Friday, January 29, 2021

Hellbent for Letterbox | The Tall Men (1955)

Pax and I join Clark Gable, Jane Russell, and Robert Ryan on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana and figure out which Tall Man Russell should choose.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Little Men (1998)

I've never read either of Louisa May Alcott's sequels to Little Women, so I hadn't intended to watch any of the adaptations for this project. But when I saw that there was a Little Men movie only a few years after Winona Ryder's Little Women, I decided to add it to my list. It made it even better that it stars Chris Sarandon, former husband of Susan Sarandon, who played Marmee in 1994.

Chris Sarandon plays Professor Bhaer who is now married to Jo March, played by Mariel Hemingway. They run a boys school out of Aunt March's old house, which is now located out on a farm in the middle of nowhere for some reason. Not at all where I usually imagine Aunt March living, though the end of Greta Gerwig's Little Women also shows the school and has it uncluttered by surrounding buildings. Still, this version is very rural.

Sarandon is good as Bhaer, though I had to overcome the initial distrust I automatically have for all Chris Sarandon characters (thank you, Fright Night and Princess Bride). Hemingway is a perfectly fine Jo, matured and mellowed out from her feisty youth, but still with a spirit that rebels against convention. She's fiercely compassionate, which puts her into conflict with her husband during the events of this film. Bhaer is also gentle and loving, but he reaches his limit with an especially troublesome student before Jo does.

The plot has to do with the arrival of a couple of orphans at the school. One is named Nat, sponsored by Meg's husband John Brooke (who seems a lot wealthier now than he was in Little Women, but maybe business has just been that good). John met the homeless boy on the streets of Boston and offered to pay his tuition at Jo's school. There's some initial conflict over Nat's lying, but the boy quickly fits in with the other kids until a friend of his from Boston shows up, too. 

The new kid's name is Dan and he's basically the Artful Dodger to Nat's Oliver Twist. Against Bhaer's better judgment, he and Jo allow Dan to attend the school for free, but Dan soon begins influencing the other boys with drinking, smoking, fighting, cursing, and gambling. It goes about how you'd expect and resolves almost as predictably.

Frankly, the plot and the setting reminded me of watching Little House on the Prairie. It's sweet and competently made enough that I grew to like the characters even though they weren't doing anything original. So while I don't recommend anyone rush out to see the movie, it got me curious to read Alcott's version and see if it's more powerful. 

And I like the students enough (not just Nat and Dan, but Meg's two kids and a couple of the other boys and a late-arriving girl named Nan who very much reminds Jo of herself at that age) that I want to follow them into the events of Alcott's final book in the series. The trilogy concludes with Jo's Boys, which was adapted into a TV series also in 1998. Instead of calling it Jo's Boys, though, I imagine it was a marketing decision to call it Little Men as well to make the Little Women connection more clear. But it starts with the death of Professor Bhaer and has a different actor playing Jo. 

I'm not going to hold up the rest of the Little Women movies to watch the TV show, but I'm very interested in it. Jo's Boys includes Amy and Laurie and their kids (a group that I sorely missed in Little Men), so that's cool. And thanks to the pleasant, if predictable way that 1998's Little Men handles itself, I'm invested enough in the students that I want to see what happens to them next. 

Three out of five violin recitals.   

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Little Women (1994)

I watched Gillian Armstrong's version of Little Women in 1994 without knowing anything about the story. The '90s were a great time for lushly filmed period movies and I was there for as many as I could get to.

And I loved this one for many of the same reasons that I still love it now. It looks great with the highest production values of any adaptation so far. The locations and sets are marvelous and I want to live in them. And the acting is amazing, but I'll get deeper into that in a second.

Being familiar with the story now, I appreciate this one even more. It brings out feminist themes without dramatically changing Alcott's story or characters, mostly through the character of Marmee, played by Susan Sarandon. Pa March does show up at the end, but the movie makes great use of his absence by emphasizing Marmee's single-parenting and underlining that this is a household entirely made up of women without any of the traditional structure or protection that would be present with a patriarch there. I'm a little sad that the script gets rid of Christianity as the motivation for self-improvement (replacing it with Kant's transcendental idealism), but given the current state of popular Christianity, I understand the desire to go with something different.

Winona Ryder is an amazing Jo. She's clearly out of step with cultural expectations for her gender, but doesn't have to be cartoonishly masculine to show it. And she's the only Jo so far to actually get her hair styled into a super cute bob when she sells most of it for Marmee's trip money. 

It was a smart move to cast very young Kirsten Dunst as Amy in the first half of the film. It's a little jarring when she becomes Samantha Mathis in the second half after only four years have passed (and none of the other actors change), but it very much helps to have a young actor playing Amy when she's a selfish, spoiled child and an older actor playing her once she's both physically and spiritually matured.

Shockingly though, the MVP of this adaptation is Claire Danes as Beth. Beth can sometimes be more plot device than character, just there for everyone else to comment on or feed sad about. The best adaptations do lovely things with her relationship with Laurie's grandfather, but even then she's not much on her own. Danes makes me feel for Beth and relate to her like I never do in other versions. I'm pretty sure she was hired for her lip quiver, which she uses to rip my heart out in a couple of scenes. And the script also gives her a heartbreaking speech on her deathbed where she talks about always feeling left behind her sisters, but now she's going to be the one to go first. So poignant and painful.

