Day. After your festival do something completely different like go for a hike or call someone. I find watching a bunch of movies in a row a mostly forgettable activity (and then what’s the point?) if it’s all swallowing and no digesting.

 

Mar42020

My Top 5 Movies of 2019: Last Black Man Of, Apollo 11, Booksmart and Others…

Did this last year. These are the 5 best movies I saw in 2019. Doesn’t mean they came out in 2019. Just means that’s when I got to see them for the first time. David Dylan Thomas is much better at this than me so I borrowed the layout from him.  Movie names will link to their profiles on Just Watch so you know where to see them.

In reverse order:

5. Last Black Man in San Francisco

Almost a visual poem to a city and two residents/best friends who no longer feel like they belong there. Beautiful in the way Moonlight is beautiful (2019).

4. Apollo 11

Not one extra foot of film was shot for this minute-by-minute documentary to commemorate the 50th anniverary of the 1969 moon landing. Meaning everything was reconstructed from existing NASA footage, so tangible and real you feel like it happened yesterday. And you were there (2019).

3. Half the Picture

Documentary on why so few movies are directed by women puts the lie immediately to any excuse dreamed up by studios or the resident misogynist in your life. Will also remind you how many of your favorite movies weren’t made by bearded white dudes in baseball caps (2018).

2. Booksmart

The John Hughes movie the 21st century deserves: kids of all shapes, sizes, races and gender doing hilarious teenage shit. Olivia Wilde, the actress turned director, has done an amazing first-timers job here (2019).

1. Leave No Trace

If you want to know where and why America is where it is in 2020, this tale of a wounded war veteran and his estranged daughter will show you with beauty, sadness and power (2018)

Honorable Mention: Support the Girls is the best movie ever made about one day inside a Hooters, a huge compliment. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a moving photo essay of moments in a southern town that will take your breath away.

Jan272020

Books v. Movies: Not an Either/Or

Lithub alerted me to a fascinating statistic that in 2019, more Americans went to the library than to the movies.

That’s wonderful news but let’s bear in mind a few things;

1. Books are not superior to movies. There are brilliant movies and terrible books. And both are magic. Being forced to chose is a false choice no one really has. And if I had to chose between them, I’d chose a quick death by firing squad instead.

2. Going to the movies isn’t fun anymore. Movie studios are having a tough time getting people to come to theatres for all but the loudest splashiest movies. And this is not the citizenry’s fault. How often do you have a pleasant evening at the movies watching something where nothing blows up at a price point you can repeat more than say once a quarter? Unless every single person who likes going to the movies in America is a 14 year old boy, this is leaving a lot of the paying audience out in the cold. 

3. “That doesn’t mean people are reading at libraries.” This sentiment is elitist and historically wrong. Libraries since the beginning of their history have functioned as levelers between classes so the economically disadvantaged may have the same tools, resources and access to information as everyone else. Read Susan Orlean’s magisterial “The Library Book”. It turns out, the earliest public libraries loaned farm equipment, tools, livestock supplies, as well as newspapers and books. Now they also provide internet access, musical instruments, toys to kids who can’t afford them and vinyl records (hooray!)

4. The public good. Use of libraries for whatever reason equals belief in something called the public good, the commons, a nation we are all part of instead of “give me mine and screw you” they have changed so many lives for the better including mine. So have great movie theaters.

Our lives are better for both. Make them a part of yours!

Apr162018

Half-Baked Preliminary Thoughts on Molly Ringwald’s New Yorker Essay, The Breakfast Club and #MeToo

Ringwald-metoo

 

Because many of you asked what I thought about Molly Ringwald’s recent essay in The New Yorker.

1. Ms. Ringwald is absolutely right. Movies endure not just b/c they meant something to us way back then but b/c they should allow for rigorous re-examination as our culture evolves. Great movies hold up to that examination, not by seeming contemporary (which is impossible) but by constantly engaging us as we change, even though they don’t.

2. It is not “political correctness” to re-evaluate a work of art in contemporary context. It is perhaps myopic to say it shouldn’t ever be seen again because of what it said when it was made and how it isn’t cool to say that now. But Ms. Ringwald isn’t arguing for censorship. She’s arguing for not letting nostalgia gum up the rigor of our intellect.

3. Nostalgia is, by definition, a failed enterprise: A wish for what is no longer presumes a) we can turn back time and b) nothing should have changed between then and now. Both are impossible. There’s nothing wrong with looking back fondly on things from the past. Bear in mind that the best of those things (like, for example, The Breakfast Club) are still remembered not just because of what they were then but how they continue to speak to us now.