Christian Bale is a great Laurie and I love the attention the movie gives to setting the foundation of his relationship with Amy. There's a scene when he's taking Amy to live with Aunt March while Beth is sick and Amy is thinking about her own potential death. She says that she doesn't want to go without ever being kissed and Laurie kindly (and innocently) sets her at ease by promising to kiss her before she dies. It foreshadows their eventual romance, but it's also just a lovely example of Laurie taking her childish concerns seriously when not a lot of other people do.

A big challenge for Little Women adaptations is to make Amy and Laurie's romance convincing when it finally happens. If it's not carefully handled, it can seem like Laurie is settling for Amy since Jo is unavailable. Armstrong's version manages it with a couple of scenes.

The first addresses the elephant in the room by giving Amy and Laurie a conversation about whom they want to marry. Laurie says something about wanting to be part of the March family and Amy calls him on it. She asks if he thinks any of the sisters would want to be loved for their family instead of for themselves. And since she's been pursuing the wealthy Fred Vaughn, Laurie turns it back on her and asks if she thinks Fred wants to be loved for his money.

The question sits unanswered until a later scene when Jo writes to Laurie in England after Beth dies. She begs him to come home to the States and be with the family (but mostly with her). But instead of doing that, Laurie immediately goes to Amy in France to comfort her, proving that she's more important to him than her family, including Jo.

The other big challenge in adapting Little Women is the relationship between Jo and Professor Bhaer. Gabriel Byrne is twenty years older than Winona Ryder, so the age difference is intact. It's actually greater than the difference between Katharine Hepburn and Paul Lukas, who were only 12 years apart, but Hepburn played Jo a lot younger and Lukas was suave and worldly and kept calling her his "little friend." Consistent with the feminist tone of the film, Byrne's Bhaer treats Jo like an equal. He never directly criticizes her writing, but acknowledges her freedom to write whatever she wants (or feels the need to, because of commercial concerns). When she presses him, he asks if she truly likes what she's writing - and that question bothers her - but he's merely holding up a mirror so that she can evaluate the work herself.

In all things, this Professor Bhaer is there to gently usher Jo into maturity, both in how she thinks about her work and in how she thinks about romantic relationships. She was never able to take Laurie seriously, because their relationship was never serious. They were deeply fond of each other and connected in that way, but they were playmates, not true partners. Bhaer shows Jo a whole other way of relating to someone. It's healthy, it's mature, and his being older becomes an asset, not something creepy to have to work around.

Five out of five letters from Father.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Little Women (1987)

In the '80s, Japanese studio Nippon Animation adapted Little Women into a four-season TV series. Nippon made their name adapting classic English literature for Japanese audiences, also producing versions of Anne of Green Gables and Tom Sawyer, so Little Women was right up their alley.

I'm not naturally drawn to all anime, but I have a nostalgic spot for its vibe thanks to shows like Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion that I watched as a kid, as well as US companies like Rankin Bass' occasionally outsourcing to Japanese studios. Whenever I'm watching anime, especially from this time period, those childhood memories kick in and help me through any speed bumps in the translation for English audiences. But with Little Women, those speed bumps are pretty minor anyway.

The English dub was created by Japanese actors who are all extremely talented with American English. That helps a lot. But even with that level of skill, there are some inherent things about transitioning from Japanese to English that are impossible to get around. The Japanese language has a different cadence from English and calls for different body language to help communicate it. So dubbing it well is harder than just having someone read a translation. The words audiences hear have to match the movements of the characters' mouths, which means that characters sometimes interrupt each other at odd times, or their cadence can sound a little unnatural, or they can be smiling sweetly while saying something very sad, or the dialogue can sound overly formal. That seems like a petty criticism though for an adaptation as thoughtful and well made as this one.

One of my favorite things about the series is that it has so much room to fill in details that Alcott wasn't concerned with. In fact, the entire first season takes place before the novel even begins, setting up the March family's life in another town before the Confederate Army invades. Alcott tells us that the Marches were well off before the Civil War and other misfortunes took their wealth. In this series, we get to see them in their big home before Father goes to war. Meg and Jo are both looking forward to new dresses for fancy balls. Well, maybe Meg more so than Jo. But then Father has to march south and isn't there when the town is occupied. Things are peaceful enough at first until a battle breaks out, setting fire to much of the town, including the Marches' home and Father's business. The now-homeless family goes to another town to live with Father's aunt until they can get back on their feet. Meg gets a job as governess to a couple of rich kids, Jo becomes Aunt March's paid companion, and Marmee helps distribute aid to the families of Union soldiers. By the end of the season, the family has saved enough to buy their own house and move in.

Seasons two through four adapt the first half of Alcott's novel, so there's a lot of room for embellishment there, too. Alcott's novel was originally published in two volumes with the first volume concluding with Meg's agreeing to marry Mr Brooke, Laurie's going off to college, and Father's returning home from the war. That's all that this TV series covers, so there's none of the second-volume stuff about Meg's married life, Jo's in New York, Beth's second illness, or Amy and Laurie's engagement. 

Instead, Season Two opens with the girls meeting Laurie and ends with Beth's being invited to play Mr Laurence's piano at his house. Season Three covers Beth's making slippers for Mr Laurence to Jo's getting her first story published. Season Four begins with Marmee's leaving home to go be with Father, who's very sick in Washington DC; it wraps up of course with Father's coming home and Meg's agreeing to marry Brooke. Each episode is a half-hour, giving them plenty of time to flesh out vignettes from the novel, so there's a whole episode about Laurie and Brooke's inviting Jo and Meg to a play, but Amy can't go, so she burns Jo's novel in revenge. The next episode then deals with the fallout of that, with Jo's being angry with Amy for most of the episode until Amy falls through the ice at the end while skating.

There's so much room for the characters to breathe that I couldn't help but get invested in them. They're well designed too and well acted. Even though Meg isn't the only sister who remembers being wealthy in this version, her job as a governess puts her in contact with a wealthy group of peers and she still has to struggle with her reduced finances. Jo is impulsive and has a temper, but she's also aware of these faults and tries to correct them. 

Beth is drawn to look small and pale and of course her personality is very quiet. Instead of a host of dolls and kittens for her to play with though, the series gives her one kitten named Milky Ann who's almost as fully developed a character as anyone else in the family.

A huge advantage of animation is that Amy can be drawn to look as young as she acts. She's as selfish and attention-seeking as she is in the book, but she's also kind of adorable and impossible to dislike. It's easy to see why people spoil her, but just as easy to see why they're constantly losing patience and correcting her. One really weird change in this version though is that it's all narrated by Amy, rather than Jo. I'm not sure why that is, except that maybe Amy's youth makes her more open about how she feels about the events we're seeing.

Another big change, but a welcome one, is that Hannah is Black in this version. When I read the novel last year, I noticed that Alcott gives Hannah a distinct dialect that sounds rural and possibly Southern. I wondered if Hannah could be a former slave, but Alcott eventually reveals enough about Hannah's Irish background to contradict that idea. I enjoy that the series not only goes there, but also includes storylines about slavery and what the Union army (including father Frederic March) are fighting for. In one particularly powerful episode in the first season, a slave deserts from the Confederate Army that's forced him to fight for them. He hides out in the Marches' shed until Beth accidentally discovers him. Terrified, he takes her hostage, but Marmee is able to not only talk him into releasing Beth, but immediately forgives him and offers him a place to hide in the house. It's a beautiful example of the kindness that Marmee not only teaches, but exemplifies in her own actions. That's a huge part of the book and it permeates the series as well.

Even Aunt March is kinder here than she is in the book. She's still old and cranky, but when she offers Jo a job as her companion, it's out of genuine affection for Jo. Aunt March is generous whenever the Marches need financial help, though of course they're careful never to exploit her. The kinder Aunt March makes it a bit weird when she initially dislikes Mr Brookes, as demanded by the book's plot. But she has enough of a stubborn streak all throughout the series that it also doesn't seem completely out of character.

The series adds a couple of new characters, one of whom is another nephew of Aunt March to rival Frederic March and his family. The new guy's name is David and he's a lazy sponge who's constantly borrowing money from Aunt March. She sees right through him, but has more or less given him what he wants since he's been her only relative in town. With Marmee and the girls' arrival though - and their genuine kindness toward Aunt March - David feels threatened and constantly looks for ways to undermine the newcomers' relationship with their great aunt.

Laurie and his grandfather are pretty much like Alcott wrote them. They butt heads over Laurie's future, but it's also clear that they love each other. One weird thing about Laurie though is that the series leaves open the possibility of Jo's eventually marrying him. His feelings for her begin to heat up toward the end of the series, especially as things are getting more serious between Meg and Brooke. But Jo also makes a comment to the effect that she could see herself one day being romantically involved with Laurie. That's a big change from the book.

Related to that is a final big change in the form of another new character. Since we'll never got to New York or meet Professor Bhaer, the series gives Jo someone else to criticize her work and encourage her creative growth. Sadly, the character is pretty annoying. 

His name is Anthony and he works as a reporter at the local newspaper in town. When Jo approaches the paper's editor about publishing some of her writing, Anthony has an immediate, negative reaction about her work, either because she's young or a woman or both. Whatever his reasons, he's super rude about it and he continues to be abrasive and blunt for the rest of the series. He occasionally helps Jo out, to be fair. He's the one who finds the house that the Marches buy and move into, for example. And he eventually seems to come around to really liking Jo and wanting good things for her. By the end of the series, he's moving to New York and encouraging Jo to do the same. But he's such a surly know-it-all about everything that I bristle whenever he's in a scene.

I don't want to leave this on a bad note though. It took me a long time to finish the series, but I enjoyed spending all that time with it. The attention paid to the history of the Civil War as a backdrop for the story is excellent. And the four sisters, especially Jo and Amy, are among the best versions of the characters that I've seen so far. 

Four out of five Milky Anns.