4. John Hughes made great movies not in spite of being a flawed person but because he was a flawed person. The remarkable thing about genius is that it happens in human beings who are by definition good at some things and not others. If they are in fact, geniuses and the things they create are too, then they invite that rigor of examination not shy away from it. Dude, Where’s My Car deflates like a leaky balloon upon examination. Huck Finn, The Age of Innocence, James Brown Live at the Apollo and The Breakfast Club are so good and complicated and magnificent and frustrating in so many ways that they are gifts that keep on giving. And we look away from the full extant of those gifts, if we ignore that Mark Twain was a genius but a terrible businessman which probably hurt how much we know of is work, that Edith Wharton was a genius but an unapologetic snob that probably made her output less rangy than the true scope of her genius, that James Brown was a genius who was a terrible boss and lost a young Bootsy Collins as a bassist because of it and imagine what Mr. Brown’s music COULD have been like and that John Hughes was a genius who had great difficulty emotionally reaching beyond whom he was as a teenager and examine what could have been had he been able to write and direct movies not about the suburban midwest?

5. “Imagine if” always comes with examination of genius. Bad movies/books/songs/tv shows you cannot even summon the energy to do that.

6. I promise you, no one, not Molly Ringwald or Criterion or I or anyone else who wishes to have lively conversation about your favorite movie from childhood, is trying to ruin your childhood. We are in fact trying to acknowledge that we all grow up and change and we STILL have the opportunity to have ongoing evolved, long term relationships with the pop culture of the past. That, in fact the needlessly linear narrative of pop culture as new–>passe–>forgotten–>kitsch–>reboot is a diet of junk food and culture is meant to be a feast.

7. The evening I read this Molly Ringwald essay, I also saw Night Ranger in concert. And 35 years after their heyday, they were fantastic. Which led me to watch a ton of concert footage of theirs and to the one, every video had at least a dozen comments talking about what Night Ranger does is over, musically and will never be again, despite what I had seen with my own eyes the night before, they fact that I could watch 35 years of the band’s history for free, the fact that armed with a Spotify subscription and a web browser, I could summon Night Ranger and 25 bands like them across four decades of popular music with a few keystrokes and search terms.

I submit if you spend a bunch of your time talking about how “over” something is, you are really not talking about “it” being over but you. You’re sad because that band/movie/book reminds you a special time in life from long ago. Fine. If you want to be done having special times with art and pop culture, be my guest. That strikes me as an entirely avoidable self-inflicted cloud of depression you have decided to stand under without an umbrella. Show a little backbone, take two steps to the left and come out in the sunshine where the rest of us live.

8. I am deeply thankful to Ms. Ringwald for saying from her unique point of view better than what I tried to say in Brat Pack America that nostalgia often keeps us from further discussion, further engagement, from having marriages instead of flings with art and culture we love That living there is a wasteful and potentially dangerous enterprise. And we owe to our kids and nieces and nephews and our mentees and our young friends who we wish to share it wish to keep talking.

Apr92018

Half-Baked Preliminary Thoughts on Ready, Player One. The Movie

V1

1. I had great fun watching this movie. I would have even if 80s pop culture weren’t my subject/passion. It’s paced beautifully, it looks great, the CGI is tremendous fun and the acting is adequate enough to not get in the way of that other stuff. The pop culture signifiers are whipped cream, not the sundae.

2. It’s about 60% true to the novel which is about average for Steven Spielberg. Remember the novel Jurassic Park was practically a dystopia with John Hammond as a maniacal billionaire (not kindly old Richard Attenborough) and at the end of the novel The Color Purple, the main character ends up befriending her abuser. Spielberg’s adaptations of well known novels are usually departures in at least one significant way.

3. The novel’s pop culture references are exclusive to the 1980s including extended sequences about the pioneering text adventure video game called Zork and the 1983 classic War Games. The movie has a very loose interpretation of “the past” pop culture-wise. It references Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Shining (1980), Nightmare on Elm St. (1984), Say Anything (1989), and The Iron Giant (1999) a span of 22 years and 3 distinct eras (maybe more) in pop culture.

4. There’s some good stuff here about who owns the future, about net neutrality and about how we spend our time but with and away from screens.