Monday, January 25, 2021

AfterLUNCH | After Dinner Lounge, Jan 2021

Paxton Holley joins Rob Graham, Evan Hanson, and I in the lounge for another meandering talk about what we've been reading, watching, and thinking about. Topics start from:
  • Books of fairy tales and the works of Ray Bradbury and Italo Calvino
  • Comics about Spider-Man and the third Green Goblin, Red Hood and the Outlaws, and The Shadow
  • TV shows like Dickensian, The Expanse, The Great, Queen’s Gambit, and the eighth season of Mad About You
  • Movies like Overlord and the Marvel films leading into WandaVision
  • And real talk on Boat Names, Book Formats, Family, and Spheres of Influence
Download or listen to the episode here.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Top 10 Movies of 2020

10. The Personal History of David Copperfield
Whimsical, touching, and funny, with all the ups and downs expected from a Dickens adaptation. David Copperfield is never going to be one of my favorite Dickens stories (not when Ebenezer Scrooge, Miss Havisham, and Edwin Drood exist), but this cast and director work hard to change that.

9. The Burnt Orange Heresy
SuPERBly written neo-noir about an unscrupulous art critic who meets a mystery woman shortly before being offered an opportunity to revitalize his career. It's a great game of Who's Playing Whom and even the exposition is so imaginatively presented that I was riveted the entire time.

This was my second Claes Bang performance after the Dracula mini-series from earlier in the year and he seems born to play suave cads. Elizabeth Debicki is beautiful and I want so badly to trust her, but I don't. Mick Jagger is awesome as an obviously conniving art dealer (but how much does he KNOW?!) and Donald Sutherland is charmingly genteel as the reclusive painter that both Bang and Jagger long to exploit.

There's something that happens late in the film that keeps me from loving it wholeheartedly, but I need to get over that. It's one, damn fine movie.

8. Wolfwalkers
A beautifully animated, exciting celebration of wildness. I've been thinking about the benefits of wildness a lot lately, so this was nicely timed. The only reason it's this low is because as skilled as the animation is, the style is a tiny bit distracting. It's designed to look like medieval art, which is really cool, but it does keep a thin layer of distance between me and the story.

7. Enola Holmes
When I rated this for Letterboxd, I gave it four-and-a-half stars:

1 star for Millie Bobby Brown being hilarious and Ferris Buellery while also kickass.
1 star for Helena Bonham Carter and woman-power.
1 star for Victorian England.
1 star for the most handsome Sherlock Holmes of all time.
1 star for evil, bowler-wearing Burn Gorman trying to murder everyone.

Minus half-a-star for leaving some plot for potential sequels to resolve, but I'll likely give that back once those sequels happen.

6. The Half of It
A classic romantic comedy plot with a twist. It's basically Cyrano de Bergerac with Cyrano as a lesbian. There's one, tiny moment where I'm disappointed by a line of dialogue, but mostly The Half of It is lovely and gripping and unexpected in so many ways. With another viewing or two, that line won't bother me so much and I'll be completely in. I sort of want to re-watch it right now.

5. All Together Now
I don't want to insult All Together Now by comparing its plot to the TV Afternoon Specials I grew up with, because it's better than that. It's a message movie, but it delivers that message with a lot of heart and great performances. I was already a bit emotionally raw after just watching Goodbye, Christopher Robin before this, so I don't know how much that affected me, but All Together Now is a touching movie that never crosses over into sentimentality. And it stars Auli'i Cravalho, the voice of Moana, which is really cool.

4. Fatman
Goes really dark and serious with the Santa Claus mythology and then refuses to be either dark or serious about it. Exactly what I wanted. I'm gonna give it another year or two before I proclaim it a Christmas classic, but this could be an annual re-watch for me.

3. Tigertail
I'm all in for writer/director Alan Yang (thanks to his work on Parks and Recreation) as well as stories about Southeast Asia and stories about broken people finding connection with other humans. Tigertail is a beautiful film.

2. Spinster
Chelsea Peretti plays a woman hitting a milestone birthday, realizing that she may never get married, and becoming okay with that. Spinster is funny without being hilarious, but mostly it's just really freaking sweet.

1. Emma
Dee. Lightful.

I went in a little concerned that it would take too lighthearted an approach to the story, but while Autumn de Wilde's Emma is quite funny (Bill Nighy's hypochondria being especially hilarious), it also values the emotional pieces and themes that make this my favorite Austen story. I might have gotten a bit misty there a couple of times.

I'm glad I got to see it a couple of times on the big screen before lockdown. I mean, for Taylor-Joy's eyes alone, both in terms of sheer beauty and how she acts the hell out of them.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

18 Movies from 2020 That I Liked a Lot

A couple of these reviews get a little spoilery. I've put warnings on the ones that do.

28. Black Beauty
A Girl and Her Horse isn't a genre I'm automatically drawn to, but I read an interview with the director where she talked about how seriously she took the novel's focus on raising awareness about animal exploitation and cruelty. Her film reflects that and I appreciate the message even if I'm not naturally invested in the sentimental relationship between Jo and Beauty.