5. The movie’s politics overall though are on shakier ground. For most of the story, the protagonist wants to win a contest so he can rule a virtual world and get a lot of money for it, a hard ask for sympathy and relatability. Also, it is never in doubt that the protagonist is the most skilled player of the game and yet the movie still saddles him with a “we are the rebellion and must fight” speech. Rebellions are about power imbalance. If you are clearly the best in the field of battle, you don’t get to call yourself “a rebel”. LeBron James is not a rebel no matter how well or poorly the Cleveland Cavs do. And maybe I’m making too much of this but people with great power talking about what rebels they are feels a little Trump-y in its delusion to me.

6. Part of my problem with #5 may be that I think one of Steven Spielberg’s biggest weaknesses as a storyteller is how he handles villains: Villainous roles in Spielberg movies either do nothing for the actors who play them (see Paul Freeman who played Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark) or take remarkable actors and render them unmemorable (Remember the legendary Max Von Sydow as the villain in Minority Report? Neither do I). The latter happens in Ready Player One where the usually terrific Ben Mendehlson is written and performed as a laundry pile of tics and motivations that ultimately mean nothing. It’s hard to feel like the good v. evil struggle at the center of RP1 means anything when the villains motives are being dictated by the CGI and plot rather than the character.

7. There really isn’t much for the actors to do in this movie overall which is too bad, because between Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendohlson and Mark Rylance, it’s a fine bunch.

8. Mark Rylance plays the deceased creator (not a spoiler. It’s revealed in the movie’s prologue) of the movie’s virtual world beautifully, as a sad brilliant man who never wanted to grow up and therefore never really lived and died of a broken heart because of it.

9. I hope I am not the only one who fears Lena Waithe is stuck here playing the magical black best friend.

10. I wonder if this is the end of our current 80s pop culture revival (see Stranger Things, Atomic Blonde, Red Oaks, GLOW, The Americans and I could go on like this). Historically when a genre or a time makes reference to itself being riffed upon, it’s over (See what happened to the 80s teen movie when Heathers became the first satire of the 80s teen movie. John Hughes never came to play again). And although RP1 is being talked about as a zenith of our 80s pop revival, its pop currency of “the past” is vaguer, looser, blobbier. Are we still in an 80s pop revival if everything from Saturday Night Fever to the Iron Giant counts too?

Aug92009

RIP John Hughes: A Eulogy for a Generational Hero

This essay appeared in The Huffington Post on August 18, 2009

Director John Hughes died on my 36th birthday, which means I’m now the age he was when Ferris Bueller took his day off. Hughes reportedly wrote Ferris based on the high school adventures of his best friend, himself, and his girlfriend, whom Hughes married shortly after their graduation in 1968. By the film’s release in 1986, when John Hughes was the reigning master of what Courtney Love called “the defining moments of the alternative generation,” he was also a father to two young children, a boomer family man and the demographic against which his audience saw their identity as an “alternative”.

Following his fatal heart attack at age 59, that audience (now family men and women ourselves) hurried to claim Hughes as ours. Director Kevin Smith called him “Our J.D. Salinger.” Jud Apatow: “None of what I do would exist without him.” Diablo Cody: “An idol to this magna-zoom-dweebie.”

I went ahead and emailed my parents, explaining that this passing meant to me what John Lennon’s death meant to them. “We liked John Hughes movies too,” my mom wrote back.

Of course they did. The same way they liked American Graffiti and Splendor in Grass as late-youth fables from at a time long ago. My 13-year-old cousin Zoe probably files Pretty in Pink or Weird Science next to Mean Girls and She’s all That, befitting the endless now adolescence feels like when you’re in the middle of it.

With the petulance then of an overlooked middle child, wedged between Boomers and Millennials, my generational urge to lock up Hughes’s children up in the library then stand out outside the door screaming “Mine! Mine!” isn’t just a personalization of loss. It’s also an endowment of cultural legacy, a declaration that Duckie, Watts, Cameron Frye and Jake Ryan belong yes, to history, but really to us.

Every generation slams the door on the one behind it. We can only grant Tie Dye, The Muppet Show, Pearl Jam or Facebook to those borne of one age by implying everyone else is too old to “get it” or too young to understand. As if by nature, generational identity seems a fierce melding of two unequal parts — what it is and everything else it isn’t.

With John Hughes, this had the unintended consequence of turning appreciations of his work into a nostalgic land grab, relegating it to the same garage shelf as New Coke or the Atari 2600. Michael Jackson, another recently deceased ’80s icon, had the benefit of a career with his brothers the decade before and presence in the tabloids until the day he died. Hughes last directed in 1991. It’s easy then to confine his contributions to his heyday, the middle years of the Reagan administration, to shoulder pads and Spandau Ballet.