Not every actor is good in it, but all the important ones are. Mackenzie Foy is convincing as an emotionally wounded teenager and it's very nice seeing Iain Glen again after Game of Thrones. There's not enough explanation for the early tension in their relationship, but the actors sell that the tension exists, so I was able to roll with it.

27. Underwater
Underwater is a very good monster movie. It never rises above its genre, but it's atmospheric, scary, and has characters I like in a world I enjoyed exploring.

26. Onward

There's a lot about Onward that doesn't work for me. I don't love the character designs or the premise of a magical world that's converted to technology through the sheer laziness of its people. I also feel like the film started with a theme and then built a story to support it, meaning that it had to sacrifice some authentic emotion and decision-making in its characters in favor of making its point. I have a hard time believing that Dad makes no effort whatsoever to see his younger son in the last few moments left.

But it's still a good, strong theme and the relationship between the brothers (and also their mom) is authentic and emotional. The movie's also really funny and I come out liking it a lot even if it's not among Pixar's best.

25. Rebecca
I've never read Daphne du Maurier's novel, but I understand that the classic Selznick/Hitchcock adaption (which I'm very familiar with) made some changes to at least an earlier draft if not the book itself. Ben Wheatley's film changes it back, which is a cool exercise. I've often wondered how that might affect the story and now I know. The Selznick/Hitchcock version was right.

It doesn't affect the plot much at all, but it does affect the characters and sadly I don't think Wheatley's version deals with the full implication of Rebecca's actions in the past, Max's in the present, or how both influence the new Mrs. de Winter.

All that aside though: I really like this version. The cast is brilliant, the photography is lovely, and it adds some character layers to the Hitchcock version that make re-adapting it worthwhile. Hitchcock wins on subtlety and sheer style, but I appreciate Wheatley's film very much.

24. Soul
I may have built this up too much in my imagination. It's a lovely film with a great message; I just expected to be sobbing in my chair by the end of it and I wasn't. It may be because Joe is learning lessons that I've already internalized, so I wasn't exactly pulled along on the journey with him, but was waiting (and rooting) for him to catch up.

Some beautiful moments though and it's a great-looking film. And I love how (like Inside Out) it so skillfully visualizes abstract concepts.

23. Happiest Season

I had the wrong idea thinking Happiest Season is a standard romcom with the familiar setup of bringing someone home to meet the family while trying to keep your actual relationship a secret. In this case, it's Mackenzie Davis as a closeted lesbian who's introducing her girlfriend Kristen Stewart to Davis' judgmental family. Davis and Stewart have to pretend to be platonic roommates until Davis can summon the courage to come out.

Knowing that, I expected the usual hijinks and sneaking around, culminating in a third-act confrontation that forces Davis to finally make her announcement. And there is all of that. But I also expected that the whole time I would be rooting for the couple to make it work, and that's not the case.

I was surprised to hit the halfway point of the film and realize that I pretty much hated Davis' character and wanted nothing but for Stewart to get far, far away from her. Still thinking that I was supposed to be cheering for them as a couple, I almost gave up and turned the movie off, but decided to see it through, partly because Dan Levy is so great as Stewart's friend, but also because I was super intrigued to see if it would somehow turn into a love story between Stewart and Aubrey Plaza. Wouldn't that be a weird, but very cool turn?

But the film subverts even that and stays committed to Davis as a character even more than to her as a love interest for Stewart. It's very interested in being funny, and it uses romance to drive the plot, but it's just as interested in being real about the process of coming out and how that's different for everyone. It's an insightful and moving film and much more substantial than I anticipated.

22. Palm Springs
Really good, clever, funny spin on the Groundhog Day concept. I don't think it's ultimately doing enough that Groundhog Day isn't, but it's coming at the same ideas from a unique angle and it's highly entertaining.

21. Proximity
It would be unfair to compare Proximity to '80s Steven Spielberg films, but it's justifiable to lump it in with all the other knock-offs featuring alien visits and evil government agents from that decade. It fits nicely with my memories of movies like The Last Starfighter or Cloak and Dagger.

Proximity gets more and more bonkers as it goes, but I enjoyed that about it. It's also uneven in its special effects - sometimes shockingly amazing; often making obvious budget choices - but even that has some charm. And the location photography is consistently, often breathtakingly gorgeous.

It's wild and uneven enough that I imagine some viewers will be frustrated with it, but I rolled with the movie and had a great time.

20. My Spy
Not much of a spy movie, but it's not really supposed to be. Super charming and funny with lots of chemistry between the leads. I'm so in the bag for Dave Bautista that I'm not objective, though.

19. The New Mutants
The New Mutants suffered so many release delays that it was funny and then not funny again, but it was worth waiting for. The delays were no one's fault (first Disney's buying Fox; then COVID) and don't factor into my enjoyment at all. If it had come out on time, I would have thought it a unique and enjoyable, if imperfect entry in Fox's X-Men canon. And that's what I still think. I'm sad that we won't get more movies with these versions of these characters.

I showed up for Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy, but enjoyed the whole team. It makes me want to finally read some classic New Mutants comics now. That's been a blind spot in my comics reading for too long.

18. Wendy
Lovely adaptation of the Peter Pan story that finds new ideas to bring out of the theme about growing up. I love that there were a few times where I thought the film was going in some weird, divergent direction and then I'd realize that it was just a different way of thinking about something from Barrie's story.

The non-professional kid actors are all great. Devin France is wonderful as Wendy and holds the whole film together without effort. Yashua Mack is a delightful pixie as Peter. And Gage and Gavin Naquin are heartbreakingly real as Wendy's twin brothers.

I think the only thing keeping me from full-on loving Wendy is the design of an important non-human inhabitant of Peter's island. It's a low-budget film, so director Benh Zeitlin works around that by never giving us a good look at his creature, but a side-effect is that I never felt connected with the creature the way the kids did in the movie.

17. The Wretched
I'll watch pretty much anything about a witch in the woods, but this was so much cooler than I expected. It's about a young man who realizes that something weird and creepy is going on at his neighbors' house, so it's closer in tone to The Lost Boys or Fright Night than something like Blair Witch or The Wicked. It's creepy, it's funny, it's occasionally sweet, and there's a cool mystery that needs investigating.

I'd have loved it without reservation if it didn't do that thing where it clumsily and nonsensically ends on a question mark to leave room for a sequel. The movie was better than that.

16. The Invisible Man
An excellent combination of Gaslight and the 1933 Universal version of HG Wells' story. Elisabeth Moss is amazing in it (as always) and sells the horror of her situation from the very first scene. I worried and ached for her and dearly hoped to see her overcome her nemesis.

Universal has finally figured out how to bring their monster movies back to life. More of this. Make them scary. Make them standalone. Make them good.

15. The Gentlemen
It's a standard Guy Ritchie English crime movie, but I really enjoy Guy Ritchie English crime movies.

14. Birds of Prey
And speaking of Guy Ritchie, what if he made a movie set in Gotham City instead of London? Same energy. Totally dug it.

13. The Short History of the Long Road
This is the first of a few teen dramas that I really enjoyed in 2020. I don't know what's up with that, except maybe that they were palate cleansers between genre stories. The Short History of the Long Road is probably best described as a slice-of-life story, which normally wouldn't be my thing. I like plot and it threw me that this isn't as focused as I expected. 

But I found myself not really missing a stronger plot. The life of homeless, teenaged Nola after the unexpected death of her father is worth slicing into and spending time with. It has its tragedies, but it's also filled with kindness and hope.

12. All the Bright Places
I'm a big fan of Elle Fanning and loved Justice Smith in Pokémon Detective Pikachu, so I figured I'd dig both of them in a romance. And I did, but it's so much darker and more real than I expected. I don't wanna say anything specific and spoil it, but there's a lot of heartbreak. I hated it. I also loved it.

11. The Secret Garden
I'm such a sucker for this story that it only bothers me the tiniest bit that it's reset in the 1940s and that it feels the need to enhance an already amazing practical garden with CG elements. I don't remember many details of the other versions of this story that I've seen, but this one powerfully focuses on grief and the characters' journeys through it. That's from the book and usually present in adaptations, but I felt it especially powerfully in this one. One of these days I'm going to get around to reading the book and fully exploring the various movies based on it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

17 Movies from 2020 That I Liked Just Fine

45. Sonic the Hedgehog
Faint Praise, I know, but this could have been so much worse.

It takes a very easy ("lazy," if I'm being less generous) approach with the relationships and themes, so there's no emotional depth to it, but James Marsden and Sonic are charming enough and Jim Carrey brings the perfect amount of Jim Carreyness so that he's silly without taking over the whole production. It's a perfectly fine, fun movie based on a kids' video game.

44. Dolittle
Soft pitch right down the middle at a kid audience. It's funny and imaginative enough that it's not a waste of time, but it's not trying hard at all. It only cares about keeping audiences mildly entertained for a couple of hours and it succeeds at that.

43. Three Christs
Two things attracted me to this: the cast and the theme of identity. I was especially interested in exploring identity through the specific delusion of people thinking that they're Jesus Christ. Like, why that specific person? What aspects of Jesus Christ are they so attracted to that they want to literally immerse their own identities in his? (As opposed to the spiritual immersion that's pretty much the basis for all of Christianity. I didn't expect the movie to get into that, but I would've been fascinated if it had made that comparison.)

Three Christs does spend a little time talking about the traumas that sent Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, and Bradley Whitford looking for other personalities to take on, but it's mostly interested in the methods that Richard Gere uses to help them. It doesn't even care that much about the concept of identity, though it does make superficial connections between the title characters' mental illness and the healthier, mundane wisdom of not letting other people define who you are. I would have loved to see that examined in more detail.

But even if the movie's not what I wanted it to be, Dinklage, Goggins, and Whitford are so good in their roles that I got invested in their characters and in Gere's attempt to treat them humanely. It's not a profound movie in any sense, but I never regret an opportunity to practice empathy. Although, even as an exercise in compassion, Three Christs can be overly melodramatic (with Kevin Pollak's role as the head of the hospital being especially two-dimensional).