But if that were the whole story, would there have been this kind of outpouring? We return to John Hughes’s movies because they didn’t just speak to a moment in time — they also transcended it. Remove the floppy disk jokes and Sixteen Candles is ageless as a Hudson/Day romantic comedy. Ferris Bueller may as well be subtitled Chicago! Chicago! It’s a Wonderful Town! Call the Breakfast Club an adolescent Iceman Cometh, a chorus of characters imprisoned and waiting for something to happen who realize they are the only something that will.

Hughes’s are not just movies about the mid-1980s, but movies set in the mid-1980s that now live as archetype and fable. I know this because, last year, I threw myself a “Come Dressed as Your Seventh Grade Self” birthday last year and guests from ages 20 to 55 all showed looking like his characters. I didn’t ask them to. They assumed “John Hughes Movie” and adolescence meant the same thing.

None of my friends, however, dressed like The Athlete, Brain, Basket Case, Princess and Criminal of The Breakfast Club, perhaps because the lessons of that film are too painful for a celebration: The world wants to separate us with labels. If we look past those labels, at least we have each other. It’s garden-variety adolescent alienation, sure, but of a very different kind than the majority of Hughes’s work. Which is probably why fans regard The Breakfast Club as his greatest achievement and a generational touchstone in a way that, say, Weird Science is not.

Courtney Love and her cohorts would spend the early ’90s glorifying the alienation Hughes offers up in The Breakfast Club. But amid his filmography, it’s a rare exception. Overwhelmingly, The Hughsian hero does not question the rules of adolescence but tries to find their place within them. Samantha Baker wants to be cool like Jake Ryan and they meet somewhere in the middle sitting atop a dining room table. The lovers of Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful accept that money and class divide them but make a go of it anyway. Ferris Bueller most likely walked in his high school graduation while the parents he loved applauded, then went to a good college. He most likely did not drop out, form a band and never speak to them again.

If the cinema of the 1990s was all about the created family in absence of the biological one (Goodfellas, Boogie Nights, Reality Bites), Hughes venerated the traditional family in a manner both of and ahead of his time. Remember the mid-1980s was the era of The Parents Music Resource Center, the Satanic Panic and a cinematic alternative to the Hughesian Mainstream (The Legend of Billie Jean, The River’s Edge) about generational hostility and its violent consequences.

The message? Parents and kids don’t understand each other, don’t want to and never will.

But that’s not what happens outside of Shermer High School. In rest of Hughes’s teenage canon, venerable character actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Paul Dooley, and John Ashton play fathers whose arcs end in sympathy and understanding for their teenage children. John Ashton relents and lets Keith, the hero of Some Kind of Wonderful, not go to college. Harry Dean Stanton gives Molly Ringwald the pink dress she wears to the prom. And Paul Dooley, as Samantha Baker’s dad in Sixteen Candles, has one of best parent/teenager scenes in recent memory. “If he can’t see all the beautiful and wonderful things I see in you” he tells his grieving daughter, exiled from her room on her birthday and ignored by the popular boy she likes, “then he’s got the problem.” He finishes by telling her “not to let him boss you around,” a proto-feminist idea a half-decade before Riot Grrls.

Jim Baker, Jack Walsh, Cliff Nelson and Tom Bueller represent the value Hughes placed on intergenerational tolerance, where dads like him admitted their mistakes and struggled with empathy over judgment. We don’t see much of it in The Breakfast Club, where detention is a lonely island surrounded by adult misunderstanding. Fast forward and we can imagine that long Saturday inspiring the cultural mileposts of the 1990s — grunge, strong coffee, Quentin Tarantino, and Napster. But it would be the “nice” Hughes families whom would have the last laugh. Another son of Illinois would mirror their attempts at open communication and declare moving beyond the psychodrama of generational warfare his highest priority. It got him elected president.

I’ll be married next spring, shortly after The Breakfast Club‘s 25th birthday, where friends, parents and grandparents will all dance to “Don’t You Forget About Me.” Perhaps if I were in my early 20s when John Hughes died, I too would have eulogized him as the poet laureate of my youth. But I’m an adult now, maybe a parent someday. Sam, Duckie, Ferris and Keith have all grown up and so have we. Part of that means remembering John Hughes for all that he was instead of just all that he was for us. And what he captured onscreen was an adolescence to be learned from instead of suffered through and forgotten, where parents and their teenagers tried to do right, even though they couldn’t always do good, and, in the end, understood that We Are Not Alone.

It’s an adolescence I wish I had. Thanks to John Hughes, it is an adulthood I can imagine and make real.

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