42. The Lodge
I have to stop reading reviews before watching movies, even for films I'm on the fence about. Based on the buzz around it, I was prepared for The Lodge to be an intense, disturbing experience that made me squirm. But though the film's atmosphere is terrific, what actually made me uneasy were the characters' unmotivated decisions. I never bought into the premise or cared about anyone in that house.

That said, the mood is great and The Lodge has all the right gothic influences. It's about a stepmom who has to spend some time alone with her husband's kids, dealing with the specter of a former wife like in Rebecca. And the kids may or may not have some extra, sinister knowledge like in Turn of the Screw. There are also elements of Gaslight, so all the ingredients are here for something great. But they're mixed with unbelievable characters who kept me from getting too interested in what happens to them.

41. The Owners
If you've seen the movie Don't Breathe where some young delinquents break into Stephen Lang's house and come to regret it, The Owners has the same premise. But it takes a different approach with the creepy homeowners, so instead of a tough old badass, they're a kindly, old couple. I don't like the ending, but everything up to that is captivatingly bonkers and enjoyable. 

One thing that really bugged me though was the unnecessary and extremely distracting change in aspect ratio right at the end when everything's coming to a head. Suddenly going from widescreen to a little square box yanked me right out of the film (literally, since I had to actually stop the film and manually adjust my screen so that the box would at least fill as much space as it could). And this, just at the point when I should have been most engrossed. I thought it might have been just the copy I watched, but pretty much every review I've read mentions the same thing.

40. Blood and Money
Tom Berenger plays an elderly hunter who finds a dead body and a bunch of money and bravo to him for getting out and doing an action movie in the physical shape he appears to be in. Either that or he's acting his butt off... or his hips and knees, I guess would be more accurate. But sincerely, this is a brave performance.

I wish the script was better. It starts off pretty good. Berenger's character has a lot of weaknesses that I enjoyed seeing revealed. The best parts of the movie are when he's interacting with other hurting people. There seems to be little chance that anyone's going to fix anyone else, but I had some hope that maybe someone would be comforted by the end.

Not so much though. The last half of the film is a mix of survival movie and crime thriller that wastes the earlier character stuff. And while it's not bad - Berenger is slow, but the bad guys aren't very smart or even good shots, so it evens out - I'd gotten my hopes up about feeling something about the end and the movie let me down.

39. Tenet
Tenet is a cool movie. John David Washington is funny and suave, Robert Pattinson is quietly composed, and Kenneth Branagh is chilling. It was also nice to see Elizabeth Debicki so soon again after another movie that will be higher in my rankings. And of course there's just the sheer challenge of the effects that Christopher Nolan created for himself.

That all said, Tenet's time-travel mechanics aren't as cool as the film thinks they are. I'm not enough of a technical nerd to really appreciate the skill and effort that went into creating those sequences; I just care about how they serve the story. And the story is pretty rough on first viewing, for a number of reasons throughout the filmmaking process starting with the script (Branagh's motivations are so trite) and going all the way through the final stages of production (especially around sound design).

I don't doubt that the plot all makes sense when deeply studied, but as much as I enjoyed watching Washington, Pattinson, and Debicki try to save the world, I never really cared about any of them enough to want to go back and figure out the nitty-gritty mechanics of whatever was going on. I picked up enough to enjoy the adventure and I think that's all the effort I'm going to give the film.

38. The Sunlit Night
I loved Jenny Slate as Mona-Lisa Saperstein on Parks and Recreation, so I was excited to see her in a humorously dramatic role going to Norway to learn about art and herself. The film delivers on Jenny Slate in Norway, so it's charming and gorgeous, but I'm sadly not clear on just what she learned or how she learned it.

37. Guns Akimbo
Fun premise and performances just so long as you're ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence. It was a bit more than I wanted, but I really dug the bonkers plot. And Natasha Liu Bordizzo's hair.

36. The Turning
This one put me on a Turn of the Screw kick for a lot of 2020 and I'm still not done with it. I read Henry James' novel a couple of years ago and was fascinated by it. I hated it while I was reading it, but started warming to it by the end. And then after I had a chance to sit with it for a while, I liked it quite a bit, realizing that there are multiple ways to read it and that the most frightening ones are the least supernatural. 

I was curious about how The Turning would interpret it: Straight-up ghost story or psychological horror? Sadly, it tries to have it both ways, but not in a subtle, ambiguous way like James' novel. Instead, it decides to just give two, conflicting endings: one supernatural and one psychological. It's a bold move, but unsatisfying.

On the way there, though, I enjoyed the performances, the mystery, the setting of the mansion and its estate, and the tension. There are a lot of jump scares, but they worked to make me almost as much of a nervous wreck as Mackenzie Davis' beleaguered character.

I don't understand the need to set the film in the 1990s, but that's a minor head-scratch. Whatever the reason for the decision, the film worked just fine in that time period. I'm looking forward to watching it again after I finish the other adaptations on my list and see if the comparison helps or hurts this one.

35. Come Away
Come Away is marketed as a prequel to Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, but it doesn't really work that way. And I don't mean from a geeky, continuity perspective. It's just that the film is interested in other things than connecting the two stories or creating a new origin for them. 

And that's not bad, because what the movie is interested in - a family's grieving in a variety of ways - is moving. The literary references are mostly just peppered on top of that to add some flavor. As a story of a family's painful struggle after a tragic death, I like it a lot. It's got some beautiful moments and not just visually.

But somewhere in there the film does want to comment on the two stories it's connecting and that's the part I have a hard time with. Both Peter and Alice escape to other worlds (at the very end of the film and off camera) and only one of them of course comes back. Alice visits Wonderland for a short period while Peter will remain in Neverland forever. My problem is that the movie doesn't seem to have a point of view about either decision. Is Alice more honorable for returning to reality? Are we meant to admire Peter's ultimate escape? Come Away asks the question, but if it offers any answers, it's quite subtle about it. I may like it more if I watch it again, but for now I'm a bit dissatisfied.

34. Hunter Hunter
Hunter Hunter starts off pretending to be about a wilderness family whose hunting territory is threatened by an especially aggressive wolf, but it plants subtle clues that maybe it's actually about something else before suddenly yanking back the curtain on what's really going on. I respect the hell out of that.

My problem is that I wasn't paying enough attention to the clues and was completely, jarringly blindsided by the third-act revelation. And that revelation is so unexpectedly dark that it made it even harder for me to keep up. Or really to even want to.

But it's a genius piece of filmmaking and maybe one day I'll be up to revisiting it.

33. Color Out of Space
"The Colour Out of Space" is one of the few Lovecraft stories I've read and I thought at the time that it would make a cool film. I'm not a fan of Lovecraft because he takes such a distant, clinical approach to describing horror, but sometimes that works and I enjoyed the increasingly alarming reports about the Gardner family after a meteor crashes on their property. It's ripe for a version in which we actually get to know the people involved and experience the horror with them; which is what director Richard Stanley does in this film.

The movie's visuals are gorgeous from the landscape photography to the effects of the weird, vibrantly colored plants and insects that appear after the meteor has landed. And I enjoyed the early scenes getting to know a little about the Gardners' personalities and their relationships with each other. The film needs more of that.

Mom Joely Richardson doesn't get enough attention and I'd like to have a better handle on the family's financial situation in general. Richardson is super concerned about her online business and clients, but Nicolas Cage doesn't seem to share her anxiety. Is that because he's callous or because she's over-reacting? Clues point to his being insensitive, but he's very tuned into her in other ways, so I have a hard time reading the couple. Same goes for their kids who go back and forth between quirky and seriously troubled.

That shaky foundation is especially tough to build on when the story is about breaking the family down and putting them through an appalling amount of stress. It's hard for me to care about what's happening to their relationships when I don't fully understand what their relationships were before the meteor hit.

Tommy Chong is awesome, but way underused as a hippie scientist squatting on the Gardner's property. And I liked the idea of including Lovecraft's narrator (a land surveyor in the short story; a hydrologist in the film) as an observer and would-be helper to the family's tragedy. That character doesn't really go anywhere either, but the building blocks are here for a great adaptation if only they were put together better.

32. Wonder Woman 1984
The plot is Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ridiculous and not all of the CG works great. A couple of the shots of Wonder Woman running are pretty bad. Someone needed to have watched Black Panther and Captain America chase Winter Soldier in Captain America: Civil War again as a reminder of where the bar currently is on this stuff. But I love pretty much everything else.

The problems with the plot are a huge part of the movie and the reason it's so low in my rankings, but I love the character of Wonder Woman in general, I especially love Gal Gadot playing her, I love Chris Pine's Steve Trevor, and their relationship in this is real and emotional in spite of the weird way the movie brings Trevor back.

Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal are great at what they do even if these aren't my favorite versions of either character. And that mid-credits cameo at the end... mwah!

31. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
I don't know if I missed some clues, but the ultimate solution to the mystery felt as out-of-nowhere as the red herring it tried to distract me with earlier.

But while I didn't care for it as a mystery, I do love the idea of a deputy with anger issues hunting a werewolf (which is often symbolic of unrestrained emotion). It works as a character study and family drama with a cool monster element to liven it up. And I especially love Riki Lindhome as another, more stable deputy working the same case. 

30. Gretel and Hansel
I'm not in love with the production design on Gretel and Hansel. Jeremy Reed is clearly going for something in particular, but the simple costumes and clean architecture aren't my preferred aesthetic and I can't tell what this specific design does for the story. The forest locations look great though. I love every second that the characters are in the woods.

Even though the look of the film doesn't always connect with me, I appreciate the thought that's gone into the story and what themes can be coaxed out of it. "Coming of Age" doesn't satisfactorily summarize it. The movie sees growing up as a dark, violent process and not just for loss of Innocence. There's a lot the movie wants to say and I'm not sure if my not picking up all of it is my fault or the film's, but I'd enjoy revisiting it at some point to see.

Certainly the cast is perfect for me from Borg Queen Alice Krige as one aspect of the Witch, Jessica De Gouw (from the excellent TV series Underground) as another aspect, and Nancy Drew / It Girl Sophia Lillis as Gretel.

29. Shirley
Oh wow I have some Shirley Jackson to read. I don't know how one person can be so tragic and badass at the same time. Only this low on the list because it was kind of stressful to watch.


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